Category Archives: architecture

The Delbert Meier House in The New York Times

It may be fleeting, but our house was mentioned in The New York Times over the weekend. The article, entitled How to Sell a Frank Lloyd Wright Home, outlines some of the difficulties of selling the architect’s famous (and famously temperamental) houses. And, if I’m honest, the potential resale of our house gave us pause when were considering the purchase. But of course that didn’t stop us from moving forward.

When The Mister first nudged me and said, “Hey, there’s a Frank Lloyd Wright house that’s in our price range,” I scoffed.

“It must need a lot of work,” I replied.

“It doesn’t look like it,” he said, and then immediately sent an email to the real estate agent to inquire about the house’s condition.

We learned from the agent that the house was in great shape with a newer furnace, recent roof and strong structural integrity. It all seemed too good to be true so we made the 4-1/2 hour trek west to see it in person. And that sealed the deal. The moment we walked in and saw the old windows and the spacious living room with the big, brick fireplace, we were hooked. Sale or resale be damned, we knew this had to be our house!

One of the reasons the sale price on our house was so low is that it’s in a rural part of Iowa where home prices have remained low. But perhaps another reason is that people don’t want old houses anymore. In the little town where the Delbert Meier House is located, the big old homes languish on the market while new construction homes get snapped up fairly quickly.

With all of this in mind, we’ve definitely tempered our plans for the house. Before we took possession we had talked about restoring the house back to its original 1917 state. This would require rebuilding the wardrobes that were removed from the bedrooms, gutting the kitchen and removing the carport addition that was added to the house in the 1960s. That last part would require the largest investment. We invited an architectural firm from Mason City to the house to give us an estimate on the work. Sticker shock shortly ensued. Knowing that we likely won’t be able to sell the house for much more than we paid for it, we’re not quite willing to take on those big projects.

Instead, we’re making minor changes that will make the house more livable while also maintaining its original character. We’re trying to preserve what’s left of the house’s original features – the casement windows and original slap dash stucco – while also making it livable in the 21st century.

Because that’s the thing about our house – it must remain livable. Our house will never become a museum or tourist destination (although we do get our fair share of visitors interested in its history). Instead, t must remain a habitable home that can be passed on to another set of passionate owners at some point.

Of course, if we ever came into a giant sum of money, this might all change. So if you’re reading this and you’re a wealthy benefactor interested in investing in architectural history, let’s talk!

 

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.

 

This American House: Orson Welles’ Birthplace

welles-1

Our long commute between Chicago and Iowa takes us past and through a number of towns that contain their own treasured “American houses.” On a recent drive, we pulled off the highway into Kenosha, Wisconsin to find the birthplace of the legendary filmmaker, theatrical titan, and actor Orson Welles.

Welles was born in this house, located in Kenosha’s pretty Library District, in 1915. He wasn’t a Kenosha resident for long, relocating to Chicago at age 4 upon his parents’ separation. After an affluent, nomadic childhood marred by his parents’ untimely deaths, he finally found a true “home” at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, where his prodigious talents were nurtured and his illustrious career launched.

welles-3

Thereafter, Welles would express conflicted feelings about his hometown of Kenosha, at once calling it “vital and charming” and then saying it was “a terrible place.” Our brief tour through downtown Kenosha (including a delightful ride on a vintage trolley) revealed a vibrant if faded city outshone by its sparkling lakefront.

Welles’ Citizen Kane famously opens with its aged, dying protagonist gasping out his final word, “Rosebud” – a remembrance, we learn at the film’s end, of (spoiler alert!) his beloved childhood sled. I’ve not read that Welles, on his own deathbed in 1985, muttered anything at all related to Kenosha, Wisconsin or this still-lovely house, but who knows. Perhaps in his own mind at the end, he was picturing an innocent, wintry scene outside of this very house, and himself a happy young boy, but he expired just as he was about to say…

welles-4


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.

Continue reading

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Grandson’s Fab Prefab Home

Frank Lloyd Wright's Grandson's Fab PrefabDid you see the article in Dwell magazine about Tim Wright’s fabulous little prefab home? The grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright is living in a small home in the hills of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, not far from Taliesin in Spring Green. (This is actually a second home for Wright and his wife. Their main residence is in Boston.) For their home in Wisconsin, Wright chose a prefab model designed by Blu Homes which was manufactured in San Francisco and then transported to Wisconsin.

Our American System Built home was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early attempts at affordable prefab homes, which might have been more popular were it not for poor timing (World War 1 was right around the corner). While the ASB homes were not manufactured offsite like today’s prefab homes, the components were all cut, labeled and then shipped to their final destination to be constructed. Rumor has it that the components may have made their way from Milwaukee to Iowa via railroad.

It’s interesting to know that Wright’s grandson is still honoring his grandfather’s notion of affordable prefab housing.

Check out the full article on Dwell: Grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright Constructs Peaceful Prefab Near the Legend’s Famed School

Image: Dwell