On the northeast corner of Seventh Avenue and Van Buren Street sits a long overlooked Frank LLoyd Wright design. 669 Van Buren, as viewed by its initial appearance on a 1911 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, is identified as being constructed between 1909 and 1910. This Wright design was sold to Mr. Ingwald Moe and built by his contracting company, General Construction Company.
Before relocating to Gary, Ingwald Moe ran his construction firm out of a downtown Chicago Loop location. Moe likely moved his business to Gary, "America's New Industrial City," to compete for a share of growing construction jobs. Moreover, Moe selected a Wright design for his private residence to illustrate an alternative from prevailing architectural styles as well as to reflect his social status as a successful contractor in both Gary and Chicago. With the construction of 669 Van Buren, Moe initiated what would become almost a decade long professional association with Wright. Seven years later, in 1916, Moe became the unique local representative for the American System-Built scheme of housing, a Wright and Richards Company venture.
669 Van Buren is a precise realization of what Frank LLoyd Wright originally designed for the 1905 Charles Brown residence, located in Evanston, Illinois. The Moe and Brown houses are identical, both having matching scale, massing, and floor layouts. The Moe House differs in that its first floor possesses an exterior stucco application in comparison to the Brown House having wooden board and batten clapboard. The Brown House is noted in Henry-Russell Hitchcock 's In the Nature of Materials as being the "Evanston Model Home." From Hitchcock's citation, one can conclude that this design was the prototype of a projected Prairie style tract development or subdivision. Both the Brown and Moe residences are not the first embodiments of this Wright archetype. A forerunner to both of these designs can be seen in a Wright study for a residential development for E.C. Waller, see plate XLVIII (a) of Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe von Frank Lloyd Wright. The first design on this plate is the initial appearance of this archetype in Wright's oeuvre. This design is characterized as being a two-story single family residence possessing a hipped roof with projecting eaves, front veranda, second story balconettes, double hung windows, and a subtle cruciform layout. For the Brown and Moe houses, Wright shortened the front veranda, making its roof cantilevered, and rotated the main roof 90 degrees. Wright even continued to evolve this design archetype in his designs for the Ingalls and Ziegler residences.
669 Van Buren is an unsupervised Wright design. This house was constructed while Wright was either preparing to leave for Europe or while there working on theWasmuth Portfolio. The unsupervised aspect is not uncommon seeing that other commissions such as Robie, Meyer May, and Irving were partially or entirely completed in this manner. In a contractual agreement dated July 7, 1911, the authorship of the Moe residence is addressed. The legal firm of Silber, Issacs, Silber, and Woley sent Frank Lloyd Wright and his legal counsel, Kerr and Kerr, a final accounting of work performed by Von Holst while running Wright's practice. In this final accounting, housed at the Northwest Architectural Archives, Wright is noted as receiving one half of the total commission of work for the Moe residence. Wright was entitled, as agreed upon in a 1909 contract between himself and Von Holst, to receive fifty percent of a commission in instances where "Wright has made sketches or may at Mr. Von Holst's request" or for "all new work for which no sketches have yet been made, but for which Wright has established precedents, or should there be time and the clients so disposed, Mr. Wright may be called upon to make sketches." In the case of the Moe residence, Wright received fifty percent of the commission due to the fact that the Moe house was literally what he originally designed for the "Evanston Model Home" of 1905; a design precedent.
Historic Shots Circa 1917
Marion Mahony had worked in Wright's office prior to 1909. She is noted for influencing Wright in several areas, including the concept of his Home and Studio in Oak Park, art glass window design ideology, and furniture concepts. In 1909, she was asked by Von Holst to help run the firm while Wright was in Europe. Marion stated in her biography, The Magic of America, that "Mr. Von Holst asked me to join him, so I did on definite arrangement that I should have complete control of design. That suited him."
In the summer of 1996, I had the pleasure to confirm a perspective drawing from the business portfolio of Marion Mahony as the Moe residence, click the image to the right to view a larger version, image courtesy of Seymour Persky. The drawing was originally accredited to be the Charles Brown House. Mahony's perspective denotes a stucco structure on a large corner lot. The Charles Brown House is not on a corner lot rather it is located mid-block and possesses a wooden board and batten first floor. Rather Mahony's rendering illustrates the Moe residence, on the corner of 7th and Van Buren, possessing a hipped roof, broad projecting eaves, inset banding, double hung art glass windows, a front veranda with a cantilevered roof, and as being amply landscaped. In A Standard History of Lake County, Indiana and the Calumet Region, Walter Burley Griffin, is noted as being the landscape architect for 669 Van Buren. This work states that "the trees and shrubbery around the residence were laid out and planted by Walter Burley Griffin." (Note the landscaping design in the historic shots above.) About a year after the completion of the Moe residence, Walter and Marion were married in the nearby Indiana Dunes. As a wedding backdrop, the dunes personified the couple's love for nature and their desire for its inclusion in the built world.
Marion Mahony, in addition to using this house as a portfolio example, is further responsible for several noteworthy interior embellishments. Marion advanced several basic Wright designed concepts in the Moe residence. In the drawings for the Charles Brown House or "Evanston Model Home," Wright enumerated precise placement and dimensions for the bookcases and dining room sideboard while giving only generic or basic design concepts for each. Marion enhanced what Wright originally envisioned by including art glass doors in all of the bookcases, by designing art glass wall sconces for the living room which are reminiscent of the driveway lighting of the Irving Residence (Decatur, Illinois), and by complementing the dining room's built-in sideboard with art glass doors and wall sconces. All of the patterns that occur in Marion's additions to the Wright plan mirror the geometric design seen in the art glass windows and french doors.
The interior floor plan is a subtle cruciform layout. The first floor consists of a living area, dining room, and kitchen. A continuous wooden string course runs through out the first floor to help accentuate the overall horizontal emphasis and to spatially tie together all of the spaces. The living room is an elongated space possessing flanking bookcases with undulating grilles that act to separate the entry hall and side reading niche. The centrally located Roman brick fireplace is the main emphasis or focus of the living room. The living room additionally has art glass french doors which open out onto the front veranda, now enclosed. In the dining room, one will find the built-in sideboard with art glass doors and wall scones. The second floor consists of three bedrooms and one bathroom. The two larger bedrooms have art glass casements windows which permit entry out onto the side balconettes.
The house has a matching detached one and a half car garage. The garage possesses a wooden string course alluding to the separation of first and second floors, inset banding, and window treatments all of which are reflective of design elements found in the house.
Mr. and Mrs. Murff, the current owners, are greatly interested in preserving this unique design for posterity. Within the next several years, the Murffs hope to commence restoration work on the residence. Restoration work will encompass 1.) the elimination of water entry points on the side balconettes, 2.) an exterior stucco survey, 3.) the repair of water damaged interior plaster and millwork (due to the infiltration of water from the side balconettes), 3.) the cleansing and repair of the art glass windows, and 4.) the repair of the garage's roof system.
669 Van Buren is one of Gary's most significant cultural resources. Taliesin West has assigned an opus number of 0531 to the Moe residence. With this current addition to Wright's inventory of work, a previously unfamiliar aspect of the careers of Frank LLoyd Wright, Marion Mahony, and Walter Burley Griffin has resurfaced; thereby further reshaping our understanding of three of the Prairie School's most noted architects.