Mother Earth Living

Wright for Real People: A Family Restores Frank Lloyd Wright's Famed First House

The Sikora family works to restore and green the Willey House, a 1934 Minneapolis home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
By Judy Arginteanu
July/August 2009

Built in 1934 for Malcolm and Nancy WIlley, this Minneapolis home was restored in 2007 using cypress, plaster and regional brick.
Photo by Terrence Moore
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Restoring an architectural treasure is a formidable task, and Steve Sikora and Lynette Erickson-Sikora knew the challenges they would face when they bought Frank Lloyd Wright’s dilapidated 1934 Malcolm Willey House in Minneapolis in 2002. The task of restoring the famed architect’s first small home was made all the more daunting because the iconic house had been unoccupied for seven years, victim to Minnesota weather and bands of partying teenagers. Previous remodels had left scars, including a kitchen filled with pumpkin-colored plastic laminate and coppertone appliances.

Determined to bring the Willey house back to its former glory, Steve and Lynette spent nearly six years painstakingly rebuilding this first small, affordable Wright home, a prototype for his later Usonian houses. In the process, they came to deeply understand Wright’s genius, including his use of natural, indigenous materials and the coalescing of design, function and materials into a
seamless whole.

Wright’s alchemy makes the 1,350-square-foot home feel both secure and spacious. A compressed entryway, one of his signature devices, leads into a large, open living space with kite windows and skylights. The kitchen—small but functional—communicates with the living space via a glass wall and a Dutch door that can be shut for privacy. A wall of French doors—a pioneering feature at the time—opens onto a brick terrace and into the yard. Open in summer, it completely erases any indoor-outdoor distinction; even when shut, its expanse is enough to soothe Minnesota cabin fever. Southern exposure brings passive solar heat in winter; a shed roof shelters the space when the sun is high in summer. The shade provided by four mature burr oaks also cools the house.

Whatever it takes

Nancy Willey, who was the wife of University of Minnesota dean Malcolm Willey, built the house for $10,000 in the depths of the Great Depression. Wright took the tiny commission—much less than anything he’d done before—largely because he had no other work. The house became pivotal in his career, moving him toward his crusade for small, well-designed houses for real people. “The more research we did and the more people we spoke to, we came to realize the importance of this house,” Steve says.

Lynette’s son, Stafford Norris III, supervised the restoration with help from his brother, Joshua. Hewing faithfully to Wright’s design, the family searched out authentic matches for materials they had to replace. Steve returned to the local brickyard in Menomonie, Wisconsin, to find exact matches for the originals made there. He spent more than a year working with Lynda Evans of Church Hill, Tennessee, brick-matching and historical restoration specialists StoneArt to replicate shale bricks he couldn’t find.

Wright constructed the home using red tidewater cypress for its beautiful grain. Although the wood deviated from Wright’s localist ideal because it’s not native to Minnesota, its durability was a boon, sustaining the house through its years of abandonment. “If it hadn’t been built of cypress, it wouldn’t be standing now,” Steve says. To replace wood damaged beyond repair, Stafford and Steve sourced cypress from salvagers who reclaim sunken logs in swamps and rivers, or salvage wood from beams, wine vats and water tanks.

"The thing about historical restoration is that you agonize over every little thing that must be replaced,” Steve says. “The original architectural ‘fabric’ is always retained unless there’s an incredibly compelling reason to replace it. Even the salvageable portions of rotted wood were repurposed.”

Integrity and sustainability

During the restoration, Steve and Lynette constantly weighed three issues: design integrity, sustainability and the house “as built”—because even the original builders sometimes deviated from Wright’s plans.

In some cases, practicality ruled. They replaced all the mechanicals with modern, high-efficiency heating and electrical systems. They replaced the worn-out rock wool insulation in the roof with expandable spray foam, which forms an airtight seal against the rafters. They installed a high-efficiency Unico high-velocity air conditioning system, even though the house is designed with myriad channels of cross ventilation and stays very comfortable in summer. “The realities of modern city life meant that we could not leave the house unattended with only screens latched,” Steve says. “The air conditioning system compensates for the lack of natural ventilation and thermal balance when the house is closed up for extended periods.”

In a few cases, the family had the chance to right old wrongs. “If we ran into a problem, instead of a Band-Aid repair for the fifth time, we would find the root cause and correct it,” Steve says.

The threshold between the living space and the terrace, long a source of disagreement between Nancy Willey and Wright, is a case in point. The architect, for aesthetic purity, designed a flat threshold to blur the lines between indoor and outdoor. Willey wrote to Wright: “The lack of a threshold will create … a triumphal archway to mosquitoes, flies, ants and all the insect comedy.” In the end, she took matters into her own hands and made do with a functional but aesthetically jarring aluminum threshold to ward off the march of elements and bugs. “And honestly, I would have to defend her decision,” Steve says.

Steve and Lynette rebuilt a raised threshold with the meticulously matched bricks from StoneArt, giving them the best of both worlds: Wright’s “indoor-outdoor” continuum and a seal against the great outdoors. “The house is like an open park pavilion on a hot summer day,” Steve says. “The scholar Grant Hildebrand identified two aspects inherent in Wright’s architecture that are plain to see in the Willey House: prospect, the ability to see; and refuge, the security of not being seen.”

Lynette loves the indoor-outdoor connection Wright created and the restoration maintained. “It’s like the sense of shelter you’d have in a cave or tree fortress,” she says. “Since childhood, I’ve had the deep desire to live in the forest, under or in a large mature tree. There’s a sense of safety, comfort and nature here.”

Find featured furnishings from the Willey House. 

A chat with the homeowners

What books are on your nightstands? 

Steve Sikora: Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—And How it Can Renew America by Thomas L. Friedman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008); Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon, 2004), a graphic novel (since made into a movie) about growing up in Khomeini’s Iran; Rome Inc.: The Rise and Fall of the First Multinational Corporation by Stanley Bing (W.W. Norton & Co., 2007)

Lynette Sikora-Erickson: I just finished Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya (Grand Central Publishing, 1999); Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002); and Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan (Ballantine Books, 2006). I’m about to begin The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (Ecco, 2008). The story’s set in the Chequamegon National Forest, close to our beloved Wisconsin getaway.

What was the most challenging aspect of building the house?

Steve: For the Willeys, building the house in 1934, the greatest challenge was containing costs without compromise to Wright’s design, which they respected. Wisely, when the budget came up short, they elected to postpone completing certain built-in features and furniture.

The greatest challenge to our restoration efforts was the completion of those elements that had never been made manifest, because there is always some degree of interpretation involved. So our approach to the work was to first complete the restoration of what had been built, and only after learning from that experience, completing what had been left undone.

What’s the house’s best hiding spot for clutter?

Steve: It’s surprising how much stuff you can hide in the lower cabinets in the dining area. There are a lot of cabinets and closets, which is unusual for a Wright house.

Any tips for living in small spaces?

Lynette: First, you need to really love the people you live with and have the skill to compromise and yield in matters of communal and private space. Second, small spaces demand minimalistic living. If you can’t embrace that and you’re a collector, a second home may be necessary. I guess this is a confession of sorts.

If you could invite anyone to dinner, who would it be?

Steve: Well, the Willeys had Margaret Mead to dinner. The second owners had a political rally for Hubert Humphrey. I’d love to have the Obamas. There are just enough seats. The dog would have to stay outside.

Lynette: I would invite a choir of angels. Great music, and they don’t eat much.

What about inviting Wright?

Steve: Oh, he’s always been invited.

The good stuff

Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright
Builder: Alfred C. Dahleen; restoration/supervision: Stafford Norris III, (612) 483-5373; staffordn@earthlink.net
House Size (square footage): 1,350
Bedrooms: 2
Bathroom: 1
Cost per Square Foot: n/a

Energy

Heating/Cooling System: Burnham 84 percent-efficiency hot water boiler with cast iron radiators, Unico high-velocity air conditioning system, Marathon electric superinsulated hot water heater with CFC- and HCFC-free insulation
Electricity Source: Public utilities
Lighting: compact fluorescents; dimmable soffit uplights; halogen strip lights
Appliances: Unrestored 1930s kitchen appliances
Insulation: Icynene expandable foam

Building Materials

Exterior Materials: Reclaimed old-growth red tidewater cypress
Bricks: Salvaged sand mold brick from Menomonie, Wisconsin; New shale brick from StoneArt in Church Hill, Tennessee; Terrace and pathway brick from Glen-Gery Brick
Interior Materials: Shellac and wax finishes: J. E. Moser’s premium grade shellac flakes; General finishes: liquid wax for doors, windows, molding and trim; Uni Walton natural linoleum by Armstrong Commercial Flooring
Paint: Sienna pigment added directly to plaster; Benjamin Moore Eco Spec

Water

Water Conservation Systems: Large outside planter boxes collect and retain runoff from the roof; New drainage system directs water off terrace to underground perforated reservoir, which helps water burr oaks
Fixtures: Vintage

Construction

Waste Reduction: n/a
Recycling: The 1970s appliances went  to the ReUse Center in Minneapolis; broken radiators went to metal salvage; cedar shingles went to a transfer station for building material recycling
Construction Methods: Brick piers and exterior walls with plastered 2-by-4 interior partition walls

Landscaping

Site and Land Use: House sited precisely east-west, with primary windows and doors on the south side and few openings on the colder north side
Plants: 4 burr oaks keep roof cool in summer; Techny arborvitae “living hedge” for privacy; Native plants including grasses, wildflowers, shade perennials and summachs

Certification

National Registry of Historic Places

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