Getting it Wright, a series for building stewards and preservationists, offers advice on restorations and maintenance of Wright homes citing real world case studies.

By Steve Sikora, Owner, The Willey House

The thing most people associate Frank Lloyd Wright with is leaky roofs—justified or not, it is, at least, a reputational improvement over adulterer, which was how he was portrayed in the 1930s.

Though there is a grain of truth at the center of every myth, modern day Wright building stewards would take his scandalish, premarital cohabitations over a leaking roof any day, because, water permeating a home is by far the greater sin. Water, we were to learn at the Willey House, is not limited to entering from above. The wily and destructive liquid is capable of flowing unimpeded through organic buildings by the same imaginative means with which it wends its merry way in, around and through the earth. And sadly, the degenerative power of water on a physical structure cannot be rectified in a confessional. It usually requires a degree of ingenuity, a crow bar, or jackhammer and a healthy checkbook to remedy.

No one warned us, when we acquired the Willey House in 2002, that during periods of heavy rain, pooling water on the terrace would spill over the wooden thresholds defending the bedrooms. But I suppose no one had to. After the first significant deluge, the rivulets spreading like misshapen fingers waving hello, over the stained cypress floors, made it obvious we had a serious water problem. And clearly this was not the first time the levees had been breached.

Damage to the bedroom floors from the incursion of water was extensive. We soon learned it was not a cosmetic issue.

Damage to the bedroom floors from the incursion of water was extensive. We soon learned it was not a cosmetic issue.

Damage to the bedroom floors from the incursion of water was extensive. We soon learned it was not a cosmetic issue.

Long-standing situation

Snapshots documenting that dark period in house history speak to the dismal state of the cypress planks. Initially, blame for the wanton flowage was laid squarely upon the cypress thresholds’ inadequacies to dam it out. But the real fault lay elsewhere.

Our recurrent rising tides were driven by two other conditions designed into the house by our architect. Though ample shelter was provided beneath the eaves protecting most of the Willey House facade, the roof overhang above the bedrooms and study extended out a paltry 11-inches. And unfortunately, nearly every drop of water that landed on the sloping canopy ran directly toward that shallow overhang. In a torrential storm, sheets of rainwater cascaded over the roof edge and onto the terrace. Free falling water pounded the terrace bricks then splashed up onto the glass doors. Water, behaving as it does, wanted to circulate down and around the underside of doors, then on into the house. In transit, door bottoms sopped water like a straw. Despite being constructed of rot-resistant cypress, they eventually decomposed. In order to create a seamless blending between indoors and out, the terrace was built flush with the wooden bedroom floors, or quite possibly a hair above them. The whole situation was like a well-orchestrated welcome party for encroaching floodwaters, “Come on in!” conditions beckoned, and for seventy some years, in they rolled.

With the cypress plank flooring removed, to be run through a planer, the subflooring was also taken up so that rotted floor joists could be replaced

We soon realized that what we had was a trifecta of interrelated water issues; the waterlogged cypress flooring, the rotting French doors, and the invisible structural distress festering below floor level, all courtesy of the decades of intermittent floods. Nothing could be done about the 11-inch overhang—perhaps the most significant source of our woes. However, the next most obvious flaw in the design, the lack of any terrace drainage, was something we knew could be addressed.

With the cypress plank flooring removed, to be run through a planer, the subflooring was also taken up so that rotted floor joists could be replaced

It just so happened that when previous owner, Harvey Glanzer, had the terrace re-bricked in the late 1990s. Either he, or a well-meaning advisor, decided to turn the bedroom terrace bricks perpendicular to the direction of all other floor-level masonry, and the cypress plank flooring in the house. To be fair, Taliesin did produce one drawing, featured in the January 1938 Architectural Forum that showed this perpendicular layout, but that is not how the brick courses were originally laid. Correcting Harvey’s brick re-orientation added incentive to investing in a much needed drainage system. The clincher, for us, was the hundred-year old Burr Oak that grew within the confines of an ever-shrinking hole in the terrace. We certainly did not want to lose that gracious tree, and the girdling brick circle was clearly choking off its ever-expanding girth. The wellbeing of the historic oak was ignored in Harvey Glanzer’s terrace restoration. But obviously, the hole needed to be widened considerably, and soon, to keep the tree alive.

The condition of the terrace slab was appalling

New terrace

After identical replacement bricks (Glen-Gery 53-DD, standard size 3 5/8 x 8 x 2 ¼ Grade A) were matched and located and the previous generation of pavers removed, it was apparent that the underlying concrete slab was in shambles. Harvey saved money by reusing the crumbling, original terrace slab in his remodeled terrace. Judged utterly useless by our masons, it too fell to the jackhammer and was re-cast, complete with a drain hole for the new gutter system and an expanded opening around the tree trunk. The slab was set at the same level where it previously met the house but pitched gently away from the foundation. Given the scope of work being undertaken, we also seized the opportunity to add a missing stair down to the garden. The brick step was shown in all versions of the plans but was omitted when originally built and disregarded again in the Glanzer terrace restoration.

Not only was the original slab in bad repair but it had been lifted by the roots of the stately Burr Oak.

Not only was the original slab in bad repair but it had been lifted by the roots of the stately Burr Oak.

Stafford Norris designed the drainage system. He used salvaged metal grating that sat flush with the terrace. Finned metal grates are suspended inside custom-made, stainless steel troughs. The L-shaped trough is drained through a pipe that carries water downslope into a perforated tank buried in the yard. Overflow from the tank is fed into a drain extension leading to a pop-up valve in the lawn that opens to release rainwater a safe distance from the house.

Salvaged grating. The complete removal of the original terrace slab

Salvaged grating. The complete removal of the original terrace slab

Stafford located used, industrial grating at a local salvage yard. He and brother Josh modified the slatted grates to fit his design. The stainless troughs were fashioned by Rainville-Carlson, a custom metal fabricator, who also executed our copper work. The system rests upon the new concrete terrace slab. The runnels are exactly two brick courses wide and are locked securely in place by terrace bricks.

A new, re-leveled terrace slab was formed up with a greatly expanded opening provided for the health of the tree

A new, re-leveled terrace slab was formed up with a greatly expanded opening provided for the health of the tree

A new, re-leveled terrace slab was formed up with a greatly expanded opening provided for the health of the tree

To avoid damaging the root system of the Burr Oak adjacent to the house, the section of trough in front of the study doors drains into the tree circle rather than to the yard.

The drain in front of the study doors drains into the tree circle to avoid the root damage that would occur if we had tried to plumb it out to a lower point in the yard

Placement of the drain trough prior to the laying of terrace bricks

Placement of the drain trough prior to the laying of terrace bricks

Placement of the drain trough prior to the laying of terrace bricks

The stainless drain troughs were centered directly under the drip line of the roof. The grates diffuse the splash of falling water and keep the French doors dry. The troughs, at 4 3/8-inch OD wide x 4 3/8-inch OD deep, have been sufficient to capture and drain even the heaviest rainfalls over the past twenty years.

The drainage system was plumbed with PVC piping as forms were placed

The reconstructed terrace with drainage system in place and new cypress thresholds beneath the bedroom doors

The reconstructed terrace with drainage system in place and new cypress thresholds beneath the bedroom doors

Maintenance

The drainage system is simple to maintain. Like gutters on the roof edge of a house, the troughs need to be kept free of leaves, acorns and twigs for the system to function properly. Several times a year the grates are removed and the debris cleared from the gutter troughs. It takes only a few minutes to accomplish.

In subsequent years, I’ve seen this general principle implemented in other Wright buildings, most notably in the reconstruction of flagstone balcony outside the Blue Loggia and Guest Bedroom at Taliesin, in Spring Green.

The keep the system running smoothly the grates are designed to be easily lifted off, debris removed by hand, then flushed with a garden hose

The keep the system running smoothly the grates are designed to be easily lifted off, debris removed by hand, then flushed with a garden hose

The keep the system running smoothly the grates are designed to be easily lifted off, debris removed by hand, then flushed with a garden hose

Posted February 21, 2024