A story of a Frank Lloyd Wright Residence in the 21st Century
THE CHEROKEE SLAB
Most construction problems involve a human factor. Our company motto is that construction is a social activity more than a mechanical one. I think where Alward Construction brings exceptional value to its clients is often related to the social aspect of our work. We’ve seen this in the preceding episodes and in this one as well.
It was spring and work had been underway for 4 or 5 months. Things were going well. All the structural concrete had been poured, including the concrete slab of the patio and cantilevered patio over the koi pond. The structural slab included all the electrical and plumbing stub outs as well as the bolts that would hold the new walls and steel frame to the slab. The tubular steel frame system that would help the house meet modern seismic and strength requirements was in place as was the new block walls of the entry and between the kitchen and dining room.
We were now preparing for the 3 inch concrete topping slab that would be the finished floor of the inside and exterior patio/walkways. This was really our first foray into aesthetic territory where building a Frank Lloyd Wright was going to have something to do with how the house looked.
The original floor, like that of all Usonians, was a Cherokee red concrete slab scored with the module lines and containing within it, a hot water radiant heating system. Getting the color right was a challenge. There was no contemporary formula for Wright’s favorite color. Walter wanted samples and so Cregg, in conjunction with our concrete subcontractor, Paradigm Concrete Construction produced three samples of 18 x 18 x 3 inch thick concrete samples, each with a different color material troweled into the top of the wet concrete mix. We let the samples cure for a couple of weeks and then had a meeting with Maynard and Walter for their selection and approval.
The samples were laid out on the structural slab in the vicinity of the new master bedroom. We had chosen what we believed were the best possible materials and methods of use. However, Walter, who was a brilliant colorist, was not happy with the samples. We were faced with the prospect of more research and possible delays in the project. Cregg and I were feeling like we had failed and let everyone down. Out of the blue, Maynard announced that the matter wasn’t important because he was going to carpet the house. He said, “It’s always been too cold for Katie. The concrete can be painted. And for that matter, the score lines can be eliminated too since they created a problem for the carpet wearing evenly”.
There was stunned silence. Walter was turgid and Cregg and I looked at each other in disbelief. In an instant, in a flash on a warm clear lovely spring day, the owner of an original Frank Lloyd Wright was going to abandon one of its clearest signatures. It was architectural murder. He seemed emphatic and unwavering in his position. I was thinking about the house after Maynard and Katie no longer lived there, off in a future that didn’t include them. I started to say something along these lines when Maynard shot me a glance that stopped me in my tracks.
It was an unbearable moment. After endless seconds, I found my voice and said, “You can’t paint the concrete Maynard, it’ll look like a tennis court in Belmont.” The comparison to a suburban tennis court provided an edge of humor while at the same time keeping to the point. He went for it and said, “All right. Sample #3 will work.” My response was, “Great, and it’ll have to be scored as well.” Nothing was said in response.
Shortly after we were having our customary glass or two of Maynard’s lovely wine as we typically did following our Friday end-of-the-week site meetings. Nothing further was said about the slab.
“THEY’VE RUINED MY USONIAN!”
The steel frame had been erected and it was time to start framing the walls. The original walls of the home, typical of all Usonians, were composed of 3 boards sandwiched together. The inner cone consists of ¾ inch Douglas fir rabbitted boards. They were placed vertically. On either side of the core was the ¾” redwood board and bat system making up the finished surface of the walls. The three ¾ inch boards created a wall of 2 ¼” thickness.
I came to the job site one afternoon at the end of the day to check on progress. I was excited that we had nearly finished framing the walls. It had taken months to get to this point. Maynard was in the garden house. I decided to stop in to see him. I greeted him enthusiastically, being particularly pleased that framing was progressing. “What do you think? Happy to see the walls up?” I asked cheerfully. His response shocked me. “They’ve ruined my Usonian.” “Who’s ruined your Usonian?” I asked somewhat defensively. “The engineers.” I was puzzled. “How did they ruin it?” I remained dumfounded. “The thickness.” he blurted. “They’re big thick walls not like my nice thin Usonian walls.” I couldn’t believe this was happening. The house had been under design for a year or more and this issue was just now emerging? I said. “But you’ve known since the beginning how thick the walls were going to be.” He responded. “That doesn’t make it any better, it doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
That was it. It had happened by design. There was no one to fault and yet the owner was not getting back the house he lost and missed. The new walls had to meet seismic codes that didn’t exist when the first house was built in 1948. The engineer, Jerold Turner, designed the new walls with a flat 2 x 4 with 1/2″ inch structural plywood on one side. The ¾ inch redwood board and bat system was to be added to either side of this 2-inch core. This resulted in a 3-½ inch wall, a full 1-¼ inches thicker than the original walls. Nobody thought of this, including Walter, but as we completed framing, this simple fact became apparent and was, for Maynard, devastating.
I didn’t know what to do or say. I had nothing to offer. Even a heart-felt statement of sympathy seemed out of place. I silently left the garden house and left Maynard with the echo of his last words, “That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
Cregg was still on the job reviewing the next day’s tasks. The rest of the crew had gone home. I asked Cregg if he had some spray paint on the job. He did and I asked him to get it. He returned with a can of black paint. I shook the can until I could hear the mixing ball freely passing through the thinned paint. “Show me everywhere we can see the thickness of the finished walls.” I said.
The door openings were obvious, but not the only instances. At each you could see how thick the walls were. In some cases there were long sections of wall that were adjacent to openings, but in most cases, the amount of actual wall that could be seen was relatively small. When all the visible sections of walls were sprayed with black Xs, we reviewed the results of our survey. It seemed to me that we could build these sections at 2 ¼ inches without in any way compromising the integrity of the structure.
I thought this might be a solution but wanted to run it by Walter. I stopped by his house on the way home and explained the problem. I didn’t want to say anything about the obvious oversight, and wanted along the same lines, not to play up finding a solution. “Do you think we have to pass this by Jerry?” I asked. “I shouldn’t think so.” he replied. The matter was solved.
The next day I explained the solution to Maynard. He showed no enthusiasm. I wondered whether he understood or appreciated whether it would really work; whether he was withholding judgment until the end or whether he didn’t want to inflate my ego any further. In any case, nothing was ever said again by anyone about the ruined Usonian walls.
Keith R. Alward