By Steve Sikora, Owner, The Willey House
In the final, frantic months of construction on the Willey House, winter fast approaching, the pace of correspondence between Nancy Willey and Taliesin rose to a fever pitch, with a thousand and one dangling questions. Some of the anxiously-awaited details were incidental. Some were defining. The question of thresholds was an especially delicate topic, but one of great consequence.
The first written record hinting at the disputed living room threshold appeared in a September 5, 1934, letter from Nancy Willey. Her tone suggests a slightly elevated pulse rate, but her research is solid and her arguments level-headed. One senses that this particular topic of conversation with Taliesin had been going on for some time. To apprentice Edgar Tafel she wrote:
About the door-stops: the only automatic weather-stripping I know of is the Chamberlin IN-DOR-SEAL, which they claim is very definitely only useable for inside doors. If tried on outside doors, they would freeze and be torn out. My doors present an added problem because of the brick floor, which is uneven even if the joints are flush. What are the joints of the floor to be? The really good tight ways of making outside doors tight seem to be with sills, as far as I can find out. Is there a company that makes automatic weather-stripping for outside doors? Can you tell me the name of it, so that I can get in touch with it?
The next recorded account dates more than a month later, in an October 11th letter from Nancy to Gene Masselink:
Here’s our last argument on the subject of thresholds. I think it’s a good one. I understand that Mr. Wright’s feeling about the brick floors is that when the doors are opened in summer that the bricks inside and the brick outside will seem all of a piece unbroken, one big room. Well, here’s the joker: – when does one ever have all the doors open? In the winter the glass doors are closed and in the summer when the glass doors are opened, the screen doors are there and CLOSED. Always one’s house is closed at the door sills…by one or the other…I doubt if there is even a week’s gap between the seasons: as soon as the doors can be opened, the screens are clapped on.
The disadvantage of the Spanglers automatic doorstop would be especially great in the small bedroom; in this room the doors are the only source of ventilation, and a door would have to be forced open no matter what the weather; the felt strip frozen to the brick would be sure to be torn off and the whole mechanism get out of order.
As a general principle, I think it wise to avoid mechanical things that do get out of order, whenever a non-mechanical thing will serve.
In her letter, Nancy Willey articulated Wright’s intention behind the seamless transition between living room and terrace. For a more thorough explanation see the Willey House Stories: The Space Within: Part 3, “Sense of Shelter”.
The terrace outside the living room appeared to be simply a slab of exterior masonry, but that was only to the untrained eye. In fact, the triangular terrace, to Wright, was an extension of the living room floor, one continuous plane, bridging interior to exterior space. From his perspective, any interruption in the laid brick flowing from inside to out would defeat the entire purpose, even if all the doors were rarely flung wide open to display that marvel of continuity!
Wright’s suggestion of the automatic door bottoms demonstrates his mounting desperation to achieve his goal of a seamless brick floor. But even Nancy, who truly wanted to believe, knew there was faulty logic behind the idea. Nancy Willey the idealist wanted to follow Wright’s ideas to the letter, but Nancy Willey the pragmatist was the one who would be living in this house. In all fairness, Wright took a similar masonry approach at the entrance to his own home Taliesin, except it was executed in flagstones rather than brick. He certainly experienced at Taliesin everything Nancy fretted over.
On Oct 13, 1934 Wright wrote back:
Let’s see if the mechanical threshold will freeze to the terrace if the felt is oiled. FLLW
Nancy didn’t even respond. Or if she did, her letter didn’t survive Wright’s reaction to it.
It wasn’t until a month later that the topic, now perilously in need of an answer, was addressed once again. On November 12, 1934, Nancy wrote:
Dear Mr. Wright,
I have not had my last battle yet about the thresholds. The last battle is around the living room doors, which are the most important. You remember that the brick floor under the skylights has a pitch; that makes it difficult for the screen door to swing in unless it is raised. The amount necessary to raise it, for it to clear the floor is about 5⁄8 inch…a triumphal archway to mosquitoes, flies, ants and all the insect comedy.
Since there is the shoe all around the floor edges throughout the room itself, why can’t we take this same shoe for a door sill? I can get a brass, interlocking threshold for the glass doors that is concealed from the inside and the outside…placed on the wood shoe, on which the screen can close tightly. Though the reliable companies refuse to install the automatic weather strip on any outside doors, yet I would take a chance and go ahead contrary to all advice if it were not for the flies…they are a formidable enemy. If you don’t want the threshold, perhaps a single strip could be nailed down in the summer against which the screen door could close. But would it stay in place? Would it be any better than the whole sill?
The “shoe” Nancy refers to is the cypress base shoe that fills the gap where plaster or wood meets floor. It runs around the base of all walls in the Willey House. The shape is very similar, but not the exact same profile as the base shoe used at Taliesin. And yes, we had to buy a custom tool to mill several lengths of it.
On November 14th, Frank Lloyd Wright’s emphatically curt response was:
Dear Nancy Willey:
The screen doors can be cut on the slope thus:
and filled with a leather flap –
1⁄2″ clearance at the center and about half way back is all that will
be needed. The rest will be in the clearance anyway.
Let us have no thresholds. Amen.
Frank Lloyd Wright
TALIESIN: SPRING GREEN: WISCONSIN:
I’m sure the idea of using the wooden base shoe made his eyes roll back into his head. Wright only addressed the issue of the sloping floor and the screens, which open inward. He suggested that in place of a threshold on the floor, a strap of leather be substituted; tacked onto the bottom of the screen door, squeegee fashion to hold back every force of nature.
As happened in a very few instances when practicality became too important to ignore, Nancy ended the discussion with a resolute silence and proceeded with what she thought was best. In this case, it was the addition of aluminum thresholds beneath the bank of French doors.
We had three guiding principles in our restoration of the Willey House:
- What was Wright’s intention?
- What was the as-built condition and why?
- What must be done to assure the long-term preservation of the house?
By the time we were ready to deal with replacement of the French doors I had read most of the correspondence. I appreciated the aesthetic beauty of the unbroken brick ground plane that Wright desired. At the same time, living my entire life in the upper Midwest, I had no trouble grasping Nancy Willey’s understandable concerns about coexisting with an air gap below an entire wall of French doors, and its many implications: the intrusion of insects, rodents and snakes, pooling rainwater, blowing snow, frigid drafts, not to mention the tremendous heat loss it would facilitate.
Now that we understood the problem Nancy Willey was unwilling to live with, as well as Wright’s design intent, it was possible, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, to find a compromise solution; one that did not require any special mechanisms that would lead to premature failure, and one that would preserve the integrity of Wright’s purity of plane. Our answer didn’t even feel like a compromise.
The aluminum thresholds had done their jobs passably well but looked every bit as graceless as Wright feared. Because of our urgent need to rebuild the rotted French doors and the entire structural system supporting the south wall, it was required to remove some bricks to mitigate a water problem. The original vertical 2”x 6” planks that supported the south wall were set directly on the concrete mat and bricked around. Rainwater, in short order, ran down between the bricks, was absorbed into the wood and rotted the supports to a point around eight inches above grade, inadvertently creating one of Wright’s astonishing feats of defying gravity. Fortuitously, the stout cypress trim boards between the doors were robust enough to support the entire wall and the trellis cantilevered over it. We devised steel plinths to elevate the wood posts off the concrete mat to prevent water from wicking into them.
While this area was deconstructed, an idea came to mind. What if we could make new thresholds out of red brick to match the floors and terrace, eliminating the need for a tacked-on threshold solution? It just so happened that we were in a felicitous working relationship with a custom brick-making studio out of Tennessee called StoneArt Inc. They were able to match in color, texture and firing, the brick we could no longer source as salvage. That is a story in itself. But since I was in regular communication with Lynda Evans of StoneArt, I asked if she thought she could make some threshold bricks. She agreed to it.
I made a drawing of what I had in mind, a repetition of two-piece units that would bridge the interior and exterior brick planes and hopefully align the grout lines. The idea looked simple in plan, but the geometry was complicated. Not only were there sloping sides with different pitches facing inside and out, but the bricks themselves were set at a 30˚ diagonal to the line of doors. I asked Stafford Norris, who was undertaking the house restoration, to make a few wooden models to test in place. If they worked as hoped, I’d send those physical models to StoneArt along with the plans. Stafford fabricated a clutch of wood mockups and tested them. After we decided they were a success, he took the scheme one step further and cast a latex rubber mold of one of the wood blocks. Now I was able to send Lynda a measured drawing, a wooden mockup and a mold. She was told, “If the bricks you make don’t fit the mold, don’t ship them.”
When the palette of threshold bricks arrived, we were elated. The result was even better than we had imagined. Stafford and his brother Josh, who assisted him for two of the five and one half years of restoration work, saw-cut a channel below the French doors and set the remarkable new brick threshold. Unlike the original installation, in which the concrete mat and overlaying bricks beneath the aluminum thresholds were continuous, without any thermal break, Stafford added an insulting barrier atop the floor slab, which prevented frost from being transmitted into the living space during extremely cold weather.
With the brick threshold in place, new French doors were built to accommodate the slight elevation in floor height. The doors were fitted with silicone rubber gaskets on their bottom edge as contact seals against the raised threshold bricks.
A second brick threshold, constructed of straight rather than diagonal bricks, was created for the study, which also has a brick floor. Here the terrace and floor bricks ran in line with the length of the house, so the solution is much less complex.
Visitors often ask if the threshold bricks were cut to shape. A cut brick looks nothing like a molded and fired brick. The only way to achieve our intended result was to have the brick custom-fabricated. So we did. We were introduced to StoneArt through one of the several brick restoration companies we worked with. Though I eventually fired the referring company, I am very grateful for the introduction. I honestly don’t know of any other resource capable of fabricating custom, made-to-order brick in a comparable way.
The brick threshold looks completely natural. It is unobtrusive but effective at keeping wild nature at bay. Sometimes ingenious engineering and unproven new technologies were required to accomplish Frank Lloyd Wright’s built works. I believe that, just as often, clever solutions are required to keep Wright’s vision intact. In many cases his architectural ideas were uninhibited by commonsense methodology. The daring features of his architecture often exceeded the technologies of the day. While this custom brick threshold could have been made in 1934, it would have broken the bank for Malcolm and Nancy, building on a fixed budget. But in restoring the house, it was worth the time, effort and expense to get it Wright. Yes, it took about 70 years, but we achieved, I believe, what should have been done when the house was first erected.
Getting it Wright, a series for building stewards and preservationists, offers advice on restoration and maintenance of Wright homes citing real world case studies. The first two articles were contributed by Steve Sikora, owner of the Willey House. Read the first article, “Getting it Wright: The Gasman Cometh”
Posted June 16, 2022