This fall, the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio has been getting modest makeover. The historic site’s 40-year-old roof is being replaced, the two chimneys have been tuckpointed, and shingles on the east and south gables of the home are being replaced.
“We do preservation work routinely, but it isn’t always visible to the public,” said Celeste Adams, president and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust. “But this roof project is. We wanted to reassure our neighbors that the new shingles will look different in color, but they will weather and return to the shade that people associate with the house.”
Local contractor Von Dreele-Freerksen is heading up the project, and Doug Freerksen said he couldn’t be more excited about being involved in the project. Freerksen, who co-founded VDF 40 years ago with Pete Von Dreele, noted that he has consulted on restoration work done at the Home & Studio in the past in his capacity as a member of the village’s Historic Preservation Commission, but this is the first time VDF has worked on the house professionally.
When he and Von Dreele started their business, it was with a passion for historic preservation and for restoring Prairie Style homes. Over the past four decades, VDF has worked on more than 30 Wright-designed homes, so they bring a lot of experience to Wright’s own home.
With any of VDF’s projects Freerksen said, “We always like to do our own pragmatic research, so we know what was there originally. Wright was not a fan of doing the same thing twice, but we do know what to look for. He only practiced in Oak Park for about fifteen years, and he used a lot of technology for the era.”
“Through a magnifying glass and with simple observation, we can learn what’s original and what’s been replaced,” he added.
With the chimney, VDF employed a drone to look down the flue and take photos of the mortar joints, caulk and cracks. Freerksen said that with this technology, they can learn about a building in a couple of hours — in contrast to a couple of days after sending someone up on the roof.
The chimneys were not touched during the 1970’s restoration of the building, and Freerksen said that they were so deteriorated “that you could literally put a finger through some of the mortar joints and some of the bricks.”
VDF took the chimneys down and rebuilt them with all of the original bricks that could be salvaged. They were careful to preserve the “ghosting” on the bricks, which provided evidence of where the roofline might have been altered with gables, terraces or awnings. Freerksen noted that it was important to preserve those faint outlines because a preservationist or historian might want to study those in the future.
Another key to rebuilding the chimneys was the mortar. The original mortar was a lime putty mortar that Freerksen said had visible lime chips. While the mortar didn’t stand the test of time, VDF wanted to recreate the same visual look with the new mortar. They worked with Henry Frerk & Sons of Chicago to do a mortar analysis and create a mortar mix that matched the original mortar visually, but without the structural defects.
“If we didn’t do this, people might look at the building and think this was new,” Freerksen said. “We want it to look as close to 1909 as possible.”
On the roof, VDF is re-roofing with cedar shingles. If roofed according to today’s standards with roofing felt and ice dams, a cedar shingle roof might have a lifenspan of 25 years. Freerksen said VDF is using the technique likely used by Wright and used during the 1970’s restoration. This method sets the 18-inch shingles over 1×6 pine sheathing boards with spacing that allows the cedar to breathe. This method provides a 40-to-50-year life span for the roof.
The shingles for the gables were originally stained, not painted, and Freerksen said getting the color right was an important part of the process. With only one supplier of the stain still in existence and no perfect color match, they devised a mix of available stains to approximate the original dark color for the shingles.
These details may seem small.
“As you can tell, we’re just really into this stuff. We are delighted to be there.” Freerksen said.
Freerksen also noted that there’s a difference in restoring a Frank Lloyd Wright home and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio. “We want to be correct, but we don’t want to overdo it,” he said. An original Wright design benefits from not being over-maintained or modernized, he added.
“There’s a real critical difference between a privately held Frank Lloyd Wright home and this one. My personal goal is that I want the Home & Studio to be established not just as a restoration but as a protected building in the neighborhood in which it resides. This building was designed as part residence and part commercial building, but it’s main role now is as a tourist destination.”
At the end of the day, he said, “This suits the neighborhood, it suits the neighbors, it suits the Historic Preservation Commission, and it suits the goals of the Trust to showcase this treasure.”
The work was made possible by a gift from the Goshorn/Schumann Trust. Dawn Schumann was a founding volunteer at the Home & Studio and the first president of the Trust.
Adams said that the Home & Studio remains open for tours while the work is being completed and noted that some visitors have enjoyed being able to see the preservation work in progress.
Looking ahead, Adams noted that 925 Chicago Avenue, the home to the east of the Home & Studio that is owned by the trust, will also be further restored. While the house has recently received exterior updates, Adams said a grant from the state will allow the trust to focus on the interior. The work, which will begin in the spring of 2024, will allow the interior to house an FLW reading room and archives on the first floor, as well as a work center on the second floor.