Rest in Peace, Maggie of the Hardy House

(c) Mark Hertzberg (2020)

IMG_6406.jpegThere are long shadows at the Hardy House this week, or so I thought when I rode my bicycle past the house today and reflected on the deaths of two of its stewards. I took these  photos in their memory with my phone camera. Eugene “Gene” Szymczak, who rehabilitated the house from 2012 until his sudden death, died December 3, 2016, four years ago this Thursday. Margaret Yoghourtjian died yesterday evening.

IMG_6411.jpegThe afternoon sun shines through a window in the second floor north stairwell.

IMG_6408.jpegThe sun casts a shadow of the cantilever that shelters the north entryway to the house.

I lost a friend last night, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hardy House in Racine lost another of its stewards, when Margaret Yoghourtjian – Maggie to her family – died Monday November 30. Margaret, 98, and her late husband Jim, were stewards of the house from 1968 – 2012. Jim, a renowned classical guitarist, was 91 when he died in May 2015.

Margaret and Jim 9.1.04006.jpgMargaret and Jim in the Hardy House living room, August 2004. Jim wrote his beloved Maggie a poem every year for her birthday. They married in 1950.

It was initially hard for me to get to know Margaret, much less get close to her. She often referred me to as her “nemesis,” but in truth, we had a wonderful relationship. The Yoghourtjians had shared their house with Wright aficionados for many years. Two unpleasant incidents some years after they bought the house caused them to decide that it was their home, and no longer a semi-public site. I confess that not long after moving to Racine in 1978 I saw Jim in front of the house, pulled to the curb, proclaimed that I was interested in Wright’s work, and asked if I could see the house. He declined my request. I was disappointed, but years later I understood his reaction to my brash request. In later years when he was Wrighted-out, Jim told me that when people asked him about the house if they saw him gardening in front, he would tell them that he was only the caretaker, and knew nothing about it. (But if Jim liked you…well, his apple pie was legendary!)

Margaret Grape Leaves 004.jpgMargaret and Jim were Armenian. Their families suffered through the Armenian genocide. Margaret came to our house in 2014 to make stuffed grape leaves with my wife, Cindy, and with Joan Szymczak, whose brother-in-law Gene had bought the house from the Yoghourtjians in 2012.

I began my serious Wright studies in the early 2000s. I wanted permission to take a picture from the Hardy House living room balcony to show the view of Lake Michigan through the two-story living room windows. I knew that the house was off limits. Period. End of story. Don’t even bother to ask. But I called the house anyway on March 1, 2003. I was astonished when Margaret answered because she preferred to screen calls from the answering machine.

She knew me from my work at the newspaper (she worked there as a proofreader before my tenure there). I promised not to photograph any other part of the house. Margaret said she would consider the request. I was sure that meant “no” and that this was my single chance to talk to her. I stalled, thinking of any possible way to keep her on the phone. I told her that if she called me back during the weekend she would not be able to reach me because I was going home to New York City to help my brother celebrate his birthday, “He will be five-five on 03-03-03.” Her voice brightened. “His birthday is March 3? So is mine!” I sent her flowers. I had an entree into the house.

I learned that Margaret loved chocolate. I asked if she had ever had chocolate-covered marzipan slices from Larsen’s Bakery. She had not. I brought her some. She was smitten by them. I would periodically leave a package of them at the door – which was never answered – and leave a phone message for her to look outside for a special delivery. Would it be wrong of me to say she could sometimes be impish? She called me at work one day and said, “I got the package. I don’t want you doing this anymore. But if you insist, Tuesday is the best day for me!” (She had told me that she would have a bite and freeze the rest for later so the treats would last longer). How can you resist loving someone like that?

I gradually gained Margaret’s trust and got permission to take more photographs on the condition that they not be shown publicly. In June 2003 I gave my “Wright in Racine” presentation at the SC Johnson Golden Rondelle. I invited Margaret but she told me she would not come because she was angry, thinking I had broken my promise about not showing the photos publicly. I scanned the audience, and indeed, she was not there. Then I saw her come in – almost sneak in so I might not see her – and take a seat in the back row seconds before the lights went down. She saw the presentation and saw that I had kept my promise, and I was back in her good graces.

She signed off on the photos of the house that were in the book. Then came the next challenge. Pomegrante Publishing offered me a contract to write and photograph a book about the Hardy House, deadline January 2005. Margaret’s brother, Ardie Kaiserlian had warned her, she said. “If you give him an inch, he’ll try to take a mile.” We laughed about that warning many times, because Ardie was right.

One day Margaret gave me a box and said she had saved every letter written to the house since they bought it in 1968. There were about 180 letters, which I catalogued in a data base. My original concept for my Hardy House book was to write “Dear Frank Lloyd Wright House,” a book about letters to a Wright house. I contacted as many of the correspondents as I could find, to get their permission to use their letters, Most agreed. Pomegrante was less interested in that approach than I was, and so the book took a different turn, but those letters helped me gain context and perspective for the history of the house.

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Margaret zealously guarded her privacy. I made sure that she approved the photos I was submitting to Pomegrante. All was well until Katie Burke, the publisher, emailed me that there had to be at least one photo of one of the four bedrooms. I gulped. The bedrooms had been off-limits to my cameras. Katie was clear, no bedroom photo possibly meant no book. I called Margaret and got another “I’ll think about it.” No amount of marzipan would help me this time. I did what Ardie had warned her about, and pushed to go for that extra mile. She reluctantly agreed to the photo session. When I arrived to take the pictures she proudly told me that the afghan on her bed for the photos was one that her mother had made.

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I took these rather pedestrian photos, and then I took one of my favorite photos, the view from her bedroom:

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I asked all the stewards of the house, or their descendants, to sign my copy of my Hardy House book. While Margaret had been leery about the book, she told me she was happy I had written it. She wrote: “Nemesises can change into angels. Mark has done that. M.”

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Today Margaret’s niece, Pat Yoghourtjian, told me, “Nemesis? To get a nickname like that is special.” (I had also earlier been honored by Margaret with my own key to the house).

Pat also told me that every Christmas a mysterious plastic ornament appeared on their tree after Jim and Margaret’s visit. Inside was a $20 bill. No one ever saw Margaret pull her Santa trick.

Margaret was Ardie’s older sister. Ardie and his wife, Penny, chuckled today when I told them that Margaret – their Maggie – often told me about taking Ardie on the North Shore interurban train from Racine to Chicago to take him to Cubs baseball games at Wrigley Field.

Joan Szymczak, Gene’s sister-in-law, remembered Margaret fondly as a lover of nice clothes. Margaret and Jim went to Siena, Italy in the 1960s, so Jim could study with Segovia. She brought many new clothes home with her. In 2012, Margaret donated many of her clothes to a vintage clothing shop owned by Ginny Hintz, the mother of Joan’s future son-in-law. Ginny and Joan took Margaret out to lunch and they stopped at the shop on their way home. Ginny told her to pick out anything she wanted and take it with her. “She is going through all the lovely items Ginny had redone, from the 50s, and what does she come up with, but her own coat that she had donated! There was consistency, she had impeccable taste that never went away.”

She also had a smile that never went away. Rest in peace, dear Margaret.

I leave you with two photos that Margaret took of the house in 1968:Exterior Main 2.jpg

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***

Gene Szymczak contacted me in 2012 when he gathered that the house was for sale (I was helping the Yoghourtjians sell the house, and we did not want to put a For Sale sign up in front of the house). While the late John G. Thorpe of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy sagely advised me to step aside and let professionals take over, I wanted Gene and the Yoghourtjians to meet at Jim and Margaret’s new apartment. I suggested that Gene bring Margaret some marzipan from Larsen’s. He did. He also brought a copy of a Japanese print that was reminiscent of Marion Mahony’s famous view of the lake elevation of the Hardy House from below. We were having lemonade and cashews in the Yoghourtjian’s living room when Gene turned to them and made an offer for the house. There was no need for professionals. The house had passed from one loving steward to another.

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Nature is Not Always Wright

Photos (c) Mark Hertzberg (2020) unless otherwise noted

Frank Lloyd Wright embraced nature. But nature does not always embrace his work. Take for example the Thomas P. Hardy House (1904-05), built into a bluff above Lake Michigan, south of downtown Racine, Wisconsin.

Hardy 1906.jpgThis postcard, from the voluminous Patrick Mahoney Wright archives, shows what the house looked like in July 1906, around the time that Hardy moved in. Regrettably there is no companion photo showing the full expanse of land below the house.

Terrace 0506.004 raw.jpgThis photograph, also ca. 1906, shows the lake side of the house, but does not give us an idea of far away the lake was from the property line. Photo © 2020 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. All rights reserved.

The house was above the 14th Street Beach, and many people mistook it for a bathhouse and stopped there to change into their swim suits, recalls Anne Sporer Ruetz, who grew up there between 1938-1947.

Archer Terrace 14.jpgThis photo, courtesy of David Archer, who grew up in the house between 1947 – 1957, shows a fence separating the public land from the private land.

Seward Beach.jpgSchuyler and Peterkin Seward, stewards of the house between 1957 – 1963, took a picture beyond the fenceline, showing how much land there was below the house. That land is now under water. Photo courtesy of Abbi Seward.

Below hill Yog.jpgThe landscape changed dramatically a few years after Jim and Margaret Yoghourtjian bought the house in 1968 and took this photograph.

The City of Racine decided to alter the nearby shoreline northeast of the house, over protests of the residents in the early 1970s. Jim Yoghourtjian told me that they lost an estimated 100 – 125′ of land below the house. And that brings us to today, when Lake Michigan is experiencing near-record high levels and has overtaken much of the land below the house. The fence put in a few years ago by the Szymczaks to give them some privacy from people walking along the shoreline is now largely under water…there is no more walking path. A small dock no longer stops short of the small beach area the owners could launch a kayak from. It was virtually at water’s edge last fall.

Erosion 11.04.19 007.jpgNovember 4, 2019

Fear not, the house is not threatened, but the situation is serious enough that the Szymczak family and neighbors had to hire Ray Hintz, a local contractor, to place 3 – 5 ton boulders at the base of their property this summer. The Szymczaks estimated that they have lost 40 -50 feet of land in the last seven years. Neighbors’ land is more seriously threatened as parts of their bluffs have been eroded.

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Photograph courtesy of Ray Hintz

IMG_5706.jpgAugust 18, 2020

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Local and state government representatives have looked unsuccessfully for possible sources of Federal, state, and local funding to help underwrite or create a loan fund to help shoreline homeowners in Racine and Kenosha counties bear the expense of the revetment. One neighbor emailed me, “We paid full freight (the whole $$), further underscoring neighbors’ commitment to these historic properties.”

The lake, as viewed from the living room balcony and the base of the bluff is, indeed lovely. The sound of the waves lapping at the shore can be soothing. But these days, neither is always welcome.

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Rainy Day Post #2 – Guggenheim Dome Evolution

Photos (c) Mark Hertzberg (2020)

Saturday I wrote that it’s like a rainy day, and I am taking time to clean up my desktop and post some things that have been in limbo. There will be a third Rainy Day Frank Lloyd Wright post – the one with what I referred to as a “smattering” of photos from many Wright sites – possibly tomorrow.

I noted in my 2004 book Wright in Racine that Wright’s initial design for the dome of the Guggenheim Museum in 1943 was identical to the one he later used for the dome built over the advertising department in the SC Johnson Administration Building in Racine. That space was added concurrently with the construction of the SC Johnson Research Tower (designed in 1943/44, constructed 1947-1950). (The space is now home to the company’s Global Affairs and related departments)

The Advertising Department’s dramatic glass dome is now an architectural icon of the company. It embodies the design Wright proposed in 1943 for the Guggenheim Museum.
The dome now has a white cover now to lessen the heat from the sun.

Visitors to the 2017 “Unpacking the Archive” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (MoMA) saw the Johnson version of the dome on the Guggenheim model in the exhibit:

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This exhibit was labled: “Tension ring study model for Johnson Wax Research Tower, Racine, Wisconsin  1943-50  Steel.” There was no mention of its similarity to the Guggenheim proposal.

Wright’s final design for the dome has been photographed many times:

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Rainy Day Post #1: Hardy House Roof

All photos (c) Mark Hertzberg (2020), except as noted

Hardy Tafel photo.jpgEdgar Tafel, photographer, courtesy of John Clouse

It’s 84 degrees and sunny, but let’s pretend it’s raining out because this is a “rainy day projects” catch-up-on-loose-ends kind of day. I had a smattering of Frank Lloyd Wright files that have been sitting on my desktop in a couple of folders for up to two years, waiting for me to decide in what context to post them. Let’s have at it!

This post is about last year’s project to replace the roof on Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House (1904/05) in Racine. The second Rainy Day Post, in a day or two, will be a smattering (there goes that word again!) of photos from different Wright sites.

Tom and Joan Szymczak are now the stewards of the Hardy House. Their late brother and brother-in-law Gene Szymczak rescued the house in 2012, but fell ill and died unexpectedly in December 2016. They decided to replace the roof last summer. Our scene setter photograph is an undated one by Edgar Tafel, a photo lent to me by fellow Wright photographer John Clouse.

Our only description of the original roof is in a June 1906 article about the house in House Beautiful magazine: “The roof is shingled, with braided hips, and stained a lighter brown.” However, the author of the article clearly relied on descriptions provided to him by Wright and never saw this house. The article describes details, some on drawings by Marion Mahony, which were never executed.

We start with photos of charred timbers found by the roofers. Racine Fire Department records indicate there was a roof fire in the 1930s, put out with just a single fire extinguisher:

image1.jpegPhoto above courtesy of and (c) Tom Szymczak

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The best descritption of the roofing job comes in an article in the May 2020 issue of Roofing Magazine. Note, though, that while they say the fire was in the 1960s, fire department records indicate it was in the 1930s. The article is illustrated with wonderful drone views of the house.

Maybe I was prescient in sitting on my photos of the roofing job from June 6, 2019 because I just knew that Tom was going to send me a link to an article about the work this past week! I would be remiss to not credit John Waters of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy for his work with the Szymczaks as they planned the project.

http://www.roofingmagazine.com/tag/thomas-p-hardy-house/

SC Johnson Buildings

(c) Mark Hertzberg 2020

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There is something indescribable for me in Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs of the SC Johnson Administration Building (1936) and SC Johnson Research Tower (1943/44) in Racine, Wisconsin. I gaze at them every day during my daily bike ride.

I found the lighting particularly soft and nice the evening of June 16, riding after spending the day photographing the newly restored curtain at Hillside Theatre and the desolate empty drafting room at Hillside (the two previous posts on this website).

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The pictures were taken through the fence at the Golden Rondelle guest relations center which cannot reopen until the COVID-19 crisis passes. This is the first view that visitors have of the buildings, as they come onto campus at 14th Street. LR SC Johnson Admin Building Tower 6.16.20 005.jpg

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I look forward to being able to once again get past the fence and enjoy – and photograph – the wonderful interior spaces again.

 

Photographing my Friend Minerva Montooth

(c) Mark Hertzberg (2019)

Olgivanna Wright could not have picked a better and more congenial assistant for 25 years than Minerva Montooth, who I am privileged to call a friend. Make that “Friend” with a Capital F. We have been privileged to know Minerva Montooth since May 2003 when her late husband Charles invited me to give my “Wright in Racine” presentation in the theater at Hillside Home and School (that was indeed a heady invitation for a burgeoning journalist-student of Wright’s work!). Minerva has kindly invited us to the annual celebration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birthday at Taliesin every year since then.

I visit Minerva in her apartment at Taliesin whenever I am on campus helping lead Road Scholar explorations of Wright’s work in Wisconsin https://www.roadscholar.org/find-an-adventure/22976/architectural-masterworks-of-frank-lloyd-wright

Last week Minerva told me how she came to join the Wright community at Taliesin West in 1952 (gosh, I was only 18 months old!). She has a keen photographic eye. I admired the magnificent lighting of a photo of Charles, who died in December 2014, in her living room, not knowing that she was the photographer. When it was time for me to leave, I couldn’t just leave; after all my camera first had to photograph Minerva and Fifi:

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Below are some of my earlier photos of Charles and Minerva:Evening at Taliesin 2004 008.jpg

Charles on the “Birdwalk” at Taliesin, Wright birthday celebration, 2004.

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Charles at The Prairie School in Wind Point (Racine), October 2003, with plans for the addition to the athletic center. Charles designed the original school building and each subsequent addition. He worked with Floyd Hamblen on the addition.

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Minerva and Charles at the dedication of the new facility, January 2005.

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Charles accepts accolades at the dedication.

By the way, if you email Minerva or write her something on Facebook, don’t expect a reply during your normal business hours: she is a confirmed computer night owl…1 a.m. is not an unusual time stamp for her.

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Minerva at the 2016 Wright birthday celebration.

We love you, Minerva!

 

SC Johnson Carport

(c) Mark Hertzberg (2019)

These are photos of the carport at the SC Johnson Administration Building in Racine on July 27, 2019 when we were taking a friend from New York City on his first tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings:

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Wingspread Pool Rebuild is Finished

Words and photographs (c) Mark Hertzberg 2018

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The newly-rebuilt swimming pool at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wingspread (1937) is filled with water from a nearby fire hydrant Wednesday May 30, 2018. The pool, which holds an estimated 114,028 gallons of water, was an original water feature of the house. It had deteriorated, and was rebuilt because of its architectural significance to the house. It will remain as an architectural water feature, and will not be used for swimming. It measures 26’ wide and 96’ 4” at its longest dimension, and slopes to a depth of 12′. The original diving board will remain in storage because the ornate stand has been lost and there are no drawings from which to replicate it. The only known record of it is this undated low resolution photo, provided courtesy of The Johnson Foundation, and copyright by them:

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The pool deck fireplace regains visual prominence as it is no longer obscured by vines:

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New mechanical systems have been installed nearby, underground:

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Wright designed Wingspread as a home for H.F. Johnson Jr. and his family in 1937, the year after Wright designed the landmark SC Johnson Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin. Wingspread, situated in the nearby village of Wind Point, was given by the family to the newly-created Johnson Foundation in 1959. It is now a conference center. National Public Radio, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the International Court of Justice are among the notable entities that evolved from Wingspread conferences. One of the founding meetings of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy was held there, as well.

Remembering Gene Szymczak

(c) Mark Hertzberg 2017

I pass Frank Lloyd Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House in Racine almost daily on my bike ride. Today was a poignant day, the first anniversary of the passing of Gene Szymczak, a dear friend who was the seventh steward of the house and the man who lovingly rehabilitated it after buying it in September, 2012. I wondered how to honor Gene today. As luck would have it, the light was right, and I took a photo with my phone as the sun cast a shadow from one of the entry hall windows on the wall next to the north door.Gene Shadow.jpg

I surmised from the cars parked in front that his family was gathered in the house. We each got to honor Gene at the house in our own way.

You have probably heard the story, but if not, the house was distressed when I took Gene through it as a prospective buyer. He said to me, “I don’t have children, but this is something I could do for Racine.” You did, indeed, Gene, and we are indebted to you. Gene was honored with a Wright Spirit Award in 2015 from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy and was honored posthumously last June with the Kristin Visser Award for Historical Preservation.

Racine and the Wright community miss you, my friend.

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