Remembering Gene Szymczak

(c) Mark Hertzberg 2017

I pass Frank Lloyd Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House in Racine almost daily on my bike ride. Today was a poignant day, the first anniversary of the passing of Gene Szymczak, a dear friend who was the seventh steward of the house and the man who lovingly rehabilitated it after buying it in September, 2012. I wondered how to honor Gene today. As luck would have it, the light was right, and I took a photo with my phone as the sun cast a shadow from one of the entry hall windows on the wall next to the north door.Gene Shadow.jpg

I surmised from the cars parked in front that his family was gathered in the house. We each got to honor Gene at the house in our own way.

You have probably heard the story, but if not, the house was distressed when I took Gene through it as a prospective buyer. He said to me, “I don’t have children, but this is something I could do for Racine.” You did, indeed, Gene, and we are indebted to you. Gene was honored with a Wright Spirit Award in 2015 from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy and was honored posthumously last June with the Kristin Visser Award for Historical Preservation.

Racine and the Wright community miss you, my friend.

Gene Szymczak 002a .jpg

 

Advertisements

Stewardship of a Wright Home

(c) Mark Hertzberg

What does it take to be the steward – a better term than ‘owner’ – of a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright?

Last week I posted pictures which the late Eugene (Gene) Szymczak took in 1977 of what became his beloved Thomas P. Hardy House when he became its seventh steward in 2012. A few days later his family sent me a copy of an email Gene sent me in 2012, an email I had forgotten about. In it he describes his thoughts about his new stewardship of the house. His writing “I don’t know how long I’ll be there” is poignant and particularly moved his family because Gene fell ill and died unexpectedly December 3.

As you read the email, remember that when I showed Gene the house, which was distressed, he told me, “I don’t have children, this (buying it and rehabilitating it) is something I could do for Racine.”

His note is particularly apt this week as the stewards of dozens of Wright-designed buildings gather in New York City for the annual conference of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy.

From: <EugeneS@>
Date: September 14, 2012 7:19:57 AM EDT
To: Mark Hertzberg
Subject: 1319
Hello Mark,

I have been born and raised in Racine.  I come from a working class family.  Racine has a reputation in history for doing the right thing.  It could be from fighting against slavery to having the first high school in the state to trying to rejuvenate River Bend. We do the right thing. We put others first and give back.  I am part of that heritage. I think that it was time for someone to assume stewardship of the house from Jim and Margaret.  The Youghourtjians have been good stewards for more than fourty years.  I don’t know how long I’ll be there.  It’s my turn to take care of the Hardy house.  It is a Racine and even a world landmark.

Attraction

The Hardy house is a home that most Racinians would recognize.  It evokes different reactions.  In 1905 it was called “kooky”.  To me it’s a song.  Wright was a middleman between humans and nature. He asks us where to we fit in nature?  How do we interact with living creatures?  What can we learn?  Do we enhance one another’s lives and the landscape?

Interest in Wright

I find that Wright looks a little deeper into life and introduces more questions than answers.  A little more understanding than strong judgement calls.  God (being Nature), has all the answers to what being here is all about.  To me he says be part of it all and share it unselfishly.

The black and white photo of the house were taken in 1978 [the prints indicate 1977] About when I bought a fancy camera.  I took pictures of my parents, the lake, and the Hardy house.  To me significant things.  I ended up returning the camera because I felt it was too expensive…lucky for you it was the end of my “career” in photography.

Gene

Gene Szymczak 002.jpgHardy Exteriors Post-Restoration 078.jpg

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.

LR Gene's Bench 029.jpg

LR Gene's Bench 007.jpg

LR Gene's Bench 031.jpg

LR Gene's Bench 038a.jpg

LR Gene's Bench 027.jpg

LR Gene's Bench 009.jpg

LR Gene's Bench 040.jpg

LR Gene's Bench 005.jpg

LR Gene's Bench 006.jpg

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:

LR Hardy 5.3.17 027.jpg

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

LR Hardy 5.3.17 001.jpg

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:

LR Hardy Shadows.jpg

LR Hardy Floor 5.8.17.jpg

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

LR Hardy 5.3.17 020.jpg

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:

LR Hardy 5.3.17 016.jpg

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

Mary Hill and gate.jpg

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).

Hardy Gas Meter Cover 003 LR.jpg

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.

Hardy Reunion 4.3.14 054.jpg

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.

Hardy Reunion 4.3.14 038.jpg

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.

Hardy Gas Meter Cover 002 LR.jpg

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.

Hardy Gas Meter Cover 003 LR.jpg

Hardy Gas Meter Cover 004 LR.jpg

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.

Hardy 2.jpg

Hardy 1.jpg