"Residential archaeology" is what Mary Ludgin of Oak Park calls much of the work she and her husband, Mark Donovan, have done over the past 14 years on their 1896 Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home.
They are the owners of the Louisa and Harry Goodrich House, one of the nine homes that will be featured on this year's Wright Plus Architectural Housewalk to be held May 18 -- and one of only two that Wright designed with a half-timbered, Black Forest look, Donovan and Ludgin say.
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Wright designed the house early in his career and the couple has been gradually restoring it while also making the home energy efficient and able to meet the needs of a modern family, particularly when it comes to the kitchen.
But in order to restore something to its original Wright glory, you must take the time and make the effort to discover what lies underneath the layers of paint and myriad changes made by subsequent homeowners over the decades. That is where things get tricky for Wright homeowners.
"When we moved in, everything had been painted beige and the woodwork had been stained very dark," Ludgin said. "The walls had also been covered with a muslin fabric to cover Wright's sand finish."
So they hired contractors to remove all of that, first in the living room and currently in the dining room, and what they found underneath was fascinating and enlightening.
"Wright was a colorist. So in the dining room, for instance, we found two-tone paint, evidence of where the horizontal trim pieces originally were and even where some sconces had originally hung," she said.
All of that will be faithfully recreated in time for Wright Plus, Donovan says, including the sand finish on the walls.
"A lot of it is deciphering and piecing together what likely would have been there, based on research," he said.
A few years ago when they restored the living room, they aimed for the home's 1908 look when Wright himself returned to remove a wall that had originally cut the living room in half, adding box beams to the ceiling and enlarging the inglenook benches. They installed new bricks on the front of the inglenook fireplace, restored the flanking built-in bookcases to the look Wright originally gave them and brought back the olive green portieres (fabric room dividers on brass rods).
The dining room, on the other hand, will be restored to its 1896 look because Wright never made any changes to it. That decision is made on a room-by-room basis, Donovan and Ludgin said.
"We say that we are being 'true to the house' when we make some ridiculously expensive decision, because we feel that a certain amount of responsibility goes along with living in a Wright house," Ludgin said.
"This is a fun house to come home to and everything we do makes it more of a welcoming place for us. It is true that your space shapes you," she said.
"Wright designed this house when he was only 28 -- before he was a renowned architect -- and I think that that is why it is such a comfortable, livable house," Donovan said. "He was obviously influenced a great deal by the Japanese pavilion at the Columbian Exposition and brought Japanese design elements into this house in everything from the roof of the porch to inglenook, which looks a lot like a Japanese shrine."
Unlike many of Wright's later houses, the Goodrich house is more of a home and less of a work of art, he said, although evidence of his evolving architectural style is obvious throughout.
Ludgin and Donovan, along with their two children, are the sixth owners of the home, which was commissioned by Goodrich, an inventor of sewing machine attachments, bicycle wheels and seats, writing slates, boot soles and even a certain type of screw.
"It appears that he was a great inventor, but a lousy businessman," Donovan said. "We even found a letter from a Goodrich creditor, hidden in the eaves when we were doing some renovation work, threatening to go to (wife) Louisa if he didn't pay up. So it isn't too surprising that after only about ten years in the house, they declared bankruptcy and lost it."
Since the Goodrich house was last on Wright Plus walk in 2005, many changes have been made. Only the kitchen had been renovated at that point, looking correct for the period with soapstone countertops and minimalist cabinets, but offering modern conveniences and food preparation space that was unheard of in 1896 when kitchens were only used by servants.
Since that previous appearance on the tour, ugly radiators on the first floor, which were added by a subsequent owner, have been removed and radiant floor heat added. The third floor, which was added in the bottom half of the two-story attic in 1929, has been totally renovated thanks to necessary exterior work on dormers that allowed leaking into the second-floor master bedroom. A closet and powder room next to the front door were removed and the lovely little alcove that Wright designed for that space has been restored. A renovation of the front porch, which involved removing screening that blocked much of the home's view, will be complete by Wright Plus, as will restoration of the dining room.
"We just move from one project to another, using the same architect and contractor each time because we believe in hiring people to do the work," Ludgin said. "My husband supervises it all, however, and does lots of research. He is a perfectionist and has a real artistic eye."
"We've really gotten into restoring the house because, living in the Oak Park/River Forest area, we know we will be asked to show it on Wright Plus and we want to make a good showing," Donovan said. "They have also given us lots of free research on the house and that is hard to resist."
"Wright Plus truly is a 'gateway drug' for Wright homeowners," Ludgin joked. "Knowing that the housewalk is going to be held encourages you to restore your house and once you start, it is hard to stop."