Live here long enough, and it’s part of the standard conversation: What kind of work have you done on your house? Whether it’s a new roof, new paint job or sealing a basement, old homes require maintenance of a certain sort that often engenders a new pastime among homeowners and a constant search for a referral for whatever the next to-do item is on the maintenance list.
Historic homes are trouble enough for most homeowners, but what happens when your home happens to be a Frank Lloyd Wright home? When you live in an architectural masterpiece, the stakes can seem much higher.
For Dawn and Ed McGee, owners of Wright’s William Fricke House, upkeep wasn’t just for their own peace of mind. They quickly learned that living in a Wright home means having a much larger audience. With the help of local contractor Fortune Restoration, the McGees are keeping up a longstanding tradition of careful preservation of their home.
Dawn McGee remembers that she and her husband did not set out to buy an architecturally significant home when they were moving to the Chicago area in 2004. In spite of their best intentions, however, they fell in love with a home that not only dated to 1901, but also garnered plenty of attention for being a Wright design.
“We had narrowed down our search to Oak Park and Evanston, and we ended up looking at this house purely by chance. We didn’t have the time to take on a fixer-upper, and our real estate agent recommended we see the house. Sure enough, we got inside, and it was pristine.”
McGee credits the previous owners, architect Bill Dring and his wife Jan with the condition of the home. McGee said her father-in-law is a huge Frank Lloyd Wright fan, but she didn’t share his enthusiasm at first.
“My first thought, besides ‘What a beautiful house!’ is that I didn’t want to be responsible for this landmark. I was very stressed about it and had to get over that just to purchase the home. When you move into this kind of house, you are aware that more people look at it more critically than other houses.”
But once they decided to take the plunge, the McGees embraced historic home living. Encouraged by their neighbor, one of the leaders of the Wright Home & Studio restoration effort, John Thorpe, the couple agreed to have their house be a part of Wright Plus. McGee recalled that was a motivating factor in taking care of some needed maintenance.
“The house was built in 1901,” she said, “and she’s a woman of a certain age. With stucco, things are constantly dripping off. When we agreed to be part of Wright Plus, we realized that maybe we should spruce up the house. It’s 3,000 people tromping through, so you think, ‘I need to up my game.'”
The previous owners of the Fricke House had used Fortune Restoration for their maintenance work, and the McGees turned to the family-owned business as well. Tom Fortune, who founded the company with his brothers Robert and Peter in 1979, said their relationship with the house spans decades.
“We had the pleasure to work on the house for 20 to 25 years for the current and former owners,” Tom said. “We’ve done the stucco, replaced rotten wood, repaired stucco, painted the wood trim and window casings. We always maintained the original color scheme and made sure we protected the leaded windows. Bill Dring really appreciated the value of hiring one company to do all of these things.”
Dawn and Ed McGee brought Fortune back to the house for painting and plaster work and also asked their help when they rebuilt the wall between the garage and the house.
Fortune noted that his company’s years of working on architecturally significant homes has created a certain skill set that homeowners and preservationists alike appreciate.
“We make sure we do the work in the right order,” he said, “and we train our guys to treat these places like museums. They sand carefully so they don’t damage wood or glass; they don’t put ladders up on copper gutters. We take care and respect. It’s like preserving history.”
Experience with Frank Lloyd Wright homes has prepared the company to work on some of the area’s most architecturally significant homes, including Chicago’s Charnley House, designed by Louis Sullivan with help from his draftsman, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Chicago’s oldest structure, the Noble Seymour Crippen House, which dates to the 1830s.
While the famous homes are certainly great advertising, Fortune said he and his brothers treat every home they work on with the same respect. “In Oak Park and River Forest alone, we’ve worked on hundreds of homes. Using one company for your painting, stucco and carpentry needs really takes the coordination of various trades out of your hands.”
More than 10 years here has led to a certain comfort level for the McGees, who have come to love living in their Wright home.
“We realize that stucco needs a facelift every now and then,” McGee said, “and we love that the crew from Fortune is comfortable with everything that we need done. Living in this house is a little like living next door to Madonna. You realize that all of the excitement has nothing to do with you. A lot of Frank Lloyd Wright fans really do care about how these houses look.”