When was Wright possibly wrong?

(c) Mark Hertzberg 2017

When was Wright possibly wrong? For one, when he possibly made the handwritten notation “Lake Delavan” on one of the drawings for a proposed summer cottage and boathouse for J.D. Stamm in 1945 (Project #4513). And so the project has been listed as being meant for Delavan Lake in both Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer’s “Monograph” of Wright’s work and Volume 3 of “The Complete Works.”

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[Both drawings, above, (c) The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art / Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Libary, Columbia University, New York), and used with permission.]

Sue and John Major, stewards of Wright’s Fred B. Jones estate (“Penwern”) on Delavan Lake commissioned me to write a book about Jones and Penwern in 2013. (The book will be published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press in the fall of 2018.) I was intrigued by the Stamm project, and excited about it, when I saw it in “The Complete Works,” because I was not aware of such a late project for the lake. The latest documented Wright commission on Delavan Lake was from 1907.

A check of the known Wright correspondence in Anthony Alofsin’s “Index to the Taliesin Correspondence” and with Sally McKay at the Getty Research Center showed only one Stamm letter, an unrelated 1953 note from Stamm to Wright about a movie. Nor was there any record of the Stamms or the project in the Delavan area. Local historians wondered if the project was for Lake Nagawicka, near Delafield, 45 miles and two counties away from Delavan because they had heard of a Stamm marine-related business there.

The hunt was on to find the family. Inquiries to local historical societies and libraries in Delafield were not fruitful. As I often have while working on the book, I turned to Mary Stauffacher, a friend, who is a whiz at navigating ancestry.com. She found John Davies (not David) Stamm’s daughter. Lisa Stamm told me that her father was working on the project for his father, Victor Stamm, not for himself. While she was too young to remember much about the project, she remembered meeting Wright when she was about 3 years old in the late 1940s. And she thought that Lake Nagawicka was, indeed, the likely site of the project because her grandparents, who lived in Milwaukee, would summer on Lake Nagawicka, but she was not certain.

But I could not go on supposition. Lisa passed my questions on to her family, and a few days ago her daughter, Vanessa Parsons, came up with the definitive proof that the project was indeed meant for Lake Nagawicka, rather than Delavan Lake. I was bleary-eyed, nearing the end of an overnight bus trip from Milwaukee to Minneapolis, when I opened her welcome email with close up photos of the block lettering on her copy of the Stamm project. It clearly reads Lake Nagawicka. It took five months of on-and-off digging, but the mystery is solved and the record is set straight, with the generous and patient help of others.

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[Both photos above courtesy Vanessa Parsons and the Stamm family, and (c) The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art / Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Libary, Columbia University, New York), and used with permission.]

Brian Spencer, AIA, who has extensively researched the Delavan Lake work, who did restoration work on Wright’s Wallis – GoodSmith House on Delavan Lake in 1992-93 and rebuilt the Penwern boathouse which had been destroyed by a 1978 arson fire in 2005 (working from a single sheet of Wright’s drawings), suggests that the mistake by Wright (or whoever made the notation) was understandable: Delavan? Delafield? Unless one is from the area, it would be easy to mix them up knowing that Wright had about a dozen commissions on Delavan Lake.

It is disappointing  to not know more about the commission and why it was not executed, but it is satisfying to know for certain which lake it would have been built on. Some Wright aficionados have asked for the exact location so they can hunt satellite photos, given that the project evidently would have been connected to an existing house. The hunt for that information continues.

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