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Frank Lloyd Wright Restorations: Three Projects and Perspectives on Preservation

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When it comes to preserving the famous architect’s work, there’s no single way to approach restoration or renovation

What’s the best way to honor a building’s past, yet preserve it for the future? This central question underlying the work of preservationists and architects applies to every step of restoring and renovating a historic home. Frank Lloyd Wright properties are no exception. They may be considered timeless, but even his work ages, sags, and distorts, requiring delicate care and decisions about fidelity versus the future.When approaching the work of an iconic architect, no decisions are easy, and there is never a single path to "correct" preservation.

At the upcoming PrairieMod Wright Summit this weekend, organized by PrairieMod, architects, owners, and overseers of three Chicago-area Wright properties—The E. Arthur Davenport House, the Oscar B. Balch House, and the landmark Robie House—will discuss their different approaches to these singular properties. Curbed recently spoke to the three architects involved in these restoration efforts, to showcase the variety of approaches used to safeguard Wright’s legacy.

Oscar B. Balch House: Making a Wright Home Fit for a Modern Family

Architect John Eifler calls it the "while you’re at it syndrome." When he was hired by Tim Pearson in 1999 to renovate the Oscar B. Balch home, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed residence of an interior decorator in Oak Park, Illinois, the initial idea was to expand the small kitchen. But, soon after examining the building, the project blossomed into a more extensive renovation.

"Once we started looking, we realized it was a bigger project than first envisioned," says Eifler.

The Balch House stands as an interesting addition to the Wright oeuvre. Designed after the architect returned from Europe, where he went to escape scandals that damaged his reputation at home, the home presents a nearly symmetrical front, unusual for Wright. It exuded a formal sense of composition, very cubic with no diagonals anywhere. Eifler and others have suggested the form came from a combination of European influences and a desire to bring order to his life.

"The facade is impressive and offers an incredible vista," says Eifler.

While the exterior, though aged, was impressive, the floorplan, needed a more extensive upgrade to fit the needs of a modern family. To open up the home while maintaining its historic character, Eifler added an addition to the back and reconfigured the kitchen, turning it into a dining area, then added a kitchen behind the redesigned space. The addition and renovation recast the interior, giving the family more open space to share, and provides better access to the back yard. Additionally, the front of the building was restored and repaired, including adding an original trellis removed in the ‘20s, restoring and reinforcing the sagging porches, and replacing the stucco finish. The renovation won a 2006 Oak Park Historic Preservation award.

"This is a family home and will probably always be used for a family," says Eifler. "It made more sense to approach this a little differently than other renovations and restorations. When owners are comfortable in their home and not battling history for history’s sake, they tend to stay there longer, invest in the property, and become better stewards of the home over time."

Frederick C. Robie House: Reinvigorating a Landmark

One of Wright’s most famous projects, the Robie House in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood has understandably been restored with a soft touch and extensive care. Since 2000, the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust has been working with scores of architects, engineers, and craftsmen to restore the interior and exterior of this National Landmark on the campus of the University of Chicago. But, according to Karen Sweeney, the group’s Preservation Architect, the ongoing restoration and renovation of this 1910 home—the exterior and structural phase is complete, while interior work requires additional time and funding—has rarely meant shutting its doors to the public.

"We like having visitors come in and see renovation in progress, to appreciate the history we’re working to protect," she says. "We had to close for snow in Chicago more than construction."

The biggest issue in the Trust’s undertaking, says Sweeney, in addition to the restrictions placed on working on a landmark structure, was that Wright built this structure "on the cusp of modernism." The forward-thinking architect was experimenting with materials and methodology during design and construction, which has made precise restoration a complicated project.

One of the biggest challenge of that phase was matching bricks. Wright’s design called for relatively new machined bricks made in coal-fired kilns, which aren’t in use anymore, so the restoration team needed to convince factories to fire up old ovens to precisely replicate the feel of century-old building material.

Extensive structural reinforcement were required, including adding steel supports in the roofs, shoring up walls, and restoring concrete floors. The once leaky hipped roof and commanding "prow"—a signature of the low-sling, horizontal building—needed new clay shingles (a previous renovation swapped out the shingles for clay tiles, a weighty replacement that caused much of the water damage that harmed the structure). It doesn’t help that the Robie House rests on sandy soil, one of the rare parts of Chicago covered in dunes, which line other parts of the Lake Michigan shores.

After the $5 million exterior renovation, the project still requires more funds to complete the in-progress interior overhaul, which is being overseen in part by Harboe Architects, a respected Chicago-based architectural firm known for an extensive resume of renovation work. Light fixtures, art glass, windows, hardware, built-ins, furniture, and more are being restored. The project team is even matching the original plaster mix, and took paint chip samples from behind radiators to restore the exact original color to the interior.

Despite the added time and effort, Sweeney says it’s all worth it. This was one of the few projects that Wright fought to preserve in his lifetime—the humble architect claimed it was as priceless as a great painting—so going to extreme measures seems only fitting.

"Wright was pushing the edge of technology," says Sweeney, "so this work is sort of like recreating one of the first experiments of modern architecture."

E. Arthur Davenport House: Giving an Overlooked Home Its Due

When architect Paul Harding commits to a project, he truly commits. Take his ongoing renovation of the Davenport House, a two-story Oak Park home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1901. When it came on the market a little more than a dozen years ago, his wife brought it to his attention, with the caveat that he not buy it. His son, who works in construction management, toured the home with him, and said it’s not worth it, since the historic home, which was significantly—some would say erroneously—altered by previous owners, needed a lot of work. Harding, however, pressed on, bought the home in 2004, and began a painstaking, museum-quality restoration of the 115-year-old home.

Now 90 percent finished with his mission, Harding is determined to restore the house to as original a state as possible, and avoid what he sees as the compromises that arise in many Wright home restorations. He wants to "welcome the patina," and restore with a commitment to ultra-fidelity.

"If you’re going to do something, you should do it well," he says. "It’s advantageous to be an owner and architect, since I can spend money and time where I thought is appropriate."

He believes the home has been unjustly overlooked by historians because of the previous owners’ ill-considered alterations. When Wright designed the home for Arthur Davenport, a mid-level manager at the Pullman Company, he was intimately involved, coming to the site daily to check progress (during research, Hading discovered that Wright did two previous drawings for the home before settling on a third plan that was altered during construction). The resulting two-story beauty, which features cantilevered eaves, a concealed entrance, and terrace, sadly hasn’t aged well.

"Wright had a modest to moderate budget in 1901, just $3,500," says Harding, "and did something unbelievably cool, at the same price as a vernacular house at the time. I find that fascinating."

Harding has been exacting in his work. He replicated the old-fashioned lime plaster system and water-based paint that gave the original a wonderful transparent finish. The biggest challenge was fixing and reinforcing the structural supports and the roof, built with old-growth wood. Harding commissioned the structural designers and engineers at Thornton Tomasetti to provide a new approach to reinforce the aging wood, attaching new, triangular studs to existing ones and reinforcing them with steel straps, and help reinforce the sagging second floor. Along with replacing the terrace, he’s nearly finished helping this ignored beauty regain its original look.

"I could have built a new modern house for less money than I put into this house," says Harding. "I’m kind of idealistic. I just do them because this is how they should be done, and it’s cool and interesting on an intellectual level. If I took it to the extreme, I would have sold my car and rode around on a horse. "