In the Wright place
Retired UW professor loves the calming effect of an architectural legend

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sunday, June 1, 2003

Madison — The low-slung little house all but turns its back on the street, its en- trance off to the side, its facade interrupted only by a narrow band of clerestory windows and a cantilevered carport. No show off flourishes here.

And that was exactly the point. The redwood-sided dwelling, tucked into a double lot in a west side subdivision where Cape Cods predominate, was the first of Frank Lloyd Wright's low-cost "Usonian" designs ever to be built. It was also the first of two homes he created for journalist Herbert Jacobs and his wife, Katherine.

Constructed for $5,500 in 1936 and lovingly restored by its current owner, James Dennis, "Jacobs I" is one of six Wright-designed houses that will be open to the public Saturday in "Wright and Like: Madison," a self-drive tour sponsored by the non-profit Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin.

If Dennis, a retired professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has ever felt intimidated by living in what the American Institute of Architects considers one of the most important buildings of the 20th century, he doesn't show it.

"When I'd come back from a day on campus, teaching and attending meetings, the house always had an immediate calming effect," he says. "The proportions, the materials, the way everything interrelates — it all brings your life into a focused perspective and makes your visual sense more organic."

Wright, who built 35 Usonian houses (the word is a play on "USA"), wanted to bring technological innovation and good design within reach of the average person, showing that "a small house on the side street might have charm if it didn't ape the big house on the avenue." Because Usonians could never really be mass produced, the idea failed to take off in a big way. But the simple, horizontal design had a profound influence on American domestic architecture, helping to lay the groundwork for the ubiquitous ranch house.

Jacobs I Was typical of the genre: a 1,500-square-foot, L-shaped dwelling laid out on a 2-by-4-foot grid. The arm of the L houses a small master bedroom and two even smaller bedrooms, which Dennis and his wife, Laurel, an artist, use as their studies. The kitchen is tiny but efficient.

As in other Wright homes, the ceilings are at several heights, making small spaces like the bathroom and kitchen seem bigger than they are and the dining area quite intimate. The light-filled living room, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, red-brick fireplace and Cherokee-red concrete floors, overlooks a spacious backyard. Some of the boxy furnishings, which Dennis picked up at auction houses, are from a line that Wright designed for Henredon.

Dennis, who is the home's eighth owner, talked about the experience of living in and re- storing Jacobs I with one of his former students, Whitney Gould, the Journal Sentinel's urban landscape writer.

Q. How did you happen to buy this house?

A. I had always been interested in the history of modern art and architecture and used to take architectural walks around Madison, to search out Frank Lloyd Wright houses. One day in the '70s I heard Herb Jacobs give a talk about this one at (Wright's) Unitarian Meeting House, and when the hose came up for sale in 1982 I scratched around and came up with the money.

Q. How much money, if you don't mind my asking?

A. $105,000. I've never added up the bills and receipts for re- storing it, but even with some donated materials, I'm sure it was way over the amount I bought it for. I was crazy.

Q. What kind of condition was it in?

A. The exterior had been creosoted, like railroad ties, and the roof had so many layers of asphalt that it was weighing down the joists and leaked. Wall-to-wall carpeting had been glued to the concrete slab. The carport was sinking. The window bay in the dining area had been replaced with a picture window. The yard was all overgrown. At one point the house had been turned into a little commune by a bunch of grad students who lived here with their dogs and kids, and it showed.

Q. Tell me about the process of restoration.

A. I got a set of drawings for the house from Taliesin and worked with (architects) Brad Lynch and John Eifler on the structural rehab. Some of my and my sons David and John did a lot of the actual work. We put in more structural steel, to shore up the house on the diagonals. We removed the creosote from the exterior and replaced some of the boards.

We had to jack-hammer up the floor, add insulation and plastic heating pipes to replace the wrought-iron radiant heating, which was an experiment at the time and was slow to heat up. We put on a rubber roof. We rebuilt the carport using bricks from the same factory in Streator, Ill., that had made the originals, some of which had been culled by Wright's apprentices from the Johnson Wax building under construction in Racine.

Q. In dealing with a national treasure, how did you know where to strike the balance between treating it as a museum piece and making it functional for today?

A. The rule of thumb was not to do anything that distracted from Wright's spaces. We followed the lines of the walls. For example, we updated the wiring and added out- lets by just taking apart the sandwich wall, which has 9-inch Ponderosa pine boards and 3-inch battens held together with No. 10 slotted screws. Wright wouldn't have approved of my putting in thermal windows; that little line along the edges interrupts the interior/exterior continuity. But it sure brought down my Madison Gas & Electric bills. I added some cabinets in the kitchen, but they have glass fronts, so you can see the brick wall behind them. And I have added some bookshelves.

Q. Are you thinking of doing anything else?

A. There is only the one bathroom, and it has bathtub without a shower. I might try to fit in a shower in the cellar some day. But I know too have too much clutter. Some days I just want to strip it back to the bare design.

Q. Do the burdens of owning a Wright house ever seem overwhelming?

A. No. But the maintenance is a continuing challenge. To maintain the (exterior) surface and fight off UV (ultraviolet) rays, I'm always clear-coating it. It's like preserving an old Chis-Craft boat.

Q. Do your neighbors realize that a Wright house is in their midst?

A. Oh, yes. It's like Chartres Cathedral to them. They love it.

Q. Wright, who was always changing his own houses, didn't seem to have any use for historic preservation as we think of it today. What would he make of your painstaking restoration of this house?

A. He probably would have just let it go, let it become a ruin and return to the earth.

Home Tour examines Wright from many angles

Frank Lloyd Wright's Jacobs I House is one of six Wright-designed buildings in and around Madison that will be open to the public Saturday as part of "Wright and Like: Madison." The self- drive tour is sponsored by Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin, a non-profit organization designed to promote and preserve the architect's heritage statewide.

Wright, who was born in Richland Center, designed 32 works for Madison, of which a dozen were built and nine survive. In addition to the Jacobs I House (1936), the docent-led tour will showcase the curved, passive-solar Jacobs II House in Middleton (1944), the second dwelling Wright designed for Herbert and Katherine Jacobs; the Robert M. Lamp House (1903), a squarish, layered home near Capitol Square designed for Wright's best friend in childhood; the Unitarian Meeting House (1947), with its dramatic, cantilevered prow; the Eugene Van Tamelen House (1956), also known as the Erdman Prefab I, Wright's refinement of a pre- fabricated design builder Marshall Erdman, who built the Unitarian Meeting House; and the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center (1997), Taliesin Architects' realization of a 1959 Wright version that was firstt conceived in 1938 and had been thwarted by controversy.

Also on the tour are the Mary Ellen and Walter Rudin House (1957), another Erdman prefab (exterior only); the Harold Bradley House (1909), a sprawling Prairie School house that was designed by Wright's great teacher, Louis Sullivan, and became home to Sigma Phi Fraternity, which painstakingly rebuilt it after a 1972 fire; and the Gates-Fulwiler House (1995), a modern-day Prairie School home de- signed by E. Edward Linville in Middleton Hills, a subdivision built along compact, New Urbanist lines by Marshall Erdman.

Tickets for the tour are $45 ($25 for Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin members). They may be purchased on the day of the event at the Unitarian Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive, or online at For more information, call (608)287-0339.