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

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13 thoughts on “Remembering Gene Szymczak of the Hardy House

  1. Thank you, Mark, for this tribute. Was able to tour the house a few years ago before the restoration was finished. What a gift to Racine!

  2. Thanks, Mark for this post. Toured the house a few years ago before the restoration was finished. What a gift to Racine.

    Ruth Oberg Glen Ellyn, il

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. Oh my…like you’ve said “a true Stewart”, and a remarkable bonne homme. So glad I saw his treasure last June, inspiring me to think of it as my favorite fllw house.

    Pls keep up your good work, since it also inspires me.

    Nancy stolla

  4. Dear Mark, Thank you for your kind words. You really captured who my brother was and how much he cared about the Hardy House. I know that he and Frank are enjoying a cigar together in Heaven. Sincerely, Jim Szymczak

  5. Mark I had more than a few jokes with Gene when he employed me at the credit union he was a kind man and you sir are also a treasure to Racine! Tom Braun

  6. ~~~ thank-you Mark Hertzberg, your words speak for many, including me, when remembering Gene and the Hardy House ~ Judith Schulz

  7. He was obviously a great guy, we should all have been so lucky as to meet him. Did he have a will with provisions in place for the care and upkeep of the house? What happens to it now? After so much work on his part to bring it back to life, it would be tragic if it fell into foreclosure or otherwise deteriorated.

  8. Thanks for well written and moving obituary. I have only ever viewed the Hardy house from outside. When I returned to Racine after many years last summer the transformation and restoration of the house was stunning. I didn’t know what a hero Gene is, thanks Mark for staring his story.

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