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A Frank Lloyd Wright design is revived in Minneapolis.

Project: Willey House, Minneapolis, MN

Restoration Team: Wright at Home, LLC, Minneapolis, MN; Steve Sikora & Lynette Erickson-Sikora, owners; Stafford Norris III & Joshua Norris, craftsmen

By Will Holloway

Steve Sikora, along with his wife Lynette, runs a graphic design firm in Minneapolis, MN, called Design Guys. Until about seven years ago, Sikora had no idea that a 1933 Frank Lloyd Wright design – the Willey House – stood a few miles from the company's downtown office. Today, after years of neglect and decline, the Willey House has been completely restored – thanks to a meticulous and often painstaking five-and-a-half-year process orchestrated by the Sikoras.

"I heard about it through my stepson, who had been to an open house," says Sikora. "He said, 'You've got to see this place – it's unbelievable.' I would ride my bike past periodically, thinking that someone was living there. After about a year, I realized that nothing significant ever changed and there was never a car there. It turns out that I was one of the few people in the Twin Cities who didn't know the house had been abandoned for seven or eight years.

"It was an amazing looking ruin – we completely fell in love with it. As we began the work, we started realizing that there was an immense public ownership of the building. People would literally not just walk up to the door, but walk into the house. You'd come over and people would be picnicking in the yard and you'd say, 'What are you doing?' and they'd say, 'It's okay, we do this all the time.'"

While such avid public interest is common to Wright designs, the Willey House remains relatively obscure – certainly as compared to, say, the earlier Westcott House, Martin House and Robie House and to the celebrated later works, including Fallingwater and Wingspread, and Usonian designs such as the Rosenbaum House.

The low-slung, brick, 1,350-sq.ft. Willey House was designed for Nancy and Malcolm Willey, the latter an administrator at the nearby University of Minnesota. At the time the Willeys commissioned Wright, the architect was in dire need of work, as the stock market crash of 1929 had put an end to many large projects. "He accepted the commission and the Willeys were delighted," says Sikora. "After visiting Taliesin, they realized that he had just started this school – the Taliesin Fellowship – and there was virtually no work on the drawing board except their house. You get the sense that there was a lot of pent-up energy."

"Scholars generally place Wright's work into vast periods – the Prairie years and Usonia," says Sikora. "This house is right on the cusp of Usonia – in a lot of ways it's a template for that. But it's was not necessarily a simple house; it doesn't have the factory-built parts, the offsite-built parts or the sandwich walls. It's all brick construction, and it's pretty elaborate."

There were two designs for the Willey House. Wright was given a budget of $8,000-$10,000, and Nancy Willey (who drove the process) spent a year trying to get the initial two-story design built. (Sikora estimates that a typical house in 1934 cost around $2,400.) "The best price she could get on that house, even during the Depression, was $20,000," says Sikora. "In frustration, she finally said, 'I want an $8,000-$10,000 house for $8,000-$10,000. Can I have it?' Wright responded, 'We'll redesign. It's the only way.'"

In December 1933, Wright designed the house that exists today, giving the Willeys exactly what they wanted. Construction was completed just before Thanksgiving in 1934. "They didn't intend to have children and they were a university couple, so he knew that they were going to be entertaining," says Sikora. "The main living space is perfect for that. It's built very flexibly; there isn't a furniture plan for the living room side of the space, which also contains the dining area."

Malcolm Willey lived in the house until 1963, when he retired from the University of Minnesota. It was then sold to another university faculty member, who lived there until 1972. The third owner lived in the house briefly, then rented it out to architecture students for a period before it eventually fell into disrepair. Various restoration attempts over the years lacked either funding or the necessary vision.

"At the time we acquired it, all of the utilities had been shut down and more than half of the radiators were broken because water had been left in the system," says Sikora. "So we really started from ground zero." To ensure an accurate restoration, the Sikoras utilized a variety of primary sources, including 54 drawings of the Willey House held at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Scottsdale, AZ; the correspondence between Nancy Willey and Wright held at the University of Minnesota and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles; and Nancy Willey's original photo album, which contained vintage photos.

"After sealing up the outer envelope and getting the heat and lights back on, we realized that, with anything we did from that point on, we needed to make a decision – either take a band-aid approach or fix the root cause," says Sikora. "For example, it was very evident that leaks and roofing problems had been issues for decades – in some cases, they were problems that had been built into the house. We always chose to fix things at the level of the root cause.

"We did it to the best of our abilities and to the letter of what Wright intended. But even in that regard, we were looking at three different factors: the design intention – it's very clear, if you read the correspondence and look at the plans, what the house was supposed to be; what was actually built – sometimes decisions were made on the part of the builder or Nancy Willey because there was something that wasn't entirely practical; and the longevity of the house – if we were going to be the stewards of the place, we wanted to ensure at least another 70-100 years for the house by fixing things the right way."

The first three years of the restoration focused on the south side of the house, where skylights above a bank of French doors had been leaking. Because everything was woven together so tightly – the sheet metal of the skylights runs up the roof and is tied into the sheet metal of the trellis – fixing the skylights involved fixing the roof and the trellis. The trellis, which was slumping about three-and-a-half inches, was bolstered with W-shaped steel supports. In the final two years of the project, the kitchen was restored and unfinished elements in the bedrooms and study were completed.

Sourcing materials for the restoration proved a challenge. "The brick of the Willey House came from two different sources," says Sikora. "The first is a sand-mold brick from Menomonie, WI, and the second is a shale brick with exactly the same firing pattern, but a glossy surface, that comes from Chaska, MN. We were able to find some of the Menomonie brick, but we could not find the Chaska brick anywhere, so we enlisted a brick maker in Tennessee [Stone Art, Inc., of Church Hill, TN], who was able to emulate the brick." All of the wood in the house is red Tidewater cypress, which was last commercially available in the 1950s; for the restoration, the wood was salvaged from swamps and rivers in Florida. Other products and materials in the house include a high-velocity A/C system from Unico and spray foam insulation from Icynene.

The five-and-a-half year restoration was completed in 2007, and Sikora says the reaction has been overwhelmingly favorable. "People really love it," he says. "It's very rare for someone not to respond positively to the house. Everyone has an opinion of Wright, but the opinions usually seem to be dispelled in this case. It's a much simpler house than some of the really extravagant Prairie houses, and it's an interesting model for housing today – in many quarters, we talk about houses being a little more human-scaled, and more practical and sustainable."  

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