The kitchen in Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1934 Willey House in Minneapolis is a grandparent of today’s popular kitchen-as-gathering-place design. Though the Willey kitchen is small (only about 10′ x 11′), Wright connected it to the living room via a plate glass wall and a Dutch door—a bit of social engineering that contrasted with most kitchens of the day, which were separated from public rooms as much as possible.
When Steve Sikora and Lynette Erickson-Sikora purchased the house in 2002 and set their sights on a total restoration, they found a kitchen that bore little resemblance to the original. A previous owner’s remodel had left the kitchen awash in 1970s components, including birch-veneer cabinets, off-the-shelf hardware, Formica countertops, a faux-brick tile floor, and copper-tone appliances. Because of the glass wall, Steve points out, “The kitchen isn’t just on display—it’s the focal point of the living room,” so restoring the original feel was important.
Based on Wright’s drawings, published photos, and surviving correspondence between Wright and Nancy Willey, the original homeowner, the Sikoras and master carpenter Stafford Norris sleuthed out every detail of the original kitchen. Then they scoured the globe for vintage materials and fixtures, or commissioned new ones to precisely match the originals.
What’s Old Is New
A bank of cabinets runs continuously from the living room into the kitchen, seemingly cutting through the plate glass wall. On the living room side, the cabinets—like all other visible wood in the house—are made of cypress. To restore the wall’s continuity and return the kitchen to its original look, the birch-veneer kitchen cabinets had to go. “Materials in the ’70s kitchen were determined as much by budget as by taste,” notes Steve.
In a stroke of luck, Norris discovered about half of the discarded and disassembled original kitchen—doors, drawers, chunks of counter, and pieces of cabinets—piled in a storage area above the garage. “I think the ’70s workers did a careful job of disassembling the old kitchen because they thought everything might be reused someday,” Norris says. Just as carefully, he labeled and pieced together the boards to determine the original dimensions and joinery methods.
For pieces in good enough shape to be returned to their original positions—two drawer fronts and a set of open shelves—Norris removed the finish with a gentle alcohol-based stripper. All other pieces had to be resurfaced, which Norris accomplished by running the wood through either a planer or a drum sanding machine. “The sanding process reduced the thickness slightly,” says Norris. “There would have been a mismatch if I tried to join that wood to new pieces.” Subsequently, most of the original wood was repurposed as shelving. To fill in the missing pieces, Norris and Steve hunted for wild cypress. After many calls and some rejected material, they found old-growth red tidewater cypress, one of a dozen or so common cypress varieties, in Florida.
In the original kitchen, all face frames, carcasses, and shelf components were solid cypress, while the cupboard doors were cypress-veneered plywood. Norris faithfully matched these materials. To cut veneer, he used his table saw with a fine-tooth blade. He made himself a jig to hold veneer pieces flat and steady as they went through the saw. After laying out edge-matched veneer pieces, he taped them together with blue painter’s tape and applied one-part veneer glue with a rotary applicator. “The applicator makes it go fast,” Norris says. “The glue starts to set up pretty quick, so you don’t have much time.” It’s necessary to veneer both sides of the plywood, he explains. “Otherwise, the combination of the curl of the veneer and the moisture in the glue would warp the plywood.” Finally, he placed the panels in a vacuum table overnight to cure.
The veneer pattern in the kitchen is called “cathedral structure.” It is the result of slicing flitches—the thick beams from which veneer is cut—at a slight angle to their length. This produces a series of nested V’s on the face of the veneer, one of the most desirable patterns.
Norris deviated in some ways from the joinery methods of his 1930s predecessors. Instead of nailing the cabinet carcasses to the face frames, he used modern biscuit joinery to avoid color variations between the cypress (which darkens over time) and the putty-filled nail holes.
Another difference appears on the only curved part of the face frame, a short piece that forms a rounded corner of the counter. The original face-frame curve was made by sawing and shaping a straight piece of lumber. To avoid showing end grain, Norris replaced the original with a piece of bent cypress created via a homemade wood-bending apparatus. His steam chamber was a 4′ length of plumbing pipe with removable end caps and two holes drilled in the side: a steam inlet and a pressure-relief outlet. Steam generated by a teakettle was ducted to the hole in the plumbing pipe by a length of rubber hose. After the wood was made flexible by steaming for a couple of hours, Norris clamped it to the original piece to duplicate the curve’s radius.
To match the new cypress pieces to reused originals, Norris applied colored shellac. He then gave all visible surfaces two coats of polyurethane varnish, a finish Frank Lloyd Wright might have specified if it had existed in 1934. The result is remarkable consistency. A slight darkening around tiny dings and dents is the only thing that distinguishes the 1934 wood from the new pieces.
Though many of the original slim, faceted, Art Deco drawer pulls and cabinet handles survived, most were bent and scratched. When Steve was unable to find off-the-shelf replacements, he turned to Gail Grabow, a Minneapolis jewelry artist. Grabow used the lost wax process to make about 50 handles for cabinets throughout the house. She began by forming silicone rubber molds around several original handles. Then she sliced the molds in half, removed the handles, and glued the halves back together. Next, using a wax injection machine, she filled the molds with liquid wax.
After the wax had solidified, Grabow removed the molds and carefully enlarged the wax replicas in all dimensions. This was necessary, she says, because “there’s about 1 to 3 percent shrinkage in the wax and another 5 to 7 percent shrinkage in the metal. If I didn’t do this, the finished handles wouldn’t fit the cabinet screw holds.” She sent the enlarged wax replicas to a foundry, where they were sprayed with liquid ceramic material to make molds that would stand up to molten metal. Once the ceramic had hardened, the wax was heated and drained out, and molten silicon bronze was poured into the molds. After cooling, the new handles were finished and chrome plated.
New deep red “battleship linoleum,” which had been used on the original countertops and floors, proved to be one of the hardest-to-find materials. The linoleum’s dried-out, cracked remains were found attached to hunks of the countertop in the garage. “Battleship” is a trade designation for thick, heavy-duty linoleum; it is still made in the original color—but only in Germany. After many persistent phone calls, Norris found two rolls of the precious material in a linoleum warehouse in the U.S. Before installing the linoleum on the floor, workers resurfaced the original subfloor by pouring a thin layer of self-leveling concrete.
To duplicate the original look of the back of the counter, where the linoleum curves up seamlessly and becomes the backsplash, the installation team first nailed a piece of coved wood into the corner to use as a form. They cut heavy paper templates exactly 2″ shorter all around than the finished dimension of the linoleum, a tactic that avoided inaccuracies introduced by the paper curling against the walls. When the team cut the linoleum to size, they added those 2″ back.
The most sensational elements in the kitchen are the gleaming porcelain refrigerator and stove, which Steve located with help from The Old Appliance Club. They closely match the originals, shown in photos of the house published in a 1938 issue of Architectural Forum. When Steve found the vintage G.E. refrigerator (called a “Monitor Top” because of its top-mounted compressor) and Hotpoint “Automatic” range, they were in excellent condition and working perfectly. The appliances are the icing on the cake in a kitchen that’s a window on real life as lived in the 1930s, as envisioned by an architectural genius.
Richard L. Kronick is a Minneapolis-based architectural historian who often lectures on and gives tours of Prairie School buildings. The Willey house can be visited by appointment; contact Steve Sikora at thewilleyhouse.com.Published in: Old-House Journal March/April 2009