On Friday, October 14, 2022, Conservancy preservation programs manager John Waters, along with Ward Miller of Preservation Chicago, Doug Freerksen of Von Dreele-Freerksen Construction and Doug Gilbert of Douglas Gilbert Architect, Inc., met with the owners of Wright’s Foster House (1900), in the West Pullman neighborhood of Chicago. The group came together to discuss potential restoration options for the house, which the owners bought in September 2020.
The house had not been lived in for several years before the purchase and the owners’ first efforts on the property were dedicated to clearing the significantly overgrown landscape. Now their focus has turned to the house itself. Much of the conversation on the 14th concentrated on finishes, both outside and inside.
As identified by Doug Freerksen, the exterior walls are covered with 18-inch “perfection” cedar shingles. They may have been treated with a penetrating stain when first installed. While there is a lot of peeling and bubbling paint, the shingles that are visible appear to be in good condition. The question becomes: what is the best way to deal with deteriorated paint? A plausible (and relatively economical) path would be, as Doug put it, “to let nature take its course:” carefully scraping and safely disposing of loose paint as it peels. Chemical strippers such as Citristrip might also be an option. More aggressive removal techniques such as blasting with walnut shells or power washing should be avoided. The wood of the shingles is too soft for those sorts of processes. Investigation at the entry porch indicated that the columns may have had a green finish of some type and the vertical screen may have had a dark stain.
Inside, the group made a particularly exciting find. For years wall-to-wall carpet covered most of the first floor. This carpet has been removed, exposing the original red oak floor. The carpet removal has also allowed a sliding door between the living and dining rooms to be pulled from its pocket, revealing what appears to be the original finish of the wood. Most of the unpainted wood in the house now has a very dark finish. The finish of the sliding door is a deep but unmistakable green. Doug Freerksen hypothesizes that the process for creating the finish was to first brush on a 50/50 mixture of shellac and alcohol and then apply a green stain. The process may have been completed by an application of oil on top of the stain. A similar green finish was found in other areas of the first floor, including the underside of a seat by the fireplace and behind a doorknob plate.
On the stairway to the second floor, Doug Gilbert noted a section of the wall where an earlier wall finish is exposed. This finish appears to be a textured (possibly sand-float) plaster, with a green color. The current wall finish throughout the house is smooth. This finish may be a skim coat over an earlier surface.
Following up on this investigation, a review of Wright’s drawings that are available online indicate that both walls and roof were to be constructed with wood shingles. The paint specification states the following:
The shingles outside will be stained two thorough brush coats of Cabots 75 stain including all exterior moldings and sash. Floors of porches only to be painted two coats of white lead [?] oil. The interior wood-work will be given one coat of Murphy’s wood filler and stain combined, carefully applied with a brush. The floors throughout to receive one coat of linseed oil with enough color to darken the wood to desired shade. Same to be rubbed in with [illegible].
Following up on this information, John Waters created a digital model of the house that approximates the look specified.
All these hypotheses will require further expert investigation. It is clear, though, that there is much to learn from this house, which was constructed at an important point in Wright’s career, just as he was beginning to create his classic Prairie-period designs.
Updated November 8,2022
Posted October 17, 2022