One of my favorite parts of my job is the opportunity I have to meet Wright homeowners and witness the commitment they have to the restoration and preservation of their houses. Early in June I had just such an opportunity when I visited Tom and Elsa Katana, who own the 1939 Euchtman House in Baltimore. This house is one of the smallest of Wright’s pre-World War II Usonian Houses. It was built at the same time as the Pope House in Falls Church, Virginia, and both houses benefited from shared material orders and a shared Taliesin apprentice, Gordon Chadwick. The Euchtman House has experienced a fair amount of alteration over the years, some sensitive, some not so sensitive. Now Tom and Elsa have plunged into a renovation of the house that will bring back several of its earlier features.
My first visit to the house was in 2018. Dan Nichols, architect and owner of the Sweeton House in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, joined me. Dan is a Building Conservancy board member and chairs our Architectural Advisory Committee. Having rented the house for several years before they bought it in 2013, Tom and Elsa were very familiar with its qualities. At the time of our 2018 visit, they were contemplating projects for the house, and their architects Steve Ziger and James Snead of Ziger/Snead joined us. After this visit, I created a digital model of the house to understand some of the alterations that had been made to it.
Since our 2018 visit both Dan and I had been in touch with the Katanas, helping to provide information to them and to Ziger/Snead that would be helpful as they move forward with their work. This included sharing information with Tom on sourcing wood for the renovation of their kitchen, and with Ziger/Snead on the location of archival information pertaining to the house.
By late 2022, the kitchen renovation was complete and planning was in progress for renovation of the main bathroom and a small powder room. Then on December 23, 2022, an event occurred that changed the course of project: a sixty-foot Norway Spruce, located to the west of the house, fell, puncturing the roof and causing structural damage to the roof and walls at the south end of the house. This event motivated a full roof replacement as well as a thorough review of the roof’s structure.
At this point, the Katanas decided to expand the scope of work to include the recreation of house’s original red concrete floor, which had been removed during earlier renovations. The current flooring material was a square blue tile – nice tile, wrong house. Referencing a small section of the early concrete that survived under the shelter of the carport, Tom and Elsa worked with Lawrence and Sharon Tarantino of Tarantino Architects to develop an appropriate color for the recreated floor.
Early last May I contacted Tom to let him know I was planning a trip to the area and would like to make a visit to the house. Tom suggested I wait until June. By then, he and Elsa would be temporarily moved out of the house, and work would have begun. For this visit, I was again joined by Dan Nichols, Dan’s wife Christine Denario, as well as material and finishes conservator Pam Kirschner. We also met with architect Mark Treon, of Ziger/Snead, who was now heading up the project.
As it worked out, Tom’s suggestion of early June was perfect. Work had indeed begun in earnest! The house was filled with workers, both inside and on the roof. Portions of the roofing had been removed to reveal the roof framing. This is an ideal way to understand the structure of a house. The two visible locations were at the south end of the house, where the tree had fallen, and a small area on the west edge of the carport.
At the south end of the house, evidence of the tree’s impact could be seen, in the form of split and slightly rotated framing. An open trellis terminates the south end of the roof. Trellises of this sort are common in Wright’s early Usonian house. A good example can also be found at the Pope-Leighey House. Interestingly, Wright often located these trellises in ways that did not take advantage of the main roof framing. On a rectangular building, the wood joists that carry roofs typically span across the shorter dimension of the rectangle. What complicates roof framing at the Euchtman (and many of Wright’s Usonians) is that the trellis cantilevers from the short side of the house, perpendicular to the direction of the main framing. Advantage cannot be taken of the natural “back span,” of the typical joist. (Back span is the secured length of a beam or joist that acts to counterbalance the cantilevered portion.) Removal of the roofing allowed for a clear understanding of how this condition was addressed at the Euchtman House. There the framing is turned at the south end of the house and approximately half of the cantilevered joists act as back span. In true Wright fashion, this is less than the rule of thumb, that calls for two-thirds of a structural member to act as back span, recommends!
The day we were there, discussion focused on the best way to reinforce the damaged wood joists at the trellis. The Katanas are working with structural engineer John Matteo, of 1200 Architectural Engineers. John is well versed in the structure of Wright’s buildings, having worked for many years on Fallingwater, as well as Taliesin, Taliesin West and Price Tower. While we were there, John examined the south end of the roof in advance of producing sketches for repairs.
John also studied the structure of the edge of the carport roof. The west edge of the cantilevered roof showed some signs of minor deflection. The working drawings for the house indicated that a steel beam was intended to extend from the masonry core of the house to a steel plate at the west edge of the carport roof. To study the as-built condition, an opening was cut in the roof decking. This showed that there were some small, but notable differences between the drawings and the structure as it was built. The steel beam as installed is slightly shorter and slightly wider than the one specified.
A steel “flitch plate,” a flat plate of steel sandwiched between wood joints or other components, parallels the west edge of the carport roof. It is not as deep as the plate drawn. The plate, both drawn and constructed, starts at the north edge of the carport, where it is supported by the house structure. In the drawings the plate extends south, where it is bolted to and continues past the steel beam that is anchored to the house’s masonry core. Significantly though, as built, the plate is not continuous at its meeting with the beam. There a second plate starts and extends to the southwest corner or the carport roof. Its support is created by the wood joist framing around it, rather than the back span that would be provided if the plate had continued unbroken at the cantilevered beam. These differences are not necessarily problematic, but John Matteo was going to study them to determine what effect they might have on the carport roof. The differences are important reminders that as much information as possible about as-built conditions should be gathered, along with original documentation, when working on a restoration project.
While the repairs to the roof will not be evident when work is complete, the Katanas’ work on the inside will be. They have already sensitively renovated the kitchen. They were able to locate tidewater cypress for the project, and have made the small space more convenient for use. As noted, the major interior change to come will be the recreation of the red concrete floor, as well as the reconstruction of the brick steps that connect the level changes on either side of the house’s core. The existing tile will be removed, the concrete subfloor will be leveled and a thin layer of concrete, with integral pigment, will be applied. Because of the thinness of the new top layer, the 2’x4’ building module grid lines will be evoked by the insertion of a cord during the installation process that will then be removed after the floor has cured.
While we were there, the decision was made to recreate a clerestory window in the living room. This window had been lost when the west living room wall needed to be rebuilt in the early 1970s because of wood deterioration and termite damage.
Tom and Elsa followed up with more photos in mid-July showing the re-roofed trellis and the installation of the new floor surface inside.
Tom and Elsa’s excitement about the project was evident when we visited. They voice some regret that they are not in a position to take additional steps toward a full restoration. What they are doing is huge a step though, and they are ensuring that the house will continue to thrive so they or others can continue with additional restoration in the future.
Posted July 17, 2023