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Frank Lloyd Wright Designed-House in West Lafayette Undergoing Renovations

by: Jack Quigley
1955 in-progress shot (Photo courtesy of The John E. Christian Family Memorial Trust, Inc.)
1955 in-progress shot (Photo courtesy of The John E. Christian Family Memorial Trust, Inc.)
Living room at Samara (Photo courtesy of The John E. Christian Family Memorial Trust, Inc.)
Living room at Samara (Photo courtesy of The John E. Christian Family Memorial Trust, Inc.)
View of Samara's Terrace (Photo courtesy of The John E. Christian Family Memorial Trust, Inc.)
View of Samara's Terrace (Photo courtesy of The John E. Christian Family Memorial Trust, Inc.)
Original Plans from Frank Lloyd Wright for Samara (Photo courtesy of The John E. Christian Family Memorial Trust, Inc.)
Original Plans from Frank Lloyd Wright for Samara (Photo courtesy of The John E. Christian Family Memorial Trust, Inc.)
1955 in-progress shot (Photo courtesy of The John E. Christian Family Memorial Trust, Inc.)
1955 in-progress shot (Photo courtesy of The John E. Christian Family Memorial Trust, Inc.)
The National Parks Service recently awarded a $500,000 Save America’s Treasures grant to support restoration efforts at Samara, a 1950s-era Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home built in West Lafayette for Dr. John and Catherine Christian.

Purdue professor Dr. John Christian and his wife Catherine wanted to their home to function as a pleasant gathering spot for Purdue students and faculty members, so they commissioned Wright to design a house that adhered to the architect’s prescribed Usonian design concepts while also meeting the unique needs of the Christian family.

“Samara is truly one of America’s treasures, not only because the home was designed by America’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, but because it’s one of the most complete, fully implemented Wright-designed projects, with original landscape, graphic motif, interior furnishings and exterior details,” said Marsh Davis, president of Indiana Landmarks. “We’re pleased that it has risen to such national prominence.”

Now co-stewarded by Indiana Landmarks and the John E. Christian Memorial Trust, Inc. and serving as one of many public displays of Wright’s design ingenuity, Samara affords visitors the opportunity to experience Wright’s fully realized Usonian design just as the architect intended. Deterioration to various aspects of the 60-plus-year-old home in recent years inspired efforts from Indiana Landmarks to embark on a years-long journey to secure a National Historic Landmark designation for the building, which makes it eligible for awards like the Save America’s Treasures grant

NPS’s grant will be matched by $503,000 in private funds from the John E Christian Family Memorial Trust, Inc.

Passion for Historic Preservation
Harboe Architects, a Chicago-based design firm that specializes in historic preservation projects, will lead the Samara renovation. The firm brings years of historic preservation experience to the project with a history of working to restore Frank Lloyd Wright designs.
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One of the firm’s earliest preservation projects was a full restoration of the inside and outside of Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park Illinois. Harboe also worked on a preservation master plan for Wright’s home and studio in Scottsdale, Arizona, as well as restored interiors of Wright’s Robie and Emil Bach Houses in Chicago.

“We have a lot of experience on working on Wright’s projects including several of those that are part of the world heritage listing for his work,” said Bob Score, AIA, Project Manager at Harboe Architects. “I think that’s really how we got involved in Samara – because of our past experience and reputation for being good stewards of those buildings”

Score said each architect in Harboe’s studio has been captivated with history and artisan craftsmanship since early on in their lives – two interests that ultimately guiding them to pursue historic preservation work.

“Everybody in our studio is extremely passionate about historic preservation; it’s what we do,” Score said.

Scientific Approach to Renovation
Score said preservation projects like the one at Samara present different challenges to architects than do projects that demand new designs

“[Historic preservation projects] can take quite a scientific approach at times, whereas new design is more about understanding the users and site and then developing a new response to meet those requirements,” Score said. “When restoring a historic building, the first thing you have to do is really learn and understand the building”

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Score said designers at Harboe Architects begin preservation projects by first trying to understand both the history of the building (how it was designed, who designed it, and who originally owned it) and the physical fabric of the building (which materials were used and what is their condition.) Architects working on historic preservation projects like Samara must also follow The Secretary of The Interior’s Standards, which focus on maintaining and/or repairing a building’s original materials to ensure architects are respectful to a building’s initial design.

As for how Samara was designed, Wright incorporated a number of Usonian design elements into the layout of the house while also fusing in his own unique style. Score said the house is structured in a geometric grid –a square in Samara’s case – to keep with Usonian design concepts, and leaves an ample amount of gathering space for guests.

Like many of Wright’s designs, Score said Samara features a “sequence of discovery” as one approaches the house. Visitors approaching the home are not meant to have a clear view of the house in its entirety and often must wander around the site before finding the front door. After walking through the front door, guests progress from tighter, smaller spaces into larger, open spaces and experience intentionally controlled views of the home and its surrounding nature.

“One of the things that makes Wright’s architecture special is his approach to setting his buildings within nature, and it certainly shows in Samara,” Score said. “Regarding the house’s relationship to the hill it’s built upon – it’s not set in a means in which it glorifies itself; it becomes part of that hill and part of the surrounding nature.”

Along with carefully selecting furniture which lends itself to large gatherings, Wright also incorporated interior and exterior motifs that pay homage to the site’s evergreens. The word “samara” refers to the winged pinecone seeds produced by evergreens. At Samara, the winged seed is used as the ornamental element throughout the house; winged seed elements appear in living room’s clerestory windows, in the plywood stencil lights, in the copper fascia on the roof’s edges, and on the design of the carpet. Score said Wright often worked with extracted elements of nature to create different motifs for different properties.

The Need for Restoration
Samara has undergone severe deterioration to various areas of the home since it was constructed 60 years ago:

Significant structural settlement has affected Samara in a few areas, causing portions of the terrace brick masonry walls to displace more than an inch.

  • Score said part of Samara’s terrace is built on soil that is not stable, which has led the terrace to drop 3 to 4 inches down the hill while the rest of the structure remains in place.
  • Harboe will work with John A Matteo, PE, FAAR, Partner at MCC 1200 AE and experienced historic preservation engineer, to collect information on existing soils and expose some of Samara’s existing foundations to better understand the house’s condition. Score’s team will then design remedial treatments to prevent identified issues from accelerating any further.
  • Score said Harboe will address the settlement and cracking of the exterior terrace once they determine a solution for stabilizing the foundations and soils. This process could require careful dismantling and salvaging of Samara’s original brickwork so bricks can be reconstructed on improved foundations. To ensure reconstructed bricks match the original design, Score said they will collect mortar samples to be analyzed by a petrographer, who will then determine exactly which materials were used to make the original mortar by analyzing the portions of cement and lime and types of sand contained in the samples.

A radiant floor heating system installed under the floor of the house has started to corrode and leak, rendering it unusable.

  • Harboe will bring in a mechanical contractor to run a series of tests on the copper piping system that is embedded within the concrete slabs of the first floor.
  • Score said if repair to this piping system is believed possible without tearing up the floors, they will put special additives into the fill water that will seal up cracks and joints.
  • If reactivation of the radiant floor heating system is not possible, Score said Harboe will look at alternative means for improving the conditioning of the house, which could include an electric radiant heating system or an expansion of the house’s existing air system.

On the home’s clerestory windows, plywood stencils are significantly delaminated.

  • Here, Harboe will do some selective replacement of the exterior lamination of the plywood or, in some cases, completely replace the plywood stenciling.
  • “We’ll do scientific research to understand what type of clear finishes were applied to those wood elements – whether it was a linseed based clear finish or a different material,” Score said. “Once we know that scientifically, we’ll use that knowledge to choose the finishes for the restoration.”

Renovations at Samara are expected to be completed before August 2023.

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