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.

| 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
  • Homeowners Steve Sikora and Lynette Erickson-Sikora listen to granddaughter Paige Norris on guitar.
    Photo by Terrence Moore
  • A statute graces the garden.
    Photo by Terrence Moore
  • Steve went to the local brickyard in Menomonie, Wisconsin to find exact matches for the home's original brick.
    Photo by Terrence Moore
  • Steve and Lynette rebuilt a raised threshold, giving them both an indoor-outdoor continuum and a seal against the great outdoors.
    Photo by Terrence Moore
  • The original Usonian home's floorplans.
    Illustration by Andrej Gallins
  • The master bedroom's corner windows swing out, spacially expanding the room.
    Photo by Terrence Moore
  • The fully functional vintage appliances demonstrate the relative simplicity of 1930s life.
    Photo by Terrence Moore
  • The restored bathroom features plaster walls and a built-in vanity.
    Photo by Terrence Moore
  • A plate-glass window separates the kitchen from the living/dining room. The moveable dining table integrates with the built-in cabinetry; its placement defines the dining area.
    Photo by Terrence Moore
  • The study with built-in desk, shelving and sleeping couch opens to the south side of the yard.
    Photo by Terrence Moore
  • A wall of French doors in the living room opens to join the house to the garden, creating an airy, parklike pavilion.
    Photo by Terrence Moore
  • The uncontained fireplace feels like an indoor bonfire.
    Photo by Terrence Moore

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.

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