Restoring Wright

small DeckFor years I’ve admired Michigan Blue, a gorgeous regional magazine celebrating our third coast. So I’m very excited to have an essay of mine included in the Fall 2014 issue. “Restoring Wright” chronicles our decision to purchase and renovate a Frank Lloyd Wright home in St. Joseph, a beach town on Lake Michigan. The magazine is available in many bookstores, including Barnes & Noble, in the upper Midwest.

To read more about our Frank Lloyd Wright home, please visit the Schultz House Web site. If you “like” its public Facebook page, you’ll get regular updates and photos of our ongoing renovation projects.

Before and after

The belief in a thing makes it happen.” — Frank Lloyd Wright

DSCN4913If you love houses, you probably enjoy stories about “do overs” and makeovers — so here’s a new one for you. Besides, it’s been a while since I’ve posted news about our second home on the west side of the state.

The past few months have been stressful and exciting for our Frank Lloyd Wright home, designed for industrialist Carl Schultz in 1957. Wright fans appreciate the fact that this Usonian house represents the famous architect’s final mark in western Michigan before his death in 1959.

DSCN4916Overlooking a wooded ravine and riverbank in historic St. Joseph, it even came with some of its original Wright-designed furniture.

But the home wasn’t in good repair when we found it.

The day we took ownership five years ago, I was on my knees scrubbing gruesome rust stains in the bathrooms while my husband, Doug, scouted the hallway for more roof leaks. (When you think of a haunted house, you probably conjure images of a crumbling gothic Victorian that only the Addams family could love. But trust me: Even mid-century modern homes can be very scary when they fall into disrepair.)

In other words, the Schultz house needed more than a new roof and a cleaning service. In fact, it was the beauty of the nearby river – along with the leaky roof and plumbing problems – that inspired me to name the house “Runningwater.” Luckily, Doug is a tireless architect, constantly working toward the goal of leaving the Schultz house better than we’d found it.

This spring, Doug launched a massive renovation/restoration project, driving back and forth across the state almost weekly to work with his construction crew. Not a day flew by when he wasn’t on the phone with the construction manager.

Doug and BalthazarI won’t elaborate on the architectural specifics, because you can visit The Carl Schultz House Web site for a complete history of the house and more photos of the renovation process, including the repair and restoration of the original red concrete floors.

Putting it back together

If I’ve learned nothing else over the years, I’ve discovered that architects and construction crews — like newspaper columnists — cannot kick ass without deadlines.

With that in mind, Doug agreed to put our freshly renovated Schultz house on two house tours this fall. The first, a fundraiser for the Symphony League of Southwest Michigan, was held Sunday, September 29th. The second tour — for the national Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy — will be held later this month.

Back RoomBeing the sweet, devoted wife that I am, I volunteered to help Doug redecorate the house — and style it — for its big public debut.

Well, I wish you could have heard me swearing (WTF!? was just for starters) when I arrived at the house on Friday — 48 hours before the first tour. A dozen trucks blocked the driveway. Construction workers had taken over the living room and master bedroom, and construction dust wafted everywhere. All the furniture and accessories were buried under drop cloths and tools, or scattered like roadkill around the driveway. (See top photos.)

EntryThe workmen labored on until 7pm the night before the house tour. With the help of a wonderful local housecleaning duo, we all scrubbed and dusted like the devil and somehow managed to put everything back together — excluding the master bedroom and bath — for public viewing. At one point, I looked down and noticed my right foot was bleeding — and I have no idea how it happened.

Once again, I want to emphasize that the two “before” photos at the top were taken last Friday — just 48 hours before the last two photos shown at the end of this post. The second photo, with tool boxes in the foreground, shows another view of the finished room in the bottom photo. You can click on the photos for a larger view.

All said and (almost) done, the hard work on this project has its rewards — the best being the dozens of people on the tour who’ve thanked us for opening our doors and sharing a slice of architectural history.

Meanwhile, I’ve returned home to my old Tudor here in Royal Oak, which is really starting to look like it needs a paint job …

All photos copyrighted by Cindy and Doug La Ferle. Middle photo shows Doug La Ferle (right) with the late Balthazar Korab, who came to photograph the Schultz home in 2010. Click here to view the Korab photos.

Variations on a weekend

We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.” – Joseph Campbell

It felt good to get back to our Wright house in St. Joseph this weekend. Work and family obligations got in the way of our good intentions this summer, so we didn’t drive out to the house as often as we’d hoped. Meanwhile, fall chores were piling up as quickly as the oak and maple leaves on the property.

While it’s certainly a privilege to own a second home — especially one designed by Frank Lloyd Wright — the fact remains that no house cleans or maintains itself while you’re away.

So, finally, Doug and I headed to the west side of Michigan on Thursday morning, the mid-October sun illuminating foliage and farmland along the highway. While we knew we’d check off a few chores and repairs on the Wright house to-do list, we also promised each other that we’d make time to enjoy the house — and even do some exploring beyond downtown St. Joe. It was the best decision we’ve made this season.

We spent all day Friday in South Haven and Saugatuck — two charming Lake Michigan towns known for their art galleries, independent bookstores, boutiques, and good restaurants. Browsing through a small antiques mall in South Haven, we stumbled on a few treasures, including a vintage crystal bracelet (had to have it) and some doodads for art projects.

Chicago side trip

Few opportunities make me happier than scouting for clothes, books, art, and old junk in adorable small towns. And one of those is visiting our son Nate. Our decision to purchase our Wright house in St. Joseph was influenced by the fact that Nate moved to Chicago after college graduation, and St. Joe is less than two hours away.

On Saturday morning Doug and I drove to the train station in Michigan City, then boarded the South Shore Line to Chicago. It was another mellow afternoon, weather-wise, and we enjoyed having our little family together again. Of course, Chicago is always more fun when you experience it with someone who lives there and loves it. Nate introduced us to one of his favorite restaurants, the Southport Grocery and Cafe, which features a savory menu of creative brunch dishes. I can’t think of a better balm for a mother’s soul than to share bread-pudding pancakes and cinnamon butter with her grown son — a son who clearly feels at home in his world.

Back at the Wright house on Sunday, Doug and I did some housecleaning and yard work. Taking a short break before packing up, I walked behind the house to get another look at the ravine and the St. Joseph River beyond it. It’s a view that never fails to calm me down; to remind me of what’s truly essential.

Only a few of the poplars have turned gold at this point, so we’ll have to come back soon to see the maples at their peak. But some of the trees in the woods below are already surrendering their leaves, reminding me that autumn — and this season of my life — is all about release, letting go. Meanwhile, I discovered the perfect spot for a meditation bench, overlooking the river. Once I find the bench, I plan to sit and savor more moments like these.

We really couldn’t have planned a lovelier weekend, all in all.

Amazing, even to me, is the fact that I allowed our time away to meander at its own sweet pace. I let go of my need to plan things down to the minute — and stopped worrying about problems beyond my immediate control. I didn’t dwell on my mom’s series of pending doctor appointments or her new dementia symptoms or her recent fender-bender. I didn’t think about my chores or deadlines back in Royal Oak. And I lost the ridiculous urge to check my e-mail every hour.

“It occurs to me that perhaps I don’t have to push at life quite so hard after all, that sometimes the best thing we can do is allow our lives simply to take us where we need to go,” writes Katrina Kenison in The Gift of an Ordinary Day, a motherhood memoir I finished reading on the train.

Kenison’s words resonated all the way home. Driving back, I thought about the “major” vacations I’ve taken with my husband and family over the years. An anniversary excursion to Paris. A family cruise on the Mediterranean. Back-roads tours of New England. I don’t take those trips for granted, nor would I trade them for other experiences. Yet few of them shimmer in my memory as brightly as the simple pleasures I enjoyed this weekend.  — Cindy La Ferle

— Top photo: View of the St. Joseph River from the back of our property. Middle photo: Doug and Nate. Bottom photo:  The rear view (terrace) of the Carl Schultz House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photos by Cindy and Doug La Ferle. —