Ralph Sr. and Sunny Wilson House
Texas| Posted: 09/30/1999
The Wilson house in Temple, Texas, north of Austin, was built in 1959 by Ralph Wilson Sr., owner of Ralph Wilson Plastics. Ralph was a frugal man who built the home as a model and showplace for his plastic laminate company, today known as Wilsonart International. In addition, the house was intended to serve as both his private residence and a lab, where he could personally monitor the performance of innovative applications and experimental grades of material.
On November 25, 1998 the Ralph Sr. and Sunny Wilson House was added to the National Register of Historic Places by a unanimous vote. This house represents the "origin of the everyday." Placed on the National Register on Historic Places on November 25, 1998, the Ralph Sr. and Sunny Wilson House was classified as a structure of national significance because both the materials used and the manner in which they were applied.
Its details seem so commonplace today, yet they were at one time extraordinary. Many scholars are shocked to discover that the innovation evident by these interiors was developed as early as 1959, as they had been previously dated to the late 1960s.
The details may look familiar, but they were fabricated with the utmost care. Most surprising is the absence of dry-wall: the walls are surfaced with a special grade of laminate hung directly onto the two-by-four frames. The laminate used throughout the house differs slightly from the material used know today. It was silkier and more lush to the touch because more resins were used to maintain durability.
Other details may seem equally commonplace. Those countertops with the rounded edges, today racked in the back of your neighborhood Home Depot, had not even begun to replace the then-common aluminum apron on the edge of most 1950s countertops.
In an era when steel kitchen cabinets were the rage, Ralph Wilson sought out the maker of beauty salon fixtures to create all laminate clad cabinets. This application would later evolve into the contemporary "Eurostyle" kitchen. The cabinets were exquisitely crafted from solid wood that was dove-tailed together. Today most laminate cabinets employ fiberboard which can not be joined.
Tub and shower walls were lined with laminate, which withstood thirty-seven years of daily use without visible wear. This application was not widely marketed until 1992.
In October of 1996 Ralph`s widow Sunny decided to sell the house. A real estate agent suggested that the interiors should be demolished down to the two-by fours and then rebuilt. Otherwise, "no contemporary buyer would want this," she said. Wilsonart heard of the intended sale and decided to purchase and preserve the house.
Wilsonart hired Grace Jeffers, a decorative arts historian specializing in plastic and especially laminate history. Known as the "Dalai Laminate", she eagerly managed the conservation and restoration, doing a good deal of the work herself. This project proved to be challenging as there is scant information regarding the conservation of plastic laminate. But experimentation lead to the development of new techniques. All of the original period furnishings had been removed in 1964. The period rooms were re-created from original photographs.
When visitors come to the house they expect to see a shrine to kitsch interiors, but everyone is surprised by the beauty of the house and they leave with a new, more respectful understanding of mid-century vernacular architecture.