Sunday, November 3, 2013

THE WALLS OF THE GEORGE BARTON HOUSE

George Barton House, 1903-4  Dorothy Martin (left) is on the porch, her cousin Laura Barton stands at the doorway)(Photo by Clarence Fuermann)


J.J. Walser House, Austin (Chicago), 1901-2

In the summer of 1994 the Martin House Restoration Corporation purchased the George Barton House from Harvard University. How did this happen? Eric and Eleanor Larrabee originally purchased the Barton House in the late 1960s when Eric was appointed Provost of Arts and Letters at the University of Buffalo under the incoming president Martin Meyerson (for whom the University obtained the nearby Martin House). 

Eleanor Larrabee, who studied architecture at Harvard under Walter Gropius, was employed by the firm of Warner, Burns, Toan and Lunde in Manhattan (architects of the Rockefeller Library at Brown University and the Olin Library at Cornell)  but the Larrabees maintained the Barton House as a  second residence throughout the 1970s and 80s. After Eric passed away in 1990 Eleanor made an annuity arrangement with Harvard that involved ownership of the Barton House. When she died in 1997, following an automobile accident in Manhattan, the Martin House Restoration Corporation was able to purchase the house thanks to three inspired citizens, Robert Wilmers, Robert Rich, and Stanford Lipsey. 

Since the Barton House was uninhabited my wife and I were asked to live there and we did so for a year -- a  rare opportunity for me as a Wright scholar. I gave numerous tours and spent a lot of time just experiencing the house. The Barton House is based upon the J.J. Walser House in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, designed in 1901 by Wright and under construction in 1902 by Elmer E. Andrews, the brother-in-law of William R. Heath another Buffalo client of Wright. One of the interesting aspects of the Barton House is that it represented an opportunity for Wright to re-work a design and enhance it. Nevertheless, the Barton House is a house of walls unlike the pier-constructed principal Martin House designed in 1904 and 1905. 

After considerable scrutiny over time I realized that Wright treated the walls of the Barton House as framed panels much like framed pictures.  The wall surfaces were fields of textured plaster tinted with autumnal colors and glazed with clear varnish. The enframing members consist of three pieces of flat sawn oak, the first, a 5/16" wide and 11/16" deep fillet, is the most prominent. Abutted to it is a 1" wide strip recessed 5/8" in from the fillet, and adjacent to that is a half inch strip that rises 7/16" from the wall surface. This framing panel is itself framed by 2 5/8" door frames and 4" horizontal scale moldings. The elements are simple but the overall effect  is one of taut containment of every surface and every room, something that would change significantly in the Martin House as Wright dispensed with walls in favor of a skeletal construction system if brick piers.


Wall panel on second floor George Barton House



Second floor bedroom George Barton house, detail of wall framing with door frame to the left and scale molding above

Often, especially in the ceiling, the central panel would be of a darker hue than the surface around it so that the panel would float as though detached. In its current state (see pictures below) the Barton House bears a color scheme loosely devised by Eleanor Larrabee after Wright's colors but lightened, owing to the darkness of the house, and painted in flat latex colors with none of the luminosity of Wright's method. These surfaces are due to be restored. I should add that Eleanor Larrabee was a wonderful steward of the house who carefully preserved every piece of shim and every little screw that appeared to be original to the house. As a result the Barton House is among the most pristine of any of Wright's prairie houses anywhere.


Barton House dining room as seen from the living room (Photo by Biff Henrich)



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