Historic Preservation: A House with Character
By: Ryan Hewson, Director of Preservation at Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation
“A house that has character stands a good chance of growing more valuable as it grows older while a house in the prevailing mode, whatever that mode may be, is one out of fashion, stale, and unprofitable.”
From “In the Cause of Architecture” 1908 (Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings, Vol. 1, pp. 87-88).
Historic preservation can take many forms and is important to an understanding and experience of our past. Adaptive reuse is a way that many historic buildings are preserved and given new life. A local example of this is a bank that was converted into a restaurant. In the case of Taliesin, the preservation work is focused on the preservation and restoration of the buildings, to show what the property looked like in the last decade of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life. However, there is also a component of having life in the buildings and being able to experience them. This is as simple as allowing guests to sit on furniture in the living room at the main house, to as complex as having onsite residents- such as the Food Artisan Immersion Program.
To achieve all these goals, the Foundation’s preservation team, along with dedicated contractors and volunteers, continually work on the buildings and grounds. This involves tasks as simple as repairing a failed window or sash, to as complex as underpinning 6,000 square feet of the Taliesin residence. When I started in preservation, with my first exposure growing up in a house built in the 1800s that my family worked to restore, I assumed it was a series of checklists and was pretty straightforward. However, like most things in life, preservation is anything but straightforward. Especially with a unique and complex site like Taliesin. The buildings at Taliesin were built with a combination of skilled and unskilled labor, so that causes challenges as inappropriate methods of construction may have been used. An example of this is using Portland concrete as mortar for limestone walls. This was a relatively new material during the various construction and additions to Taliesin; however, it is far too hard for the stone and should have been pointed in a softer lime-based mortar. The intention of preservation at this point would be to preserve that (even though it is an incorrect application) because it is how the building was constructed and contributes to its story. Additionally, it would be impossible to fully take apart these large masonry walls and reconstruct them with lime mortar. The reason for this is we would lose many stones and would be very hard to have the weathered character that they have achieved over the years. This is an example of intention/preservation of that intention, colliding with material knowledge. In contrast, many of the flat roofs at Taliesin were originally just coated in tar. In this instance, we have replaced the tar coating with rubber membranes. These function much better and are similar in appearance to the tar coating. This decision was made because it helps increase the longevity of the roofs and protect the interior spaces.
For a decision like the above- how did we get there? What are our steps? Here at Taliesin, it was decided that the period of restoration would be the decade of the 1950s with a preference to 1959, for the entire estate, including landscapes. In addition, the buildings were divided into 3 zones- 1, 2, and 3. Zone 1 covers all the exteriors of the buildings and the important historic spaces (i.e. the main level of the Taliesin Residence), Zone 2 covers secondary spaces, such as the basement of the Taliesin main residence, while the goal is to preserve historic materials, there is more leeway for rehabilitation in these spaces. Finally, there are zone 3 spaces these are kitchens, bathrooms, and mechanical rooms, areas in which code and safe installation of mechanical units, takes precedence over the building. These help us make decisions about our interventions. For example, in the Taliesin residence, we did extensive work in the basement, and to help structural integrity above, furred out some walls in the basement. This means that we don’t have to impact the more valued historic spaces above, in this case, the living room. So these serve as a guide for our decision-making. There is also a Preservation Committee of the board that we report to and will help with larger issues/decisions. In addition, we also work with the Wisconsin Historical Society to review and approve larger interventions- such as the work currently happening at the theatre and adhere to the guidelines set forth by the Secretary of the Interior (who is the federal agency tasked with historic preservation standards/guidelines).
Another important distinction in working on historic buildings, there are 4 actions that we can take:
Preservation– maintaining/preserving what is existing, i.e., using wood epoxy and other methods to repair existing trims, without a full replacement.
Restoration– removal of features added after the period of restoration, for example removing plaster that was put over stone after Wright’s death.
Rehabilitation– allows for updating systems such as electrical, communication, etc. Making adjustments to accommodate modern life. An example at Taliesin is the residential spaces are often rehabilitations to better meet the needs of people in the 21st century.
Reconstruction– rebuilding something that no longer exists, based on historic evidence. An example of this would be the Tan-y-Deri porch which was reconstructed using historic photos, drawings, and oral histories.
Almost all preservation projects are a combination of the first three, preserving what you can, restoring what you need to, and rehabilitating and modernizing systems. The current project at the theatre has all of these components. In the basement area we are doing a rehabilitation, to provide structural repairs and to turn that into a green room/spaces that serve the theatre, in the theatre we are focused on preservation as the finishes retain a high degree of historic authenticity. In some cases, we will need to restore trims or other pieces that are too far degraded to receive preservation. An example of this would be rebuilding the main theatre doors as the historic ones had received too much wear and damage to be reasonably be preserved.
Taliesin, from its inception, has been based on hard work and effort. Wright and the Fellowship spent untold hours working on the buildings, to both build them and maintain them. Quite simply Taliesin was and remains a labor of love. The work at Taliesin has never stopped, only changed in focus. With the death of Mr. and Mrs. Wright, the work to preserve and maintain the building as opposed to adding to it was what took precedent. Like the Fellowship this has involved untold hours of dedicated craftspeople over many years. Taliesin will always need care and reward those who care for it with its beauty.
All historic preservation work is done in conjunction with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, the owners of the Taliesin estate.