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Wright for Real People: A Family Restores Frank Lloyd Wright's Famed First House
by Katy Purviance on 12/31/09 @ 03:07:41 pm
Categories: Architects, Articles | 1076 words | 2091 views

I just read this article in the July/August 2009 issue of Natural Home Magazine by Judy Arginteanu and I wanted to share it with you.

1934 Malcolm Willey House

The Sikora family works to restore and green the Willey House, a 1934 Minneapolis home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Built in 1934 for Malcolm and Nancy WIlley, this Minneapolis home was restored in 2007 using cypress, plaster and regional brick.

Restoring an architectural treasure is a formidable task, and Steve Sikora and Lynette Erickson-Sikora knew the challenges they would face when they bought Frank Lloyd Wright’s dilapidated 1934 Malcolm Willey House in Minneapolis in 2002. The task of restoring the famed architect’s first small home was made all the more daunting because the iconic house had been unoccupied for seven years, victim to Minnesota weather and bands of partying teenagers. Previous remodels had left scars, including a kitchen filled with pumpkin-colored plastic laminate and coppertone appliances.

Determined to bring the Willey house back to its former glory, Steve and Lynette spent nearly six years painstakingly rebuilding this first small, affordable Wright home, a prototype for his later Usonian houses. In the process, they came to deeply understand Wright’s genius, including his use of natural, indigenous materials and the coalescing of design, function and materials into a seamless whole.

Watch a video of this house

Wright’s alchemy makes the 1,350-square-foot home feel both secure and spacious. A compressed entryway, one of his signature devices, leads into a large, open living space with kite windows and skylights. The kitchen—small but functional—communicates with the living space via a glass wall and a Dutch door that can be shut for privacy. A wall of French doors—a pioneering feature at the time—opens onto a brick terrace and into the yard. Open in summer, it completely erases any indoor-outdoor distinction; even when shut, its expanse is enough to soothe Minnesota cabin fever. Southern exposure brings passive solar heat in winter; a shed roof shelters the space when the sun is high in summer. The shade provided by four mature burr oaks also cools the house.

Whatever it takes

Nancy Willey, who was the wife of University of Minnesota dean Malcolm Willey, built the house for $10,000 in the depths of the Great Depression. Wright took the tiny commission—much less than anything he’d done before—largely because he had no other work. The house became pivotal in his career, moving him toward his crusade for small, well-designed houses for real people. “The more research we did and the more people we spoke to, we came to realize the importance of this house,” Steve says.

Lynette’s son, Stafford Norris III, supervised the restoration with help from his brother, Joshua. Hewing faithfully to Wright’s design, the family searched out authentic matches for materials they had to replace. Steve returned to the local brickyard in Menomonie, Wisconsin, to find exact matches for the originals made there. He spent more than a year working with Lynda Evans of Church Hill, Tennessee, brick-matching and historical restoration specialists StoneArt to replicate shale bricks he couldn’t find.

Wright constructed the home using red tidewater cypress for its beautiful grain. Although the wood deviated from Wright’s localist ideal because it’s not native to Minnesota, its durability was a boon, sustaining the house through its years of abandonment. “If it hadn’t been built of cypress, it wouldn’t be standing now,” Steve says. To replace wood damaged beyond repair, Stafford and Steve sourced cypress from salvagers who reclaim sunken logs in swamps and rivers, or salvage wood from beams, wine vats and water tanks.

“The thing about historical restoration is that you agonize over every little thing that must be replaced,” Steve says. “The original architectural ‘fabric’ is always retained unless there’s an incredibly compelling reason to replace it. Even the salvageable portions of rotted wood were repurposed.”

Integrity and sustainability

During the restoration, Steve and Lynette constantly weighed three issues: design integrity, sustainability and the house “as built”—because even the original builders sometimes deviated from Wright’s plans.

In some cases, practicality ruled. They replaced all the mechanicals with modern, high-efficiency heating and electrical systems. They replaced the worn-out rock wool insulation in the roof with expandable spray foam, which forms an airtight seal against the rafters. They installed a high-efficiency Unico high-velocity air conditioning system, even though the house is designed with myriad channels of cross ventilation and stays very comfortable in summer. “The realities of modern city life meant that we could not leave the house unattended with only screens latched,” Steve says. “The air conditioning system compensates for the lack of natural ventilation and thermal balance when the house is closed up for extended periods.”

In a few cases, the family had the chance to right old wrongs. “If we ran into a problem, instead of a Band-Aid repair for the fifth time, we would find the root cause and correct it,” Steve says.

The threshold between the living space and the terrace, long a source of disagreement between Nancy Willey and Wright, is a case in point. The architect, for aesthetic purity, designed a flat threshold to blur the lines between indoor and outdoor. Willey wrote to Wright: “The lack of a threshold will create … a triumphal archway to mosquitoes, flies, ants and all the insect comedy.” In the end, she took matters into her own hands and made do with a functional but aesthetically jarring aluminum threshold to ward off the march of elements and bugs. “And honestly, I would have to defend her decision,” Steve says.

Steve and Lynette rebuilt a raised threshold with the meticulously matched bricks from StoneArt, giving them the best of both worlds: Wright’s “indoor-outdoor” continuum and a seal against the great outdoors. “The house is like an open park pavilion on a hot summer day,” Steve says. “The scholar Grant Hildebrand identified two aspects inherent in Wright’s architecture that are plain to see in the Willey House: prospect, the ability to see; and refuge, the security of not being seen.”

Lynette loves the indoor-outdoor connection Wright created and the restoration maintained. “It’s like the sense of shelter you’d have in a cave or tree fortress,” she says. “Since childhood, I’ve had the deep desire to live in the forest, under or in a large mature tree. There’s a sense of safety, comfort and nature here.”


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