Gene Szymczak (pronounced Shimshack) lit a cigar and relaxed on the dining room terrace of his new home. He hoped the storm clouds passing overhead were not an omen.
He had treated himself to a new camera about 40 years ago. He used his new Leica CL to photograph his parents, Lake Michigan, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hardy House, “To me, significant things.” He returned the camera to the store because he felt it was an extravagance, but he still has the 4×5 black and white prints of the house
Today he became the seventh owner or steward of the house, which sits on a bluff above the lake, south of downtown Racine. Szymczak, who is president of Educators Credit Union in Racine, bought the home Monday September 17 from Jim and Margaret Yoghourtjian, who had owned it since 1968. The house had been for sale, by local word of mouth only, for nine months.
There has been concern about the future of the house for many years. Szymczak has hired a restoration architect who will not see the house until Thursday, but he started tearing out carpets this afternoon. Last week he wrote me, “The Yoghourtjians have been good stewards for more than forty years. It’s my turn to take care of the Hardy house. It is a Racine and even a world landmark.”
After I gave Szymczak his first tour of the house, as a prospective buyer, he told me, “This would be a way I could give back to the community.”
He was born and raised in Racine, in a working class family. He has a strong sense of altruism, “Racine has a reputation in history for doing the right thing. It could be from fighting against slavery to having the first high school in the state to trying to rejuvenate River Bend (nature center). We do the right thing. We put others first and give back. I am part of that heritage.”
Szymczak has long been interested in Wright’s architecture and related architecture. He just sold the third John Randal McDonald-designed home he has lived in. “The Hardy House is a home that most Racinians would recognize. It evokes different reactions. In 1905 it was called “kooky”. To me it’s a song. Wright was a middleman between humans and nature. He asks us where to we fit in nature? How do we interact with living creatures? What can we learn? Do we enhance one another’s lives and the landscape?
“I find that Wright looks a little deeper into life and introduces more questions than answers. A little more understanding than strong judgement calls. God (being Nature), has all the answers to what being here is all about. To me he says be part of it all and share it unselfishly.”
I have known Szymczak for years, but did not realize he has an impish streak. He gave me heartburn Friday when he wrote in an email, “Could you put in the article that I am open to talk to developers? It’s the perfect place for a mc mansion with a three car garage on street level with living quarters above. Possibility for 5000 or more square feet.” His comment underscores Racine’s preservation ordinance which might not have protected the house from the fate that hangs over the David Wright House. I was going to tell the Yoghourtjians to put the pending sale on hold, until I got hold of Gene again and he assured me that he was kidding. Our Thursday appointment with the architect is still on.
Szymczak thought about the house in 1906 when the house was a century old. “I thought it would have been nice to celebrate the house a little bit more on its 100th.” He was excited when he woke up this morning, unable to sleep well last night, he says. He realizes the legacy he is now the steward of, “I feel just an enormous amount of pride in the house. I feel humble, like you don’t deserve it.” He does deserve it. The Hardy House could not have a more thoughtful new steward.