Category Archives: American System-Built Home

Our Love/Hate Relationship with the Window Box

Window Box - American System Built Home

We have a love/hate relationship with the window box on our American System Built Home. We love it as a design feature. Filled with plants in the summer and evergreen branches in the winter, the window box creates a natural landscape right outside our living room window. But we hate the fact that the window box takes on more water than the Titanic. And did I mention that the box doesn’t have a drain or even a rudimentary hole that allows the water to escape? Yeah, so frequently the window box is more akin to a reflecting pool than a flower box. (The sunlight reflecting on the collected water does make beautiful patterns on the living room ceiling!)

Over the years of house ownership I’ve learned some important lessons about the window box. The first – and perhaps the most important – lesson is do not fill the box with dirt and plants. Yes, that does seem like an obvious lesson that perhaps didn’t need to be learned the hard way. And yet learn it the hard way I did! Our first spring in the house, I overzealously filled the window box with soil, grasses and beautiful green plants. And within a few weeks I was scooping out a flood of mud and dead, slimy plant carcasses. Since that first disastrous (and messy!) experience, we’ve been placing containers of plants in the window box.

The next lesson came the following year. We were still using a bucket to bail the water out of the flooded window box. Every time the box would flood we would have to stand on ladder to reach into the box and use a bucket to slowly empty it. It was messy, it was time consuming and it was literally a pain the back. And then one day when I was facing the laborious task of bailing out the window box I thought to myself, there must be a better way. And there is!

Perhaps if we were boaters we would’ve come up with the solution sooner. The electric water pump has made short work of draining the box. Simply stick one hose in the box, one house leading out to the yard, plug in the pump and let it do all the work. Game. Changer.

Which bring us to lesson number three. While placing containers in the window box has helped the plants survive, we’ve also had to learn which plants can handle the situation. You see, it’s feast or famine in the window box. It’s either Noah’s Ark level flooding or Sahara desert dry. We tried geraniums in the box one year and they survived the extreme wet/dry conditions. And then last year we spent $300 on ornamental grasses for the window box. Two weeks later they were all dried up and dead. (Although the good news it that I planted their roots balls in the ground and they did come back this year.) I had always envisioned grasses in the box. As you can see in the photo above, shot the day we put the grasses in the box, they do a great job of creating a privacy screen. Alas, the grasses are not meant to be.

We were recently invited to lunch at another American System Built Home and learned that the owners had installed a drain system to their window box. This is definitely part of our future plans. But for now we’ll take all the lessons learned and continue loving and hating the window box.

 

American System Built Homes: A Complete List of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Early Prefab Homes

Burnham Street Two Flats

When most people think of Frank Lloyd Wright they think of his impressive roster of spectacular custom designed homes. But Wright was also an early proponent of design for the masses. While his Usonian homes might be more commonly known, Wright was dabbling in prefab as early as the nineteen-teens. By 1915 Wright had partnered with Milwaukee builder Arthur Richards to create what would come to be known as American System Built Homes. The venture was interrupted by the United States’ entry to World War I (as well as infighting between Richards and Wright) but not before a number of ASB homes were built in the midwest. How many were built? We’re not sure, actually. There are a few ASB homes that have been demolished over the years and some others that are still being discovered.

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Wright Colors: Cherokee Red
PAINTING THE DELBERT MEIER HOUSE

A sample of Frank Lloyd Wright's Cherokee Red

We’ve put it off for the past two years but this summer we finally had to face it. The exterior trim on the house MUST be painted. There are sections of trim – especially on the south side of the house – that are down to the bare wood. If we forego painting much longer we risk damaging the wood trim. And we definitely don’t want that to happen. There are far too few of these American System Built Homes that are in as good of shape as ours. We want to preserve that as much as we can. And leaving bare trim exposed to the elements is not helping.

We’ve known for the past two years that we would need to paint the trim on the house. And almost from the very beginning of our ownership we’ve been talking about repainting the trim in a deep red color. Through a little research we came across PPG Architectural Coatings’ Fallingwater paint collection. And there it was – the first little square on the inner leaf of the catalog: Cherokee Red.

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Wright Words: Cover It in Vines

A doctor can bury his mistakes but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.

It’s been said that Frank Lloyd Wright hated garages. And, in fact, the American System Built Home designs did not include blueprints for garages. Of course, these designs were produced during the 1910’s, so garages were probably not deemed nearly as important as they would eventually become.

And yet when Delbert and Grace Meier built their American System Built Home, they also built a garage. At some point the original garage was decommissioned and a new garage, along with a roofline extension, was added. The old garage now serves as our carriage house – used for storing firewood and as a summer hangout space. That the old garage is covered in a thick layer of lush, green vines would probably please Mr. Wright. As he famously stated in the quote above, vines are the only way architects can cover their mistakes.

It’s been suggested that we try to remove the vines from the old carriage house. It’s a suggestion that we will not heed. We love the vines on the old carriage house – they way they cover the worn stucco and add a lushness to the space in the summer months. We’ve actually considered adding vines to the new garage extension which, in our opinions, is the much more unsightly building.

Happy 98th Anniversary Delbert Meier!

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Today is a very special anniversary for the house. On this day ninety-eight years ago, Delbert Meier, along with his wife Grace, and daughters Esther and Martha, finally took residence in their American System Built Home. They had sold their house on Main Street earlier that year and were living temporarily in the apartment above Delbert’s office in the Monona Bank Building while this house was being built.

I imagine that day ninety-eight years ago was kind of like the one we’re having today. It was sunny but brisk and the trees were stripped of their leaves which were fluttering around in cyclones. Del and Grace might have walked up the sidewalk and paused on the porch before they opened the front door. They had ordered this house from a catalog, seen the supplies arrive (likely by train) and then waited as workmen had pieced it together. Today, standing on the front porch, they were finally about to walk into their very own Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house.

I wonder if Del was more excited than Grace. I know that when it comes to The Mister and me, we don’t always have the same level of enthusiasm about things. Do you think it was that way for Delbert and Grace Meier? Maybe she kind of rolled her eyes as he gave a little speech about how they were going to put Monona on the map with their Frank Lloyd Wright designed house. Delbert was mayor just a few years after moving into the house so he was certainly a civic booster. Maybe he had seen Wright’s designs in Mason City and came back convinced that they needed once of Mr. Wright’s modern homes.

But then again perhaps Delbert and Grace were equally enthusiastic about their new home. Grace could have been just as intrigued by Wright’s pre-fab homes as Delbert. Maybe it was Grace who came back from a trip to Mason City all fired up about the architect’s designs. Looking at the plans maybe she recognized that the corner windows would create bright and airy rooms and the sunporch would be perfect for summer nights and afternoon teas.

Either way, the Meiers went on to occupy this house for 40+ years, the longest they occupied any home in their lives. They finished raising their daughters here. Delbert was a fixture in town, first at the bank and then in his own law practice. Grace, an educated woman, devoted her time to gardening and, I imagine, other home projects.

In fairy tale parlance, they lived happily ever after.

Happy anniversary, Delbert and Grace. Thank you for bringing this house into our lives.