Hardy House: Gene Szymczak + 10

© Mark Hertzberg (2022)

1319 Gene + 10 006.jpgSaturday’s afternoon sun projected the pattern of the entry hall windows onto the walls. Robert McCarter writes that the floor plan of the house is articulated in the windows.

Yesterday, September 17, marked the 10th anniversary of Eugene (Gene) Szymczak becoming the seventh steward of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House (1904-05) in Racine, Wisconsin. Gene fell ill and died December 3, 2016 after undertaking an extensive rehabilitation of the house. Its new stewards are Tom (one of Gene’s two brothers) and Joan Szymczak. Tom and Joan invited family to a low-key celebration of the anniversary on the dining room terrace yesterday. Anne Sporer Ruetz, who grew up in the house from 1938 – 1947 and two non-family couples were also invited.

Hardy Sale 022a.jpgGene signs papers transferring stewardship of the house to him, September 17, 2012.

I took Gene through the house, which was challenged, when he was considering buying it in 2012. As we left, he said to me, “I don’t have children. This is something I could do for Racine.” The late John G. Thorpe of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy advised me to step back and let professional appraisers and others take over. I understood, but I wanted Jim and Margaret Yoghourtjian, the longtime stewards of the house to first meet Gene. I told Gene what kind of pastry to bring Margaret (chocolate-covered marzipan loaves). He also brought them a Japanese print reminsicent of a famous drawing by Marion Mahony of their house. We were having lemonade and cashews in their new apartment when Gene surprised us and made them an offer for the house. There was a glitch though, or so I thought, when the week before the closing Gene emailed me that he was having second thoughts…it would make a good teardown and he could build something with a three car garage underneath. I held off calling the Yoghourtjians to cancel the sale so I could get hold of Gene. It was two days before he called me back, from Baltimore Washington Airport, on his way to visit Fallingwater, “Just kidding!”

Anne has often told me that it was like watching movies when the pattern of the leaded glass windows was projected onto her bedroom ceiling and walls by the headlights of passing cars at night. She was delighted that the “movies” were playing in full force in the entry way as we arrived at the celebration yesterday:

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Anne was a celebrity yesterday: one of the guests had brought a copy of my book about the Hardy House (Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hardy House, Pomegranate: 2006) and asked her to sign two pages with photos related to her:

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1319 Gene + 10 020.jpgThis photo of Anne’s 14th birthday party at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed dining room ensemble (which was lost after her parents sold the house) was in the Racine newspaper in 1946. She is holding the cake at the head of the table.

Coincidental with the celebration, a new Wright website, which I was not familiar with, pinged this morning to a piece I posted in 2014 about Gene’s work at the house:


The new website is:


Gene was honored with a Wright Spirit Award from the Building Conservancy in 2015, and the Kristin Visser Award for Historic Preservation in 2017.

I posted this piece a year ago when Anne and David Archer, who grew up in the house between 1947 – 1957 were reunited at the house:


I challenge myself each time I visit a familiar Wright site to find something new to photograph. A week ago, before I was escorting my fourth Road Scholar tour of the summer, I told my wife that I was having trouble seeing anything new the first three tours of this year and was almost considering not even bringing a camera with me (these were my 10th – 13th tour with the same itinerary since 2017). I looked up as I was bringing our guests down to the dining room and looked at the bottom of the stairs to the living room for the first time. Out came the phone camera:

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The Road Scholar “Architectural Masterworks of Frank Lloyd Wright” tour is a week-long and begins in Chicago:


Remembering Bonnie McCoy

(c) Mark Hertzberg

Bonnie E. McCoy of Mason City, Iowa died May 14. She and her husband, Bob, are well known as being instrumental in Mason City’s architectural preservation. Their home, Walter Burley Griffin’s Blythe House, is in the Rock Crest, Rock Glen development, near Frank Lloyd Wright’s Stockman House and the Architectural Interpretive Center named for Bob. These photos of Bonnie and Bob were taken when they received the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy’s Wright Spirit Award last October 3 at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee. The last photo shows them with the Building Conservancy’s late John Thorpe.

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John Thorpe’s Memorial

(c) Mark Hertzberg

An estimated 200 people gathered to honor John in Oak Park Saturday at George Washington Maher’s Pleasant Home. A selection of photos follows:

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John Thorpe Memorial

Memorial gathering for John G. Thorpe at Pleasant Home, Oak Park, Illinois, Saturday January 30, 2016. / (c) Mark Hertzberg

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John’s twin brother,Tom at the memorial gathering at Pleasant Home, Oak Park, Illinois, Saturday January 30, 2016. / (c) Mark Hertzberg

John Thorpe Memorial

Don Kalec at the memorial gathering for John, Saturday January 30, 2016. / (c) Mark Hertzberg

John Thorpe Memorial

The majestic leaded glass windows in the entry way of Pleasant Home, Oak Park, Illinois, Saturday January 30, 2016. / (c) Mark Hertzberg

Remembering John G. Thorpe

(c) Mark Hertzberg

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John Thorpe at the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy benefit at Steelcase, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Friday October 18, 2013. / (c) Mark Hertzberg

I was on my daily bike ride on my birthday just a month ago when my phone rang. I am never overly eager to answer the phone when I’m riding in the winter, because I have to take my gloves off after pulling off the road, and the weather was nasty, but I was glad I took the call. It was John Thorpe wishing me a happy birthday. I had no inkling that he knew my birth date. Today I awoke to an email telling me that John died yesterday of congestive heart failure. He was 71.  The world of Wright preservation is reeling from the news.

John was my mentor when I began my Wright adventures some 15 years ago. I had no background in Wright scholarship, but that did not matter to John. All he cared about was that I was writing about Wright’s work, striving to be as accurate as possible, doing as much original research as possible rather than rely on anecdotes and the existing literature. My mentor became a friend. I could not help but smile all the times he tweaked me for being a native New Yorker (Second City Syndrome, John?).

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Steve Sikora, left, John Thorpe, and Ron Scherubel at the 2014 Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy conference at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix , Thursday October 30, 2014. / (c) Mark Hertzberg

Jonathan Lipman had introduced me to John when I was looking for advice about how to handle a sticky question about the alleged authorship of a house I was writing about. John in turn introduced me to the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. I turned to him for advice often. His advice was always the same: let proven facts lead the way.

I had the pleasure of helping John chair the Building Conservancy’s 2007 annual conference in Northbrook and Racine.

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John Thorpe, right, leads a Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy planning meeting at Wingpsread for the 2007 conference, Friday February 17, 2007. / (c) Mark Hertzberg

In 2012 John was the person I called for advice from the basement of Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House when I was showing the house to a prospective buyer, Gene Szymczak. The house needed extensive repairs, and the Building Conservancy had fretted about its future. I wanted to know how much the house might be worth as a Wright property over its assessed value. John firmly told me it was time to bring in professional appraisers and to step out of the picture.

Gene ignored his advice, surprising the owners and me by making an offer out of the blue a week later, as they met over lemonade and cashews at the owners’ new apartment. It was an unexpected turn of events, and the house had a new steward. Gene completely rehabilitated the house over the next three years, earning a Wright Spirit Award last October. What better tribute to John than to have the house preserved for another century?

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Edith Payne, left, and John Thorpe at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church during the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy annual conference in Milwaukee, Friday October 2, 2015. (c) Mark Hertzberg

Next year’s Building Conservancy meeting in San Francisco…and each one thereafter…will be diminished without John’s presence. Indeed, so will the Building Conservancy itself, as well as Wright scholarship and preservation.

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John Thorpe, left, at the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy benefit at Steelcase, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Friday October 18, 2013. / (c) Mark Hertzberg

Farewell, my friend.

Building Conservancy 2015

Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy annual conference, Pfister Hotel, Milwaukee, Wednesday September 30 – Sunday October 4, 2015. (c) Mark Hertzberg

Information about any memorial service for John will be posted to the Building Conservancy’s website: www.savewright.org  Blair Kamin’s feature obituary story for the Chicago Tribune is at:


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John and Jack Quinan at the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy benefit at Steelcase, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Friday October 18, 2013. / (c) Mark Hertzberg

Wright Spirit Awards

John Thorpe presents one of the Wright Spirit Awards at the Gala Banquet, Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy meeting, Sheraton Society Hill Hotel, Philadelphia, Saturday September 24, 2011. / (c) Mark Hertzberg