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:

https://wrightinracine.wordpress.com/2014/02/17/hardy-house-restoration/

The new website is:

https://franklloydwrightsites.com/hardyhouse/

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:

https://wrightinracine.wordpress.com/2021/06/13/hardy-homecomings/

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:

https://www.roadscholar.org/find-an-adventure/22976/architectural-masterworks-of-frank-lloyd-wright

Unity Temple – A Visual Interpretation

(c) Mark Hertzberg (2020)

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Many people define Frank Lloyd Wright’s career by his residential architecture and how it often embraced the surrounding landscape. His public buildings are no less important. In contrast to his residential architecture, they turn to the inside, sheltering the worshippers or workers inside from the noise and grit of the neighborhood.

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I was invited to photograph Unity Temple in Oak Park a year ago by Heidi Ruehle, Executive Director of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, at the annual Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy conference. I took her up on her invitation this week. I purposely did not look at other photographs of the building – especially the contemporary ones in Robert McCarter’s monograph for Phaidon’s Architecure in Detail series (1997) before my own photographic exploration of the building. Details of  books about Unity Temple are in a bibliography at the conclusion of this article.

Before you look at how I saw Unity Temple, consider Paul Hendrickson’s words in his book “Plagued by Fire:” “No single piece of Wright architecture moves me more. . . .In a way it’s like emerging from the tunnels of an old ballpark and feeling overwhelmed by the sight of the perfect napkin of clipped sunlit green before you. Only it’s as if the ‘diamond’ has somehow been suspended in air.”

Made of poured concrete, and built between 1906 and 1908, Unity Temple stands in striking contrast to the typical church of the day. The commission for Unity Temple came because Unity Church, its predecessor building (1872) burned down in 1905 after its steeple was stuck by lightning (historic photos courtesy of Unity Temple Restoration Foundation):

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Oh, what a stir Mr. Wright’s church made! Consider that when First United Church of Oak Park built its new home across the street from Unity Temple in 1918, two years after its first home burned down, it chose a traditional ecclesiastical design:

Unity Temple 025.jpgFirst United, framed by Unity Temple’s concrete walls

Wright’s powerful, non-traditional design surely startled congregants when they came to Unity Temple for the first time. Unitarian Universalists challenge many of society’s accepted norms, so why shouldn’t their church challenge traditional architecture? The lack of fenestration – except for clerestory windows – gives no hint of what lies inside.

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As congregants walk in the “front” door, on what would traditionally be considered the side of the building, they read words that embody the Unitarian ideal: For the worship of God [the temple] and the service of man [the fellowship hall]:

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It is indeed a “path of discovery” or “compression and release” to repeat oft-used phrases to describe entry into Wright buildings.Wright brings us into a foyer with a low ceiling. Unity House, a fellowship hall and Sunday school space, is clearly visible to our right.

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The church itself is to our left – but we cannot see the sanctuary. We first go into a narrow hallway, turn, and then up several steps into the sanctuary. Hendrickson’s baseball analogy is vivid. This is the view before we ascend to the sanctuary:

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Or, on a visit like mine, Ruehle will open the doors hidden in a panel behind the pulpit, through which congregants leave after services, and let us peek in:

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Panoramic phone-camera photos show the sanctuary before we explore the architecture in greater detail:

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Although we are attracted to the building’s architecture – it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019 –  we must not forget that the building was designed as a house of worship:

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The minister’s lectern, and the view from the pulpit:

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The stucco walls and wood trim draw one’s eyes up to the ceiling and light fixtures:

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I am gobsmacked by the intricate detail in the hanging and wiring of the lights:

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And then the sun made the ceiling glow:

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Unity House: A fireplace is opposite us as we enter the hall. Ruehle explains that there was supposed to be a mural around the lower part. I told her that it reminded me a bit of the front of the Winslow House (which I was going to photograph that afternoon):

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A sign in one of the classrooms upstairs speaks as much to Wright’s landmark design as it does to the students!

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Unity Temple Restoration Foundation Web Site:

https://www.utrf.org

@flwunitytemple

Bibliography…and I urge you to try a local bookshop before reflexively ordering from the Big A:

Hendrickson, Paul, Plagued by Fire (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019).

McCarter, Robert: Unity Temple – Frank Lloyd Wright – Architecture in Detail Series (London: Phaidon Press, 1997).

Siry, Joseph M.: Unity Temple – Frank Lloyd Wright and Architecture for Liberal Religion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Sokol, David: The Noble Room – The Inspired Conception and Tumultuous Creation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple (Top Five Books, 2008).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sun and Shadows at the Hardy House

(c) Mark Hertzberg

When I talk to school children about Frank Lloyd Wright’s work I sometimes tell them that the only “computer” he had to work with was the one between his ears. I try to explain that he had a gift for knowing what light would do at different times of the day and of the year to illuminate and help keep a room warm before the days of electricity as we know it.

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I stopped at the Hardy House late this afternoon and again saw his intuition projected on the stairs and entryway wall. The patterns are from the seven windows in the entryway. I credit Robert McCarter for pointing out that the floor plan of the house is articulated in these windows: the public spaces (two-story living room and the dining room below) are the square in the middle…bisected by a rectangle that includes the bedrooms at each end of the house (at left and right). He makes this point in “Frank Lloyd Wright” London: Phaidon Press, Ltd., 1997.

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Genius, indeed!