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Willey House: Frank Lloyd Wright's Hidden Gem Restored!

Willey House: Frank Lloyd Wright's Hidden Gem Restored!
Sheltering eaves are one of many signature details on the recent
Frank Lloyd Wright is best known for his extravagant masterpieces – Fallingwater and The Robie House come immediately to mind – done for wealthy clients. But what would The Master do if asked to design a more modest home for a family that loved his aesthetic but had a tight budget?

The answer is the Malcolm Willey House in Minneapolis, a 1350-square-foot gem Wright designed in 1933 for a university couple. Wright only took the commission because the Great Depression had slowed work in his studio to a crawl. We can all be glad he did -- the prescient design, often overlooked by Wright enthusiasts, contains many of the practical, sustainable, and enduring features families prize today.

Topping the list is a kitchen open to the main living areas of the house, a major departure from the closed-off utility spaces Wright designed before (his Prairie phase) and after (his Usonia period). Steve Sikora and wife, Lynette Erickson-Sikora, who bought the Willey House in 2002, and spent five and a half years lovingly and painstakingly restoring it, credits Nancy Willey for convincing Wright to do an open-kitchen plan, one of the first in modern American residential architecture. Willey, a sociologist, informed Wright that the couple didn’t have servants -- she would be the one cooking at home. Moreover, Malcolm Willey had been appointed dean of the University of Minnesota and the couple planned to entertain frequently. “Nancy wanted to maintain visual and verbal contact with her guests as she prepared for them,” says Sikora.    

Wright’s design, as Nancy later wrote, allowed her to “look out on the domestic scene” through a glass wall “made beautiful by shelves of china, pottery and glasses.” A Dutch door reinforces the connection to living spaces. Wright, concerned about heat and odor generated in the kitchen, provided cross-ventilation with a disappearing corner window. His drawings still labeled the kitchen a “workspace.”

The Willey House may be Wright’s most under-appreciated design. His next and his most famous commission, Fallingwater, eclipsed it. Then it was overshadowed for its contribution to middle-class housing by the Jacobs House, his first Usonian project. “Although all Usonians were not economical to build, the 1936 Jacobs House was famously completed for approximately half the cost of the Willey House,“ says Sikora.

The lack of attention is unfortunate because several other elements of the Willey House seem to magically presage features that families take for granted today. The house is basically a great room plan, without formal

rooms. French doors, skylights, and clerestory windows connect the high-volume living/dining space to a terrace, a sloping backyard, and panoramic views of the Mississippi River gorge. The outdoor connection, together with a 20-foot ceiling, makes the home feel much, much larger than 1,350 square feet.

Another marvel, a modular and movable dining table, occupies a corner of the great room. Couched against a

wall, it looks built in, as it might have been in other Wright homes. But it actually stands on its own and can be combined with an end table in the room to create a larger serving table for receptions. “The moveable linking tables were another Wright/Nancy innovation,” says Sikora, who has thoroughly researched letters between the architect and his client held at the University of Minnesota and The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

If Nancy and The Master had a meeting of the minds over the furniture, they quibbled over the patio door system. Wright elevated the brick-paver floor in the great room leading to the terrace, presumably so that water wouldn’t flow from the terrace into the house. But that meant the screen door had to be raised to clear the floor. Nancy wrote to Wright that this would create “a triumphal archway to mosquitoes, flies, ants and all the insect comedy.” She asked if a threshold could be added to the plan. Wright didn’t want a threshold interfering with the perception of seamless indoor/outdoor space. The screen doors, he wrote back, could be “cut on the slope and filled with a leather flap….Let us have no thresholds. Amen.” Nancy apparently didn’t sing from the same hymnal, at least when it came to insects infiltrating the home. She had the builders install a raised aluminum threshold, which was still there when the Sikoras bought the home. They replaced it with a threshold of raised brick pavers. Nearly invisible, it’s a lovely compromise.

The Willey house is also notable as early example of passive solar design in a Northern climate. The pavers run from the floor up a 20-foot brick wall in the great room, creating a heat sink during the winter. “The house heats up pretty quickly,” says Sikora. “And in the summer, the trees come in and provide some protection.” A shed roof also shelters the space from high summer sun.

In Sikora’s mind, the house is the epitome of shelter, not just because of the masonry walls but also due to “the visceral sense of protection that comes from the deep, extending eaves and the sloping ceiling of the living room….The Wiley House makes us feel like we are harbored within a primal shelter.” 
Specifically, the

house creates the impression of a lean-to, with a sloped ceiling (branches) propped against a cliff (a high back wall) and perforated with gaps (fenestration) in all directions. The perception is completed by what appears to be an open fire, an impression created by the brick floor and nearly invisible hearth.

The open sensation within the great room depends on an elaborate skylight system that was leaking badly when the Sikoras bought the house. The skylights, like the rest of the house, were built by hand. The sheet metal contractors were told that they needed to measure each rough opening before building replacements. “Sure enough, they showed up with three skylights and only one fit,” he says.

If the house contains elements new to Wright’s lexicon, it includes many familiar ones as well. Guests arrive

along a long constrained, covered walkway to the front door. They are greeted inside with voluminous space. And in characteristic fashion, Wright created privacy for the Willeys, even as he maximized views of nature.

The neighbors two doors down weren’t happy when the first thing that went up on the triangular lot was a 20-foot brick wall that obscured their view. They threatened legal action. They asked that the wall come down seven feet. The Willeys considered lowering the wall but after consulting with a contractor realized it wouldn’t work. Wright also told them not to do it. Wright, who referred to the project as “Garden Wall,” separated the

house from its neighbor on the east with a long, tall privacy wall (see the house profile in this drawing).
He also designed a hallway along the bedroom wing that features high windows with bookcases below, much like you’d see in a Usonian house. It’s easier to see outside than inside through the small square windows. They are installed with pins, making them easy to remove for summer ventilation.

One of the restoration's toughest challenges was sourcing replacement bricks. Wright used two different courses of unusual brick – a sand-molded brick from Menomonie, Wis., and a shale variety from Chaska, Minn. The bricks were made with the same firing pattern, but the one from Minnesota has a glossy surface. The Sikoras managed to buy the Menomonie brick from a father and son who had salvage some as the city tore up its old sidewalks. The Sikoras and sons spent more than a year working with a brick-matching specialist in Tennessee to replicate the shale bricks.

Replacing the red Tidewater Cyprus used throughout the house was equally problematic. The species hasn’t been commercially available since the 1950s. Nevertheless, Lynettes's sons, Stafford Norris III, who supervised and executed every aspect of the restoration, and brother Josh Norris, who assisted and fabricated the metalwork, found sources who salvaged the wood from swamps and rivers in Florida. Norris used the wood to create new Cyprus veneers to reface the cabinets. They had to be careful to vary the grain patterns on adjoining cabinets, as was done in the original design. Since the owners knew they wouldn't be there to open and close windows to provide cross-breezes, they decided to add a central air conditioning system. Thankfully, Wright had left room in the original roof design. The Norris brothers replaced rock-wool insulation in the roof with expandable spray foam that forms an airtight seal. He replaced the mechanicals with a modern, high-efficiency heating and electrical system.

The house the Willeys ultimately built was actually the second Wright designed for them. With an $8000 budget, the couple couldn’t afford to build the first design, a two-story home with bedrooms below and living areas above. The Willeys ultimately spent $10,000 on their home. That may not sound like a lot today, but it was four times more expensive than the typical new home in the mid-1930s. “The home may have been modest in size, but it wasn’t a modest house.” The Willey’s apparently ran out of money before they could detail the home’s bedrooms. Sikora located the original plans (included among 54 drawings held at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Scottsdale, AZ), and his accomplished stepsons finished the built-ins and standing furniture for the two bedrooms, study, and bath. The study now features a built-in day bed, suspended off the ground. It’s the perfect spot for guests, or for one of Wright’s infamous naps.

For more on the house and its restoration, as well as information about events and occasional touring opportunities, visit the excellent Willey House Website. (The photos and the drawing in this post are courtesy Steve Sikora.)

Boyce Thompson is writer, speaker, consultant and author of The New New Home.

Willey House: Frank Lloyd Wright's Hidden Gem Restored! Inspiration

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