Putting Things Wright

When your boyhood home was designed by America's most famous architect, its restoration justifies four years of careful work.
By Paul Penfield - This Old House Magazine - November 2004

In my family, we don't buy houses. We build them, then live in them generation after generation. Since the 1870's we've occupied the same farmland in northeast Ohio. Instead of farming, my dad decided to become an artist. It was only natural that when it came his turn to build, he drove up to Wisconsin with a challenge for Frank Lloyd Wright.

"Mr. Wright, could you design a house for someone as tall as me?" "Stand under that beam", Wright commanded. Dad did as he was told. The apprentices in the room fell silent. Wright stared for several minutes without speaking, taking in the proportions of dad's 6'8" frame before announcing: "Let me think it over and I'll let you know."

That was the start of my father's long relationship with America's greatest architect. By the time I inherited my childhood home, I had been living in Europe for 10 years. The house had fallen on hard times. My parents had moved out and had turned the house into a rental unit. Tenants can be rough on a house. In addition dad had run out of money early on and hadn't completed all of the design elements. So there it sat, with sagging cantilevers, leaky roof, rotted windowsills, clapped out heating system and the most disturbing burden of all: it was a national treasure. I couldn't just move walls over, rip out cabinets, join rooms together any more than you can redecorate the Sistine ceiling.

So out with the furniture and in with the tools. The living room became a woodworking shop and the carport a spray booth. We started with the roof. The original design specified built-up tar over 2×4 tongue and groove decking. Once this system begins to leak, there's no fixing it. The more tar you use to cover the cracks, the more thermal mass you build up, causing the repair to open up again every summer. I assembled a volunteer crew to strip off the old roofing and lay down a covering of rubber membrane over 4x8 sheets of tapered foam insulation. To date this has held up very well. The few punctures that have occurred were easily fixed with a rubber patch, just like a bicycle tire.

Next came the job of restoring the woodwork. The house is framed with 4x4 spruce beams centered over a slab floor and concrete block foundation. Let into the spaces between them are the wall panels and glass windows. What you're left with is a beam exposed on two sides, on the outside to the weather and on the inside to the wear and tear of daily living. The exterior stain had weathered to a dark brown and the interior to a deep maroon, a far cry from the warm red called for in Wright's plan. Painting over it wasn't an option, as it would hide the natural wood grain Wright extolled in his writing on organic architecture. There was nothing for it but to sand the entire house clean, both inside and out.

I went to the local industrial arts academy and recruited some high school kids from the auto body class, giving them each an orbital sander. We'd turn the sanders on at nine in the morning and turn them off eight hours later. We wore out four sanders during the course of the summer. Then we applied new stain specially formulated for the house by Schilling Enamels, a local family owned paint store. That, plus two coats of polyurethane, completed the restoration of the exterior woodwork. Next, we moved inside and started all over again. All told, sanding down the entire house took almost a year.

I was lucky in one respect: during the intervening 50 years the farmland had turned into hardwood forest; the land was now enrolled in the American Tree Farm system. Among the species growing here is black cherry, one of America's premium cabinet woods. I was determined to restore the house with our own trees. With the Wrightian philosophy of nature in the forefront of my mind, I selected trees for a specific part of the house before logging them out. I eventually learned to "read the bark", that is, to tell what sort of decorative grain lies within the trunk while the tree is still on the stump. For light boxes and lamps, I used wood low on the stump where the grain becomes tightly whorled prior to becoming root, an organic effect which can be stunning. For such items as the platform beds, I chose trees that were straight-grained with a large diameter.

All of the glass and wood panels in the house are held in with ¾" retaining strips. Of all the items in the house, this seemingly insignificant design feature was the most labor intensive. Interior and exterior, there are around 8,000 lineal feet of it - about a mile and a half - which I milled out of cherry, then sanded, stained and sealed.

Boring, yes, but in terms of sheer psychological suffering, nothing beats veneer work. Since I was determined to follow Wright's architectural edicts to the max and use as much native material as I possibly could, this meant using veneer on those decorative elements such as cabinetry and furniture where solid wood would warp or twist. At the top of the list were the interior doors.

The first bedroom doors were ¾" ply, put on in 1955 as a "temporary" measure which we then lived with for the next 40 years. No mortise hardware exists for doors that thin, which explains why we had to close them with a hook and eye when we went to bed. The time had arrived to make my own hollow core doors.

Hollow core doors, you ask? Aren't those 25 bucks apiece at Lowe's? Sure, but after looking at my father standing under that beam at Taliesin, Wright designed all of the interior doors at 8' x 22". Try finding hollow core doors in that dimension. I was going to have to fabricate them on site and then veneer them as well. For objects that large, I first had to build a vacuum veneer table, complete with pumps, hoses, 10 mil polyurethane plastic and locking aluminum top frame.

Nothing is less forgiving than a veneer job. If the glue bleeds through the grain no amount of scraping will remove it. If the vacuum doesn't clamp down to 25 hg, bubbles form under the veneer. I lost count of all the doors and furniture blanks I threw away before I finally got the hang of it. I'd rather have a root canal than go through that again.

Still, doing it yourself does give you control of the final product. For the kitchen cabinetry, I was able to book match the veneer horizontally to accentuate the raked out lines of the block work; the same for the Wright designed furniture, all of which was reconstructed from the original prints.

Having a forest at my disposal had other advantages as well. While cutting out a new logging road, I came across a weathered fence post. When I pulled it out and cut four inches off the bottom, the wood was as bright yellow as the day my great-grandfather put it in a century earlier, despite having stood in the soggiest part of the farm. It was locust, a species of tree prized by the Amish hereabouts for its durability. According to my Amish miller, locust "lasts two years longer than stone". It occurred to me that it might be an ideal material for repairing the rotted out windowsills, and I had plenty of locust trees to choose from. This proved so successful that I used it in other moisture-prone locations, such as countertops for the bathroom vanities. In my opinion, locust is a vastly under-appreciated wood. Lumberyards don't even stock it.

Now four years have gone by, four years of six-day weeks, ten hours a day, and the house is finished at last. Well, maybe. Like all Wright dwellings, Penfield House is a high maintenance item, which means restoration is an ongoing process. Already it's time to touch up the exterior again. The sagging cantilever has yet to be restored. And on and on.

We never did move back in. We've turned the house into a vacation rental. This allows Wright enthusiasts a chance to have the place all to themselves, to experience it not as a house museum, but as their own home, like I did as a kid. Besides, nobody just lives in a Wright house: they evolve in it. I'm not the same guy I was four years ago. By the time I'd taught myself carpentry, cabinetry, welding, wiring, plumbing, heating, masonry and how to operate bulldozers and backhoes, I'd changed. Maybe that's the real meaning behind the word "organic": change. While I restored the house, the house was restoring me.

One more thing: Dad had a second house designed by Mr. Wright. The plans arrived two weeks after Wright's death, so it's his last residential commission. Since we still have the original site… Tell you what, let's meet back here during my next lifetime and I'll let you know how that turned out.