© Mark Hertzberg
Fred B. Jones commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design Penwern, a magnificent estate on the South Shore of Delavan Lake, Wisconsin in 1900-1903. Wright designed five homes and a yacht club on the lake, but Penwern was his most expansive commission there: Wright designed not only the “cottage” (the main house), but also a boathouse, stable, and gate lodge.
This is the only known photo of Jones at Penwern. He is thought to be about 65 years old when it was taken, around 1923. Courtesy Sue and John Major
Entertaining friends is the theme that unites all of Penwern’s stewards. Jones was a Chicago business executive. He enjoyed entertaining at his summer home until he died in 1933 at age 75. Boating is an obvious form of recreation, but one of the signature features of Penwern is the tower at one end of the porte-cochère. The room at the end of the walkway from the main house, a walkway above the porte-cochère, was the room where Jones and friends played poker.
Sue and John Major host a party every July 4.
Burr Robbins, in white suit, often hosted business clients. He and his wife, Peg, became the second stewards of Penwern in 1939. Courtesy Ross Robbins
John O’Shea hosted an “Aloha! Party” in 1994 when he sold Penwern to the Majors. Photo courtesy of John O’Shea.
Sue and John Major became the stewards of Penwern in 1994. Their rehabilitation of the estate is well known in Wright circles: they removed the two unsightly 1909 and 1910 non-Wright additions that Jones commissioned; in 2005 they rebuilt the boathouse which had burned down in 1978 in an arson fire, working from a single sheet of Wright’s plans; they finished John O’Shea’s project to have the three main porches have round outer walls, per Wright’s plans; they overhauled the stable and gate lodge…and anything else dilapidated or altered. Let’s consider the boathouse:
This is how the foundation of the boathouse looked until 2005. Courtesy Bill Orkild
This is the sheet of drawings that Bill Orkild and architects had to work from. © 2022 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)
When wizard contractor Bill Orkild was asked by the Majors to look at a small project shortly after they bought Penwern, he says, his father warned him that this small project might become a full time career. His father was prescient. As if the work outlined above weren’t accomplishments enough, and as if routine maintenance of the estate isn’t enough, the Majors came up with yet another restoration challenge in 2020, which brings us to a spring evening at Penwern in 2022. Jones loved growing roses, and Wright gave him a commercially-built greenhouse attached to the gate lodge water tower, right:
© 2022 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)
Members of the caretakers’ family are shown near the greenhouse, in a photo taken ca. 1935. Photo courtesy of Betty Schacht.
The greenhouse had deteriorated by the 1970s and was replaced with a carport by Terry Canty, the Robbins’ daughter:
Photo courtesy of Bill Orkild
The Majors had Orkild remove the carport, but for years the space looked like a Jack o-lantern with a missing tooth:
There was, of course, only one Major / Orkild solution, and that was to rebuild the greenhouse in 2020. Plans were drawn by DePietro Associates:
The Majors made one significant change. Rather than use the greenhouse as, literally, a greenhouse, it would be a place to entertain friends. Work started before, and continued through the early days of the Pandemic. Finally, in 2022 it was time for the new greenhouse to shine, and shine it did on June 4 when the Majors hosted a benefit evening for the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy:
Guests at the benefit came from across the country. The evening started with a boat tour on the lake, giving guests a lake-side view of the five Wright homes including the A.P. Johnson House:
Kimberly Valentine, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, left; Debi and Ted Muntz, Loveness House, Stillwater, Minnesota.
Barbara Gordon, Executive Director, Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, left; Paul May and Heidi Ruehle (Ruehle is Executive Director Unity Temple Restoration Foundation); Chuck Henderson, Walker House, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California; Steve and Debra Poe, William E. Martin House, Oak Park.
The boat tour was followed by an elegant gourmet dinner in the dining room. Note the dining room sideboard which was painted white, as was all the dining room trim, in the photo of Burr Robbins. Orkild restored it:
Courtesy Bill Orkild
Courtesy Bill Orkild
Then it was off to the greenhouse for dessert:
And so, through the Majors generous gesture for the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, ended another evening as Jones envisioned Penwern, friends gathered together on the shore of his beloved Delavan Lake.
Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy:
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