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A Sensitive “Restovation” for a Modest House: The J.A. Sweeton House

By Dan Nichols

Not all Wright houses can survive as house museums for “architourists.” To survive into the future, many must remain desirable places in which to live for people of the present day. Owners Dan Nichols and Christine Denario have been making limited subtle alterations to the modest Sweeton House (1950) in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to accommodate the stuff and mechanics of present day life with a goal of keeping Wright’s original intent and aesthetic intact.

As with most of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, the J.A. Sweeton House began with a letter:

August 10, 1948

Dear Mr. Wright…

“…our life is informal and unpretentious…”

“…could you design us an informal ranch-type house with three bedrooms?”

“…Building costs and post-war problems had dwindled our hopes of ever realizing our dream until we read Mr. Loren Pope’s story in a recent copy of House Beautiful- if Mr. Pope could do it, so must we! Can you help us?

Sincerely,

Muriel & Alfred Sweeton

 

Mr. Wright’s response:

“We would like to help you…”

FLlW  September 6, 1948

This is the presentation perspective sent by Wright to the Sweetons, with the image mirrored to coincide with the house as-built. The plan was mirrored by Wright as the design developed from preliminary drawings to construction drawings in an effort to avoid steep terrain thus reducing construction cost.

This is the final floor plan that was issued for construction. There is an additional room, adjacent to the master bedroom, labeled “WORKSHOP” that is not shown in the perspective rendering. The Sweetons found additional funds for the project and requested an additional room during the development of the design. The final design placed the heated “step down” room as a projection off the west facade of the house.

The Sweeton House as completed in the fall of 1951, sited at the eastern edge of a peach orchard, and overlooking a wooded glen to the east of the orchard. Suburbanization, highway widening and subdivision of the Sweetons' once seven-acre tract by a subsequent owner greatly changed the landscape to the west of the house in the 1980s and 1990s.

Muriel Sweeton posing on her front porch in October, 1965

Muriel Sweeton at her loom in the living room in October, 1965. Muriel wove the fabric for the Wright designed furniture. All of the Wright designed furniture was made from plywood scraps left from the construction of the partitions and cabinets. All of the furniture was moveable, which aided its leaving the house over the years. Only one sectional chair remained when we bought the house.

The dining alcove in October 1965 separated from the kitchen with a wood grille punctuated by shelves. The shelves serve a utilitarian purpose in the workspace and a more artful display on the dining side.

The master bedroom in October 1965 with original Wright furniture in place: desk and two hassocks, twin beds with spreads woven by Muriel

The Sweeton house looking southwest, October 1965. The original roofing is still in place in this picture: red asphalt roll roofing with redwood batten strips, Wright’s solution to provide an inexpensive, fire resistant alternative to cedar shingles that emphasizes the horizontal lines of the house much the same way a “Bermuda Seam” metal roof does.

The Sweetons lived in their home from fall 1951 until June of 1974, by which time they had retired and the property was requiring more of them physically—and due to zoning changes, financially—than they were willing to give. The zoning change placed the Sweeton lot in a commercial office district along its highway frontage, making the house difficult to sell as a house. A deal was struck with a developer who agreed to purchase the property and subdivide the acreage allowing the house to remain behind an office building to be constructed close to the highway. Within a year of the Sweetons’ sale of the property, the house alone was sold to a resident owner who held it until he sold the house in March of 2008 to Dan and Christine.

Overgrown, damp, mildewed, lacking a working septic system and mildly infested with the local fauna best described the Sweeton House when we bought it… but, it was a Wright design that even in a diminished state, had the power of great art.

Though almost buried in brush, with its roll and batten roof long covered with common builder 3-tab shingles, the long horizontal lines of the house and its dramatic carport cantilever still captured the eye. Once we bought the house, we spent about a year cleaning it and living with it and doing “simple” things, such as brush and weed tree removal, which needed to be done while we decided upon and developed strategies for the larger more complex tasks.

Strategy for a Sensitive “Restovation” to a Modest Home

Primary Goals:

Keep the house a desirable and convenient place for current and future users.

Hold true to original design intent (“informal, unpretentious”)

Maintain Wright’s “grammar” (materials and details of construction)

How?

Use existing house as a pattern book.

Need a detail? Look for it in the house.

When in doubt, WWWD? (What Would Wright Do)?

Look for similar situations at other Wright houses of the period.

 

Following tree and brush removal, replacement of the septic system (on the previous owner’s dime), removal of a buried (thankfully not leaking) home heating oil tank, running natural gas the 450’ from the main in the highway to the house, and fuel conversion of the boiler and domestic hot water heating, we began to address the living spaces of the house. Projects were done one at a time to allow us to continue living in the house, and to keep cash flow as fluid as possible. We were successful on both counts for the most part.

For our first project, we chose to begin small in a room that desperately needed repair: the bathroom.

Before: Modify the vanity to allow Christine to reach the medicine cabinet, replace the cracked and leaking sink, and address water damage to wood surround and cabinet interior.

After: The cabinet face was refinished and reset on a resized new carcass; the sink was replaced with an ergonomically more suitable unit from IKEA; and slate 1x1 tile was applied to ¼” Hardie Board mounted to the original redwood veneer plywood. This method of mounting will allow relatively clean removal of the tile at some future date if a subsequent owner wishes to refinish or otherwise repair the original plywood. The tile was cut and set to continue the lines of the wood battens.

Before: Replace tub which had begun to rust, and create a manageable, water tolerant surround that was not from “Bathfitter”.

During renovation

During renovation

Wright’s original design had redwood veneer at the tap and tail ends of the tub, with the exposed painted concrete block of the workspace wall along the side of the tub. In other Wright houses, heavily varnished board and batten partitions have, with proper maintenance, survived years of baths and showers. Unfortunately redwood veneer plywood is more vulnerable and is next to impossible to seal particularly when pierced with plumbing and nails where battens are mounted. It had begun to delaminate and rot, while the rough surface of the concrete block had collected years of water deposits, soap scum and dead skin deposits. An earlier owner had installed the plastic surround to keep the tub area sanitary and prevent further water migration, but that was wearing out and a more elegant solution was needed.

After

Replacement of the redwood veneer plywood was unaffordable as it is not commercially available and would have required disassembly of the wall between the bath and the adjacent entry area closet. We decided to take a page from some of Wright’s later Usonians which used 1x1 tile in wet areas. Again, the tile was set on ¼” HardieBoard mounted to the existing surfaces. An earthy looking tile (slate) was chosen to better blend with the wood grain and tiles were cut and set by Christine to visually continue the lines of the wood battens through the tile. Rather than refinish the original tub, we chose instead to have a new tub of the same plan dimensions suitable for deep soaking. A wood skirt panel was made to better visually acclimate the new tub to the Wright room.

Our second interior project addressed another discrete space in need of repair: the workspace (the kitchen to the rest of the world).

Base cabinets are worn, rotted, and falling apart; redwood veneer face panels are salvageable. Original stainless sink is deep and salvageable, but faucet and mounting are shot.

Clothes washer located in kitchen; 60+ year old range not fully working; burners are too close to wall cabinets; 4’9 ½” tall owner stands on range to reach upper cabinets! Upper cabinets are in good condition and will of course stay.

Our strategy is to replace cabinets down low, and to provide better and easier access to those up high. The new base cabinets on the sink side of the room will outwardly match the originals in height and door spacing, though with more rugged cherry veneer and modern pull-out trays within. The stove side of the room will receive new base cabinets set at a lower height to allow the new cooktop more clearance from the original wall cabinets to remain… the lower height is also more ergonomically suited to Christine. The cooktop is selected as two separate two burner units to allow the burners to be all in one line and NOT under the very dry and flammable 60+ year old wall cabinets. The stove side base cabinets will also be reconfigured functionally to a series of drawers to better access the items to be stored… otherwise, details such as knobs will be replicated. A dish drawer will replace the clothes washer.

During renovation

Original base cabinets are removed, and replaced with new to match. When original cabinets were removed, paint tests from 1951 were found… one is a clean match to original paint found elsewhere in the house. Soffits are repainted in Wright’s original pale yellow.

During renovation

Our strategy is to replace cabinets down low, and to provide better and easier access to those up high. The new base cabinets on the sink side of the room will outwardly match the originals in height and door spacing, though with more rugged cherry veneer and modern pull out trays within. The stove side of the room will receive new base cabinets set at a lower height to allow the new cooktop more clearance from the original wall cabinets to remain…the lower height is also more ergonomically suited to Christine. The cooktop is selected as two separate two burner units to allow the burners to be all in one line and NOT under the very dry and flammable 60+ year old wall cabinets. The stove side base cabinets will also be reconfigured functionally to a series of drawers to better access the items to be stored…otherwise, details such as knobs will be replicated. A dish drawer will replace the clothes washer.

Nothing is wasted. As with the original construction of the house, scraps of redwood veneer plywood are used to make furniture. The original base cabinet doors are cut up to make replicas of hassocks designed by Wright for the house that had been removed decades earlier.

The removal of the clothes washer from the kitchen meant that all laundry functions could now be in one room, this time closer to the bedrooms. The house didn’t have a clothes dryer until the early 1970s, and when one was added, it was set up in the workshop adjacent to the master bedroom, a room that was not equipped with domestic water or drains. We ran water and sewer pipes to the workshop, but did so from the exterior of the house so as not to disturb existing interior spaces, finishes and systems. This was done a couple of years earlier when we dug up the front yard to remove the buried oil tank and run natural gas to the house. Our next project then would be to fit-out the workshop.

Before

The workshop as originally built was a heated, finished, but “blank” room added late in the design as space for a workbench and storage. The room had surface mounted electrical receptacles and pull chain bare bulb lights, with a 220v subpanel set at the time the dryer was installed. The room was set 24” below both the finished grade and the house’s main floor level. Some water infiltration had occurred over the years which was remedied when the yard was dug up earlier with new waterproofing and foundation drainage.

The proposed fit-out was based on a simple principle, “read the room”: rhythm of windows, floor units, and level change will direct the detailing of the design.

Taking advantage of the existing four riser stair, we chose to “overbuild” the existing floor to avoid cutting the radiant slab for utilities.

A “tunnel effect” at the entrance to the workshop is avoided by providing glimpses of the windows with partial height elements and transom glass… the same devices and details Wright used in the original house.

Inside the toilet room, details from the existing house are transposed to meet the needs of the room: the vanity matches the main bath; light is provided via replicas of light boxes used in the original house; the plumbing vent pipe is concealed in a wood chase just as at the original bath, which also conceals electric wiring runs; shelving repeats the same detail found in the original house and visually integrates the chase to the wall; a mirror wraps the corner of the room much the same way as Wright’s mitered corner glass to visually expand the space and “break the box”.

The completed workstations are in a quiet corner (at least when the laundry machines are not in use), and “Wrightian” details, cribbed from the original house, light a corner, create a place to set a drink, and hide an electrical receptacle under the shelf.

Wright’s 1950 Plan

Restovation Plan 2013: Wright’s original plan for the workshop and our proposed plan. We chose to treat the workshop as a catch-all for new or moved functions: laundry, supply storage, a second toilet room, and desk/computer space. Using Wright’s basic organization, we located a two desk workstation where a workbench had been planned in 1950, and placed a stacked washer/dryer closet with storage cabinets where a never constructed closet is shown on Wright’s plan. A compact new toilet room was located to have a window but still maintain as big a space as possible for the work area.

Our most recent project has been our largest and most comprehensive: the reconstruction of the living and dining area window wall; the bolstering of the living room roof structure; and the restoration of the sloped roof back to Wright’s originally specified materials.

As can be seen from the photos, the lightly framed living room roof and window wall were in need of restoration… 2x6 framing + excessive spans + discontinuous mullions + 60 years of snow cycles = sagged roof and bowed wall.

Water sheeting off the gutterless 12” roof eave wetted wood at the bottoms of the French doors, the flat exterior slab held water at the threshold, and mullions between the doors supporting the roof absorbed water like drinking straws. Rot then developed.

In preparation for the restoration, the exterior slab was removed and the top of the foundation exposed to allow a new means of anchoring the wood mullions to be installed, which would minimize lateral bending/bowing of the wall. To accomplish this, the roof was supported from just inside the room and the mullions were cut off at their bottoms to allow new stainless steel post anchorage brackets to be installed.

During the course of the work, a radiant heat pipe was exposed and found to have corrosion from contact with a dissimilar metal. The pinhole weep was remedied by removing a 4’ section of pipe, cutting where good solid pipe was encountered and splicing in a new section. All exposed pipe was primed with a rattle can or two of Rustoleum.

Moving upward, the original sagging gypsum board ceiling was removed and the roof ridge and corner overhang were jacked level in preparation for reinforcing steel insertion.

The solution to the sagging roof was to insert steel beams and flitch plates of the same depth as the existing 2x6 framing at the ridge, fascia beam, cantilever beams, and rafter connections to the mullions, thus increasing load carrying capacity while maintaining the original roof thickness. The wood mullions between the French doors were replaced, this time set in stainless steel base anchors and run continuously up to steel flitch plate rafters where they are bolted. This work makes a “moment frame” which will resist bowing outward thus keeping the roof from sagging.

Once the structural reinforcement and related framing was complete, installation of new roof insulation, custom formed gutters recessed behind the roof fascia, and reconstruction of structural mullions and French doors followed.

For the roof insulation, we chose to use two layers of 2” thick foil faced polyisocyanurate rigid board friction fit between the rafters. The material provides a higher R value per inch than fiberglass batts, its aluminum foil facing is effective in blocking infrared passage, and it is easily removed at some point if necessary. The 4” total thickness of insulation allows a 1.5” clear air space between the insulation and the roof sheathing for venting…we added a ridge vent and edge vent to the roof, there was no venting originally, to prevent the condensation accumulation that had bowed the original gypsum board ceiling and caused mildew problems in certain areas.

Despite Wright’s view of roof gutters on Usonian houses as an unnecessary expense, we chose to add them to the Sweeton House to prevent reoccurrence of some of the water related degradation that had plagued the house in its later years. The roof overhang at the living room window wall is only 12”, much shallower than many of Wright’s eaves at window walls. This was due to the steeply pitched roof and solar orientation, almost due east. The water sheeting off the roof would spatter and be blown onto the bases of the structural mullions and French doors soaking them with every rain…rot ensued. To protect our restoration investment, we chose to install gutters behind the fascia line (no protrusion at the roof edge) to catch the water and drop it benignly at either end of the roof. Gutters were installed where sheeting water posed a threat to the house: at the window wall, over the exterior basement stair, and above the front porch; the remaining roof edges were left gutterless.

The Sweetons daughter Nancy with relatives ca. 1952.

The Sweeton House was originally designed to have a cedar shingle roof, but that was changed late in the design process to make the roof more fire resistive at the owner’s request. Wright chose to use a humble red asphalt roll roofing, often used on barns and outbuildings, but with redwood strips or battens set at the edges of the courses of the rolls (about 16” to 18” apart). This “roll & batten” roofing emphasized the horizontal, unified the striated look of the masonry with the geometric planes of the roof, and did so at a much lower cost than metal Bermuda roof which had a similar appearance.

To save cost and prevent wind driven rain and freeze-thaw leaking at the eventually warped and cupped battens, subsequent re-roofings simply removed the battens and overlaid the roof with standard 3 tab asphalt shingles as seen in earlier photos.

Our goal was to return the roof to its original as-constructed appearance, but this time using modern materials to improve its performance and longevity. As a failsafe, we installed a self-healing ice and watershield membrane over the whole of the sloped roof to prevent any possible infiltration associated with the battens. The battens match the profile prescribed on Wright’s drawings, but instead of redwood which is subject to warping, cupping, and checking, the new battens are made of Trex decking which is much more dimensionally stable.

William Allin Storrer photo (1970), just prior to shingle overlay…

…same angle September 2015.

Posted on February 1, 2017

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