Story and photos (c) Mark Hertzberg
The 2100 block of Newton Avenue in Shorewood, Wis., will no longer be a quiet street, as word spreads of the documentation there of a previously unidentified house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The home at 2106 Newton may not look like a Wright home at first glance, but underneath the modern siding, and above the garage which was added in 1976, is one of Wright’s stucco American System-Built homes.
Many people think Wright designed homes only for wealthy clients, but he was keenly interested in affordable housing for the middle class. The American System-Built homes, designed as affordable housing, could be selected from a myriad of designs. The entrance to the house is on the right side (as one faces the house). The original open porch at the entrance was enclosed at an unknown date. It still has the original stucco finish and the leaded glass windows which apparently were the front windows of the house.
The Newton Avenue house, built in 1917, joins six homes in the 2700 block of W. Burnham St. (two single-family homes and four duplexes) as examples of Wright’s American System-Built homes in the Milwaukee area. The two-bedroom Shorewood house is a Model A203. Four other Milwaukee American System-Built duplexes, the Arthur R. Munkwitz Duplex Apartments, were demolished in 1973 to widen a street.
The first person to tell owners Roger and Pat Wisialowski that they may be living in a Wright home was the late Richard Johnson of Evanston, Illinois. Johnson had a passion for searching for previously unknown Wright works. However, none of the ones he believed Wright designed were documented and authenticated as Wright’s, until Mike Lilek researched the little house on Newton Avenue over the last year and found proof that it is, indeed, a Wright home. Lilek is nationally recognized as an expert on the subject of Wright’s American System-Built homes.
Lilek, left, is interviewed by Jeff Rummage of the “Shorewood Now news site.
He has spearheaded the restoration of two of the Burnham Street houses for Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin. He extensively researched the Newton Avenue house and has presented his findings to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, the organization which oversees all things Wright and was the former home of Wright’s archive. He announced his findings June 5, 2015 at a press event in front of the house. He has been transparent about his research, and has posted a link to it:
Link toMary Louise Schumacher’s feature story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Looks as though you got in on this one early.
I heard about it last night at the Wright in WI event.
Interesting that Lilek’s press release didn’t even bother mentioning Mr. Johnson’s name let alone give him credit for the discovery.
He did not write the press release.
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No mention at all of Russel Barr Williams, the actual architect of the featured home. He served as an apprentice and liaison of FLW and designed the bulk of the American Home System homes under Wright’s umbrella.
Disappointed in the inaccuracy.
Your assertion that Williamson (not Williams, as you write) was the architect is not supported by any known documentation. Please share any documentation you may have. I have asked Mike Lilek, an expert on the American System-Built homes, and Nicholas and Angela Hayes, who are stewards of the house and who have been researching it to weigh in. Their answers follow:
From Nicholas and Angela Hayes, the stewards of the house, the Elizabeth Murphy House:
In her book Frank Lloyd Wright American System Built Homes in Milwaukee, Shirley DeFresne McArthur wrote “Wright depended on his assistants’ advice, judgement and skills, – but he was responsible for all designs.” She also explains that Russell Barr Williamson supervised construction of the ASBH and Bogk houses.
An account of Russell Barr Williamson’s career, written by family members and on file at the Wisconsin Historical Society, concurs: “During 1915, 1916 and 1917, … he was the architectural supervisor for many of Mr. Wright’s Milwaukee projects….” RBW would later join with the Richards Company to design houses that carry forward some, but not all, of Wright’s ASBH concepts. The first of those appeared near here in 1921.
It is unclear the degree to which RBW was involved in the construction of the Elizabeth Murphy House: he had to have been aware of it, but, like FLW, didn’t mention it to family and friends. Based on recent and ongoing physical research, we hope to present new clues of the home’s history and significance at next fall’s FLW Conservancy conference.
From Mike Lilek, who has studied the American System-Built homes extensively, and who shepherded the restoration of ASB properties on W. Burnham Street in Milwaukee:
I think Russell Barr Williamson is one of the great architects of Southeastern Wisconsin. But, as you might expect, he grew into the role over a long career. He graduated from Kansas State University on June 18, 1914 and immediately started to work in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Chicago office. He appears to have had an important role in the work of the drafting studio. He was asked to supervise Wright’s Milwaukee projects and seems to have worked alongside the Richards Company as it developed the marketing, sales and production aspects of the American System-Built Homes.
Regarding the assertion that Russell Barr Williamson was the actual architect of the Elizabeth Murphy House, the historical record indicates otherwise. For example, in correspondence from Arthur Richards to Frank Lloyd Wright dated February 1917, Richards clearly identifies a problem with getting the ASBH plans out of the sketches that Wright developed. He further describes the problem as detailing and getting materials “100% perfect” and ultimately ready to produce in mass quantity. While Williamson likely had a major role in taking Mr. Wright’s designs to full construction drawings, he was not the designer and there are other draftsman known to have been involved. In the same letter Richards notes, “Russell Williamson is developing into a very strong and able man and works well.” The record indicates that Richards understood Wright was the designer. Richards also gives us a rare firsthand glimpse of Williamson’s role based working together – likely in the same Milwaukee offices.
I would also offer that much of Williamson’s early work bears strong similarities to Wright’s work. For example, Williamson’s own home is similar to Wright’s Allen House in Kansas and Williamson’s Stein House bears similarities to Wright’s Bogk House. Williamson’s early work lacks the sense of proportion and scale that Mr. Wright had mastered and brought to the ASBH. Williamson surely would develop his own distinct style as his career advanced. It should also be noted that he didn’t apply for his architect’s license until August 4th, 1919.
Williamson played a key role in the development of the ASBH, but there is no indication he was the designer or architect. If there is research to indicate otherwise, please share.
Regards, Mike Lilek
We also now have input from Traci Schnell, who has studied the ASB homes as well as in depth studies of Williamson’s career:
“In short, I am with Mike on this. Clearly he worked for Wright during that period but there is no evidence that Williamson was the actual designer. Admittedly, in order to be recognized as the architect for a building in Wisconsin one had to have had their WI license—which, as Mike pointed out, he did not have until August 1919. Williamson did practice independently in Kansas after leaving Wright in (about) November 1917 and Williamson correspondence from August 1919 would suggest that he had already been doing some work–or was at least projected to do some work–for Richards while still in Kansas (in fact, I have other evidence that he may well have been working for Richards while in Kansas) but that’s neither here nor there for the matter at hand since the ASBH concept was developed prior to Williamson’s 1917 departure from Wright.”