Restoring Wright

Preservation architect's quest for authenticity and sustainability

Eifler
John Eifler and Bonnie Phoenix restoring a Frank Lloyd Wright house.

Credit: Nathan Kirkman

When Chicago architect John Eifler was growing up in Racine, Wis., going to church was his favorite part of the week. “It definitely wasn’t the service,” he says. “I was fascinated by the SC Johnson headquarters, and we got to pass it every Sunday.”

SC Johnson was a major employer in Racine, and company President H. F. Johnson, Jr. had hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design the administration building, which is still in use today. Along with two houses Wright designed for the Johnson family—Wingspread and Keland House—the headquarters became an inspiration to many Racine residents, including Eifler. He credits those

Sunday drives, and the time he spent at Keland House in high school when he dated one of Johnson’s granddaughters, with his decision to become an architect.

Fast-forward 43 years, and Eifler, now 59, heads an eponymous Chicago firm that is respected for its contemporary designs and preservation work and has completed restoration work on 20 of Wright’s designs, including Taliesin and Taliesin West. But Eifler never thought he’d own a Wright home. “A [Wright] homeowner expects to pay twice for everything—the initial cost, and the cost of maintenance,” he says. The resource-sapping problems inherent in many Wright residences range from unstable foundations and uneven floors to sagging cantilevers and leaky roofs.

Problems like those, it turns out, created an opportunity for Eifler to purchase and renovate a Wright house in Glencoe, a suburb on Chicago’s North Shore that harbors the third largest collection of the architect’s residential work. Eifler wanted to save Ross House from the wrecking ball, then bring it back to its former glory—with a 21st-century twist. Instead of faithfully restoring Ross House to Wright’s original specs, Eifler was intent on “making it better, especially inside,” he says. To that end, he developed a program to green it, adding a host of sustainable features that would make it much less expensive to maintain.  

Ross House was originally built in 1915 as one of five spec houses for Sherman M. Booth, Wright’s attorney, who commissioned the architect to design his own home in Glencoe and an entire housing development surrounding it, called Ravine Bluffs. But the neighborhood plan was never fully realized; only Booth’s house, the spec properties, and a bridge traversing the ravine were built.

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The restored living room at Ross House.

Credit: Paul Raphaelson

The Sherman M. Booth house, a majestic Prairie home, cost $16,000, but the spec houses, all named for their first occupants, were variations of a “$5,000 fireproof house” prototype that Wright had designed for The Ladies’Home Journal in 1907. They all sat on spacious lots and were similarly modest, with three to four bedrooms and one full bathroom, and ranged from about 1,400 to 1,600 square feet. Ironically, the wood, stucco, and concrete homes were neither fireproof nor especially well built. All required significant work over the years, none as much as Ross House.

When Eifler first visited the structure in 2006, it needed help. Calling it a money pit would have been an understatement. “You couldn’t miss Ross House because it had an awful entry vestibule added by a previous owner-architect,” he says. The house had also sustained considerable damage due to neglect. Still, “I thought it had potential and couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he says. In 2008, when the house showed up on a list of endangered historic sites maintained by Landmarks Illinois, Eifler called the broker and tried to buy it. “I wanted to restore the house with respect for what Wright designed, but I also wanted to see if I could experiment and make it green. It wasn’t a landmark, so it was completely unencumbered by regulations and other people’s opinions. I wouldn’t have to answer to anybody about what I wanted to do,” Eifler says.

But timing was not on Eifler’s side. It was the height of the recession, and mortgages were impossible to get. Complicating matters, the house was overpriced at $650,000—considering its disastrous condition. It had been vacant for three years, and the pipes had burst, flooding the basement. “There was no heat, no water, and mold everywhere. No bank would lend because the house was uninhabitable,” says Eifler.

The price of the house kept dropping, and still nobody wanted it. By the end of 2009, Eifler had devised a financial plan that allowed him to work on the house to make it livable and then buy it for $400,000. “I rented it from the owner for a year at $1,000 a month,” says Eifler, “with half going to a down payment and the other half to him. I told him he could keep it all if I couldn’t get a mortgage when the lease was up. By keeping my initial investment down, I was able to pour money into the house.”

Eifler obtained the original plans for Ross House from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and acted as his own general contractor. He also did most of the grunt work himself with the help of his sons and his partner, Bonnie Phoenix. “We stripped, sanded, cleaned, and restored all the windows, hardware, and trim,” he says.

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The kitchen in Ross house is new but in the style of Wright.

Credit: Paul Raphaelson

Eifler’s updates to Ross House included geothermal heating and cooling, upgraded wall and roof insulation, energy-efficient storm windows and lighting, recycled-aluminum roofing, Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood cabinets and replacement trim where necessary, Energy Star appliances and electronics, and photovoltaic solar panels on the roof. Gray-water recycling in the bathrooms and rainwater harvesting for landscape irrigation are next on his list. He hopes the changes he has made so far will earn the home Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The biggest investments he made to go green that initial year were new electrical and plumbing systems, insulation, and the geothermal heating and cooling system, which required drilling six 120-foot-deep wells and took two months to complete. For insulating the outside walls, Eifler took a novel approach that went counter to LEED. The guidelines call for removing plaster before installing the insulation. “But that creates more waste for landfill and more expense when you put the walls back up,” he explains. Instead, Eifler used an insulation system that pumps recycled cellulose into the walls, thus preserving the original plaster. “Fortunately, LEED is very open to innovation and accepted this strategy,” says Eifler. “A LEED inspector who came out to the house after work had started saw its benefits in a heartbeat.”

Although many of Eifler’s design decisions were guided by the desire to achieve LEED certification, others took landmark status into account. To qualify as a landmark (and be eligible for the tax credits the status affords), the exterior must remain true to the original design—a stipulation that complicated Eifler’s choice of the materials for the roof.

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA) would accept only cedar or asphalt shingles, but the former material “kills a lot of trees” and the latter “isn’t recyclable and ends up in landfills,” notes Eifler. After a lengthy search, he found Classic Metal Roofing Systems shingles, which are stamped to imitate cedar but made from 95 percent recycled aluminum. Eifler used them on his roof, then asked IHPA for permission to use them on another Wright house he’s working on for a client. The first response was no, but once IHPA representatives had inspected the product on his roof, they accepted it—grudgingly. “At their annual historic preservation council last spring, they handed out pamphlets on the product,” says Eifler, “so they’ve clearly had a change of heart.”

The aluminum roof, however, isn’t the only aberration from Wright’s original design. Eifler subscribes to a forward-looking philosophy. “Buildings aren’t meant to be static unless they’re museums,” he says. For example, all of the Wright homes Eifler has restored, many with landmark status, have updated kitchens and bathrooms—as does his. Such necessities “make a house so much more livable. If people are comfortable in a home, they’ll maintain it better and stay there longer.”

Although Eifler’s design is a slight modification of the original, Ross House looks almost exactly the same on the exterior as when it was first built, and last spring the Village of Glencoe made the house a landmark, a designation seven other Ravine Bluffs structures have also earned.

Eifler’s interest in improving the structure while remaining faithful to Wright’s intention extends to the details—like a fireside bench, apparently never built, that appeared in the original plans for Ross House. He constructed the bench using gumwood to match the home’s historic trim. Similarly, the decrepit Colonial-style cabinets hanging in the Ross House kitchen as Eifler found it in 2010 were replaced with contemporary versions of his own design, also executed in gumwood to reference Wright’s intentions. The inappropriate entry vestibule came down in August and was rebuilt according to the original plans, but the purple paint on the home’s cypress exterior trim proved more daunting. “It took us all summer and fall to strip, sand, and re-stain it,” Eifler says.

By the end of 2010, Eifler had the place in good enough shape to get a mortgage. He closed right before the lease was up and moved in. Then, in November 2011, he was able to realize a major part of his greening plan when he installed photovoltaic panels. Together with the geothermal heating and cooling system, “I’ve been able to get the electricity meter to run backward during the day, so I’m selling power back to Commonwealth Edison,” he reports. Once the stucco on the home’s exterior is finished this spring, the house will have its final inspection for LEED certification.

For Eifler, though, such recognition as landmark status and LEED certification pales in comparison with the personal satisfaction he has derived. Greening a Wright house and adapting the interiors for the way people live today was an eye-opening experience. “As an architect who does preservation work,” he says, “you’re trained to think in a certain way—put it back the way it was, use the same materials—and I think the most important lesson is, ‘Question everything.’ It’s actually very refreshing to reevaluate these standards that have been drilled into your head for 30 years.” The experience, for Eifler, was about honoring the future as much as the past. “If we really want to make a difference as architects,” he says, “we have to rethink our role and focus on sustainability as well as design and structure.”

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