This fall, the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio in Oak Park, IL has been getting modest makeover. The historic site’s 40-year-old roof is being replaced, the two chimneys have been tuckpointed, and shingles on the east and south gables of the home are being replaced.
“We do preservation work routinely, but it isn’t always visible to the public,” said Celeste Adams, president and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust. “But this roof project is. We wanted to reassure our neighbors that the new shingles will look different in color, but they will weather and return to the shade that people associate with the house.”
Local contractor Von Dreele-Freerksen is heading up the project, and Doug Freerksen said he couldn’t be more excited about being involved in the project. Freerksen, who co-founded VDF 40 years ago with Pete Von Dreele, noted that he has consulted on restoration work done at the Home & Studio in the past in his capacity as a member of the village’s Historic Preservation Commission, but this is the first time VDF has worked on the house professionally.
When he and Von Dreele started their business, it was with a passion for historic preservation and for restoring Prairie Style homes. Over the past four decades, VDF has worked on more than 30 Wright-designed homes, so they bring a lot of experience to Wright’s own home.
With any of VDF’s projects Freerksen said, “We always like to do our own pragmatic research, so we know what was there originally. Wright was not a fan of doing the same thing twice, but we do know what to look for. He only practiced in Oak Park for about fifteen years, and he used a lot of technology for the era.”
“Through a magnifying glass and with simple observation, we can learn what’s original and what’s been replaced,” she added.
With the chimney, VDF employed a drone to look down the flue and take photos of the mortar joints, caulk and cracks. Freerksen said that with this technology, they can learn about a building in a couple of hours — in contrast to a couple of days after sending someone up on the roof.
The chimneys were not touched during the 1970’s restoration of the building, and Freerksen said that they were so deteriorated “that you could literally put a finger through some of the mortar joints and some of the bricks.”
VDF took the chimneys down and rebuilt them with all of the original bricks that could be salvaged. They were careful to preserve the “ghosting” on the bricks, which provided evidence of where the roofline might have been altered with gables, terraces or awnings. Freerksen noted that it was important to preserve those faint outlines because a preservationist or historian might want to study those in the future.
Another key to rebuilding the chimneys was the mortar. The original mortar was a lime putty mortar that Freerksen said had visible lime chips. While the mortar didn’t stand the test of time, VDF wanted to recreate the same visual look with the new mortar. They worked with Henry Frerk & Sons of Chicago to do a mortar analysis and create a mortar mix that matched the original mortar visually, but without the structural defects.
“If we didn’t do this, people might look at the building and think this was new,” Freerksen said. “We want it to look as close to 1909 as possible.”
On the roof, VDF is re-roofing with cedar shingles. If roofed according to today’s standards with roofing felt and ice dams, a cedar shingle roof might have a lifenspan of 25 years. Freerksen said VDF is using the technique likely used by Wright and used during the 1970’s restoration. This method sets the 18-inch shingles over 1×6 pine sheathing boards with spacing that allows the cedar to breathe. This method provides a 40-to-50-year life span for the roof.
The shingles for the gables were originally stained, not painted, and Freerksen said getting the color right was an important part of the process. With only one supplier of the stain still in existence and no perfect color match, they devised a mix of available stains to approximate the original dark color for the shingles.
Freerksen also noted that there’s a difference in restoring a Frank Lloyd Wright home and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio. “We want to be correct, but we don’t want to overdo it,” he said. An original Wright design benefits from not being over-maintained or modernized, he added.
“There’s a real critical difference between a privately held Frank Lloyd Wright home and this one. My personal goal is that I want the Home & Studio to be established not just as a restoration but as a protected building in the neighborhood in which it resides. This building was designed as part residence and part commercial building, but it’s main role now is as a tourist destination.”
At the end of the day, he said, “This suits the neighborhood, it suits the neighbors, it suits the Historic Preservation Commission, and it suits the goals of the Trust to showcase this treasure.”
The work was made possible by a gift from the Goshorn/Schumann Trust. Dawn Schumann was a founding volunteer at the Home & Studio and the first president of the Trust.
Explore the wonders of north central Iowa in Iowa PBS’s hour-long documentary, Historic Buildings of Iowa: Mason City and Clear Lake. The latest installment of the network’s architecture programs premieres online and on air Saturday, November 18 at 3:30 p.m. as part of Fall Festival 2023. It will be rebroadcast Sunday, November 19 at 5:30 p.m. and Monday, November 27 at 6:30 p.m.
"Historic Buildings of Iowa: Mason City and Clear Lake" features the art and architecture of Mason City and Clear Lake through Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie school style, one of the premier art museums of the Midwest and sites dedicated to some of the most acclaimed musicians of the 20th century.
“Mason City offers one of the best collections of architecture in the Midwest, if not the country,” said Iowa PBS Senior Producer and Director Tyler Brinegar. “It was a thrill to film these unique designs and we’re excited to share the history behind them with Iowans.”
Buildings featured in the documentary include the Historic Park Inn Hotel and City National Bank, the only standing inn designed by famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the Stockman House, the third iteration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fireproof House, and the Rock Crest-Rock Glen Historic District, the largest collection of prairie school architecture in a natural setting among others.
Funding for Historic Buildings of Iowa: Mason City and Clear Lake is provided by Clear Lake Bank and Trust and Visit Mason City.
In addition to its statewide broadcast, Iowa PBS .1 is available to livestream on iowapbs.org/watch, pbs.org/livestream, the PBS App, Local Now, YouTube TV and Hulu + Live TV. Iowa PBS programs, behind-the-scenes extras and more can be enjoyed on iowapbs.org, Facebook and YouTube. Viewers can also stream their favorite shows on demand using the PBS App, available on iOS, Android and many streaming devices.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House in Buffalo, NY will present its inaugural exhibition: “Thought-Built: The Imperial Hotel at 100.” Commemorating the 100th anniversary of Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel opening, this exhibition is the only exhibit outside of Japan focused on the centennial and will feature rare artifacts rescued from demolition.
The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo was Frank Lloyd Wright’s first international commission and remains his best-known building in Japan. The building was officially opened in 1923 before being demolished in 1968.
“Thought-Built: The Imperial Hotel at 100” offers a rare look at this lost work through original architectural elements rescued from demolition, including tiles, bricks, Ōya stone blocks, and an art glass window, as well as a deeper understanding of Wright’s relationship with the Martins during this formative period in his career.
“We are thrilled to be able to present the only U.S.-based Imperial Hotel exhibition right here in Buffalo,” stated Jessie Fisher, Executive Director of the Martin House. “In addition to giving visitors an up-close experience with the elements that formerly made up the Hotel, the materials on display show the depth of the relationship between the Martins and Wright.”
Curator of the Martin House Susana Tejada said, “This exhibition is a unique opportunity to view rarely seen architectural fragments saved from the now-demolished Imperial Hotel. Seeing these objects within the walls of Barton House provides layers of understanding into Wright’s work and allows visitors to interact with our historic site in dynamic new ways.”
The exhibition will be held in the historic Barton House (118 Summit Avenue) on the Martin House estate. Starting on Friday, November 17, 2023, the exhibition will be open Wednesday through Monday from 11am – 4pm. Hours may change seasonally and visitors are encouraged to visit martinhouse.org for the latest information.
Exhibition tickets are free for Martin House members and $15 per person for non-members. Admission to the exhibition is also included with any Martin House tour ticket purchase. Exhibition tickets include access to the exhibit anytime during open hours as well as a special discount on Martin House tour tickets.
“Thought-Built: The Imperial Hotel at 100” is presented in collaboration with the University Archives at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The exhibit is presented by M&T Bank and the Wilmington Trust.