Category Archives: architecture

ASBH Features: Our 100-Year-Old Windows

For a 100-year-old-house, the original wood casement windows in our American System System Built Home are in excellent condition. This is largely due to the fact that the house has been fortunate enough to pass from caring owner to caring owner. We learned from the grocer’s daughter, for instance, that it was her father who had carefully reglazed the windows and built the interior (storm) windows and screens. And according to a longtime neighbor, the windows were a point of pride for the teacher who owned the house for many years after the grocer sold it. The neighbor told us that the teacher spent his summer breaks tending to the house and preserving the wood windows.

There are twelve zinc glass windows in the house – two in each corner of the three bedrooms, five on the south wall in the living room and one in the window beside the front door. (The three narrow doors leading to the sunporch are also zinc glass in the same design.) The rest of the windows are standard wood casement windows – most of which open fairly easily. We don’t really open the zinc glass windows very often because, well, why tempt fate with something one-of-a-kind?

The inner windows were not a part of the original design of the house. We were visited by the daughter of a former owner, the town grocer, who informed us that it was her father who had built the windows and screens. The grocer and his family lived in the house through the late 1970’s so the inner windows and screens were likely constructed around that time. You’ll also note the early-American style hinges on the windows. It seems that, it being the 1970’s and all, the grocer’s wife was a big fan off early-American style. That’s also an indication of when the windows were added.

There are also screens that were built for nine of the windows. Three screens for each of the larger bedroom, two screens for the smaller bedroom, plus one screen for the kitchen and one for the dining room. Since we know that these screens were built by the grocer, we don’t know what was originally in place. Likely, nothing. In the other ASB homes we’ve been in, we’ve seen a number of retractable and removable screens in the windows. I don’t think the original American System Built Home plans called for screens. That was likely up to the owner.

The screens and windows are numbered with helpful little pins that were sold at a time when storm windows were a more common feature houses.

I’d love to replace the early-American hinges with something that’s more in keeping with the Prairie style of our ASB home, but there are a total of 74 hinges on the windows. And that’s not including the hinges on the screen! If I include those, it would take 94 hinges to replace them all. If anyone out there has the hook-up for cheap but handsome hinges, let me know.

As the current stewards of the house, we are doing our part to care for the windows. Every summer I oil the casement stays and other hardware. Oiling not only helps extend the life of the adjusters, it makes it much easier to open and close the windows. As with any wood windows, some of them are easier to open than others. The swelling and shrinking with the seasons wreaks havoc on the wood each year. There are a few windows that are going to need a little more attention next spring.

In a house that is lacking a lot of other original features, we consider ourselves lucky to still have the windows that were installed in the house when it was built in 1917. Here’s to keeping these windows going strong for another 100 years!

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!)

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This American House: Orson Welles’ Birthplace

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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.

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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…

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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.

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