By Marsha Shyer, Chair, Homeowner Committee, Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy
Maya Moran Manny bought the extremely dilapidated Tomek House in Riverside, Illinois in 1974 and went on to set the standard for historic Prairie-style renovations. Then, she literally wrote the book.
Maya’s book (now out of print) is called Down to Earth: An Insider’s View of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Tomek House, and itself set a standard.
“It is also unique because it is a first,“ said Robert Twombly in its foreword. Twombly is an architecture professor who has written books on Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. “[T]his is the first book about a Prairie house by someone who lives in one, the first about restoring a Wright residence, about renewing his landscape.”
Over 20 Years of Renovation
Maya was born in the Netherlands and is a graduate of Smith College. She lived in the Tomek House for 27 years. She was happy to reflect on her life-defining years in the house, and all that she accomplished there.
Maya first encountered the 1904-designed and 1906-built Tomek House in 1972 with her first husband, John Moran, a cardiologist. She already had some experience with old houses and renovation.
“In the sixties we fixed up a Cape Cod house, built in 1740.”
Based on that experience, and with the help of their four strong sons, the couple felt that the effort would be completed in approximately two years. They bought the house in 1974, and by 1975, realized that work had just barely started. That set the tone for the next twenty-plus years of Maya’s creative life. It soon became clear that the house was in need of the kind of love that Maya was already lavishing on her family. And, it turned out, that she had room in her heart for the deep intellectual attention that the house and gardens needed to thrive. Maya found that Tomek House became more than a house in which to live and raise her family, but a house to love and thrive in, despite the couple’s divorce in 1991.
Life with Four Sons
“I saw that this house was a warm, welcoming place to raise sons in, with space inside and out for their games. And games they had, the usual baseball, snowball fights, and so on was fun, but also skiing off the garage roof and sliding down the wide stairs or doing pull-ups on the beams in the living room…They even skied behind a motorcycle on the lawn…”
“To us, the reinforced concrete base outlining the house was an aesthetic aspect and a practical one preventing a wet basement. For the children it provided a marvelous game – they would try to get around the house on the twenty-inch-high protruding narrow ledge without touching the ground.”
Protecting a Landmark
Maya spent the years studying the house in relation to Frank Lloyd Wright, renovating the house and grounds to the highest historical standards, and caring for her family.
“As my love for the house increased over the years, so did my feeling of responsibility.”
Partial List of Restoration Projects Completed
- Roofing System
- Original Skylight (Dining Alcove)
- Fireplaces renovation
- Chimney restoration
- Restoration of heating system
- Gutter replacement
- Storm window replacement
- Kitchen renovation (from prior non-Wrightian renovation in 1940)
- Restoration of original kitchen windows (found in wine cellar)
- Demolition of walls and replacement to original plan, including paint
- Stair rebuilding
- Entire landscape
- Stucco removal and replacement
- Wood floor restoration
- Trim removal and replacement
- Mirror removal and replacement
- Removal of pillars
Maya was also one of the first to place an easement on a house through the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. “I decided I would have to put an easement on the site so that no one would paint the stucco a bright blue or cover the plaster again with flocked wallpaper, or let it become overgrown again and nearly invisible,” she explained.
In fact, the Tomek House has National Historic Landmark status. There are only a little over 2,600 National Historic Landmarks across the country, while by contrast, there are over 90,000 sites on the National Register of Historic Places.
Why this high level of designation? The meticulous rehabilitation of this important Frank Lloyd Wright structure elevated the house to the landmark status. Frank Lloyd Wright was the architect for his houses, but when you see a pristine house, especially one that is over 100 years old, there is often more to the story–in this case, it’s Maya Moran Manny.
The details reinforce its importance. A version of the house with photos was included in the second Wasmuth edition of 1911, Frank Lloyd Wright: Ausgeführte Bauten. The first Wasmuth edition of 1910 includes a drawing by architect Marion Mahony Griffin.
Because of the overall aspect of the house, Wright himself referred to the house as the “battleship,” according to the second owner of the home, Richard Novotny, who met Wright with his parents in Chicago. Locally the house is called the “Ship House.” These references are pertinent because in 1904, ships were the standard mode of international travel.
Maya’s deep knowledge of the Tomek House was the inspiration for many of her artistic creations. As an artist, her canvases were displayed in the house. In addition, she designed in other media. What started as simple gifts for the holidays soon became an important part of Tomek House’s restoration. As her deep research and scholarly work on the house combined with living in the house, she set out with her family to recreate radiator grills. Soon she was working in a variety of different materials. She designed some of her own clothing as well as linens for the bedrooms, rugs and coordinating runners, curtains, light fixtures, plant stands, coat racks and even a clock.
Maya also distinguished herself in the renovation of the landscape of the Tomek House. When purchased, the house was hidden by evergreens, and none of the original plantings survived. There were no flowers and no hint of the original prairie that encircled the house.
“To start the garden, I gathered roadside seeds and augmented these with small purchases, plant exchanges and gifts from family and friends,” Maya commented on the multi-year renovation.
Maya went back to the literal roots of the design–the preliminary sketch of the house, showing a herbaceous border with hollyhocks, which flourish in the area. She also sought out deeply rooted indigenous planting materials that worked in the extreme local climate, such as globe thistles and teasels, as well as prairie flowers like multicolored cornflowers, phlox, spiderwort, etc. The magnificent results became obvious, and soon other owners of Wright-designed houses asked her to consult on the restoration of their gardens.
Maya, who at that time was dealing with divorce, reflects that:
“Life was not easy, but the house, the garden and my sons provided solace and motivation.”
That motivation, like the hidden steel in a cantilever, is the hidden strength behind her notable achievements.
Read More Homeowner Stories
The SAVEWRIGHT: Notable Women Homeowners Project tells the stories of the remarkable women who have stewarded houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Posted August 28, 2023