A lasting last word from Gene Szymczak

(c) Mark Hertzberg 2016

Gene had a very wry sense of humor. I initially did not understand what was his last jab at one section of the World of Wright until he explained it to me. There was quite a kerfuffle on the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy’s Wright Chat web forum a couple of years ago when I posted photos of the wood gates Gene had made for the entry way of the rehabilitated Hardy House.Hardy Gas Meter Cover 002 LR.jpg

The original gates were taken off by the Archers, the third stewards of the house (1947-1957). I pointed out that the design Gene asked carpenter Chad Nichols to build was Wright’s first gate design for the house, not the simpler one that Wright ultimately executed, shown in a photo by Anne Sporer Ruetz (Hardy House: 1938 – 1947) of her friend Mary Hill putting on her roller skates:LR Gates 035.jpg

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Oh, how the forum lit up with criticism of Gene for ruining the project and for reinventing history. I wondered in response – as I pointed out that to me the most important thing to consider was that Gene had literally saved the house for another hundred years – if Gene should also be condemned for having a television set and a microwave oven in the house because those weren’t historically authentic either.

Gene was hurt by the blog comments. Genuinely hurt. If you knew him, you would understand his feelings. He was the CEO and president of Educators Credit Union which grew to become a major financial institution in Wisconsin under his stewardship so he was certainly a serious man when he had to be. But he was never too serious. He took umbrage at my photo of him smoking a cigar on the dining room terrace with his brother the day he closed on the house because he though it made him look like a “fat cat.” The dispute reinforced his feeling that some in the Wright World are too serious and judgmental.

He found a way to thumb his nose at them when he commissioned a shield to hide the unsightly gas meter in front of the house (moving it was not a practical option).

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I didn’t realize until Gene told me with a smile…he purposely designed it as one of the original gates, albeit turned on its side. Here’s to you, Gene! I laugh whenever I think of your joke on what a friend of mine called “Gategate.”

Postscript after reading an email this morning…Full house museum restoration was way out of budget consideration. I focus on Gene having literally saved the house. It was imperiled. I focus on several thousand people having the opportunity to see the house, which had been closed to the public for several decades. Many, many of them expressed their gratitude to Gene. They include recognized Wright scholars. Gene had told me “this is something I could do for the Racine community” when he considered buying the house. Indeed he did, for Racine and for the Wright community, even if not everyone agreed with all of his decisions.

The Winslow House

(c) Mark Hertzberg (2016)

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Winslow House in River Forest (1893-94) was the architect’s first independent commission after he left or was fired by Adler and Sullivan. Wright was only 26 years old when he designed the house, but it is one of his masterpieces.

LR Winslow House 001.jpgThere are elements of Louis Sullivan-inspired ornamentation combined with the beginnings of what became Wright’s Prairie-style work. William Winslow is said to have taken so much ridicule about its unusual design from acquaintances that he changed the route of his normal commute to work. I had the great pleasure and privilege of being allowed to photograph the house yesterday. The house is empty, pending finalization of its sale by the Walker family who have been its steward for 60 years. I will concentrate on my photographic impressions of the house, below, and challenge you to your own adventure of discovery as you research different critical analyses of the house and the genius of its design, rather than present my own architectural critique here.

Unlike many of Wright’s later homes, although there is a door at the porte-cochere, there is also a prominent front door facing the street:

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The inglenook, which one encounters immediately across from the front door is one of the signature features of the house. Wright stresses the importance of the hearth by slightly elevating the inglenook to a separate level from the entry way:

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The arches, which are echoed in many of the doorways on the first floor, show Sullivan’s influence at the top of the arch, and Wright’s nascent vocabulary at their bottom:

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Although Wright sometimes used commercial designs in the next few years, he designed windows at the Winslow House, including the dining room windows, top, and living room, below:

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The passageway between the dining room and living room is arched dramatically:

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Another famous feature of the house is the octagonal stair tower on the rear of the house. It is a geometric counterpoint to the flat plane of the front of the house and the curved dining room bay windows:

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The real visual delight, though, is in looking at the design from above and below on the stairs themselves:

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The stable was added at the rear of the property in 1897:

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Unfortunately, the original gate across the front of the stable – later a garage with a turntable because many early cars did not have a reverse gear – is gone. Wright did not build even a simple base for the columns that flank the middle of the stable:

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I leave you with Wright’s designs flanking the front door:LR Winslow House 033.jpg

First Wright Heritage Trail Signage Placed on I-94

(c) Mark Hertzberg 2016

The new Frank Lloyd Wright Trail was dedicated this morning in Madison. The trail, which runs from the Illinois – Wisconsin state line to Richland Center, is a joint effort by the state departments of tourism and transportation to highlight the rich heritage of Wright’s work in his native state. About 142 signs have been placed in the last few weeks on I-94 and other highways marking the path to nine Wright sites.

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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed the bipartisan bill establishing the Trail in a ceremony at Taliesin in March:

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Signs directing motorists to specific public sites such as the SC Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower and Wingspread in Racine will be erected in spring.

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A link to the Department of Tourism page with the official map follows:

http://www.travelwisconsin.com/frank-lloyd-wright

Remembering Gene Szymczak of the Hardy House

by Mark Hertzberg (c) 2016

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Eugene Szymczak, who became the seventh steward of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House in Racine (1904-06) died suddenly in his sleep at home Saturday evening. He was 67.

To me, Gene was more than the man who rehabilitated a very distressed Wright home and saved it for another century, he was a dear friend. Gene’s fascination with the house began when he was a college student working one summer on a city garbage truck route. His route took him down Main Street, and once a week he picked up the garbage from the north courtyard of the Hardy House. He bought himself a nice camera and photographed places in Racine that moved him. One was the Hardy House (in Gene’s typically modest manner, though, shunning extravagant things, he soon returned the camera because he thought it too much of a luxury).

Our adventure together with the Hardy House began with an email from him August 8, 2012, when he surmised I was trying to sell the house for the owners by word-of-mouth: “I was wondering what the expectations are for the potential buyer for the Hardy house. Can we get together and talk?”

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Gene at the closing for the house, above, and with the house key, below:

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I took him through the house. Its condition was daunting. Equally daunting was the engineering study another potential buyer had commissioned. Gene wasn’t fazed. As we left the house he said, “I don’t have children this is something I could do for Racine.” Indeed. Gene, president of Educators Credit Union in southeastern Wisconsin, was altruistic. He gave of himself to countless community improvement efforts.

He then wrote me, “Thanks for taking my family and myself through the house. It was really a treat to have you take us on tour…It will be interesting to see how things move forward. It is an enormous responsibility as well as a source of joy and frustration.”

The late John G. Thorpe of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy advised me to stay out of the sale to Gene, and leave it to professionals. Still, I wanted Gene and the then-owners to meet. A week later, over cashews and lemonade at their apartment, Gene made them an offer for the house, and suddenly it was sold. I had told Gene what pastry to bring Mrs. Yoghourtjian; he also brought her and her husband a Japanese print evocative of the famous Marion Mahony view of the Hardy House from the lake bank below.

Gene followed that visit with one more nice email before writing one that I just might forgive him for tonight, “I would hope that Margaret and I could become friends.  She makes great lemonade and I make killer baklava [he did!]. Life is all about being true to your beliefs and a blessing to others….Sincerely, Gene”

Although we were friends, I had not yet been exposed to Gene’s wry sense of humor. Five days before the scheduled closing he wrote that he was having second thoughts about the purchase and was thinking of buying the property, doing a tear-down, and putting up something with a three-car garage underneath. I was on the verge of calling the Yoghourtjians to call off the sale when I finally got hold of Gene (who was on his way to visit Lynda Waggoner at Fallingwater). “Just kidding!” was the crux of the conversation.

Below are photos of Gene during a planning meeting during the rehabilitation of the house in January, 2013:

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Gene’s stewardship of the house was recognized a year ago by the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy when he was awarded the prestigious Wright Spirit Award in the Private Home category at the annual meeting, fittingly in Milwaukee, following a tour of the house. I photographed him with architect and scholar Jonathan Lipman, author and curator of the Frank Lloyd Wright and the Johnson Wax Buildings book and national museum show, and with his brothers Tom, left, and Jim, before the award presentation.

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Anne Hasse, a teacher at Wakanda Elementary School in Menominee, Wisconsin, is one of the team that teaches a Wright and architecture immersion class that is another past Wright Spirit Award winner. Gene always welcomed her students when they visited Racine in the spring. When told of Gene’s passing she commented, “To open up that house to a bunch of kids, only Gene would do that. Just a big-hearted guy.”

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Wakanda students on the dining room terrace in May.

     When I told Gene’s neighbor of his passing Marco said, “Gene will finally get to meet Frank Lloyd Wright.” I told him, “No, Frank Lloyd Wright will finally get to meet Gene.”

Gene was unassuming. He bristled when I photographed him enjoying a cigar with his brother on the dining room terrace of the house after the closing because he feared it portrayed him as a “fat cat” who had just bought a house. To me it showed easy-going Gene.

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Wright scholar David Jameson, who toured the house this summer with Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s Cultural Historian, and Eric O’Malley, another Wright Spirit Award winner, wrote this evening, “What a shame Gene got so little use of the Hardy House. But he was a very good steward of it.  Anybody who has conserved a Wright house (particularly a Prairie one) knows just how expensive it turns out to be.  But to meticulously return it to its original (even more glorious, perhaps) condition is possibly the finest memorial one could actually have.

“I don’t worry about the Hardy House. Not only has it got good bones but it now has a civic hold on Racine. It’s their’s as much as Wright’s.

“Here’s to Gene.  May all private owners of remarkable Wright houses be as generous with history as him. I think Gene’s memorial will most likely be that the Hardy House will live on because he cared.”

Robert Hartmann of Racine, past president of Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin, also knew Gene. Told of his passing he asked to repeat what he wrote Gene, as president of the organization, when Gene bought the house: ”

Dear Gene,

All too often the words “Thank you” are left unspoken. So, as a fellow citizen of Racine, let me simply say thank you for purchasing the Hardy house. It is comforting to know that this iconic Wright design is in your caring hands. I believe that in future years Wright scholars ie Mark Hertzberg and architectural historians alike will chronicle September 17th 2012 as a benchmark date in the life story of the Hardy house. Your intention to restore the home…is further evidence that the future of the Hardy house is indeed a bright one. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Racine will be a better place in which to live because of your recent actions.

Now, let me put on my other hat, president of Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin, and again say,thank you for purchasing the Hardy house. Our organization which is dedicated to the preservation of Wright’s architectural legacy in his native state congratulates you on the purchase of the Hardy house and views your plans for its restoration as not only having local and state significance but recognize, as you do, that the restoration of the Hardy house will be celebrated by a national and international audience as well.

Again, Thank you

Regards

Bob

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Eugene Szymczak accepting his Wright Spirit Award

In and around San Francisco

(c) Mark Hertzberg 2016

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Thousands of pictures were taken by participants in the San Francisco area during the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy’s annual conference in early November. While many people used sophisticated cameras, the democratization of photography through the smartphone enabled anyone to take high quality photos and post them to social media. While I take what I call “record shots” of the buildings we visit (literal views of the buildings for record purposes) I also look for different ways to interpret the architecture. Certainly mid-day is not the ideal time to shoot buildings, but one does what one can do while on tour!

Our first visit was to the Berger House in San Anselmo. I was struck by the juxtaposition of wood and stone…all put in place by the client over some 20 years as he built the house:

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The Walker House in Carmel has a dramatic prow on the west side of its site on the Pacific Ocean. Undine, a two-ton sculpture of a mermaid by Robert Howard was placed on the prow in 1964:

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Wright’s Marin County Civic Center and Hall of Justice in San Rafael (supervised by Aaron Green) is almost too easy to shoot in. Gold gates mark one of the entrances.

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The stairwells are dramatic, too:

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And then there is the gold tower:

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Conferees were able to spend time in the VC Morris Gift Shop near Union Square in the city. The building is in transition between its recent iteration as an art gallery and its next life as a showplace for Italian suits. One can argue whether it is better to photograph the shop with merchandise, as it was designed to showcase, or empty so one can see the pure forms Wright designed. References were made to Wright’s concurrent design for the Guggenheim Museum with its spiral ramp. I also thought of his unrealized 1949/1950 design for Racine’s YWCA, which had a ramp from the lobby to the next level.

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Sunday’s optional tour including a reception at the Fawcett House in Los Banos, certainly one of the more unusual sites for a Wright home…a dairy farm:

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In response to an email I just got from John Clouse after posting this, I recognize the conflict between those of us who selfishly want photos with no people in them and conferees who have every right to inspect every nook and cranny of every building we visit! I sometimes wish we had a “photo bus” with those on board agreeing not to rush the building as soon as we arrive.

Next year’s conference is September 13 – 17 in New York City. I leave you with a photo I took closer to home, of the moon rising over the Home and Studio in Oak Park this past Saturday, the day before the “Super Moon.”

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Summer and Fall at Penwern

(c) Mark Hertzberg 2016

It is time to revisit Penwern, the magnificent estate Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Chicago “capitalist” Fred B. Jones on Delavan Lake, Wisconsin in 1900 – 1903. Penwern was Jones’ country home, a place to entertain his many friends from Chicago. It is no less a magnificent home to welcome friends today than it was during the myriad of summer parties mentioned in contemporary newspaper social notes.

The entry is one of my favorite parts of the house. Visitors enter the house under a low ceiling (the balcony or passageway from the stairs to the bedrooms is above this entry ceiling). Instead of being confronted by walls and doors, they can immediately look into the billiard and dining rooms (left) and living room (right).

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We see friends of Sue and John Major, stewards of Penwern since 1994,at the Majors’ annual party celebrating the 4th of July. While Wright specified that the front porch (facing north and the lake) and the two side porches should have curved walls, the walls were either built straight or modified by Jones. John O’Shea, steward of Penwern from 1989 – 1994, rebuilt the front porch to Wright’s design. The Majors did the same with the side porches last year. The curved walls echo both the arched porte-cochere and the 28′ foot long arch over the front porch.

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The Majors also removed the wall separating the front porch from the east side porch:

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Early photos of Penwern show a cairn near the gate lodge. The Majors recreated it this year:

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They also uncovered a cistern at the gate lodge:

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There are often different views of the lake through the boathouse windows and through the arched porte-cochere:

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Fall is spectacular in Wisconsin. This past weekend begged a visit to Penwern, cameras in hand:

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The stable and the house:

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The gate lodge:

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We end our visit with a photo of Jones’ monogrammed wind vane which was once atop the stable. It is now in the living room:

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Visit www.penwern.com to see many more photos of the house, both historic and contemporary, as well as copies of Wright’s surviving drawings.

A Reunion at the Hardy House

Photos (c) Mark Hertzberg

I found a long-forgotten folder of photos today from April, 2014. They made me smile as I relived a wonderful reunion at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hardy House between Margaret Yoghourtjian, left, and Anne Sporer Ruetz. They are chatting in the dining room in the photo below.

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Margaret (and her late husband Jim) were stewards of the house from 1968 – 2012. Anne was five when her parents became the second stewards of the house in 1938. The Sporers lived there until 1947. This was the first time they had met, and it was their first look at the house after Gene Szymczak had completed most of his rehabilitation of the house that he undertook after buying the house from Jim and Margaret.

Neither Anne or Margaret is tall. The second photo was taken when they both stood in one of the low closets in the south bedroom on the balcony level.

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Thank you, Anne and Margaret, for helping me smile today!

Hardy House Gas Meter Shield

(c) Mark Hertzberg

Put in parentheses between all the kudos Gene Szymczak has gotten for his rehabilitation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House in Racine has been the oft-repeated question, “But what about the ugly gas meter in front of the house?” Moving the meter is cost-prohibitive even though some Wright-philes have proposed a Kickstarter fund to help out.

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Wonder no more. Chad Nichols, the Racine craftsman who reprised Wright’s wood gates (removed by the third owners, 1947-1957) has made a shield to cover the front of the meter. It is open to the top and sides so meter readers can access it. The house number is in the middle of the shield.

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Wright Birthday Bash at Taliesin

(c) Mark Hertzberg

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A crisp blue sky greeted guests at the annual Taliesin celebration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birthday Saturday June 11. Wright was born June 8, 1867.

Minerva Montooth, who was an assistant to Olgivanna Wright, and whose late husband, Charles, was also a member of the Taliesin Fellowship, greeted guests, as is her custom at the celebration. Minerva lives at Taliesin. Mary Jane Hamilton, a Wright scholar from Madison, is behind her in the photo.

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Fewer guests than usual gathered outside because it was so warm and humid, even at 6:30 p.m.

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Lovely evening light set the scene as guests made their way to Hillside School where Jason Silverman, residence life manager of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture directed them to the theater for the evening program.

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Stuart Graff, center, CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, introduced Aaron Betsky, Dean of the School of Architecture, and Eric O’Malley, right, of OAD (the Organic Architecture and Design archives) and the PrairieMod website.

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O’Malley told the guests how moved he was seeing the original model of Wright’s San Francisco Call newspaper building when he visited Taliesin young. The model has been moved to the Museum of Modern Art, so OAD commissioned Stafford Norris to build this replica to be displayed at Hillside where the original model stood for years. Architect Randolph C. Henning was also present. Henning, O’Malley, and William Blair Scott are the three partners in OAD.

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The musical selection was Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3:

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Dinner featured braised beef short rib with greens grown at Taliesin, topped off by the traditional homemade birthday cake.

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Next year’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Wright’s birth will be marked by many special events, including a just-announced major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.