For two glorious mornings, Mother Nature nudged me gently awake. As morning broke, soft sunlight streamed in from a long row of windows just above my head and printed squares of light onto the mahogany walls. And, slowly, as the room became brighter and filled with birdsong, my eyes blinked open.
It was the best kind of Mother Nature: interpreted, bottled and delivered via Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture in Galesburg, Mich. Oh, and architecture that has been restored to perfection by Marika Broere and Tony Hillebrandt, two sixty-something FLW-aficionados born in the Netherlands but who now call Cambridge, Ont., home.
In most of the rooms in the house that Samuel and Dorothy Eppstein started to build in the late 1940s, that same sunlight strikes custom-made, terracotta-coloured, 12- by 16-inch concrete blocks that Wright designed for the couple (mostly Doris) to manufacture with moulds the couple made themselves; this took three years for the more than 3,000 regular blocks (plus corner blocks and perforated blocks) and delayed the move into the house to 1953.
And those blocks, thanks to Ms. Broere and Mr. Hillebrandt, will last at least until the 2070s.
“We got in master painters that treated the blocks inside and out,” Ms. Broere says, “and we had Sherwin-Williams, the company, help us come up with a very, very special liquid so that the blocks wouldn’t look any different, but they would be protected for 50 years to come. … That cost an absolute fortune, we could’ve bought a very nice car for that.”
Ms. Broere and Mr. Hillebrandt spent other small fortunes – a partial list of big ticket items includes part of the “Cherokee Red” concrete floor, new windows, a ductless heating/cooling system and repairing the sagging principle bedroom ceiling – since, when they first saw the house in 2016, it hadn’t been lived in for 18 years.
As a matter of fact, if you add up all of the money they’ve spent, it would amount to an expensive waterfront cottage in Ontario, since that’s what they were looking for in the first place. “Already the prices were six, seven, eight hundred thousand dollars,” Mr. Hillebrandt says. “I love classic cars, I was in Michigan and then I found this house for sale.”
It was probably the cheapest Frank Lloyd Wright house to hit the market in the last two decades. Listed at US$455,000, the couple was able to get the 2,250-square-foot house for US$368,000 and then spent probably even more than that on the restoration.
The Eppsteins, were they around today, would likely understand. In early letters to Mr. Wright, they’d asked the master for a house that would cost US$10,000. Ms. Eppstein, a chemist who flew military aircraft during the Second World War as a WASP (Woman Airforce Service Pilots) and worked with her husband at the Upjohn Co., wrote much later that “the true cost of the house was about $45,000″ in the days when “a PhD scientist probably made $10,000 a year.”
Ms. Eppstein also wrote that “the floors were very difficult to keep clean,” and that she “didn’t like the cramped bedrooms or the small kitchen.” She admitted, however, that her children loved the design for its openness and the interaction with nature, and that there were other children in the three other FLW houses on the compound that they’d named “The Acres.”
It’s this reality of a mother with five children versus the artistry and fantasy of America’s greatest architect that I try to balance as I wander from room to room. The long, quite narrow hallway is wonderful when it contains one person (me) admiring how evening light fills the tiny, Tetris-shaped glass windows contained within the blocks (that Mr. Hillebrandt and Ms. Broere changed to double-paned glass), but I’m sure it was quite another when filled with hungry, barefooted tots making a beeline to the breakfast table. And that glorious living room, with its dramatic upswept ceiling that connects to a row of 10-foot high windows, and that monumental fireplace, surely those made more sense with adults and cocktails rather than fighting siblings. And that little kitchen! While it’s fine for me to bang around in (while I didn’t cook any meals, I did cut evening brie and warm breakfast muffins in the microwave), I can’t imagine how it would’ve worked with a bunch of snack-monsters demanding afterschool PB&Js.
Luckily, I can use the home as FLW surely intended: as an aesthete, a connoisseur, a gentleman who likes his martinis dry. And while the Eppstein house is certainly no Fallingwater, to my mind it’s more interesting to examine how Wright’s mind worked at this scale, how he tried to design elegance into little things such as those perforated blocks, or the sexy hardware that allows windows to swing wide open and how the kitchen skylight does double-duty by sneaking past the wall (which doesn’t touch the ceiling) to light the foyer, or how a variety of ceiling heights and partially burying the east façade can create such feelings of shelter and coziness.
In the family room at the south end of the house, I can sip wine, listen to jazz and contemplate Wright’s sashless corner windows and how wonderful they are at pulling nature ever closer to one’s heart.
“I’ll tell you a little secret,” Ms. Broere says. “The Usonian homes, in many respects, go against my sense of aesthetic; you know, they’re a little murky, a little dim, a little earth tone, small rooms. But the Eppstein house makes me so happy, I’m so at home in that house. … That’s the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright.”
While the Eppstein house is not currently listed on AirBnB, it has been previously while under Ms. Broere’s and Mr. Hillebrandt’s stewardship. To that end, the couple is currently working with The Acres HOA (Home Owners Association) to change bylaws to make it available again starting next month.
Ms. Broere and Mr. Hillebrandt allowed Shauntelle and I to stay for two nights for free. They did not review this article.
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