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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Hardy House: New photos

(c) Mark Hertzberg 2017

One of the joys of experiencing Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture is to see his buildings in different ways no matter how often you have visited them. I stopped in at the Thomas P. Hardy House in Racine twice over the last week to take some new photos with a new lens.

I have descended the steps from the entry hallway to the dining room and kitchen level dozens of times, but never saw the stairway like this until last week:

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This is another view of the living room balcony and ceiling:

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I have photographed the afternoon shadow of the entry hall windows projected on the wall behind, but never with a shadow on the stairs to the living room until yesterday:

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My book about the Hardy House has a shot of three bedroom windows. Last week I shot the view south a bit wider:

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And, finally, this is what happens when you greatly underexpose the view south across the balcony above the living room from the north stairs landing. The window at left is in the living room; the middle one is in the south bedroom (photo above) with a circular hall light next to it; and the window at right is in the bathroom:

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We are indebted to Gene Szymczak for his loving rehabilitation of the house between September, 2012, and his sudden death December 3, 2016.

A lasting last word from Gene Szymczak

(c) Mark Hertzberg 2016

Gene had a very wry sense of humor. I initially did not understand what was his last jab at one section of the World of Wright until he explained it to me. There was quite a kerfuffle on the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy’s Wright Chat web forum a couple of years ago when I posted photos of the wood gates Gene had made for the entry way of the rehabilitated Hardy House.Hardy Gas Meter Cover 002 LR.jpg

The original gates were taken off by the Archers, the third stewards of the house (1947-1957). I pointed out that the design Gene asked carpenter Chad Nichols to build was Wright’s first gate design for the house, not the simpler one that Wright ultimately executed, shown in a photo by Anne Sporer Ruetz (Hardy House: 1938 – 1947) of her friend Mary Hill putting on her roller skates:LR Gates 035.jpg

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Oh, how the forum lit up with criticism of Gene for ruining the project and for reinventing history. I wondered in response – as I pointed out that to me the most important thing to consider was that Gene had literally saved the house for another hundred years – if Gene should also be condemned for having a television set and a microwave oven in the house because those weren’t historically authentic either.

Gene was hurt by the blog comments. Genuinely hurt. If you knew him, you would understand his feelings. He was the CEO and president of Educators Credit Union which grew to become a major financial institution in Wisconsin under his stewardship so he was certainly a serious man when he had to be. But he was never too serious. He took umbrage at my photo of him smoking a cigar on the dining room terrace with his brother the day he closed on the house because he though it made him look like a “fat cat.” The dispute reinforced his feeling that some in the Wright World are too serious and judgmental.

He found a way to thumb his nose at them when he commissioned a shield to hide the unsightly gas meter in front of the house (moving it was not a practical option).

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I didn’t realize until Gene told me with a smile…he purposely designed it as one of the original gates, albeit turned on its side. Here’s to you, Gene! I laugh whenever I think of your joke on what a friend of mine called “Gategate.”

Postscript after reading an email this morning…Full house museum restoration was way out of budget consideration. I focus on Gene having literally saved the house. It was imperiled. I focus on several thousand people having the opportunity to see the house, which had been closed to the public for several decades. Many, many of them expressed their gratitude to Gene. They include recognized Wright scholars. Gene had told me “this is something I could do for the Racine community” when he considered buying the house. Indeed he did, for Racine and for the Wright community, even if not everyone agreed with all of his decisions.

A Reunion at the Hardy House

Photos (c) Mark Hertzberg

I found a long-forgotten folder of photos today from April, 2014. They made me smile as I relived a wonderful reunion at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hardy House between Margaret Yoghourtjian, left, and Anne Sporer Ruetz. They are chatting in the dining room in the photo below.

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Margaret (and her late husband Jim) were stewards of the house from 1968 – 2012. Anne was five when her parents became the second stewards of the house in 1938. The Sporers lived there until 1947. This was the first time they had met, and it was their first look at the house after Gene Szymczak had completed most of his rehabilitation of the house that he undertook after buying the house from Jim and Margaret.

Neither Anne or Margaret is tall. The second photo was taken when they both stood in one of the low closets in the south bedroom on the balcony level.

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Thank you, Anne and Margaret, for helping me smile today!

Hardy House Gas Meter Shield

(c) Mark Hertzberg

Put in parentheses between all the kudos Gene Szymczak has gotten for his rehabilitation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House in Racine has been the oft-repeated question, “But what about the ugly gas meter in front of the house?” Moving the meter is cost-prohibitive even though some Wright-philes have proposed a Kickstarter fund to help out.

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Wonder no more. Chad Nichols, the Racine craftsman who reprised Wright’s wood gates (removed by the third owners, 1947-1957) has made a shield to cover the front of the meter. It is open to the top and sides so meter readers can access it. The house number is in the middle of the shield.

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Wright and Like

(c) Mark Hertzberg

More than 400 people from across the country came to Racine a week ago for Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin’s annual Wright and Like tour. Ten sites were featured. Their architects included Wright, Edgar Tafel, Charles Montooth, John Randal McDonald, Hans Geyer, and Helmut Ajango.

Generally people who think of architecture in Racine tend to focus on Wright, Montooth, Tafel, and McDonald. But there is much more to Racine’s rich architectural heritage. Friday evening’s special presentation at Wingspread was the premiere presentation of an audio visual review of some twenty significant architects whose work is in Racine. Future presentations of the program will add Holabird and Root, Howard van Doren Shaw, and McKim, Mead, and White to the mix. These two photos show the line of people waiting to see Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House before the tour opened.

Next year’s Wright and Like will be Saturday June 3 in Milwaukee.

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Sun and Shadows at the Hardy House

(c) Mark Hertzberg

When I talk to school children about Frank Lloyd Wright’s work I sometimes tell them that the only “computer” he had to work with was the one between his ears. I try to explain that he had a gift for knowing what light would do at different times of the day and of the year to illuminate and help keep a room warm before the days of electricity as we know it.

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I stopped at the Hardy House late this afternoon and again saw his intuition projected on the stairs and entryway wall. The patterns are from the seven windows in the entryway. I credit Robert McCarter for pointing out that the floor plan of the house is articulated in these windows: the public spaces (two-story living room and the dining room below) are the square in the middle…bisected by a rectangle that includes the bedrooms at each end of the house (at left and right). He makes this point in “Frank Lloyd Wright” London: Phaidon Press, Ltd., 1997.

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Genius, indeed!

Remembering Jim Yoghourtjian

(c) Mark Hertzberg

Jim Yoghourtjian, steward of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hardy House with his wife, Margaret, from 1968 – 2012 died April 26. He was 91.

Margaret and Jim Yoghourtjian in their living room in the Hardy house, 1319 S. Main St., Wednesday September 1, 2004.  (c) Mark Hertzberg

He was a well known classical guitarist, who traveled to Siena, Italy, to study with Andres Segovia. His friends knew him for his devotion to Margaret, for his warmth, for his apple pies, as well as for his music.

Jim’s father did not understand how he could make a living as a musician and urged him to take a shop job in the factory where he worked. In 1957, though, his father went to Chicago to hear Jim play in the Fullerton Auditorium at the Art Institute of Chicago in conjunction with an exhibition honoring Pablo Picasso. After listening to the applause at the end of the concert, his father asked the person next to him if everyone there had come to hear the music. Assured that they had, he proudly said, “That’s my son!” Jim wrote in a 1996 memoir.

Jim had a wry sense of humor. Jim and Margaret had welcomed visitors to the house for many years until after some negative experiences. The house then understandably became strictly their home, not a Wright tourist destination. He chuckled when he told me how he then deflected Wright-related questions from strangers who pestered him when he was doing yard work, “I don’t know, I’m just the caretaker.”

I remember seeing him outside the house soon after moving to Racine in 1978, quickly pulling over to the curb, and asking if I could see the inside of his Frank Lloyd Wright house. He declined to let me invade their privacy. I never faulted him for that, wondering how often that happened to him.

There are certainly Wright aficionados who would criticize Jim for playing the role of ignorant caretaker of the house. Those of us lucky to have counted him as a friend would instead smile and think, “Yup, that’s Jim for you!” Rather than dwell on the question of whether or not he should have answered every Wright question, I prefer to dwell on the memory of seeing him tenderly kiss Margaret’s hand one day before going back to bed when they shared a room during a short hospital stay in 2011. He had told me that he used to write her poems for her birthday. That was Jim. And that is part of what made him such a special person.