This weekend marked our SEVENTH Thanksgiving in our American System-Built Home. As part-time residents dividing our time between the Delbert and Grace Meier House in Iowa and our apartment in the city, we always look forward to this long holiday weekend. It’s one of the few times that we’re able to carve out additional room in our work schedules to allow for a long stay at the house together. One of us has to rush back to the city while the other stays behind to work on house projects, but over the holidays we typically get a few extra days together in the house. And over this particular Thanksgiving holiday, we took some time to reflect on the things about our little piece of Frank Lloyd Wright’s American architectural heritage that give us joy. And so without further ado: Continue Reading…
This is how the conversation usually goes…
The Mister, with a glint of excitement: We should definitely strip all the woodwork in the house.
Me, flashing back to childhood weekends helping my dad strip paint from woodwork in our house: I don’t know. The white does make it feel a little more modern. Maybe we should just repaint it.
The Mister, downcast by resigned: Yeah, you’re probably right.
Me, leaving that window of opportunity slightly ajar: Although the trim really would be beautiful if it was stripped!
We’ve probably had this conversation a hundred times over the past five years of owning the house. That’s why we’ve left the trim untouched all the time. Until now, that is.
As I mentioned in the last post, we decided to take the leap and strip the wood in the living room. And you know what? It’s not so bad! Stripping paint is messy – there’s no way around that – but the work has been fairly quick. Well, some of the work has been quick. Stripping the windows is definitely more time consuming than stripping the picture rail and baseboard. All those little corners and crevices!
But oh how good it looks!
I should clarify – when I say that I’m stripping the windows, I’m really talking about the frames. In the photos here, I’ve removed the interior storm windows so that I can strip the frame. I will not be stripping the exterior windows. The exterior windows will get a fresh coat of paint and the interior windows … well, now I’m getting ahead of myself.
By stripping the trim, we’ve discovered that some woods don’t match. Well, not exactly discovered. We’ve known this for a while – from our own strip test when we were pondering our options and as informed by former owners when they came to visit. Most of the wood that’s been replaced is around the windows, likely due to water damage.
The wood that is original has a very dark stain on it. While most of that stain comes up with the stripper, a dark hue remains on the wood. It doesn’t appear that the wood that has been replaced was ever stained at all. By the time the previous owner was replacing wood trim around the windows, all the other trim had already been painted. So of course they just painted the replacement trim instead of staining it. When everything is stripped we’ll face the task of using stain to try to make all the wood match.
There’s just something about 100-year-old woodwork! At the risk of sounding like the old man that I am, they just don’t make it like they used to! When the trim was painted white it looked flat and lifeless. By removing the paint from the trim, we’ve exposed the beautiful grain that gives the wood visual interest.
So many paper towels and garbage bags! Have I mentioned how incredibly messy stripping paint can be?!
But just look at the difference!
Now, back to those windows. As I said, we’re not going to strip the exterior windows. The window sash that faces inward will get a fresh coat of paint. We’ve decided to use the same color that we used on the outside trim and windows – black fox. We will, however, be stripping and staining the inner (or storm) windows. These windows were not original and, like the replacement trim, were never stained. Stripping paint from untreated wood is not easy! Fortunately, the house had a little surprise for us.
I was poking around in the garage looking for some scrap wood when I spied a few old window screens in a dark corner. While most of the screens were painted, two of them had not been. And, like a gift from the renovation gods, one of those unpainted screens fits the living room windows that were just stripped! See that dark screen in the middle window? That’s the one! This old screen even has the original hardware attached to it!
Since this screen has never been painted and hence never stripped, we can finally see that this is how dark the wood trim was stained. This truly is a gift from the rehab gods because now we have a goal: stain all the woodwork to match the color of this screen.
I also started stripping one of the old screens that had been painted and installed it in the right window. You can really see the difference between the stained screen and the screen that’s been stripped. We’re still planning to go back and strip the storm windows but for now we’re just going to install the screen. Since we’re in the warm months, the screens will suffice. (Plus, we’ve never had screen in these windows so it will be nice to be able to open them for fresh air!) Come fall, though, we will definitely need to re-install the storm windows. They really do make a difference in keeping the house warm.
For now, let’s step back and admire the progress…
So beautiful, right? We have a long way to go but it’s heartening to see all of this progress. When it comes to DIY renovations, one must celebrate the small victories in order to forge ahead with the other projects.
As we’ve written about in the past, one of the wonderful advantages of owning one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s American System-Built Homes is becoming part of a network of stewards who are interested not only in their own home but in the ASBH project as a whole. Over the past five years of ownership of the Meier house, we’ve had the privilege of spending time with many ASBH stewards in their homes. We meet to share stories and compare notes, to break bread and break down history and, of course, to give tours of our homes.
The below photo of the Meier House from the 1920s was sitting on the kitchen counter when we first toured it. Looking back, that was a smart touch by the sellers and real estate agent. We had driven five hours northwest of the city to see a house that we didn’t think we would actually buy. (Or did we?) They couldn’t have known it but these two guys who were about to walk through the house love a little bit of history. Throwing down a couple of black and white photos is like tossing a dog a bone. We panted over the old photos of the house before bouncing around its empty and echoey rooms, oohing and ahhing and planning what we’d do with it.
It’s one of only two photos of the house as it used to look. The other photo, standing directly in front of the house, was taken at the same time. In both photos the snow looks like it’s drifting off the middle of the roof on the front of the house.
Romantics that we are, we’ve looked at these photos many times over the past five years of homeownership. We’re looking back at how the house used to look, sure, but we also find ourselves thinking about what life in this big, boxy house in this small, Iowa town must have been like back then. Why did the Meier choose this day – and not a beautiful summer afternoon – to photograph their house? And how is that snow drift just hanging off the roof like that?
It’s that last question that we may finally be able to answer. During a recent snowstorm and deep freeze here in the midwest, we noticed that snow had collected in the same spot as in the vintage photos. Directly above the front door and in line with the belvedere up at the top of the house, a drift of snow seems to be dangling off the edge of the roof. Scroll up to the top of this post and look for yourself.
In our years of ownership, this is the first time we’ve noticed this snow drift phenomenon. Perhaps this is a clue about why the house was photographed that day. Perhaps the Meiers had just experienced a big snowfall and deep freeze, much like the one we’re experiencing here in the 21st century. They may have been documenting the weather, a photo that they would include in a letter to relatives in which they’d share their experience hunkering down and staying warm in front of the fireplace.
It’s in these moments that we feel a closeness to the house’s original owners. It’s also a reminder that we are total nerds who spend too much time imagining life in the past!
Don’t let the golden glow of the evening sun illuminating the sun porch fool you. This is one of those cold winter days that makes Iowa feel like Siberia. Thank God for central heating! We’ve had the thermostat cranked up to 71 degrees today trying to battle the arctic air that makes its way through the drafty old doors and windows. But somehow the cold air always seems to win.