|Two Restorations Find Another Place for Wright’s Vision in Today
One firm takes on a half century of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture
Summary: The Davenport House restoration and Glore House renovation by Harding Partners are projects that illustrate the evolving architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. The Glore House received a new addition, and the Davenport House benefited from a LEED®-centered retrofit.
How do you ... restore and renovate houses by Frank Lloyd Wright?
Timeless is an easy word to apply to the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Its ubiquitous influence, self-assured world view, and complete severance with historic models of building have made Wright’s work a very fresh and singular oeuvre. But, as Paul Harding, FAIA, can tell you, elements of Wright’s work, like its natural predilection towards contemporary notions of sustainability, put his work firmly in the now. Harding, principal of Harding Partners in Chicago, has been restoring and renovating two houses by the 20th-century master, one of which will be his own home. Constructed 50 years apart, these projects were built at opposite ends of Wright’s marathon career, and illustrate the historical sweep of change and evolution that his work encompassed.
Both houses are located in the northern suburbs of Chicago near Lake Michigan. Harding purchased Wright’s 2,000-square-foot Davenport House in 2004, and he hopes to move into it late this summer. Built in 1901, the Davenport House was Chicago’s first Prairie style Arts and Crafts-influenced house by Wright. It was designed during an early phase of Wright’s career when he was beginning to break away from the European-influenced Beaux Arts models that were used near universally in major cities to create all kinds of civic landmark architecture. Harding detects subtle Japanese influences in the Davenport House’s looming cantilevered pitched roof, but other than that, “he despised historicism,” he says.
The Glore House was built in 1951, and it’s an apt example of this severance with history and tradition. Like Fallingwater in western Pennsylvania, the Glore House is pervasively horizontal, geometric, and expertly sutured into its wooded and secluded landscape. The 3,000-square-foot house is surrounded on three sides by a ravine and is a block and a half from Lake Michigan. Harding calls it a two-story “enhanced Usonian design”—its long, rectilinear form paneled in a rich mahogany wood.
The house sat on the for-sale market for three years before Harding Partners’ renovations began, and clouds of developer knock-down fears had begun to form. To make the house more marketable, Harding designed a family room (which the house lacked) that would fit in under the house’s signature cantilever. The new room extended Wright’s original floor plan and used the Glore House’s material language to create an open and light-soaked room that looks out to the adjacent terrace and ravine beyond. If future owners only want a house touched by the design hand of Wright, Harding’s addition is designed to be completely reversible. The addition won a Merit Award from the AIA Northeast Illinois component.
“What we do is take the fabric of the house and work with it so that we use that architectural language and make what we do appear seamless with the original house,” says Harding.
Harding Partners and their engineers, Thornton Tomasetti, had access to the Glore House’s original construction drawings. William Bast, a principal at Thornton Tomasetti’s Chicago office, says this allowed them to lessen the impact of the renovations. “We were able to use small invasive holes to do probe openings to check out the structure, as opposed to having to do much more invasive work,” he says.
Thornton Tomasetti had more challenging tasks at the Davenport House as well. There was a 1.5-inch sag in the second-level floor, caused by the overbearing weight of a partition wall. The engineering firm solved the problem by jacking the floor up and flooding the room with humid air to increase its pliability. They carefully monitored the loads the supports were bearing from the jack, and when the floor was in place, they reinforced it with additional joists. Thornton Tomasetti was also in charge of fixing the house’s signature cantilevered eaves. The cantilevers (which measured 4 to 5-feet in length) were buckling under 100 years of Midwestern snow loads. This component was another example of Wright’s tendency to push then-contemporary materials and systems to their limit. Bast discovered that the cantilever supports were fastened directly into wood 2x4 frames, which they doubled for reinforcement.
Wright’s houses have long been cited as buildings that lie lightly on the land and are respectful and responsive to their site, and this progressive stance has been easy to translate into current ideas about sustainability. One hundred years ago, Wright maximized the Davenport House for daylighting, pushing it as far north on its lot as possible and providing plenty of windows. The materials used, like the original lime stucco and paint, are eco-friendly, and the new renovations have installed a ground-source heating system (common in many Wright houses) and recycled cypress wood. If everything goes according to plan, the house will be the first LEED-certified Frank Lloyd Wright House ever. LEED Silver is Harding’s goal.
“It works quite well with state-of-the-art LEED strategies,” he says. “We used LEED strategies; we just didn’t realize it.”
Harding suspects that the Davenport House (one of five houses that Wright designed during a brief partnership with Webster Tomlinson) might be an important demarcation line that shows the emergence of a repeated motif in Wright’s work. As his career progressed and he moved further from his early Prairie-style explorations, Wright began obscuring the front entrance of his houses. He did this to force his clients to be self-conscious and aware of the simple act of entering their home, so as to demand recognition of the processional ritual from outdoor public space to indoor private space. Two early drawings of the Davenport House show a more traditional front entrance, but a third drawing that is consistent with the house keeps the entrance hidden.
Bast worked with Harding as a colleague, architect, client, and ultimately the resident of the project he re-engineered. “He was the type of guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer at its face value,” says Bast. “He would explore with us and work with us to understand what the options were.”
“As much as anything,” says Harding, “it feels like an office project with a really great client, because I get to do it the way that it should be done.”
But who is Harding referring to? Who is this “great client”? When he moves into the house he helped design, he’ll still be in a place in which the aesthetic sensibility was created by another and is graciously served by his restorations. “We want to make whatever we do have maximum fidelity with the way it was originally built and designed by Frank Lloyd Wright,” he says.
That makes it sound like Wright is the real client here, and Harding is an architect who just sold him on a comprehensive greening for the carbon-insecure 21st century. That’s a deal that will only help to keep Wright’s legacy relevant—and timeless.