Category Archives: American System-Built Home

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

Our Winter Excursion to the Stockman House
And the Discovery of a Scale Model of our American System Built Home

Stockman House, Mason City, Iowa

Since buying our American System Built house in Northeast Iowa last year, we’ve been planning to visit all of the other Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes in the state. There was talk over the summer of taking a weekend trek to Mason City to tour the Stockman House and the Historic Park Inn, both of which were under construction a few years before our house was built. As it turns out, our own house projects trumped any plans for a road trip this summer.

We finally had the occasion to make the 2 1/2 hour drive to Mason City last week. And while the extremely cold temperatures kept us from fully appreciating all that Mason City has to offer, we did get to tour the Stockman house. We’ve been particularly interested in seeing the Stockman House because it is very similar in design to our own home. Built in 1909, the Stockman is based on Wright’s fireproof home designs, which is a style that the architect relied heavily on when he was designing the American System homes.

We were hoping to glean some tips on the restoration of our own home by visiting the Stockman house. And while we did get a few ideas from our tour, the real treat of the trip was stumbling upon a scale model of our own home.

Scale model of the Delbert Meier House

We had just walked into the Architectural Interpretive Center adjacent to the Stockman house and were trying to warm up when the docent asked us about our connection to Frank Lloyd Wright.

“Oh,” The Mister replied, “we actually own one of his American System Built homes here in Iowa.”

“You mean this one?” the docent asked as she pointed toward a little house made of balsa wood.Scale model of the Delbert Meier House at the Architectural Interpretive Center in Mason City, Iowa

“Mister!” he called from across the room. “They have our house!”

The fact that there is a scale model of our house is not a total surprise. We knew through a previous email exchange with a professor of architecture that models had been created of all of the Wright homes in Iowa, including our American System Built home. We did not, however, know that the models still existed. And we certainly had no idea that the model of our house was on display in Mason City. What a wonderful surprise!

Scale model of Delbert Meier House

The model was built by Raymond Gandayuwana and Derek Quang and is a very accurate depiction not only of the house but the landscape surrounding it. From the windows to the trim and even down to the gradient in the landscaping, the model is an amazing representation of our home as it would have looked before the front facade was altered. There is one window missing from the second floor of the model house, but why quibble over small details?

MORE WRIGHT IN IOWA INFORMATION:

Images: This American House

Happy Anniversary to the Delbert Meier House

Delbert Meier

On this date exactly 97 years ago, November 10, 1917, the Meier family moved into their newly constructed American System-Built House. At the time, Delbert Meier was a 37-year-old attorney; his wife, Grace, was 38. Daughter Esther was 12, and her younger sister Martha was 8. What an exciting day that must have been for that young family, moving into their beautiful architectural wonder of a house! As you can see in thew local newspaper clipping above, the Meiers’ move-in date was big news.

The Meier family would go on to occupy the house until the mid-1960’s. Martha and Grace grew up and moved out in the late 1920’s but Delbert and Grace stayed on. Delbert passed away (probably IN the house) in 1959, coincidentally the same year that Frank Lloyd Wright passed on. Grace remained in residence until her death in 1964.

Delbert Meier and Grace Meier, Monona, Iowa | This American House

We stopped by the cemetery yesterday to pay our respects to Mr. and Mrs. Meier and to thank them for building this grand house. We feel like we’ve adopted the family as much as the house.

The Mister and I are coming up on our one year anniversary of living in the house. We haven’t gotten very far in the projects we have planned for the house but we have enjoyed every single second we’ve spent here. Thanks again, Delbert and Grace Meier, for building this gorgeous home.

Images: This American House

Came Glasswork: The Windows Are the Soul of Our House

Original Zinc Glass Windows on Our American System Built Home | This American House

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, as the old saying goes, then the windows are the soul of our house. One of the few original features remaining, the windows are also one of the first things that made us fall in love with the house. I don’t mean the number of windows in each room – although that certainly won us over in an instant. I’m talking about the actual 97-year-old original windows. And, in particular, the art glass windows that are in each corner of the upstairs rooms and along the large wall in the living room.

Plans for Zinc Glass Windows for American System Built homes | This American House

We got confirmation from the house plans that we dug up at the Avery Library that the art glass windows are indeed original to the house. We has initially assumed that the windows are lead glass but they are in fact zinc glass. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to us since Frank Lloyd Wright used zinc glass in many of the homes he designed, including the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Illinois.

The technical, design-y term for this kind of glass is came glasswork. As wikipedia says, “Came glasswork is the process of joining cut pieces of art glass through the use of came strips or foil into picturesque designs in a framework of soldered metal.” Although lead is perhaps the most common material used in came glasswork, brass, copper and zinc can also be used. According to Wikipedia, “Zinc makes a lightweight, strong and rigid came, which lends itself to glasswork projects that don’t have many curved lines, are large, or have a number of straight lines that require greater support than lead would afford.” With the straight lines and large panes in our windows, it definitely makes sense that Wright would specify zinc in the plans.

Zinc Glass Windows in the Delbert Meier House | This American House

That these windows, with their wood frames and zinc came, have endured for 97 years is a testament to good house stewardship. Although many of the other original features in the house were pulled out 40+ years ago, the windows remain. They not only remain, actually, they’ve been lovingly maintained and restored over the years.

When we finally met Peter and Becky, the house’s owners for more than thirty years, and the folks responsible for giving the house its birth”wright”, as they say, we commented on our love of the windows. Peter piped up that the windows weren’t always so nice. Years of summer rainstorms and winter freezes hadn’t been kind to the zinc glass windows (or any of the windows for that matter). Peter made it his mission to get the windows back in shape and keep them that way. He cleaned up the rotting wood and had the zinc came glasswork encased to protect and restore it. We’re eternally grateful to Peter for making the windows his personal project for so many years.

Images: This American House and The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York