Category Archives: American System-Built Home

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.

Playing with Fire: Having the Chimney Relined

Chimney Relining at This American House

When you live in the upper Midwest, where it’s cold 6+ months of the year, a fireplace feels less like an extravagance and more like a necessity. When we bought our house we weren’t sure whether the fireplace was operational. The house inspector was able to tell us that the chimney didn’t seem to be blocked off at the top but that was about it. (He made sure to tell us repeatedly that he was not a licensed chimney inspector and that we should have the fireplace fully checked out before using it).

Since we closed on the house in late November, we weren’t able to have the chimney inspected that first winter. We spent those first freezing months in the house wishing we could use the fireplace and counting down the days until spring so we could have it serviced. We tried to content ourselves with the wood burning stove in the basement but, honestly, it just wasn’t the same. You can’t see the fire in a stove and you can’t fully appreciate the crackles and pops that it produces.Chimney Specialist Relining the Chimney of Our American System Built Home

And then, one cold, cold winter day, I removed the metal sheet and piece of insulation that had been stuffed inside the chimney just above the firebox and shined a flashlight up into the darkness. “I can see light!” I called out to The Mister. And if I could see light at the top of the chimney, that confirmed that the fireplace had not been capped off. As far as I was concerned, that was clearance to start a fire in the fireplace.

I started with a tiny little fire that first time. First, I wanted to make sure that the smoke was going to get drawn up into the fireplace and out of the house. When that seemed to be happening I was confident that we could infrequently build small fires while we waited for the weather to warm and the chimney sweep to make it out to the house.

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When spring did roll around, we made an appointment to have the chimney swept and inspected. Our hope was that we’d be able to have the chimney swept and then we’d be good to go. As these things tend to go in old houses, our hopes were not met with reality.

It turns out that the pipe for the basement stove was running up the middle of the chimney, making it impossible to get a brush around it to sweep the chimney. Plus, the chimney sweep informed us, an inspection of the chimney showed that the liner was crumbling. The danger in that is that if the wood lathe is exposed and enough heat is created inside the chimney … well, we definitely wouldn’t have any trouble staying warm! We could just roast marshmallows outside the house as it slowly burns to the ground.IMG_6819

The chimney sweep gave us two options. We could keep the stove in the basement and have a fireplace insert installed upstairs. Or we could remove the basement stove entirely and have the chimney relined. Both options would cost roughly the same. The chimney sweep pushed us toward the insert. It would be more efficient, he said, and would allow us to keep that stove in the basement. He could have saved his breath. We had pretty much made up our minds before he finished his sentence.

Fireplaces were an integral part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs. In his own homes there were often multiple fireplaces throughout the house. And in Wright’s designs for others, the fireplace was almost always the center of the home. Even in these American System Built Homes, the fireplace was central to the design of the house. As we’re trying to restore as many of the original features to the house as we can, and with the fireplace being one of the few originals left, we knew right away that we didn’t want to install an insert. What we would have gained in efficiency we would have lost in charm. So we made the choice to sacrifice the stove and have the chimney relined.

IMG_6831That was last summer when we decided to move forward with having the chimney repaired. We wrote out a check for a deposit and then waited for the chimney folks to come back out and do the work. And we waited. And waited. Some time around October I called to see if we could expect the relining to happen before snowfall. “You’re next on the list,” they told me, “but we probably won’t get out to you until spring.” That was not what I wanted to hear. But of course our hands were tied. We had already written out a sizable check to cover the deposit so we’d just have to wait. And in the meantime, we might have enjoyed a fire or two in the fireplace. Ssh … don’t tell the fire inspector.

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Now that it’s summer, the chimney folks finally came back and poured a new chimney lining. First, they removed the pipe for the basement stove from the chimney and then sealed it off in the basement. Now that the stove has been rendered useless, I can say that I will in fact miss it. I mean, I’m happy that we’ll have a working fireplace in the living room. But it was nice building fires in the basement when we were down there working on projects. We do plan on having a gas fireplace installed in the basement at some point. For now, we’ll rely on space heaters to warm the basement over the winter.

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Once the pipe was removed and the hole for it had been sealed off, the chimney guys poured the lining in the chimney. I wasn’t home that day but The Mister reported that it was a very noisy operation that got the attention of half of our small town. According to The Mister, neighbors pulled out lawn chairs to watch the operation in progress. And more than one car made several passes in front of our house that afternoon. You gotta love small town life. Meanwhile, I was in awe of the scaffolding and the way the guys stood on top of the roof as if it’s nothing. All in a day’s work for a chimney sweep, I suppose.

The job took the entire day – from removing the stove pipe and sealing it up to pouring the new lining and installing a new trap door in the basement. As it turns out, the company we used – Chimney Specialists out of Madison, Wisconsin – used to be on contract for the chimneys at Taliesin. And, of course, it wasn’t until after we had the work done that we learned there was someone local who could have relined the chimney. We’ll be back to use you as a chimney sweep next time, Kurt.

We’re looking forward to a winter full of crackling fires in the living room. Now, know anyone who wants to buy a used wood burning stove?

Images: This American House