Architecture: Restoring Wright

Just four years ago, preservationists considered a 1906 Frank Lloyd Wright house—dramatically built into the bluff of a ravine on Chicago's North Shore—among the most endangered of the architect's 15 houses then for sale. They worried that developers would demolish the 4,300-square-foot home in upscale Glencoe, Ill., and build another McMansion, like the ones that had been popping up nearby—or that they would need to take it out of the ravine, moving it to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.

But Wright fans got lucky. A retired biologist named Jeannine Majde read an article about the plight of the William A. Glasner House, so named for its original owner. She clipped and mailed it to an old college friend and Wright fan, Jack Reed. "I sent him a note with the suggestion that he go for it,'" she recalls.

He went for it. In June 2003, Reed paid $1.5 million for the unusual house, including two octagonal rooms, ornate stained-glass windows and a generous living room with a vaulted ceiling. He expects to spend an additional $2.5 million renovating it. "I was never looking to do this," Reed says. But he took it on, "knowing that the Glasner House was threatened with destruction, and hearing about it from someone who was important to me."

Today more than 400 of Wright's structures are still standing, but 77 have been demolished (including two Mississippi houses lost during Hurricane Katrina). Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives in Scottsdale, Ariz., and once a friend of Wright himself, says he is "sure" Wright would be happy with Reed's efforts. "It's a charming house. It's a one-of-a-kind house," he says. With its dramatic ravine setting, it's considered a precursor to Taliesin, built six years later along a hill in Spring Green, Wis., and to Fallingwater, built three decades later, cantilevered over a waterfall in Bear Run, Pa.

Even in 1906, a century before being "green" was all the rage, Wright took the environment into thoughtful consideration. The Glasner House and the site "intermingle," says Reed, illustrating how Wright tended to design without a sharp difference between the interior and exterior. "The house is so sensitively related to the site that the windows change color when the leaves change color," says Reed. "You can imagine Wright smiling to himself about that."

This summer the spirit of Wright will have more reason to smile as Reed and his team of architects and contractors start restoring the home, built when the architect, who lived from 1867-1959, was 38. Their efforts will include strengthening the living-room walls and ceiling with a rigid steel frame and getting rid of un-Wright-like renovations made by previous owners—not as much a facelift as "a resurrection," says lead architect John Vinci, who has helped restore nine other Wright houses.

The home—just one block from Lake Michigan—is spacious but small compared to some of the houses that have recently cropped up near the once-isolated lot. Commissioned by a midlevel banker and his wife, the house was built on a budget. Vinci estimates William and Cora Glasner paid Wright about $250 for his drawings. At the time, Wright was relatively unknown and, with seven kids to feed, constantly broke. Families like the Glasners hired him because they wanted a special but affordable house. "He had to make architecture out of as little means as he could," says Vinci. He succeeded. "There are no two Wright houses the same," says Ronald Scherubel, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. "Each one shows a different stage of Wright's career. [The Glasner House] was one of his earliest site-specific houses."

And making architecture for Wright meant experimenting with unusual structures and settings—the Glasner House is, as a result, both a dramatic and efficient use of space. Guests enter the front door and see the 20-by-27-foot space with Wright's massive roman-brick fireplace, the home's anchor. It's still there. Reed and Vinci plan to restore a shelf built across the front of the fireplace, seen in photos and drawings of the home.

Cora Glasner wanted a modest home with no servants. At least that's what she wrote in a Feb. 10, 1907, Chicago Tribune story, headlined KEEPING HOUSE IN BUNGALOW: WHY WE EAT IN THE PARLOR: "Do away, dear friends, with your dining room if your family is small—not over two or three." And in fact, the Glasner House has no separate dining room—Cora simply used a two-decked cart to bring food into the living room.

But over time, subsequent owners—particularly husband-and-wife architects named the Nedveds, who lived in the home for 43 years—would make changes. "They monkeyed with the house," says Reed. "There's a lot to be undone." Reed doesn't judge previous owners, though, since he is happy all of them kept the house from being torn down. Reed and Vinci also plan to rip out the oak floor and restore it to fir. They'll put on a new cedar roof because they think Wright used wood shingles. And they'll get rid of most of the gutters, which Wright never liked. Not everything will conform to Wright's vision, though: original plans called for a bridge to a tea house, but it was never built. And now it wouldn't fit because the Nedveds sold off the 42 feet of land where it would have sat.

Indeed, to create a house that's livable in the 21st century, Reed and his architects are making a few concessions. Wright designed the home with only one bedroom, one bathroom and no garage. Reed plans to use Wright's unfinished space on the home's lower level for two more bedrooms and one and a half bathrooms. He will keep other Wright touches, like the sewing room on the upper level. As part of this project, he will eventually restore the natural landscaping—including the ravine, and "re-establish the relationship between the house and the native landscape," according to Stephen Christy, Reed's landscape architect.

For all the work and money he's putting into the project, Reed, 69, may never live in the house himself; he'll likely sell the refurbished property. The Glasner House was conceived as a residence for a small family, he says. "I want somebody to live in it and love it," Reed says. "I want to get the most elaborate preservation easement anyone's ever heard of." To that end, in February 2005, Reed—with the help of historical consultant Jean Guarino Clark—officially got the house onto the National Register of Historic Places. In 2003, Reed also helped save Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, west of Chicago. But house-rescuing is not something he wants to make a habit of. "If anyone hears of some other building threatened, don't call me. I've done my share," he says with a laugh.

The redo will be as environmentally friendly as possible, although some energy-saving fixes are out of the question. Wright's original windows are "kind of sacred," not to be replaced with insulating glass, says Paul Kraemer, an architect working on the restoration. They're insulating the roof and most of the walls. And they'll install a "geothermal" heating and cooling system. In the summer, the system will take heat from inside the house and eject it into the ground, which can hold onto that energy until winter, when it will recycle it as heat back into the house. Such a system—about $25,000 more than a traditional $60,000 heating-and-cooling system in a historic house would run—will add to the renovation bill. But it should result in energy savings of 25 to 30 percent a year, so the cost will be repaid in about seven years, according to Scott Beglinger, project manager of IBC Engineering.

Members of the Glencoe Historic Preservation Commission are "beyond thrilled" with all of this, says Eddis Goodale, the group's chairman. "He's not only correcting some, shall we say, 'remuddling' that was done by some prior owners, but he is in fact resolving a structural issue that existed in that home since it was built." If a developer had bought it, "I think we would have been lying on the street in front of the bulldozer." Now he, and Wright, can rest easy.

(Next: Check back in the coming months as Reed and his team get further into their renovation efforts.)