A man, his camera, and Wright

© Mark Hertzberg (2021) Vintage photos © Estate of Al Krescanko. Portrait of Krescanko by Mark Hertzberg / The (Racine) Journal Times

Frank Lloyd Wright likely would have had conniptions if anyone had dared alter one of his drawings, but he thought nothing of altering one of photographer Al Krescanko’s negatives before signing and returning it to him. What had the architect retouched? He thought his hair looked too long, so he shaded it in on the negative.

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Krescanko was one of those quiet guys who said he was just doing his job when he photographed Wright some 60 years ago, but his insightful 1957 candid photos of the master architect have been republished in at least two landmark books about Wright. Yet, Krescanko’s byline has remained largely unknown. Among photographers of Wright, it has less name recognition than the work of Pedro Guerrero, Balthazar Korab, and Ed Obma.

Krescanko photographed Wright during the course of his work as a photographer for SC Johnson in Racine, Wisconsin. He also extensively photographed the construction of the Wright-designed Keland House (1954) for Willard and Karen Johnson Keland (later Karen Johnson Boyd), and took pictures for Willard Keland’s unrealized Wisconsin River Development Corporation in Spring Green.

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Krescanko died in 2005, at age 78. A few of his photos of Wright have previously been published, but the Keland House photos were unknown until recently, when the Organic Architecture + Design Archives were lent Krescanko’s photos to digitize by Mary Jo Armstrong, his daughter, for a magazine article. The Keland House photos include the only known view of the original carport which became the master bedroom after a garage was built and the house modified by John (Jack) Howe in 1961.

I would be delighted to tell you more and share more photos, but I will instead direct you to OA + D’s website where you can buy Vol. 9 No. 2 of their excellent thrice-yearly journal. Each issue is devoted to a single topic. Eric O’Malley at OA + D has long been intrigued by Krescanko’s story and photos. Armstrong readily agreed to share her father’s photos with him when he proposed devoting an issue of the Journal to him.

The full story of Krescanko’s career and 41 of his photographs of Wright at Taliesin and at SC Johnson, and of the Keland House construction are in this 40 page issue. Bill Keland, Willard and Karen’s son, helped write the captions for the construction photos as he viewed them for the first time. (I am the “Guest Editor” of this issue of the Journal and wrote the profile. It is a much more extensive profile of Krescanko than the one I wrote in 2002 when I worked for the Racine newspaper. The profile includes interviews with his brother and his two surviving children).

If we have whet your appetite to see and read more about quiet, unassuming Al Krescanko and his not-unassuming subject, follow the link below. As they (whoever ‘they’ are!) say on late night television, “Operators are standing by to take your call!”

https://www.oadarchives.com/product/journal-oa-d-9-2

Mitchell House: Corwin/Wright’s Coda?

© Photos and text Mark Hertzberg (2021) unless otherwise noted

Mitchell House 1895.jpgThe Mitchell House in 1895, from the Racine Headlight, a railroad publication. Courtesy Racine Public Library. Note the second and third floor porch railings in this photograph and the 1908 one.

Perhaps no house linked to Frank Lloyd Wright has generated as much give-and-take about its provenance as the Henry G. and Lily Mitchell House at 905 Main Street in Racine, Wisconsin. Note that I wrote “linked to” and not “designed by.” 

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Paul Hendrickson devotes four pages to the Mitchell House in Plagued by Fire (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019, pp. 75-78) in the context of his writing about Corwin and Wright’s close friendship and professional association:

“This is the greatest house Cecil Corwin will ever design…”

“Call it the Last Fine Building Moment of Cecil S. Corwin.” 

There is no documentation of Wright’s involvement – if any – in the design of the stately house, but there is much thought that Corwin likely designed the house in collaboration with Wright. A definitive answer to “Who Did What?” remains the proverbial “million dollar question” even after 20 years of sometimes contentious discussion. The lack of documentation means that the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation is unable to ascribe any of its design to Wright.

John Eifler, a well-known Wright restoration architect who grew up in Racine and practices in Chicago, in 2001 was one of the first to suggest Wright’s influence on the design. He told me in an interview in 2003 that “It was Corwin and Wright who did that job together. I imagine that it was Corwin who was responsible for presenting the thing to his client because he probably got the job through his Dad.” (The Mitchells were members of the First Presbyterian Church in Racine. Corwin’s father, the Rev. Eli Corwin, was the pastor of the church from 1880 -1888). “This collaborative thing that happens between architects happens a lot. It’s a collaboration, I think between two people, two young architects.”

His conclusions were bolstered this summer with the discovery of a 1908 photograph of the house. The photograph is in a photo album that also included 1908 photos of Wright’s nearby Hardy House [scroll down at the end of this article to see a post with those photos]. The album pages were acquired for the Organic Architecture + Design archives to ensure their preservation and accessibility for research. I will give more history about the sometimes contentious history of the house before I get to Eifler’s reaction to the 1908 photograph .

1908 Mitchell House OA+D toned.jpgCourtesy of, and copyright by, Organic Architecture + Design (2021). All rights reserved.

In terms of official records, the house was designed by Cecil Corwin in 1894. It was so stated in the April 15 Chicago Inter Ocean newspaper and in the March issue of the Journal of the Inland Architect. This was the year after Wright left Adler & Sullivan, so he no longer had any reason to hide his work. In fact, his Bagley House is listed in his name a few lines below the Mitchell House listing in the Inland Architect.

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In addition, Corwin’s proposal to remodel Herbert and Flora Miles’s house in Racine in 1899 shows a mini-Mitchell House grafted onto the existing house (the remodeling commission passed on to Wright in 1901 but was not realized).

Miles Existing? Wright.jpgCorwin’s 1899 proposal to remodel the Miles House. Copied by the author at the McCormick Library of Special Collections at Northwestern University.

The “Who Did What” intensified in 2002 when William Allin Storrer visited the house on July 12. He photographed it extensively and declared it to be by Wright in a story in the Racine Journal Times and in stories that ran in USA Today and on the Associated Press news wire. Storrer was quoted as saying “Maybe it (the design) is only 75 percent Wright’s, but it’s still Wright. If it’s 51 percent, it’s still Wright’s.” He included the house in a subsequent edition of his The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright: A Complete Catalogue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017). 

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Storrer once speculated that Wright may have designed the house as a gift to Corwin to thank him for letting Wright use his name on his “bootleg houses.” Those were houses that Wright surreptitiously designed while at Adler & Sullivan because his contract forbade him from taking on private commissions. 

As the discussion about the provenance of the house intensified, I asked Edgar Tafel about the house on April 7, 2003. Tafel, one of the original Taliesin Fellowship apprentices (1932 – 1941) told me, “On the very first trip to Racine (in 1936 for the SC Johnson Administration Building) we came down Main Street. In all the times I was there, we came down the Main Street, any number of times. He never mentioned anything about any house other than the Hardy House (four blocks south of the Mitchell House).

Fast forward to May and June 2021 after Eric O’Malley [of OA+D] emailed the 1908 photo to Eifler:

Eric sent the photograph to me as well, and when I saw the railings on the second and third floor, as well as the little bit of ornament adjacent to the dormer I became even more convinced of Wright’s involvement.  Most architects of the period would have interrupted the continuous rail with newel posts, or intermediate supports – I believe only FLW would have run the curved rail continuously.  I have also attached a stair photo from the Goodrich House in Oak Park (1896), with identically shaped balusters.” (Email to me June 17).

Goodrich House.jpgThe stairs in the Goodrich House, courtesy of John Eifler

For comparison, my 2002 photo of the stairs in the Mitchell House:

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And, in a follow-up email on June 21: (interspersed with more of my 2002 photos of Mitchell and 2019 photo of the Blossom House, left, and McArthur House, and a vintage photo of Blossom and McArthur, courtesy of John Eifler):

“1. the Bagley House in Hinsdale and the McArthur House in Hyde Park both utilize Gambrel Roofs and date from the same period.

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2. The Front Porch is similar to that on the Blossom House from one or two years before.  The continuous railing on top of the porch matches Blossom, as do the shapes of the “pickets”.

3. The trim on the interior of the Mitchell House has many similarities with Blossom and Charnley – for example, the window and door heads all align with the picture rail, there is no trim where the wall meets the ceiling.

4. The Art Glass in the south facing study of Mitchell is similar to some of the art glass in the living room of the Charnley House and McArthur.

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5. The wood used in the study is Santo Dominco Mahogany, a favorite of Wright (and Sullivan) and matches the Charnley Hs. Dining Room.”

Eifler elaborated in a followup email July 7: “It [an old photo of the Blossom House] shows a front porch on the Blossom House that is very similar to Mitchell – most notably it shows a railing on the second floor is continuous, with no intermediate supports, which is very unusual, and a continuous string of “pickets” or balusters, that are uniquely shaped with spheres, matching the 1896 Goodrich House in Oak Park by Wright.  Finally, the first floor of the porch is capped by a narrow projecting eave, or cornice (in classical terms) which projects out over the frieze – the proportions of which are unique, I think, to Wright.”

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Tim Samuelson, the City of Chicago’s Cultural Historian (and a dear friend of Paul Hendrickson’s…Plagued is dedicated to him), offers his thoughtful perspective, as well.

RHM Iannelli Planning Meeting 004.jpgTim Samuelson, left, David Jameson, and Eric O’Malley in 2018.

“As we all know from Wright’s autobiographical accounts, Cecil Corwin was a close and valued friend. We also know that they shared room 1501 in Adler & Sullivan’s Schiller Building to conduct their respective architectural practices. The room 1501 was very small – essentially 12′ x 12′.  It’s possible that they also occupied the connecting room 1502 which didn’t have corridor access, but even with that, it was pretty close quarters. (1502 could have been an used by the tenant of adjoining room1505 and had nothing to do with Wright and Corwin at all). (Floor plan courtesy of Tim Samuelson)

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“The Mitchell House indeed displays many elements characteristic of Wright’s work of the period. But at the same time, there are many aspects that do not.” (I am breaking up Samuelson’s comments with some of my 2001 and 2002 photos of the Mitchell House)

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“In my personal opinion, what you see is a matter of personal and professional osmosis between two architects sharing the same space.  Would they look over each other’s drafting boards and make comments and suggestions?  Sure!  Would Wright sometimes help Corwin with difficult design issues?  Of course!

“On the basis of Wright’s autobiographical writings, Corwin recognized and admired Wright’s unusual architectural gifts. Sharing the same space and personal camaraderie, Corwin would have learned from Wright and naturally tried to emulate aspects of his work.  And for a substantial commission on the main street of Corwin’s home town, he naturally would have welcomed comments and help from an admired colleague literally close at hand to create the best design possible.

“In such a closely shared environment between friends, it’s conversely possible that Corwin might have commented and critiqued Wright’s own work. We’ll never really know, but it’s a reasonable possibility.

“There’s always the temptation to skew perspectives to advocate the presence of a “lost” Wright work. But as a result, Cecil Corwin’s presence as a competent architect and a creative person gets lost. Sadly, it’s the story of his life.”

And,  Robert Hartmann, a friend of mine who is an architectural designer and Wright scholar in Racine, weighs in, as well: “The existence of the 1908 photo offers new evidence that the Mitchell house is a  unique one-off collaborative effort between Cecil Corwin and Frank Lloyd Wright. A dichotomy design with the more inventive parts of the house (the porch, and first floor interior detailing) either attributed to Wright or Wright’s influence on Corwin. Cecil Corwin never-the-less produced a masterful house that should be celebrated on its own merits and testifies to the close friendship between the two architects.”

Let us turn to Paul Hendrickson again, and we realize that Wright was concurrently designing his masterpiece Winslow House and Corwin was on the verge of moving to New York and to some measure of architectural obscurity. 

And so, there we have it. We will likely never know exactly who did what, but let us give Cecil Corwin his due for having designed a notable house, likely with help from his good friend Frank Lloyd Wright. 

This collaboration was not only a professional collaboration. It was also arguably the coda of their one-time close relationship (Hendrickson has a rich history of their relationship, elaborating on what Wright wrote in An Autobiography). 

The “Who Did What?” debate will continue with some discounting Wright’s possible involvement, absent documentation to the contrary (Tafel’s remarks keep reverberating in my mind), and others agreeing with the perspectives offered above.

Game on!

https://www.oadarchives.com

I appreciate the willingness of the Pettinger family, stewards of the Mitchell House, to allow me time to set up lights and photograph their home in 2001 and 2002.

— 30 —

(Scroll down for earlier posts on this website, including the 1908 Hardy House photographs)

Hardy House: Photo Proof Positive

© Mark Hertzberg (2021)

Several features of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House in Racine have been the subject of speculation for years because of the dearth of historic photos. Three newly discovered 1908 photos of the house, which was completed in 1906, end the speculation.

The first of the 1908 photos, showing the Main Street side of the house, may have been taken on Flag Day or on Independence Day:

LR 1908 Hardy Main.jpg© 2021 The Organic Architecture + Design Archives, Inc.

 

We can now definitively answer questions about the two front gates to the house, front plantings, the seven front hall windows, the south first floor bedroom windows (on our right in the photo above), the original dining room windows, and the rear gutter and downspouts.

Many people contributed to our getting the new photos and to understanding them. They are credited at the end of this article.

Until we got the new photos, the only clear vintage photograph of the house we had was this one from the Wright archives, evidently taken as the house was nearing completion in 1906:

Terrace 0506.004 raw.jpg© 2021 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

I was sent this 1906 “real photo postcard” below by Patrick Mahoney in 2018:

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The Gates: This 1906 photograph, taken around the time Hardy moved into his new home, is regrettably not clear enough to let us examine the windows, but we can now affirm that the gates were stucco. Until we got the 1908 photos, Mahoney and I thought we were looking at the stucco walls inside the gates rather than the gates themselves.

By the time that Henry-Russell Hitchcock photographed the house in the late 1930s or early 1940s for his book In the Nature of Materials, there were wood panels on the gates:

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The wood panels are also evident in photos that Anne Sporer Ruetz took in the early 1940s when she was growing up in the house (her parents were Hardy’s second stewards, from 1938 – 1947). You will see her photos further down in this article. The gates seem to have insets on which there could have been stucco panels. Did the stucco panels prove to be too heavy?

The gates were removed by the third stewards of the house (the Archer family, 1947 – 1957). The late Gene Szymczak, who became the seventh steward of the house in 2012 extensively rehabilitated the house, which needed major work. He also commissioned new gates for the house. He elected to use Wright’s first design, gates with diamonds atop the gates:

Drawing Main Street.jpg© 2021 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art / Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

Plantings: Marion Mahony’s elevation drawing of the Main Street side of the house shows plantings below the front hall windows. Original to the house, they are long gone, as are the climbing plants:

LR Crop 1908 Hardy Main.jpg © 2021 The Organic Architecture + Design Archives, Inc.

Front Hall Windows: There has been speculation about the original design of the seven windows between the two front doors. The 1908 photograph and Anne’s affirm that the windows in the house when Szymczak bought 1319 Main Street in 2012 were original, but they did not conform to the only Wright drawing we have of them. The windows were badly deteriorated, below, and were replaced with new ones by Szymczak:

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Wright’s drawing, below, is shown in the correct orientation. The text block was positioned as if the drawing is to be viewed as a horizontal sheet, rather than vertical, says my friend Bob Hartmann. At the upper left we see the front hall window design. The five-panel living room windows are at right. Bottom center are the bedroom windows:

image004.jpg © 2021 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art / Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

Robert Hartmann, an architectural designer in Racine, has been of invaluable help to me in all my Wright projects, helping me navigate design territory unfamiliar to me. He studied the drawing and photographs closely and observes: “The windows that we see in these photographs appear to be the same windows that were in the house when Gene [Szymczak] bought it. But, they are different than the window design that Wright put on paper. Wright’s design was symmetrical with less elements. His design (on paper) for the hall windows referred to the symmetry and simplicity of the living/dining and upper bedroom windows.

“However, the hall windows that we see in these photos are most likely original to the house. It is not unusual to see a design modification occur during construction.”

Bedroom Windows, Living Room windows: These are the second and third photos from the 1908 collection. You will see the original photos and my enlargements of them. The south bedroom windows are to the left and the two-story living room windows center. Pull down shades are evident on the windows. Anne told me that her parents removed the original living room windows because they leaked badly. They have been clear glass in recent memory. We had a hint of their design from the 1906 construction photo, but now we can clearly see Wright’s original leaded glass living room windows:

LR 1908 Hardy HIll.jpg© 2021 The Organic Architecture + Design Archives, Inc.

LR 1908 Hardy HIll Crop.jpg© 2021 The Organic Architecture + Design Archives, Inc.

Hartmann comments first on the first floor bedroom windows: “It looks like it is just clear glass in the bedroom windows.  If it were art glass we would be able to see some traces of the pattern. The key is in the window on the east side that is visible in the photo. Bright light is coming through the window and yet we do not pick up any representation of the art glass pattern. There is a curtain drawn to south side of the window in the foreground. It is pulled back to the window casing  and of a medium grey value. If the art glass were present it would stand out in contrast against the curtain. But, the photo is not in perfect focus so there is a percentage of doubt.”

LR 1908 Hardy Side.jpg© 2021 The Organic Architecture + Design Archives, Inc.

LR 1908 Hardy Side Crop.jpg© 2021 The Organic Architecture + Design Archives, Inc.

Gutter and downspouts: Many people have questioned me about the gutter and downspout on the rear (lake side) of the house. The historic photos show they are original or hew to the original design.

Anne was given a Brownie box camera, likely for Christmas, when she was around 10 years old (the same age I was when I was given my first Kodak Brownie camera!). “Not too many of my friends had a camera but I just thought it fun to take and get the pictures. It would take about a week to get them developed [at Red Cross Drug, 13th and Villa streets], hard to wait.” Her snapshots of her friends show us the windows, the gates, and what may be a coal chute in front of the house (there is no evidence of it anymore).

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Tag 2.jpgAnne is at left in this photo.

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I must credit the people who contributed to our being able to better understand how the house was built:

Mike Lilek, the force behind Frank Lloyd Wright’s Burnham Block in Milwaukee, alerted me April 16 to a 1908 photo album with photos of the Hardy House and one of the Mitchell House for sale on eBay (Mitchell is grist for a later separate article). He pointed to the 45 or 46-star flag (some of the stars are obscured). The former was in use from 1904 – 1908, the latter from 1908 – 1912. The album is dated 1908.

-Lilek’s email was followed by an alert from Racine historian Gerald Karwowski.

– I notified the stewards of the Hardy House as well as Eric O’Malley of the Organic Architecture and Design Archives (OA+D). OA+D entered the bidding to ensure that the photographs had a safe new repository. They successfully acquired the photos and quickly shared high resolution copies with the Hardy House stewards, with Hartmann, and with me.

I urge you to explore OA+D’s website, and to subscribe to their Journal:

https://www.oadarchives.com

I thank Anne Sporer Ruetz for her friendship and eagerness to share her memories of what she has called her “dream house.”

I also thank architect Patrick Mahoney of Buffalo, another friend and well known Wright Scholar, for the July 1906 “real photo postcard” he sent me in 2018.

    – 30 –

 

Wright Galore in Elmhurst

(c) Mark Hertzberg (2020)

Elmhurst, Illinois is not the first Chicago suburb that comes to mind when devotees of Frank Lloyd Wright play “name that house and location.” It is no Glencoe, Highland Park, Oak Park, or River Forest. After all, it has only (!) one house designed by Wright, the F.B. Henderson House, a fine Prairie-style house designed in 1901. But playing the numbers game is no reason to pass up a visit to the city, west and slightly north of the Big Two, Oak Park and River Forest, especially on October 24.

Let’s start with some photos of the house, which was recently sold to new stewards:

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October 24 is designated as “Frank Lloyd Wright Day” in Elmhurst. There will be two concurrent museum exhibitions to see. One, “Wright Before The ‘Lloyd,” opened at the Elmhurst Art Museum in September, and runs until February 14. It is curated by the incomparable source of Chicago architectural knowledge and artifacts, Tim Samuelson, the City of Chicago’s Cultural Historian. If the Smithsonian Institute is truly “America’s Attic,” as many people say, then Samuelson’s office and storage spaces are “Chicago’s attic” The second exhibition, “Frank Lloyd Wright: Architecture of the Interior,” opens at the Elmhurst History Museum on October 23, and runs through December 20. This is a national touring exhibition. The history museum showed its Wright-related chops with a fine exhibition, “In Her Own Right: Marion Mahony Griffin,” in 2016-2017.

“Before The ‘Lloyd'” focuses on Wright’s early career, before he formally replaced his given middle name, Lincoln, with “Lloyd,” in honor of his maternal family heritage. The artifacts come from Samuelson’s collection. Some – those from the Adler and Sullivan Schiller Building or Garrick Theater, and Wright’s Harlan House – were salvaged by the late Richard Nickel. [Samuelson asked me to clarify about the name: “There is some dispute about Wright’s middle name initially being “Lincoln”. It all depends on who you talk to.

“By the time of the exhibit’s theme, Wright definitely considered Lloyd his middle name.  There are some very early ink renderings where he signs them “Frank Ll Wright”.

“But when he went into architectural practice, he signed his drawings, press notices, etc. with the prosaic “Frank L. Wright”.  Just the initial. He never started signing drawings, press notices, etc with a full blown “Frank Lloyd Wright” until 1897-98. The exhibit is themed around a more modest period where he just used the initial “L” instead of writing out a more distinctive “Lloyd”.]

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You doubtless have read about the Froebel gifts umpteen times, but you may have never seen them except in illustrations in books. Now you can:

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How many of us thought of the game manufacturer Milton Bradley in any context other than “Chutes and Ladders” when we were children? Think again, they introduced the “gifts” to America in 1869.

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There are artifacts and historic photos of the Charnley House (1891-1892) and the Rolson Rowhouses (1894), among others. I have seen the Charnley House and I have seen many photos of it, but this is the first time that its entrance made me think of Wright’s Winslow House entry (please use the comments link to tell me what you think!).

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The floor plan, below, shows the layout of Adler and Sullivan’s offices when Wright worked there, showing how close Wright’s drafting space was to his “Leibermeister’s” office.

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Samuelson is the curator of record, but he refuses to take sole credit for the exhibition’s artifacts. Quoting from an email he wrote me, “But Eric O’Malley has a big presence in the show. His computer and graphic design skills were what created the electronic re-draws of patterns gleaned from burned and shattered original fragments, and putting them in a format to facilitate laser-cut complete patterns as they appeared on the buildings.  Wisconsin wood finish master Stan John Zachara recreated original wood finishes perfectly.

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“Much of Wright’s early ornamentation for exteriors was fret sawn wood, which weathers and deteriorated severely if not maintained.  And for those that were maintained with diligent painting have the patterns clogged to the point that it’s often no longer to discern the patterns.

“I chose to remove layered paint that compromised the design – and each piece was returned to its original color and finish.

“I never wanted to restore the pieces too much.  Repairs were made where damage compromised  the design, but I still maintained the effects of damage over time.”

This window is from the Rolson Rowhouses:

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The two museums are architectural opposites. The History Museum is in the historic Glos Mansion (1893), designed the year Wright left Adler and Sullivan. The Art Museum is in a contemporary building  (1997) designed by DeStefano + Partners of Chicago. It complements an architectural bonus for visitors to the Wright exhibition, the McCormick House, designed in 1952 by Mies van der Rohe, and later moved to the museum campus.

For more information:

https://www.elmhurstartmuseum.org

https://elmhursthistory.org/

 

 

Penwern Publication Progress

(c) 2018 Mark Hertzberg / Book cover (c) 2018 Brad Norr Design

Sue and John Major, stewards of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fred B. Jones estate (Penwern) on Delavan Lake, Wisconsin asked me to write and photograph a book about Jones and about Penwern in 2013. The book is now finished and in the design stage, with publication next spring by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. We now have a cover to show you!

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We never anticipated that this would be a five-year project, but it proved to be challenging to research the book, especially because there is no known extant correspondence between Jones and Wright. The book is based on as much original research as possible, and dispels a number of things that have been written about Penwern in the past (including the origin of the name of the estate). I found only a handful of photos of Jones, just one of him at Penwern likely taken when he was about 65, twenty-five years after Penwern was built. It was almost four years before I found any adjectives describing Jones’ affable personality, a quality I had guessed but could not document until Patrick J. Mahoney and Eric O’Malley unearthed obscure articles about Jones from 1888 and 1912 in a trade journal and in a newspaper article about his work.

Wisconsin Public Television videotaped an illustrated talk I give about Penwern at the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Wade House last spring. It is an hour long and can be viewed here:

https://wpt4.org/wpt-video/university-place/penwern-a-frank-lloyd-wright-summer-place-utz1yf/

But of course you need to buy the book to see many more contemporary and historic photographs and read much more about this wonderful estate and its stewards since 1900!

Honoring Gene Szymczak

Photos and text (c) Mark Hertzberg 2017

Family and friends of Eugene (Gene) Szymczak gather in a cold rain in Sam Myers Park in Racine, Wisconsin Saturday May 20, 2017 for the dedication of a bench in his memory. Szymczak, president of Educators Credit Union, died suddenly December 3. A lover of architecture, he bought the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Thomas P. Hardy House in 2012 and then restored it. Designer Eric O’Malley was commissioned by the credit union, the YMCA, Kids First, and the United Way of Racine County to design a memorial bench to face the Hardy House. O’Malley chose a cantilevered design, evocative of the Prairie-style architecture in the Hardy House.  The dedication was preceded by a volunteer agency fair at Gateway Technical College in recognition of Szymczak’s numerous volunteer contributions to the community. Szymczak was honored with a Wright Spirit Award by the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in 2015 for his stewardship of the Hardy House. Gene was modest and did not like to be singled out. I think he ordered the morning’s cold rain to discourage people from gathering in his honor.

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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

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.