(c) Mark Hertzberg 2017
Eugene (Gene) Szymczak was posthumously honored Sunday as recipient of the 2017 Kristin Visser Award for Historic Preservation for his rehabilitation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House in Racine. Szymczak, who died December 3, arguably saved the house for another 100 years when he bought it in September, 2012 and began four years of repairs.
The house was distressed when I showed it to him earlier that year on behalf of the owners. He said to me, “I don’t have children; this is something I could do for Racine.” The photos below are from November, 2012 and May, 2017:
The award is presented by directors of the Seth Peterson Cottage Conservancy at the diminutive (but stunning) Wright-designed cottage on Mirror Lake. It is presented every other year to an individual or organization in recognition of past work in historical preservation of a Wright or Prairie School building in Wisconsin or a contiguous state. Buildings constructed between 1900 and 1925 are given preference, and the restoration work shall have been substantially completed within the two calendar years previous to the year of application.
The award is named in honor of Kristin Visser, who was instrumental in the restoration of the Seth Peterson Cottage and a tireless worker in its behalf. She is the author of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School in Wisconsin, and, with John Eifler, A.I.A., Frank Lloyd Wright’s Seth Peterson Cottage: Rescuing a Lost Masterwork. Visser, who was a planner for the Wisconsin State Department of Natural Resources, died in 1998 at the age of 48. (Photo (c) by Brent Nicastro, and used with permission)
Bill Martinelli of the Conservancy presented the award to Tom, left, Curt, Jim, and Joan Szymczak. Tom and Jim are Gene’s brothers and Curt is a nephew of his. Joan, who is married to Tom, tirelessly helped with the rehabilitation and staged the house for the many benefit tours which Gene generously opened the house for.
Recognition includes a large plaque, a monetary award, and a small plaque affixed to a marker near the Cottage. The marker is mounted on a slab of sandstone shaped like the state of Wisconsin. Martinelli found the slab at a nearby quarry:
Tom Szymczak wrote to the Conservancy after the presentation, “Our sincere thank you for honoring Gene with the Visser award. On the surface Gene would not have like the attention but I believe deep down inside he would have seen it as a ‘thank you.’ I know at times, especially early on in the project, he would wonder what he had gotten himself into. But once he saw the public begin to cherish the house, he knew it was all worth it. Gene had plans of retiring in Hardy house and sharing it with visitors so they could feel the magic of a Wright-designed home. We truly lost a person that Lived by Example. Again, Thank You for honoring Gene with award.”
Jim Cairns, of Bukacek Construction, contractor for much of the work, wrote me, “We at Bukacek Construction were honored to be part of Gene’s rebuilding process. His home is truly a unique architectural treasure in Racine and Gene’s commitment to restore the property is a tremendous gift to all of us who live and work here.”
Szymczak had previously been awarded a Wright Spirit Award by the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in 2014.
The inaugural award was given in 2007 to Steve Sikora and Lynette Erickson-Sikora, for their work in restoring the Malcolm and Nancy Willey House in Minneapolis. The 2009 award was granted to Paul A. Harding and Cheryl Harding, for their work in restoring the Davenport House, in River Forest, Illinois. The 2011 award was presented to Mary Arnold and Henry St. Maurice for their work on the E. Clarke Arnold Residence in Columbus, Wisconsin. The 2013 award was presented to Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin for the restoration of the B-1 ASBH in Milwaukee and the 2015 award was given to John Eifler and Bonnie Phoenix for the restoration of the Ross house in Glencoe, Illinois.
The application deadline for the next award will be in early spring, 2019. Applications should be sent to award committee chairman Jerry Minnich, 821 Prospect Place, Madison, WI 53703. Questions may be submitted by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.