- Wright Studies
- Harvey P. Sutton Residence, McCook, Nebraska (1905 - S.106)
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The 'Other' house -- Historical Society puts unbuilt Frank Lloyd Wright plans on display
McCook Daily Gazette
March 4, 2011
By Connie Jo Discoe
McCook, Nebraska -- McCook and Nebraska could have had two houses designed by American architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright, the creator of "Prairie Style" designs.
The "Sutton House," designed by Wright (1867--1959) and built from 1905 through 1908 for Harvey P. and Eliza Sutton in the 600 block of McCook's Main Street, would have been McCook's second Wright-designed home if Charles Wood Barnes hadn't decided just a couple years earlier that $2,000 was too much to pay to build the house that Wright designed for him, his wife, Rose Lily Lee, and their family.
Wright's blueprints and a pencil-drawn design of a leaded-glass window for the "Barnes House" are now on display at McCook's Museum of the High Plains, to which Charles Barnes' daughter-in-law, Belle Zurich (Mrs. Ted) Barnes, willed them upon her death in 1999.
The history of the "Barnes Project" was researched by Randy G. Stramel of McCook in his thesis, printed in December 1991, for a master's degree in architecture from the University of Nebraska Lincoln.
Stramel's research indicated that in February 1901, the "Ladies Home Journal" magazine published floor plans for "A Home in a Prairie Town," by up-and-coming architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Charles Barnes, the publisher of the "McCook Times-Democrat" and "The McCook Republican" newspapers in McCook, contacted Wright's studio through the magazine. Stramel noted that the first set of house plans in the magazine were beyond the needs and budget of Barnes -- with servants' quarters and a price tag of $6,970 -- but that Barnes must have appreciated the style of the home to have written to the magazine.
More than a year after the blueprints appeared in the magazine, in May 1902, Wright's studio responded to Barnes' inquiry that there were no schemes in the studio "such as you seek," that would meet his budget and desire for a smaller home. Stramel wrote that, however, "Frank Lloyd Wright was more than happy to accept a commission to design a house for Charles W. Barnes regardless of the fact that Barnes had a severely limited budget and was in distant Nebraska."
Over the next two years, Barnes and Wright, and Barnes and Wright's associate, Walter Burley Griffin, corresponded back-and-forth with questions, delays for Wright's travel and illness, changes and adjustments.
Finally, on March 5, 1903, Griffin wrote Barnes, "sketches for your house are at last started."
Within days, on March 20, 1903, Barnes received the first drawings of his house and a letter written and signed by Wright himself. Wright discussed placement of the house on the lot, landscaping, interior spaces, entrances, kitchen conveniences and finish materials. No cost estimates were included.
Barnes wrote back, and Griffin replied on March 25, "We will comply with your wishes without further delay."
Griffin sent partial specifications in April and told Barnes that the house had changed in order to get the cost down to the absolute minimum, making the rooms as small as practicable, replacing exterior plaster with horizontal boards and battens and limiting plaster to a horizontal band at the second story.
(These are the blueprints on display at the High Plains Museum.)
Griffin requested information on McCook's sewer, water, gas and electricity, and wrote that he was also beginning cost estimates.
Wright himself wrote on July 7, 1903, "Your plans are on the way," and asked Barnes to please send a check "for as large a proportion of the bill rendered as may be convenient." Barnes responded with a $40 payment.
On Aug. 6, 1903, after Barnes delayed a business trip to Chicago, Griffin forwarded revised drawings and specs to Barnes. Griffin wrote, "Your last wishes have been met, I believe, as suggested."
In September, however, Griffin again sent more revised plans for Barnes' "final approval or suggestions."
Barnes wrote again with more changes, and Griffin responded that the length of the house could be increased, but the width should be left as it was because the proportions were better. Widening it would require larger floor joists and create problems with window arrangement. And Griffin warned of potential cost increases if Barnes indeed wanted the original all-plaster exterior.
In October 1903, Griffin wrote that he was sending three final plans and two sets of specifications. Griffin wrote, "Please return all previous specifications and plans in order to be sure that there will be no conflicts. Obsolete copies are fruitful source of trouble in building."
Griffin continued, "The glass design is as simple and inexpensive as it could well be, but if you can afford better, it would be hardly advisable to substitute copper at considerable increase in expense with little, if any, advantage over lead stiffened with zinc bars."
Stramel described the window arrangement as "essentially symmetrical. ... The leaded windows are of a simple geometric design. The leaded windows, along with all the other details in the Barnes House, were quite simple and direct." (A pencil-drawn window design is under glass at the High Plains Museum.)
In November 1903, Griffin wrote that lumber and mill bids from Chicago seemed to be reasonable, but added, "The glass, however, you can probably do better with at Denver."
In the same letter, Griffin confirmed that Barnes had all the information he needed, and requested a $200 payment, money needed for ongoing renovations of Wright's Oak Park studio, "to go towards keeping us out of a hole." Wright's fees for services, according to his fee schedule, were to be 10 percent of the construction budget for the house, or $200.
By December 10, 1903, Barnes had evidently not made the payment and Wright himself wrote a reminder, "We have heard nothing in reply to Mr. Griffin's note of Nov. 20, 1903. Can you not help us out immediately? We have certainly been good to you?" Wright signed it, "Yours truly."
Barnes sent $100 on Jan. 22, 1904, and worried that he had not been given credit for his $40 payment. Barnes was also adamant about the cost of the house -- that it should not cost more than the original amount. (Stramel notes that a construction budget was never mentioned in the correspondence but was probably set at $2,000.)
Barnes wrote that he was still planning to build "as soon as possible in the spring."
Stramel concluded: "There is evidence that Barnes forwarded another payment to Wright: an undated receipt from Wright's office for $200, for 'plans and specifications for dwelling.'
This was apparently the end of the correspondence and relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles W. Barnes. The house, unfortunately, was never built."
Stramel concluded that the Barnes House design was "an excellent example of Wright's Prairie House reduced to the bare essentials of the style. With the embellishment stripped away, we can see the simple Prairie House vocabulary: the emphasis on the horizontal line, the low hipped roof and deep overhanging eave, the leaded casement windows tucked beneath the eave and flowing interconnected spaces.
... The significance of the Barnes House ... lies in its simplicity and directness."
In the portion of Stramel's thesis that delved into Wright's "Office Procedures and Client-Architect Relationship," Stramel wrote that Wright described the internal function of his studio in 1908, indicating that he himself carefully worked out each project.
Wright wrote, "I believe that only when one individual forms the concept of the various projects and also determines the character of every detail ... will that unit be secured which is the soul of the individual work of art." Only at that point, Wright wrote, would an assistant be assigned to develop and complete the design.
Stramel writes that the Barnes letters support Wright's description of the methods he employed in his Oak Park studio.
In his thesis, Stramel wrote, "Walter Burley Griffin wrote Barnes three times over a period of 10 months asking him to be patient until Wright had an opportunity to do his work. Once the design was completed, it was Griffin who handled all of the development, revisions and technical aspects of the project. In fact, Wright's only apparent involvement after the design was complete was to request payment from Barnes. All other matters were handled by Griffin."
Wright signed a letter dated July 7, 1903, asking for payment (requesting "a check for as large a proportion of the bill rendered as may be convenient.") and indicating that plans were on their way. He wrote, "Hoping you may be successful in finding someone to build your little home satisfactorily to us all, and thanking you for your appreciation."
Stramel wrote that although Wright attained, over time, the reputation of being difficult to work with and intolerant of clients' wishes, at the time he was working with Barnes, he was accommodating to Barnes' wishes. The overall size of the house was reduced, the exterior siding was changed and Wright incorporated what Stramel called "a rather ungainly and awkward portion of shed roof over the second stair" to provide a stairway to the basement from the outside as Barnes requested. Stramel wrote, "Wright incorporated this second stair but only at the expense of spoiling the pure, horizontal eave lines. ... Wright was even willing to compromise the design in order to please the client."
Outside the normal work of architects at the time, Wright's studio also helped Barnes secure bids and estimates from suppliers.
Stramel noted that Barnes also recommended Wright's work to a Miss Evans and to Harvey P. and Eliza Sutton, both of McCook. Wright designed a house for Sutton, and it was built on the northwest corner of Main Street and F Street.
The Barnes house was to have been built in the same neighborhood, on the southeast corner of the intersection.
In late 1904 or early 1905, Mrs. Sutton wrote to Wright, "Having seen a plan you drew for Chas. Barnes and being favorably impressed, write to see if you can do something for me."
Budget problems also struck the Sutton House project, Stramel noted, as Mrs. Sutton wrote to Wright's studio that since the house was still over budget, she should be under no obligation to pay (architect's fees) until Wright had gotten the design down to budget. She used the Barnes project as an example, writing, "If like Mr. Barnes we had decided not to build would send check without further ado."
Frank Lloyd Wright's designs for the "Barnes House" are now on display at the Museum of the High Plains, 413 Norris Avenue, McCook, Nebraska.
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