By Dan Nichols

Not all Wright houses can survive as house museums for “architourists.” To survive into the future, many must remain desirable places in which to live for people of the present day. Owners Dan Nichols and Christine Denario have been making limited subtle alterations to the modest Sweeton House (1950) in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to accommodate the stuff and mechanics of present day life with a goal of keeping Wright’s original intent and aesthetic intact.

As with most of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, the J.A. Sweeton House began with a letter:

August 10, 1948
Dear Mr. Wright…
“…our life is informal and unpretentious…”
“…could you design us an informal ranch-type house with three bedrooms?”
“…Building costs and post-war problems had dwindled our hopes of ever realizing our dream until we read Mr. Loren Pope’s story in a recent copy of House Beautiful- if Mr. Pope could do it, so must we! Can you help us?
Sincerely,
Muriel & Alfred Sweeton

Wright’s response:
“We would like to help you…”
FLlW September 6, 1948

The Sweetons lived in their home from fall 1951 until June of 1974, by which time they had retired and the property was requiring more of them physically—and due to zoning changes, financially—than they were willing to give. The zoning change placed the Sweeton lot in a commercial office district along its highway frontage, making the house difficult to sell as a house. A deal was struck with a developer who agreed to purchase the property and subdivide the acreage allowing the house to remain behind an office building to be constructed close to the highway. Within a year of the Sweetons’ sale of the property, the house alone was sold to a resident owner who held it until he sold the house in March of 2008 to Dan and Christine.

Overgrown, damp, mildewed, lacking a working septic system and mildly infested with the local fauna best described the Sweeton House when we bought it… but it was a Wright design that, even in a diminished state, had the power of great art.

Though almost buried in brush, with its roll and batten roof long covered with common builder 3-tab shingles, the long horizontal lines of the house and its dramatic carport cantilever still captured the eye. Once we bought the house, we spent about a year cleaning it and living with it and doing “simple” things, such as brush and weed tree removal, which needed to be done while we decided upon and developed strategies for the larger, more complex tasks.

Strategy for a Sensitive “Restovation” to a Modest Home

Primary Goals:

  • Keep the house a desirable and convenient place for current and future users.
  • Hold true to original design intent (“informal, unpretentious”)
  • Maintain Wright’s “grammar” (materials and details of construction)

How?

  • Use existing house as a pattern book.
  • Need a detail? Look for it in the house.
  • When in doubt, WWWD? (What Would Wright Do)?
  • Look for similar situations at other Wright houses of the period.

Following tree and brush removal, replacement of the septic system (on the previous owner’s dime), removal of a buried (thankfully not leaking) home heating oil tank, running natural gas the 450’ from the main in the highway to the house, and fuel conversion of the boiler and domestic hot water heating, we began to address the living spaces of the house. Projects were done one at a time to allow us to continue living in the house, and to keep cash flow as fluid as possible. We were successful on both counts for the most part.

For our first project, we chose to begin small in a room that desperately needed repair: the bathroom.

Before: Modify the vanity to allow Christine to reach the medicine cabinet, replace the cracked and leaking sink, and address water damage to wood surround and cabinet interior.

After: The cabinet face was refinished and reset on a resized new carcass; the sink was replaced with an ergonomically more suitable unit from IKEA; and slate 1x1 tile was applied to ¼” Hardie Board mounted to the original redwood veneer plywood. This method of mounting will allow relatively clean removal of the tile at some future date if a subsequent owner wishes to refinish or otherwise repair the original plywood. The tile was cut and set to continue the lines of the wood battens.

Before: Replace tub which had begun to rust, and create a manageable, water tolerant surround that was not from “Bathfitter”.

After

Our second interior project addressed another discrete space in need of repair: the workspace (the kitchen to the rest of the world).

During renovation

Base cabinets are worn, rotted, and falling apart; redwood veneer face panels are salvageable. Original stainless sink is deep and salvageable, but faucet and mounting are shot.

Clothes washer located in kitchen; 60+ year old range not fully working; burners are too close to wall cabinets; 4’9 ½” tall owner stands on range to reach upper cabinets! Upper cabinets are in good condition and will of course stay.

Our strategy is to replace cabinets down low, and to provide better and easier access to those up high. The new base cabinets on the sink side of the room will outwardly match the originals in height and door spacing, though with more rugged cherry veneer and modern pull-out trays within. The stove side of the room will receive new base cabinets set at a lower height to allow the new cooktop more clearance from the original wall cabinets to remain… the lower height is also more ergonomically suited to Christine.

The cooktop is selected as two separate two burner units to allow the burners to be all in one line and NOT under the very dry and flammable 60+ year old wall cabinets. The stove side base cabinets will also be reconfigured functionally to a series of drawers to better access the items to be stored… otherwise, details such as knobs will be replicated. A dish drawer will replace the clothes washer.

The removal of the clothes washer from the kitchen meant that all laundry functions could now be in one room, this time closer to the bedrooms. The house didn’t have a clothes dryer until the early 1970s, and when one was added, it was set up in the workshop adjacent to the master bedroom, a room that was not equipped with domestic water or drains.

We ran water and sewer pipes to the workshop, but did so from the exterior of the house so as not to disturb existing interior spaces, finishes and systems. This was done a couple of years earlier when we dug up the front yard to remove the buried oil tank and run natural gas to the house. Our next project then would be to fit-out the workshop.

Our most recent project has been our largest and most comprehensive: the reconstruction of the living and dining area window wall; the bolstering of the living room roof structure; and the restoration of the sloped roof back to Wright’s originally specified materials.

The Sweeton House was originally designed to have a cedar shingle roof, but that was changed late in the design process to make the roof more fire resistive at the owner’s request. Wright chose to use a humble red asphalt roll roofing, often used on barns and outbuildings, but with redwood strips or battens set at the edges of the courses of the rolls (about 16” to 18” apart). This “roll & batten” roofing emphasized the horizontal, unified the striated look of the masonry with the geometric planes of the roof, and did so at a much lower cost than metal Bermuda roof which had a similar appearance.

To save cost and prevent wind driven rain and freeze-thaw leaking at the eventually warped and cupped battens, subsequent re-roofings simply removed the battens and overlaid the roof with standard 3 tab asphalt shingles as seen in earlier photos.


Posted on February 1, 2017

Posted February 1, 2017