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.

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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:

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

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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:

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

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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:

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We are indebted to Gene Szymczak for his loving rehabilitation of the house between September, 2012, and his sudden death December 3, 2016.

Signs of Wright

(c) Mark Hertzberg 2017

Signs guiding people to Frank Lloyd Wright public sites in Wisconsin, including Wingspread in Wind Point, north of Racine, are being placed in communities to guide motorists once they leave the Interstate highways which were marked with “Frank Lloyd Wright Trail” signs last fall. The signs resulted from a bipartisan bill signed by Gov. Scott Walker at Taliesin a year ago.

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The signs above are on I94, near Highway 20, top, and on Seventh Street, just east of City Hall in Racine.

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The sign on the long arm is installed at N. Main and Hamilton streets, north of downtown Racine, Friday April 21 by Jeff Hoffman, John Dirkintis, and Jon Hanson of the city public works department.

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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

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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).

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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.

Remembering Gene Szymczak of the Hardy House

by Mark Hertzberg (c) 2016

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Eugene Szymczak, who became the seventh steward of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House in Racine (1904-06) died suddenly in his sleep at home Saturday evening. He was 67.

To me, Gene was more than the man who rehabilitated a very distressed Wright home and saved it for another century, he was a dear friend. Gene’s fascination with the house began when he was a college student working one summer on a city garbage truck route. His route took him down Main Street, and once a week he picked up the garbage from the north courtyard of the Hardy House. He bought himself a nice camera and photographed places in Racine that moved him. One was the Hardy House (in Gene’s typically modest manner, though, shunning extravagant things, he soon returned the camera because he thought it too much of a luxury).

Our adventure together with the Hardy House began with an email from him August 8, 2012, when he surmised I was trying to sell the house for the owners by word-of-mouth: “I was wondering what the expectations are for the potential buyer for the Hardy house. Can we get together and talk?”

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Gene at the closing for the house, above, and with the house key, below:

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I took him through the house. Its condition was daunting. Equally daunting was the engineering study another potential buyer had commissioned. Gene wasn’t fazed. As we left the house he said, “I don’t have children this is something I could do for Racine.” Indeed. Gene, president of Educators Credit Union in southeastern Wisconsin, was altruistic. He gave of himself to countless community improvement efforts.

He then wrote me, “Thanks for taking my family and myself through the house. It was really a treat to have you take us on tour…It will be interesting to see how things move forward. It is an enormous responsibility as well as a source of joy and frustration.”

The late John G. Thorpe of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy advised me to stay out of the sale to Gene, and leave it to professionals. Still, I wanted Gene and the then-owners to meet. A week later, over cashews and lemonade at their apartment, Gene made them an offer for the house, and suddenly it was sold. I had told Gene what pastry to bring Mrs. Yoghourtjian; he also brought her and her husband a Japanese print evocative of the famous Marion Mahony view of the Hardy House from the lake bank below.

Gene followed that visit with one more nice email before writing one that I just might forgive him for tonight, “I would hope that Margaret and I could become friends.  She makes great lemonade and I make killer baklava [he did!]. Life is all about being true to your beliefs and a blessing to others….Sincerely, Gene”

Although we were friends, I had not yet been exposed to Gene’s wry sense of humor. Five days before the scheduled closing he wrote that he was having second thoughts about the purchase and was thinking of buying the property, doing a tear-down, and putting up something with a three-car garage underneath. I was on the verge of calling the Yoghourtjians to call off the sale when I finally got hold of Gene (who was on his way to visit Lynda Waggoner at Fallingwater). “Just kidding!” was the crux of the conversation.

Below are photos of Gene during a planning meeting during the rehabilitation of the house in January, 2013:

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Gene’s stewardship of the house was recognized a year ago by the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy when he was awarded the prestigious Wright Spirit Award in the Private Home category at the annual meeting, fittingly in Milwaukee, following a tour of the house. I photographed him with architect and scholar Jonathan Lipman, author and curator of the Frank Lloyd Wright and the Johnson Wax Buildings book and national museum show, and with his brothers Tom, left, and Jim, before the award presentation.

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Anne Hasse, a teacher at Wakanda Elementary School in Menominee, Wisconsin, is one of the team that teaches a Wright and architecture immersion class that is another past Wright Spirit Award winner. Gene always welcomed her students when they visited Racine in the spring. When told of Gene’s passing she commented, “To open up that house to a bunch of kids, only Gene would do that. Just a big-hearted guy.”

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Wakanda students on the dining room terrace in May.

     When I told Gene’s neighbor of his passing Marco said, “Gene will finally get to meet Frank Lloyd Wright.” I told him, “No, Frank Lloyd Wright will finally get to meet Gene.”

Gene was unassuming. He bristled when I photographed him enjoying a cigar with his brother on the dining room terrace of the house after the closing because he feared it portrayed him as a “fat cat” who had just bought a house. To me it showed easy-going Gene.

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Wright scholar David Jameson, who toured the house this summer with Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s Cultural Historian, and Eric O’Malley, another Wright Spirit Award winner, wrote this evening, “What a shame Gene got so little use of the Hardy House. But he was a very good steward of it.  Anybody who has conserved a Wright house (particularly a Prairie one) knows just how expensive it turns out to be.  But to meticulously return it to its original (even more glorious, perhaps) condition is possibly the finest memorial one could actually have.

“I don’t worry about the Hardy House. Not only has it got good bones but it now has a civic hold on Racine. It’s their’s as much as Wright’s.

“Here’s to Gene.  May all private owners of remarkable Wright houses be as generous with history as him. I think Gene’s memorial will most likely be that the Hardy House will live on because he cared.”

Robert Hartmann of Racine, past president of Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin, also knew Gene. Told of his passing he asked to repeat what he wrote Gene, as president of the organization, when Gene bought the house: ”

Dear Gene,

All too often the words “Thank you” are left unspoken. So, as a fellow citizen of Racine, let me simply say thank you for purchasing the Hardy house. It is comforting to know that this iconic Wright design is in your caring hands. I believe that in future years Wright scholars ie Mark Hertzberg and architectural historians alike will chronicle September 17th 2012 as a benchmark date in the life story of the Hardy house. Your intention to restore the home…is further evidence that the future of the Hardy house is indeed a bright one. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Racine will be a better place in which to live because of your recent actions.

Now, let me put on my other hat, president of Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin, and again say,thank you for purchasing the Hardy house. Our organization which is dedicated to the preservation of Wright’s architectural legacy in his native state congratulates you on the purchase of the Hardy house and views your plans for its restoration as not only having local and state significance but recognize, as you do, that the restoration of the Hardy house will be celebrated by a national and international audience as well.

Again, Thank you

Regards

Bob

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Eugene Szymczak accepting his Wright Spirit Award

A Tribute to Karen Johnson Boyd

Text and photos (c) Mark Hertzberg

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At Lake Owen, Thursday August 14, 2008. / (c) Mark Hertzberg

 

Karen Johnson Boyd died peacefully early Friday morning in her Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in Racine, Wisconsin after a short illness. She was 91.

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Karen and her husband Bill Boyd at Lake Owen, Saturday August 16, 2008. / (c) Mark Hertzberg

The house, the Keland House, was designed in 1954. She was one of Wright’s surviving clients. There are aficionados of Wright’s work who keep lists of Wright’s surviving clients. But Karen (pronounced Car-In, after her Norwegian ancestry) was a great woman, a fun person, a friend, not just a name on a dispassionate list of Wright clients still living in their Wright homes. She had a keen sense of humor, matched by the perpetual twinkle in her eyes (dare I post the photos I have of her playfully sticking her tongue out at me when I photographed her?).

She has a great legacy in the art world in Racine and in America. The Racine Art Museum in downtown Racine bears the name Karen Johnson Boyd Galleries. (I refer to her as Karen, rather than Mrs. Boyd, because I had the privilege of being friends with her and her husband, Dr. William B. Boyd.)

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Karen Johnson Boyd, with museum director Bruce Pepich, signs copies of American Craft profile about her at the Racine Art Museum, Saturday December 13, 2008 / (c) Mark Hertzberg

Her father, the late H.F. Johnson Jr., became a patron of Wright after commissioning the SC Johnson Administration Building in 1936 and the Johnson home, Wingspread, the following year. Karen and her late brother, Sam, grew up in Wingspread, and that inspired her to want Wright to design a home for her and her first husband, Willard Keland.

Karen was 12 when, unbeknownst to her, H.F, as he was known, hired Wright to design the Administration Building. “I just remember the time right after Dad first saw Mr. Wright, I was at Kemper Hall (a boarding school in nearby Kenosha), and he came down to pick me up one Sunday and he said to me, ‘Karen, you’re studying art history, now who is the greatest architect in America?’”  She was sitting next to her father in the front seat of their cream-colored Lincoln convertible, and replied, “Why everybody knows it’s Frank Lloyd Wright.” He was sort of appalled that I knew that. I remember that vividly. He was flabbergasted that his kid would know it. He told me at that time that he was going to have Mr. Wright do the building.”

Just a month ago she spoke of a characteristic of her father’s relationship with the famous architect who had a reputation for not managing money well. “He was always trying to get money from my father. He would come unannounced for a visit with my father, but he always came with some of his students. He came to Wingspread and to the office building.” Did Wright pay the loans back? “Not that I know of. He would tell my father that we had to pay the room and board for his students because they were not in paying jobs to do it themselves. My father did it any number of times, because he felt they were doing good work. They were supporting Mr. Wright.”

The most memorable time that Wright sought a loan from H.F. was in the early 1940s. Wright had sent word to Racine that he was maybe dying. He wanted H.F. to bring “the girl” (Karen, whom Wright was fond of) with him. “They took me into his bedroom. There were about six or seven people watching me so I didn’t take anything as a souvenir.” Wright commanded, “Bring the girl to me.”

“I remember being really flattered that he wanted to speak to me. He made me come over next to him on the bed and he grabbed ahold of my hand  He said my father was his best friend. ‘He is a wonderful man,’ he said. And he said, ‘Did you know he’s a wonderful man?’and I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘I’m glad, I’m glad to hear you say that.’ He said, ‘I think I’m going to die, Hib (H.F.’s nickname), but I need to leave my apprentices in a position to stay on the job of guarding the place, keeping it safe.’ He said I haven’t got any money to leave the apprentices, but they have to guard the place otherwise they’ll come and close down the place.’ I remember my father asking what they needed the money for, and he said to keep the place from closing down. They have to pay bills for heating and electricity. Father wrote a check.”

Wright was fond of her. “He would ask my father about what kind of grades I was getting in school and whether I was dating anybody important.” She was flattered by Wright’s interest in her. Karen repaid Wright, if you will, by generously sharing her home for special benefit events hosted by Frank Lloyd Wright groups, even as recently as last fall.

Two of the Wingspread’s signature features were suggested by Karen, then 13, and her brother, Sam, 9. Wright wrote them, asking if there was anything they wanted included in the house. Karen, whose bedroom was at the north end of the house, on the second floor past the master bedrooms, requested a cantilevered balcony like the dramatic one she had seen at Taliesin.  Wright told her that one day she would be wooed from below the balcony by a suitor “with a classical guitar, of course.” The bedroom’s location was dramatic, but not ideal, “I had to sneak past my father’s door if I wanted to sneak out.”

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Karen’s balcony, right. The Crow’s Nest is left of center, next to the chimney. / © Mark Hertzberg

The children loved the spectacular view from the cupola of their maternal grandmother’s house in Ithaca, New York, and they asked for a lookout tower in their new home. Wright gave them the Crow’s Nest, a glass enclosure next to the chimney, which is reached by a spiral staircase from the mezzanine above the wigwam. It was a child’s delight. Karen and Sam could see the lake and watch their father, an avid pilot, fly past the house. They left each other notes in a locked cabinet. The key was lost, and Karen wondered in 2003 if there is still a forgotten note in the cabinet.

Karen said she picked Wright to design her own home on the bluff of a ravine that overlooks the Root River and Colonial Park “because I lived in Wingspread and loved it.” Her father was less sure about her choice of architect because he knew what it was like to commission a Wright building, and was afraid that it would be too expensive.

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The Keland house, Sunday June 1, 2003. (c) Mark Hertzberg

Johnson wrote Wright, asking him to recommend an architect. Karen recalls Wright’s answer: “Of course I can recommend someone, but wouldn’t it be better for the daughter to have the real thing? I would love to do a house for Karen.” He got the commission, but her father warned her to be careful.

It is almost inconceivable to think of Wright agreeing to have another architect looking over his shoulder, but Karen said he did not balk when Johnson assigned John Halama, the company architect, to supervise the job. Halama and Wright had already worked together on the Johnson Research Tower and other projects. When the Kelands also hired consultants from the University of Indiana to help design the home’s radiant heating system, something her father recommended because of problems with Wingspread’s system, she says that “Mr. Wright never said ‘boo’ about it…I think Mr. Wright was relieved he didn’t have to do it.”

Wright may have been on his best behavior when the house was being built, but he was true to form when he and Wes Peters came for lunch in 1956 after the Kelands had moved in. Karen had fixed lunch (it was a lunch she liked to fix for guests: chicken salad, with curry in the mayonnaise; buttered toast broiled with sesame seeds; and green grapes) and served Coca Colas to her guests after lunch, when Wright decided it was time to rearrange the furniture.

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“I knew it was to be expected because he had already done it to Irene (Purcell Johnson) and Dad at Wingspread, famously, in the middle of the night without asking permission.” Her stepmother had also warned her. “Just remember, Karen, he’s going to come back and rearrange everything.”

The only furnishings Wright had designed for the Keland house were built-in ledges, bookcases, cabinets, and two built-in sofas. The living room furniture was in two groupings because the family did not often entertain large groups of people.

Wright said he liked the two beige Moroccan rugs, and asked where they were from. Then he turned his attention to the furniture. He had Peters move the baby grand piano into the center of the room because the Keland children were taking piano lessons and he thought the family should gather around the piano every night.  Karen remembered Wright asking, “Do you mind if I show you the way I think? I like your furniture and your rugs and the drapes. You’ve done a great job, but I think you have to arrange it in a more family way.”

It was part of his persona. “He was laughing and grinning, he was getting a kick out of it,” Karen recalled, “Even Wes Peters was laughing. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ he whispered, ‘This is just in fun’ as he was pushing and shoving things around.” Karen knew not to argue. “I thanked him for it and said we’ll try it out and see how it works. It stayed that way for a couple of days. It just didn’t look right.”

The Keland house is larger than most of the Usonian homes, but it has many of the characteristics of Wright’s Usonian designs. The original house was L-shaped, with a third wing for the carport. The dining area, with its two-ton Vermont marble table which took 15 men to carry into the house, is just off the entry hall, and flows into the living room. The living room dominates the main wing. It is spacious, and comfortable, filled with books and art. The built-in furnishings are also an important part of the Usonian design concept.

The kitchen is at the “hinge” between the living room/dining room wing and the bedroom wing, following the Usonian model. Wright, who normally didn’t seem to worry about what other people thought, suggested a wood screen to hide a small wet bar that adjoins the kitchen, “What are you going to do when the minister comes?”

The bedrooms are in the south wing. The hallway is narrower than Wright had wanted, because Karen requested built-in storage cabinets along the outside wall. She also insisted on a basement, a feature that Wright termed “unwelcome” in his definition of organic architecture in his autobiography. The guest room is on the second floor of the main wing, adjoining a sitting room, which overlooks the living room and the ravine below.

Wright wanted to include a cantilevered terrace in the design, jutting out from the guest room, like the one he designed for Karen’s bedroom at Wingspread. It was eliminated from the final house plans, for budget reasons, to Karen’s regret years later, “It would have been a very distinctive part of the house.”

Karen loved the Wright home she grew up in, and loved the one she commissioned. “Depending on your mood it expands with you or contracts. You can go in a little cozy eating area in the kitchen or if you feel expansive you come out here (the living room) and have a great big party if you want.”

Her son, Bill Keland, was just one when the family moved into the house, but it had a great influence on him. The land itself was a child’s delight, “We used to live down on that river, and play on that river…that whole valley was our playground. We had our bikes, We caught fish. That was where we lived most of the year. It was a great place to grow up.” His classmates knew there was something different about the house, “(They would) look around (and) wonder, what is this place…with its long hallways, and low ceilings opening up into a big room…”

Wright’s design moved Bill even years later, and influenced the design of his own home in California, “It always felt like it was a sacred space, thought out space. It made me feel like a human being.”

Dr. Boyd, moved to Racine when he became president of the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, in 1980. He was invited to dinner at Karen’s house after starting his new job, “Then I married into the house. I often think she must think I married her for the house, I love it so much.”

Frank Lloyd Wright brought nature and the house together in their spacious, two-story home designed five years before he died. The Boyds enjoyed watching the river and the birds that flock to the courtyard garden.

The house is filled with art. To Karen, it was art. “Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a piece of sculpture,” she said in an interview in 2001.

Karen was a member of Racine’s most prominent family, but she was self-effacing. She and I were sitting in the courtyard of the house one day as she described how architect John (Jack) Howe added on to, and remodeled, part of the house in 1961. She had four children, so a garage was added when the carport was enclosed to make another bedroom. Pointing to the small door next to us, near the kitchen, she said, “And this is where the little woman brought her groceries into the house” after pulling them from the car on a wagon.

We were talking about the movie “Animal House” after Dr. Boyd told me that he gave permission for it to be filmed at the University of Oregon when he was president of the university as long as the college was not identified by name (the scene with the horse in an office was shot in his office). She smiled and let on that her favorite movie scene was one from the movie.

As much as she loved the “piece of sculpture” that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for her, she also loved spending time on Lake Owen in Cable, Wisconsin. That was a family vacation destination since the teens, and she spent every summer of her life but one there. Karen was a world traveler, but she and Dr. Boyd honeymooned in a bare-bones fishing cottage by a stream on the property after they married in 1982. Karen could have described it to us when we visited them there a decade ago, but instead she insisted we climb into a four-wheel drive Suburban which she piloted over rough terrain with careless abandon to take us to that magic spot in their lives for a picnic lunch. The Boyds put their arms around each other as they looked out from the porch.

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I visited the Boyds a month ago and was touched when Bill gently kissed Karen’s hand after she stopped to see us in his office. The love, the magic was still there as it must have been at Lake Owen in 1982. I ache for Bill as I write this remembrance.

Karen could have lived the life that many people who know nothing about the Johnsons assume “a Johnson” would live, but she did not. She used to take advantage of the Metra weekend roundtrip fares to take the train to Chicago when she could have simply had a driver take her into the city. She gave of herself unselfishly. Bill lost his soulmate this morning. Racine, the art world, and the world of Frank Lloyd Wright lost a great friend and a great person.

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Lake Owen, Saturday August 16, 2008. / (c) Mark Hertzberg

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Sunset at Lake Owen where Karen spent every summer of her life, but one, Friday August 15, 2008. / (c) Mark Hertzberg