Mr. Porter’s Garage: A Frank Lloyd Wright Connection in Decorah, Iowa

The Porter House in Decorah, Iowa, photographed in the fall of 2013.

The Porter House in Decorah, Iowa, photographed in the fall of 2013.

While showing friends around lovely nearby Decorah late last summer, we happened to pass by the incredible Porter House Museum. This beautiful 19th Century Italianate house is notable for its one-of-a-kind surrounding rock wall, a contribution made to the property by its equally one-of-a-kind owner, Adelbert Field Porter (1879-1968). Mr. Porter, commonly known as “Bert,” was a gentleman explorer, naturalist, and photographer who culled from his vast collection of natural curiosities to create “nature art,” such as his remarkable wall.

Porter House, Decorah, Iowa

As wowed as our visitors were by a closer inspection of the many wonders embedded in Bert’s wall, the Mister’s and my eyes and mouths dropped open when we rounded the back of the house and saw Mr. Porter’s garage: a stunning Prairie-style structure. We were further excited to read a placard in front of the house which confirmed the obvious Frank Lloyd Wright influence on the garage’s design. It seems that as a boy, Bert Porter had been a student at the Wright-designed Hillside Home School in Spring Green, Wisconsin! That school was founded in 1887 and operated by Wright’s aunts, Jennie and Nell. According to information graciously supplied by the Porter House Museum, Bert Porter was an early student there, possibly attending from as early as the school’s first year through about 1895. Years later, it’s highly likely that his time there inspired the design of his garage back home in Decorah.

Porter House, Decorah, Iowa

Photo courtesy of the Porter House Museum

It’s unknown exactly when the Porter garage was constructed, but photos that appear to be from the 1920s show Bert and his wife Grace posing in it. However, their cars and landscaping seem to be the desired focus of these snapshots, suggesting they were perhaps taken not to show off a magnificent “new” garage but rather these other sources of pride (although the garage is certainly a scene-stealer). But dating the Porter garage is a tantalizing (if challenging) prospect, given the potential for a connection to be made to our Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Prairie-style house, which was built just 30 miles down the road in 1917. Did Bert Porter and his garage somehow influence/inspire Delbert Meier’s decision to build one of Wright’s American System-Built Homes? Or did the Meier House perhaps provide further impetus for Bert Porter to design his garage the way he did?

Porter House, Decorah, Iowa

Photo courtesy of the Porter House Museum

Might Bert Porter and Delbert Meier have in fact known each other? If not, the coincidental connections between the two men are even more remarkable to consider, beyond their mutual affection for the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Bert and Delbert were born just a year and 20 miles apart; both were affluent members of their respective communities. Their wives were also born just a year apart (both women died in 1964; Bert outlived Delbert by nine years). But most eerily, the Porters and the Meiers shared almost identical first names: Adelbert and Grace, and Delbert and Grace!

Porter House, Decorah, Iowa

Porter House garage as it looks today

Of course, there may be no connection whatsoever between the Porter garage and the Meier House, but it’s just too tantalizing to ignore. We’ll keep you posted as we further investigate!

Porter House - Decorah, Iowa

Our thanks to Emily Mineart, Consulting Curator/Collections Manager at the Porter House Museum, for her generous assistance in our research.

Use Everything: DIY Dried Vine Wreath

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This house has awakened in me a desire to live more simply and responsibly. I’ve developed a bit of a use everything mentality. It’s partly because, unlike our life in the city, I have extra space here at the house that allows me to hang on to things until I can make use of them. We can barely fit our clothes into the closets in the apartment. I’m certainly not going to waste precious space on old plastic containers and other odds and ends. So whereas back in the city I’d throw a plastic container that once contained feta into the recycling bin, I’m much more likely to hang on to it here at the house. (And, by the way, those feta containers have proven to be very effective vessels for paint and stripper!)

Our first fall here at the house I trimmed some of the vines off the carriage house. I didn’t know what I’d do with those vines but it seemed a shame to throw them on the fire pit. Instead, I placed the vines on a hook in the garage and let them dry. Later that winter I made a small wreath by weaving the dried vines together. That wreath now hangs on the front door of our apartment in the city. Just a little piece of the house that welcomes us back to our city home.

Every time I’ve cut back the vines since then, I’ve saved the pieces on a hook in the garage. I’ve amassed quite a stack of vines at this point. And so on the night before my birthday I sat outside and weaved together a large wreath. I found a metal form from a Christmas wreath that we bought from a roadside stand a few years ago (Look at that – recycling again!) to use a base and then wrapped, wrapped, wrapped until I had a big, ol’ wreath.

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It’s silly, I know. I mean, like the world really needs another wreath, right? I really could have just thrown those old vines on the fire pit and no one would have cared. Except for the joy that I felt in the hour or two that I spent making that wreath! It was literally joy, folks. Joie de vivre! As I sat outside on a starry moonlit night and wrapped those vines around in a circle, I had a giant smile on my face. (OK, maybe the drinks that were sloshing around in me didn’t hurt.) There I was: working with my hands, turning trash into treasure and satisfying my eternal desire to make things prettier. Nothing could me happier!

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I was originally making the wreath to hang on the fence at Christmastime. But we’ve recently had the fence repainted (more on that later!) so the vine wreath would get totally lost. Now I’m thinking the wreath will hang on the fireplace when it’s finally finished. The vines look great against the gray bricks.

Adventures in Stripping: Patience Is a Virtue … And I’ve Never Been Very Virtuous

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I think one of the hardest parts of even the lightest of renovations is sticking it out until the end. It takes patience to see a project from conception to completion. It takes little reminders that it will be done if you just keep chipping away at it. And that even though it may be in a state of semi-completion for a few months, one day it will be finished.

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I’m finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel with stripping the fireplace brick. After staring at the half-finished fireplace all winter long, silently cursing myself for not finishing it last summer, I’m excited to have gotten close to the end of the job. We finished the front last year but the sides have remained untouched. It was kind of neat to see the difference between the stripped bricks on the front and the side bricks that were still covered in dark gray paint. It made me really appreciate all the work that it took to strip the front.

I started the right side earlier this spring.The Citristrip is doing a great job at pulling off the old paint. It takes a couple of coats and a liberal amount of elbow grease applied to a steel brush, but it the paint does come off. I’ve developed a system with plastic bags and painters tape that make cleanup a little easier. That was important because I was able to work on a few rows of bricks at time. Well, I finally wrapped up the right side a couple of weeks ago. And over this past week I’ve managed to get most of the left side stripped as well.

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There are a couple of projects that have been on hold until we’ve finished stripping the brick. We want to grab a couple of cabinets to place on either side of the fireplace (giving up on our idea of having the original built-ins rebuilt) and then we’ll want to repaint the entire living room and all the trim. Little by little (brick by brick!) we’re making progress. All it takes is a little patience.

Wild for Wildflowers

A bouquet of wildflowers in the bathroom

One of my favorite things about summer is that I can walk around our yard and gather a bouquet of wildflowers. This little bouquet includes a few day lilies, some fern fronds and some other leaves and branches. And even though the upstairs bathroom is in a state of disrepair, having this little container of flowers by the sink helps me forget all about that.

Going the Distance: Miles and Milestones

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Buying a house that’s just over 250 miles from your primary home means that you’re going to rack up a lot of miles on the odometer. We were, of course, quite aware of this when we bought our house. And yet it wasn’t until we actually saw the numbers ticking by on the odometer and scheduling more frequent oil changes that it really started to sink in for us.

We bought our 2007 Toyota Prius from friends who were moving to New York. That was in early 2013 and the car had about 60,000 miles on it. We hit 100k really quickly! One of the expenses we hadn’t considered when we bought the house was the contributions to the new car fund.

 

Here’s to you, Pepper Prius! May you be strong and powerful for another 100,000 miles!