A story of a Frank Lloyd Wright Residence in the 21st Century
LAYING UP THE BOARDS
Up to this point all the work had been of a rough sort, with the exception of the concrete block and toping slab. First there was all the demolition and clearing. Then there was the digging, forming and placing of concrete reinforcement bar followed by the placing and finishing of concrete. There was the installation of structural steel and the rough framing of the walls and roof. All of this along with the supervision of the subcontractors and the building of our tent had required a good deal of care in planning and layout. Now the crew was anxious to get to the pretty stuff, the placement of all the beautiful redwood that was sitting in the living room waiting to go up on the new walls and ceilings.
As the day approached, the crew took on a manifest change in appearance. One day I came to the job site and everyone was wearing brand new white carpenter bib overalls. Nothing was said about the expense or decision, but clearly the crew saw itself on a special mission. From now on, the crew would be building a Frank Lloyd Wright house in earnest. By this fact alone, they had become a fraternity.
The crew now consisted of Cregg Sweeney, my son Matthew, (my younger son Tyson had worked on the project up to this point), Manuel Hernandez, Agustin Velasquez, Jorge Cortes, Genaro Alamilla and sometimes Genaro’s father, Jenaro Senior.
Cregg had been with me maybe 4 or 5 years and had risen from carpenter to lead carpenter. Almost everyone worked on Walter and Betty Olds house. Cregg, with his quiet New England nose-to-the-grindstone manner, was Walter’s favorite. Walter managed to keep Cregg on his job for the better of three years. Walter had apprenticed to Frank Lloyd Wright, and Cregg had apprenticed to Walter. We couldn’t get any closer to the source of this beautiful house.
Some time had been spent trying to find the screws we were going to use. The original house had used a zinc plated slot screw and the guesthouse designed by Walter in the 50s had used a zinc plated Phillips tip screw. I didn’t like either. Surprisingly, Walter and Maynard seemed disinterested in the issue. Maynard thought the Phillips screws would be faster to install and they were both content with the zinc look that was used on the original house. I thought a brass screw would look better. Possibly because of my experience in boat building, brass seemed a natural choice. I finally found silicon bronze screws that seemed to be acceptable to everyone and we ordered thousands of them from a source in LA.
Lastly, a treatment had to be selected for the outside wood. We were starting with the exterior walls. We settled on Floods Clear Wood Sealer. We set up a long plastic trough in the driveway. All the exterior wood was taken to the driveway for dipping and then put on drying racks to dry. When ready, it was laid up, board at a time, as a Usonian board and bat walls and then as redwood ceilings. Where there were no cuts to make other than beveling the ends of individual boards, the work went relatively fast. But where boards required multiple cuts, the work was slow. Wright did not use moldings to cover gaps. Conventional finish carpentry is often the application of moldings to cover gaps that the building system naturally allow and expect. For the Buehler House, any gap wider than a playing card was too big and there would be no moldings to cover it.
Every horizontal board, almost by definition, has two vertical cuts, one at each end. If either or both are finished joints abutting other elements, they must be cut or scribed to those other elements, whether they are, for example, the corner of a house or the end of another board. The angle is conceptually a square cut or 90 degrees, generally, but this cannot be counted on. The actual angle must be measured. A single board could easily have 6 or more vertical cuts in it; one at each end, and four for vertical sides of two windows for example. Not only do these cuts have to be precise, they must all be precise at the same time on the same board. There cannot be a mistake. If there is, the board is lost and the carpenter must start over again. The carpenter’s adage is “Measure twice, cut once.” With the expense of the wood and the potential investment of time into what might ultimately be lost, our adage might have been, “Make a mistake, cut off your arm.” This was suggested to me by Paul Disco, who, when I visited with him, was building Larry Ellison’s $150 million Japanese motif estate in Woodside, California.
The horizontal boards went up at such a slow pace that the carpenters laughingly claimed they put the date on the back of each board to show when it was cut. This was not actually the case. Everyone wanted to be as efficient as possible and while the work was demanding, everyone wanted it to proceed as quickly as possible.
The ceiling boards were even more challenging on a number of counts. One of the most challenging is that the ceiling boards with their distinct profile often traveled around corners or were part of a pattern that required boards to change direction at right angles or even, in some places, at different angles such as 135 degrees. There were also many penetrations such as the square redwood light boxes Wright, and then Walter, used as down lights. Lastly, the ceiling boards traveled inside and outside of the building at the same time. The large overhanging eves were an extension of the lower ceilings of the house and while the actual board stopped at the exterior walls, the pattern had to continue on the other side of the wall. As I sometimes explained to people when I gave a tour of the house, you could conceptually put a marble in one of the groves of the ceiling and it would travel all around the house, inside and out, and come back to the same point.
Lastly, something might be said of the screws that were used to hold the siding and ceiling boards in place, or more precisely, of the person who installed the screws. The carpenters used almost invisible pin nails to set the boards but once they were in place, the silicon bronze screws were applied. Almost all of the thousands of screws put in the building were applied by Genaro Junior. He had come from Mexico to join his father who worked for me. He was about 19 years of age. He came from a farm between Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende. Wood working tools were new to him. When he first arrived, we used him as a laborer to dip and stack the exterior siding. As the siding started to go up, Cregg showed him how to use a cordless screw driver to set the screws so their heads were flush and tight to the surface of the boards; not at angles or breaking the surface, and set so their slots were parallel to the boards or horizontal to the earth. They also had to be perfectly placed on the boards and bats. There was no way to cover up screw holes in the wrong place.
Screwing slot screws, particularly with a power screwdriver can be treacherous. It is easy for the tip to slip off the screw and gouge the wood. I know of no instance in which this happened. I know of no instance where the wood is splintered or where a screw is not perfectly flat. I know of no screw placed in the wrong local. I know of no screw slot that is not horizontal although Genaro has told me there is one screw in the entire house that has a vertical slot and only he knows where it is: talent and a sense of humor. I am thankful that he along with everyone but Cregg and my son are still with Alward Construction as employees.
THE LIVING ROOM CEILING
There are two areas where the original ceiling boards connect to new boards. One is the carport and other is the living room. Both had smoke damage and in the case of the living room, there was some light charring. We gave minimal attention to the carport but the living room, on the other hand, was a highlight of the house and we wanted the best possible end result.
One of the challenges in laying out the ceiling boards of the entire house was that they had to line up with the existing boards. In a conventional house one could treat the ceiling of each room as its own piece of work. In the Usonian house the layout of the entire ceiling, with the pattern of its specially milled boards, was of one design and encompassed the whole house as if the individual rooms and their exterior walls didn’t exist. Fortunately, the ceiling module of the carport and living room lined up. While the horizontal module had been affected by earth settlement, the north-south and east-west coordinates of the two ends of the house had not changed over time.
The living room is an octagonal shape at the end of the residential wing. Its roof however is a square that sits symmetrically on top of the octagon living room with large overhanging eves on the outside. The square roof is set a at 45 degree angle to the axis of the residential wing. The geometry is essentially a large square with an octagon scribed within the square. The ceiling boards of the living room are laid up to follow the square and travel around the square, stopping short to leave a large 12’ x 12’ square in the center of the ceiling. This center was open to the sky after the fire, possible by the firemen to let the smoke out. In the finished house, this square is gold leaf.
The entire roof of the living room is pitched up at a dramatic slope that starts about 4 feet off the floor at the lower edge and goes to about 14 feet at the high point. Entry to the living room from the front door requires passage through the low portion of the ceiling, which of course is not possible. Accordingly, there is a passage literally cut into the roof-ceiling construction. Wright essentially created a dormer. While in principle, it is conceptually simple, because of the use of boards for a ceiling finish, Wright in fact created a geometric conundrum.
At this place in the story, the living room roof had been repaired. The charred wood of the remaining ceiling boards had been scrapped down to good wood. The smoke eradication had been accomplished. Now it was time to bring the new ceiling boards into the living room and line them up with the old. Cregg was back east with his family. A few years earlier his brother had been killed by a drunken driver. The family held an annual memorial golf tournament fundraiser and it was important for Cregg to be there. Back at the job everyone had their tasks laid out and I was on call if something arose.
I got a call from my son Matthew who was doing the ceiling where the long boards of the gallery projected from the master bedroom to the entry foray at the front door and then traveled on to where, after making a 45 degree turn, they lined up with the ceiling boards of the living room. At this point, they had to travel down at right angles on the wall where the roof has been cut into to allow head height. If you like, it’s analogous to the vertical wall of a roof dormer. The sloping ceiling of the living room intersects this vertical wall.
Having located for me in words where he was working, Matthew went on to say “The boards I’m doing don’t work.” “What doesn’t work?” I asked. “The boards; they don’t line up.” I was panicked. Did we get the layout wrong? Were the new gallery ceiling boards off the module? Had Cregg made a critical error in lay out? This could be disastrous. “No, the module is right”, Matthew answered, “But the boards can’t line up. It’s impossible because they have to be cut at a diagonal and a diagonal cut is longer than a square cut.” I was lost. “Say again.” Matthew went on, “The ends of the boards with the square cut have to line up with the boards with the diagonal cut and they can’t because they are different widths.” Matthew tried to make himself clear but I couldn’t follow and certainly had no solution for him. I said I’d come out but I couldn’t make it right away. He’d have to wait and do something else till I got there.
Not long afterwards I got a call. “You don’t have to come out. I figured it out.” What did you do?” I asked, still not fully comprehending the problem. “I made my own ceiling boards with a tapper so they go from the regular milled sized to match the same boards when cut at a diagonal.” “You changed the pattern in the boards?” I asked worriedly. “You can’t see it; it looks fine.” he reassured me. I remained lost. I would have to see what he was talking about to understand.
His work was so flawless that the solution to a true geometric paradox remains totally unknowable except by an act of reason. I wonder whether Wright was even aware of the paradox he created. But the fact is, his design could not be accomplished with the boards that defined the ceiling module without there being special boards, hand carved to accommodate the different dimension between a square and diagonal cut across a board.
Keith R. Alward