The Coda to Penwern’s Rehabilitation

Text and greenhouse construction photos © Mark Hertzberg. Other photos courtesy of and © Emily Smith and Bill Orkild. Historic photos courtesy Betty Schacht, Sue and John Major and John Hime and ©  Frank Lloyd Wright gate lodge drawing: ©2020 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. All rights reserved. (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

The final significant stage of the rehabilitation of Penwern is now complete.

Roses will bloom again this summer at the gate lodge greenhouse at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fred B. Jones estate – Penwern – on Delavan Lake, Wisconsin, perhaps for the first time since Jones’s death in 1933. Jones loved growing roses, so Wright included a commercially built greenhouse for him in his design for the gate lodge. The gate lodge and greenhouse were constructed in 1903, two years after the main house or “cottage.” The greenhouse was tucked between the north side of the gate lodge water tower and a boulder wall:

Avery_FLW_4207_007.jpg©2020 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. All rights reserved. (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

Avery_FLW_4207_005.jpg©2020 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. All rights reserved. (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

Jones added a second greenhouse on the west side of the gate lodge at an undetermined date.

Historic_Scan_08a.jpgThe caretakers’ family near the second greenhouse, ca. 1935, courtesy Betty Schacht

The original greenhouse had deteriorated so badly by the 1970s that Terry Robbins Canty, whose parents Burr and Peg Robbins were the second stewards of Penwern, had it torn down and replaced by a carport when she lived in the gate lodge.

Gatehouse Greenhouse Vintage 1.jpgJohn Hime Collection – date unknown

Gatehouse Int. Yard View 004.jpgMark Hertzberg – 2014

20200403_151540.jpgEmily Smith – April 2020

Penwern had been significantly altered by the time John and Sue Major became stewards of most of the estate in 1994. They immediately began what has become a decades-long quest to bring Penwern back to Jones’s and Wright’s vision. They acquired the last piece of the estate – the gate lodge – after Canty’s death in 2000. Canty had also replaced a dining room window overlooking the gate lodge patio with doors when she added a small TV room (right side of exterior photo of the gate lodge, below). The carport, and most of the other alterations to the gate lodge, were undone within the next few years.

Canty Greenhouse Carport .jpegBill Orkild

Canty Gatehouse Porch.jpegBill Orkild

Canty Carport removal.jpegBill Orkild

The space where the original greenhouse stood has been like a missing tooth on a jack o’ lantern for almost 50 years. Could it be replicated? The Majors are not daunted by challenges. “No” is not in their vocabulary when it comes to the rehabilitation of Penwern. Didn’t they remove the large unsightly 1909 and 1910 additions that Jones had put on the main house? Didn’t they successfully fight for permission to rebuild the boathouse which had been destroyed by an arson fire in 1978? Why shouldn’t they rebuild the greenhouse, too?

Although the greenhouse is the most dramatic new addition to the estate, the 2020 summer season will now be remembered for the realization of a number of other projects around the gate lodge as well:

  1. A new stucco chimney, like the original one, replaces the brick chimney that has been atop the structure for years

20200403_142730.jpgBill Orkild – April 2020

20200403_142757.jpgBill Orkild – April 2020

2) The doors leading from the gate lodge dining room to the patio have been replaced by the original window, below right:

Gatehouse 207.jpgMark Hertzberg – 2013

20200311_135721.jpgBill Orkild – April 2020

3) And, finally, but not least, the original semicircular boulder wall east of the water tower has been reconstructed. Architectural designer Robert Hartmann, who had meticulously studied Wright’s drawings, realized that much of the wall was missing. The semicircular design was important because it echoes the trio of semicircular porches at the main house and the great arches at the house and the boathouse.

Avery_FLW_4207_002.jpg© 2020 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. All rights reserved. (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

Orkild and Hartmann 001a.jpgHartmann, left, and Orkild look at Wright drawings – Mark Hertzberg -2017

Penwern Greenhouse 4.2.20 026.jpgMark Hertzberg – April 2020

Penwern Greenhouse 4.2.20 035.jpgMark Hertzberg – April 2020

20200406_085611.jpgEmily Smith – April 2020

One can easily surmise why the Majors undertook the greenhouse project, but let John Major tell us. “At one level, we rebuilt the greenhouse to complete the last piece of the original design. But, as we got into it, we realized that the greenhouse is a quintessential example of FLW design. Small becomes large; large becomes small; a huge space that minimally impacts the landscape around it. It’s to us, what FLW was all about. We’re expecting that people will be shocked. I know we are as it is coming together.” Shocked? “People were when we showed them the entry leading to the dining room for the first time. This will be more show.”

Penwern Greenhouse 4.2.20 014.jpgMark Hertzberg – April 2020

Penwern Greenhouse 4.2.20 018.jpgTravis Orient places sklylight panels.  Mark Hertzberg – April 2020

Penwern Greenhouse 4.2.20 021.jpgMark Hertzberg – April 2020

Penwern Greenhouse 4.2.20 022.jpgMark Hertzberg – April 2020

Penwern Greenhouse 4.2.20 025.jpgPaul Kenyon seals the panels. Mark Hertzberg – April 2020

Penwern Greenhouse 4.2.20 016.jpgMark Hertzberg – April 2020

Emily Smith – April 2020

And what about the rest of the work at the gate lodge? “The dining room is now better balanced and the view of the lakeside of the gatehouse is much more balanced as it was intended to be. The doors were put in when the previous owner added a small TV room. When we removed the TV room, we put off replacing the doors.  Once we found the original window, we were ready to complete the work.

“The brick chimney is being replaced with a stucco chimney as the original drawings say it should be [indeed early historic photos show the stucco chimney]. The brick chimney was ugly. The stucco chimney will be much nicer.”

The greenhouse will be a place for the Majors to entertain, which is fitting, because entertaining friends is arguably Penwern’s historic raison d’être. It was important, first to Jones, and then to the subsequent stewards of the estate. A nearly full kitchen will be adjacent, inside the base of the water tower. The walled area will have a patio and roses will bloom there.

Design work for the greenhouse and surrounding boulder wall was by DePietro Design Associates. Bill Orkild, master of most of the work at Penwern since the Majors came to the lake in 1994, rebuilt the wall, did the dining room work, and supervised the other work. The greenhouse was built by Arcadia Glasshouse of Madison, Ohio.

Orkild, who knows the estate more intimately than probably anybody in its history, offers his perspective on the project. “The challenges of this project were no different than many of the projects at Penwern. It is always a challenge to weave together old and new, Wright’s vision and practical use. Hiding new technology from view was another significant obstacle. The physical challenge of outdoor work in the winter, wresting boulders in excess of 200 pounds, and wet clay clinging to boots was a daily battle.

“My greatest takeaway from the project was an overwhelming positive feeling I received from working with so many smart, strong and enthusiastic young people.  It was a pleasure to see there bright eyes and beaming smiles every day.  They were strong enough to make up for my weakness, enthusiastic enough to work through the rain, wind and cold, smart enough to laugh at my jokes.  All is good with the world. The young people have this.”

20200403_140929.jpgPaul Kenyon, left, Jason Janke, and Travis Orient built the greenhouse. Emily Smith – 2020

Visitors to Penwern likely take Orkild’s work for granted. They should not. He is the Wizard of Penwern, and much happens behing the scenes before Orkild work his magic for us to see: “Here’s how I made the greenhouse perfectly plumb and square for a snug glass house fit.  I built a platform on top of the coping stone.  This guaranteed me square without movement and something to stand on.  In my shop, I built a precise end wall form with knee wall height and roof pitch.  Bracing the end wall form to the platform assured me plum.  Then I was able to saw cut, grind and chip out the original tower stone to create a flat channel to accept the end of the glass house.  The process was repeated on the north end to form a concrete ledge.

20200117_134213.jpgBill Orkild – 2020

20200120_125150.jpgBill Orkild – 2020

Bill Orkild -April 2020

Now you know how to do it for your next project,” Orkild writes, certainly with a grin, as he finishes his email message!

4 thoughts on “The Coda to Penwern’s Rehabilitation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s