This is a story that has a different ending than I anticipated when I started writing about the flag on the Hardy House.
Tom Szymczak, one of the stewards of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House in Racine, Wisconsin, was moved by the 1908 photograph we have courtesy of the Organic Architecture and Design Archives (OA+D) to hang a 6′ x 10′ flag on the front of the house a few weeks ago. He intended to leave it up through the Fourth of July festivities which are a big event in Racine. The new flag was not a political statement. Quite simply, he wrote me, “The 1908 photo was the inspiration.”
I took this picture after he hung the flag. It was to be a place holder in my files of photos of the house because I greatly looked forward to photographing Racine’s Fourth Fest parade passing by the house this morning with the flag as the background. Racine’s parade is legendary…it normally has 120 units and takes more than two hours to pass a given spot (this year’s parade was significantly smaller because of the pandemic). Below are photos which Dave Archer took when his family lived in the house from 1947 – 1957, and one which I took in 2004:
So where is my photo of today’s parade? I didn’t see a flag when I went to the house. I emailed a “where is the flag” query to the Szymczaks and got a surprising and disappointing call back.
Their neighbor caught someone stealing the flag late Sunday night. How did the thief get the flag? She climbed onto the outside extension of the front hall cabinets in front of the house to pull it down. The neighbor got in a tussle with the thief. She lost the fight for the flag, but she got the thief’s license plate number and police are on the case. I used a common, but loathsome, expression when the Szymczaks told me what happened: “That really sucks.”
The thief did one positive thing, though. She left a nice palm print for the police.
There 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.
The afternoon sun shines through a window in the second floor north stairwell.
The 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 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 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.
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.
I took these rather pedestrian photos, and then I took one of my favorite photos, the view from her bedroom:
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.”
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:
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.
All photos (c) Mark Hertzberg (2020), except as noted
Edgar 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:
Photo above courtesy of and (c) Tom Szymczak
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.
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.
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.
What does it take to be the steward – a better term than ‘owner’ – of a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright?
Last week I posted pictures which the late Eugene (Gene) Szymczak took in 1977 of what became his beloved Thomas P. Hardy House when he became its seventh steward in 2012. A few days later his family sent me a copy of an email Gene sent me in 2012, an email I had forgotten about. In it he describes his thoughts about his new stewardship of the house. His writing “I don’t know how long I’ll be there” is poignant and particularly moved his family because Gene fell ill and died unexpectedly December 3.
As you read the email, remember that when I showed Gene the house, which was distressed, he told me, “I don’t have children, this (buying it and rehabilitating it) is something I could do for Racine.”
His note is particularly apt this week as the stewards of dozens of Wright-designed buildings gather in New York City for the annual conference of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy.
From: <EugeneS@> Date: September 14, 2012 7:19:57 AM EDT To: Mark Hertzberg Subject:1319 Hello Mark,
I have been born and raised in Racine. I come from a working class family. Racine has a reputation in history for doing the right thing. It could be from fighting against slavery to having the first high school in the state to trying to rejuvenate River Bend. We do the right thing. We put others first and give back. I am part of that heritage. I think that it was time for someone to assume stewardship of the house from Jim and Margaret. The Youghourtjians have been good stewards for more than fourty years. I don’t know how long I’ll be there. It’s my turn to take care of the Hardy house. It is a Racine and even a world landmark.
The Hardy house is a home that most Racinians would recognize. It evokes different reactions. In 1905 it was called “kooky”. To me it’s a song. Wright was a middleman between humans and nature. He asks us where to we fit in nature? How do we interact with living creatures? What can we learn? Do we enhance one another’s lives and the landscape?
Interest in Wright
I find that Wright looks a little deeper into life and introduces more questions than answers. A little more understanding than strong judgement calls. God (being Nature), has all the answers to what being here is all about. To me he says be part of it all and share it unselfishly.
The black and white photo of the house were taken in 1978 [the prints indicate 1977] About when I bought a fancy camera. I took pictures of my parents, the lake, and the Hardy house. To me significant things. I ended up returning the camera because I felt it was too expensive…lucky for you it was the end of my “career” in photography.
I have written before that the late Gene Szymczak was captivated by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House long before he ever thought of buying it (in 2012). He told me that the house was on his garbage route when he worked a summer job. A few years later, in 1977, he bought a Leica CL camera and took pictures of things that moved him, including the Hardy House. He returned the camera because he thought it too extravagant for him. Yesterday his sister-in-law, Joan Szymczak, excitedly called to tell me that she had found Gene’s Leica-Hardy photos, photos Gene couldn’t find when I asked him about them. Here they are:
Gene died unexpectedly December 3, but his family continues to share the house as he would have. Thank you, Gene, for your gift of having rehabilitated the house and wanting to share it. I will be taking a group of Road Scholar tour participants through the house this afternoon. When I took him through the house as a prospective buyer he said to me, “I don’t have children. This is something I could do for Racine.” And he did.
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: email@example.com.
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.
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:
This is another view of the living room balcony and ceiling:
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:
My book about the Hardy House has a shot of three bedroom windows. Last week I shot the view south a bit wider:
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:
We are indebted to Gene Szymczak for his loving rehabilitation of the house between September, 2012, and his sudden death December 3, 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.
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:
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).
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.