By Steve Sikora, Owner, The Willey House
Our story began with a door hanger left by the gas company announcing what promised to be a routine inspection of the natural gas meter in the Willey House basement. The scheduler assured me it would take no more than 10 minutes.
On inspection day, Gasman #1, a fidgety chain smoker, arrived early. After a few minutes in the basement he emerged and reported that the gas line looked a bit sketchy to him. He needed to call Gasman #2 to examine the inlet pipe to appraise its condition. If his suspicions were correct and the pipe had exceeded its useful life, they’d want to replace the line and relocate the meter to the outside of the house. In that case, Gasman #3 would be called in to determine how soon.
One hour later, the Bedford Street SE cul-de-sac resembled a utility parking lot, as Gasmen #3, 4 and 5 arrived, each in his own truck. There was a concerted head shaking among them, punctuated with staccato bursts of gas line jargon as they paced to and fro, studying the atypical installation. The gas pipe ran underground from the street to the small basement below the Willey House kitchen. The completion of this journey required a 90-degree turn where the pipe entered the basement wall. Not so strange really, except that the last leg travelled under a sunken, brick paved walkway.
Despite what seemed like an obvious route, their equipment was unable to “locate” the precise path of the pipe using an electromagnetic signal. But company records showed that the original metal pipe was lined with a plastic sleeve in 1979. Their inability to get a locate signal was explained away with the speculation that the ferrous metal pipe had been severed during the polyethylene retrofit. No current flow, thus no signal. I was not alarmed, until one of them suggested that they might have to tear up the brick walkway to access the pipe. The covered walkway was paved in alternating courses of original and irreplaceable Menominee and Chaska bricks that had not been disturbed in 87 years. I told them the bricks could not be touched, “and I’m here to protect them.” Gasman #3, snapped back with, “and I could turn off your gas!” Though it was mid-summer, I was sure I’d need gas again in a few months. So after our initial hasty declamations, we began productively seeking common ground. The rough plan we devised was to place the meter further back on the north side of the house, where it would be concealed behind bushes. They’d tie into the polyethylene gas line from the main in the street. Push pipe underground to a pilot hole dug under the new meter location using a trenchless Ditch Witch. From there, copper pipe would be run above grade from the meter, along the wall and into the basement. I wasn’t delighted with the aesthetic aspects of the plan but could see no better options and frankly none were offered.
There were three issues at play: 1) the feed pipe coming into the basement was corroded enough, or so they conjectured, to pose a potential leak hazard, 2) Centerpoint Energy had instituted a mandate to systematically relocate all gas meters from basements to exterior locations for reasons of safety and ease of access and 3) a gas meter in the walkway would be ugly and obtrusive.
The typical meter relocation entailed mounting the unit to the exterior wall of a house to a spot directly above where it hung in the basement, then running the gas line back into the house via the existing vent hole. This method sufficed in most situations. But it was far from an adequate in ours.
Universal code guidelines state that a gas meter cannot be within three feet of an air intake, an operable door or window, or an electrical source. Fortunately, our kitchen windows disqualified the obvious and most intrusive location.
Pressured and outnumbered, I agreed in principle to the working plan. The gasmen were fine with the north wall location because it complied with code. The exposed piping was far from ideal but it was the only solution that seemed even remotely viable. The work was scheduled for two weeks out. That gave me a chance to verify the things they were telling me: 1) that the feed pipe was a legitimate safety hazard and 2) that all meters must be located outside. Starting with number 1, I simply couldn’t judge the condition of the gas pipe by looking at it myself. No one claimed the pipe was actively leaking but it was hard to argue that an old pipe will eventually fail. Stafford Norris, our restorer and perennial consultant, told me that the gas company tried to relocate the meter back in 2002 when our restoration was underway. At that time he convinced them to leave it alone. But that was nearly twenty years ago. Internet searches confirmed the Centerpoint Energy initiative to move all meters outdoors, but it was neither a state law nor a national mandate. Plenty of homes and commercial buildings still had indoor meters.
I next contacted the Minneapolis HPC (Historic Preservation Commission) to see if historic properties might receive special dispensation from the usual rules when it concerned gas meters. The answer was “not really.” I was told in matters concerning the gas company, the utility usually won out. The HPC offered to write a letter in defense of the house but said it would probably not change the outcome.
After some reflection and imagining Willey House bricks littering the quiet Prospect Park Neighborhood in the wake of a gas explosion, I conceded that the meter should be relocated outside the house just to be safe. But what about that unsightly piping? I consulted again with Stafford who advised, “It’s your house. Don’t let them dictate how it is done. You put a lot into your restoration. We jumped through countless hoops to get it right. Make sure you do what is best for the house.” We considered possible alternate routes for the exterior copper pipe when he suggested, “Look, you have a pipe going into the basement now. Why can’t they use the existing hole to bring in the new line?” It was a brilliant idea.
So if the meter must be moved, as Centerpoint was determined to do, I resolved to make this installation look as seamless as everything else we had undertaken. I phoned the gas company foreman and scheduled a time to talk, a few days before the work date, so we’d be aligned in our thinking and have the right resources available on site. On a parallel track, in hopes of gaining additional leverage, I reached out to Centerpoint Energy to talk to whoever internally dealt with historic properties and was still awaiting a call back when we had our second face-to-face meeting outside the house. As it turned out, the utility, in their wisdom had routed my call for a preservation expert back to the installer. “Crap!” So much for garnering extra bargaining power, I thought. Feeling utterly abandoned I grabbed hold of the reins and told the foreman what we were going to do. Yes, we’d relocate the meter to the back wall as agreed, but then, run a new pipe underground back to the point where it currently entered the basement. He contemplated that for a moment and sputtered a dozen reasons why that would be impossible; the sheer depth and scope of the hole they’d need to dig, the requirement of a box inside the hole for safety, the loss of the bushes, where would all that displaced soil go?, how would he tunnel back from the meter under the AC condenser?, and so on. But I held my ground saying, “I’m willing to relocate the meter to the exterior but only if we can do it this way.” He paused. “Then I’ll have to call my boss,” he said. “Now we’re getting somewhere,” I remember thinking.
After the usual 45-minute wait, the next in command arrived on site from the shop in Coon Rapids. In-transit, the two had obviously conversed. By the time I joined them outside at the basement wall, the boss approached me and said, “Here’s what we’re going to do” and he repeated exactly what I had asked for, along with the specifics as to how it would be done, including assigning a couple of young guys to shovel dig the hole. I was dumbfounded and ecstatic.
At each point in our interactions, I offered masked tours to the succession of gas workers who arrived on the scene in hopes of inspiring them to do their best. I told the guys that the house was a Minneapolis Landmark, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and had a pending status as a National Historic Landmark. My experience with them is proof positive that these designations have tangible value in real world situations. I recommend that every Wright homeowner take advantage of whatever landmark status may be locally available. Building an arsenal of preservation tools will lend credibility to your claims of “exception to the rule” in these matters. To provide some context the gasmen could relate to, I told them the Willey House was designed by the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1934. People came from around the world to see it. The house prefigured the American ranch house. It was the birthplace of the open plan kitchen, and that these things simply didn’t exist before this house was erected. I even employed the useful myth that the freeway had been routed around the house to protect it in the 1960s.
If you think that’s the end of story, you have probably never restored an historic building. Plan in place, I arrived early on the day of the meter relocation. The plumber was already onsite in his truck, an hour before start time. I walked him to the basement wall where he told me the foreman had coached him on running the pipe along the outside brick wall. I was nervous that he had not been briefed on the revised plan.
The foreman punctually arrived along with five other workers each in their own trucks, due to COVID regulations. The foreman assured me that we were still committed to following his boss’s plan, aka my plan, aka Stafford’s plan. Then as promised, they spread out their tarps and the digging commenced.
Lynette and I settled into a day of window washing and what we’d thought would be a mid-pandemic, top-to-bottom, deep house cleaning. On the audio system the Grateful Dead’s refrain ominously advised, “Nothing’s for certain, it could always go wrong. Come in when it’s raining. Go on out when it’s gone.”
Nevertheless by 10:00 a.m. the new gas meter was mounted on the exterior wall and a junction pit dug below it, to push subterranean pipe through. As soil displacement continued the old meter and excess iron pipe were removed from the basement. Everything seemed to be going smoothly.
I tried to stay out of their way, but when the walkway was brimming with topsoil, I ventured out to check in on the proceedings. Excavation these days is largely accomplished by machine power. It was evident that shovel digging a nine-foot deep pit in the summer heat, was not what an ordinary workday looked like to this aging crew. The young guys, it seemed, just happened to take vacation days. Lynette and I decided to offer up pizza for lunch and the proposition was met with enthusiasm all around.
A tall stack of pizza boxes soon arrived, but the work pressed on. After disregarding the noon whistle several times, I was told the diggers could not find the pipe. The foreman eventually had his guys break for lunch, but was determined to locate the mislaid pipe before he himself stopped. Moments later, a backhoe was off its trailer and a second gaping hole was scooped out of the boulevard. Try as they may, the gasmen could not determine the whereabouts of the wayward pipe. The width of the boulevard hole expanded and deepened and eventually a section of rusty pipe was exposed. Unfortunately it was several feet closer to the house than the 1979 site sketch showed it to be. In fact, assuming the pipe was laid in a straight line, it ran directly under the brick walkway. A pipe locator was wired to the corroded but conductive pipe so it could now be electromagnetically located. Sure enough, the line ran about one foot off the north garage wall. I heard one of them say something about tearing up the bricks again. “Nothing’s for certain. It could always go wrong,” echoed in my mind.
Gas company records dated the original pipe to 1934. I questioned this because the Willeys installed a boiler that burned fuel oil. It was well documented in period correspondence and confirmed by the 1000-gallon tank we removed from the slope next to the driveway. If they heated with fuel oil why would the Willeys have run a gas line as early as 1934? Centerpoint Energy said some parts of the city didn’t have natural gas until much later. Maybe the line fed a hot water heater? Water heaters were available as both electric and natural gas options, even then. Electrolux manufactured a popular gas refrigerator in the 1930s, but the Willeys didn’t own one of those. And the Willeys opted for an electric range, not a gas one. Perhaps Minneapolis simply insisted that every new home be gas ready, as the profusion of gas appliances grew rapidly in the 1930s.
Stafford found a reference in the Gasworkers’ Union Local 340 website.
“Natural gas first came to Minneapolis via pipeline in 1934 and was mixed with manufactured gas from the company’s Works Facility. Roughly 500 company employees were enlisted to adapt 118,000 customer appliances to this mixed gas.” Census data shows a Minneapolis population of just over 464 thousand in 1930, so the 1934 introduction marked a significant push for the universal adoption of gas. It probably would have been a code requirement for all new construction.
For whatever reason, it was there. It was original. It was rusty as hell. The corroded pipe under the paved brick walkway erased any shadow of doubt that the line dated back to the construction of the house. Also because it ran under the old oil tank and was buried deep beneath bricks laid in 1934/35, it could not have been placed after construction. The deteriorated condition of the pipe made it abundantly clear why in the late seventies, all original gas pipes in the neighborhood were retrofitted with a polyethylene liner.
But now we had a real problem. Without waiting for the foreman’s next move, I volunteered to personally tunnel from the pit beneath the brick walkway to the basement wall. I was told that for reasons of liability they could not allow that, but my willingness must have impressed them.
Without coaxing, the foreman stepped up, accepted the evolving challenge of errant records and rather than reverse directions, forged on. His determination was fueled by his integrity, inspired by the historical nature of the house and probably influenced, to some small degree, by the promise of all you can eat pizza.
He descended to the bottom of the pit and using only a long-handled spade, carved out a tunnel to the pipe elbow. He was able to reach the junction and complete the splice without endangering his life or collapsing the walkway. New polyethylene pipe was pushed from the street to the meter and then back to the bend. Another PE pipe was pushed from the basement out to the pit where the foreman gleefully proclaimed, “all the dots are now connected!”
Never underestimate the role of serendipity. For starters, the qualities of the fill around the Willey House contributed enormously to our success. In addition to being easy to shovel, the sandy soil had structure. The sharp sand grains prevented the excavation from collapsing in upon itself. In sharp contrast, the soil just 60 feet away, beneath the boulevard grass, was very different, neither clay nor loam, but a silty, glacial till, punctuated with rocks and gravel, having little structure. That soil would have been hard to dig with a shovel because of all the impeding stones, and the loose particles would have led to constant landslides in a deep hole.
The team gone, I stood at the foreman’s truck. He called up the 1979 sketch on his onboard computer. It was rudimentary and understandably misleading. No surprise the pipe had eluded them. The drawing, which showed the gas line running one foot off the north wall, was what led to Centerpoint Energy’s agreement to our somewhat unconventional, revised plan. What it failed to express was that the penciled in rectangle described the exterior garage wall rather than the retaining wall everyone had presumed. In the foreman’s words, “If we knew where the pipe actually was you’d have a hole in the street and copper pipe running along the side of your house.” Yes, we were lucky. But by first inspiring the installers, then collaborating on seeking the best solution for the house, the exercise provided them with a cause to aspire to, even if they did spend a day working outside of their comfort zone. The team tackled problem after problem as they arose and clearly enjoyed doing it. I reassured them they were “preservation heroes,” and I’m certain they were honored to wave that banner for a day.
To preserve a Frank Lloyd Wright house to the standard of it’s original vision, homeowners need occasionally to test the limits of what is generally considered “possible” according to modern codes and practices. Educate yourself so you are fully prepared to make the right decisions when they arise.
In an ironic twist, as I concluded this article, a letter a letter arrived from Xcel Energy, the electric company. They want to change out the electric meter.
Getting it Wright, a series for building stewards and preservationists, offers advice on restorations and maintenance of Wright homes citing real world case studies.
Posted March 8, 2022