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Lawrence Tech students help preserve Frank Lloyd Wright house while living in it

Release Date: April 24, 2009

Southfield, Mich. - Two Lawrence Tech students majoring in architecture and construction management are playing a role in architectural history at a Bloomfield Hills house designed by America's most famous residential architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Seniors Justin Butler and Doug Metiva both spent last summer working on restoration projects while living at Affleck House, and they plan to return again this summer. Butler worked on the house with another student, Steven Loiselle, in 2007.

The 2,350-square-foot Affleck House is one of Wright's smallest commissions in terms of size and was considered a home for a family of modest means. A construction model was displayed in the Museum of Modern Art prior to its completion in 1941.

 In 1978, Affleck House was donated to Lawrence Tech by Mary Ann Lutomski and Gregor P. Affleck, the children of the original owners, Gregor and Elizabeth Affleck.

Lawrence Tech maintains the home as a powerful teaching tool for students in the College of Architecture and Design. The restoration work done by Butler and Metiva is reminiscent of Wright's own Taliesin Fellowship program for students who repaired and remodeled his homes in Wisconsin and Arizona during his lifetime.

In coming up with restoration projects, Butler and Metiva have worked closely with Associate Dean Joseph Veryser and Facilities Coordinator Brian Raymond of the College of Architecture and Design

Butler said the university administrators have given him and Metiva a lot of responsibility for planning and performing restoration projects. "We told them what we wanted to do on the house, and they allowed us to go at our own pace," he said. "They had trust in us."

Restoring the house's tidewater cypress siding was last year's major project. After replacing rotten planks up to 30 feet long, the students refinished the siding using a special recipe provided by Akzo Nobel Coatings for Sikkens stain sealer. The biggest challenge was to replicate the original color of the siding.

The students replaced sections of the substructure for the siding, working on scaffolding underneath a section of the house built out from a hill. They rebuilt stands for copper boxes used as planters.

Dealing with wasps and bees that have nested around the house has been an occupational hazard.

When they return this summer, Butler and Metiva will repair water damage from a leaky roof in the bedroom wing. Once again, a major challenge will be to match the original shades.

By living there, Butler and Metiva eliminated the musty smell of a vacant house and improved the house's condition in numerous small ways, according to Raymond.

"The neighbors were pleased to see us living there and sometimes provided cold drinks while we were working," Metiva said. "A lot of people came by and appreciated the opportunity to tour the house."

The two students have worked with blueprints for the house, and Metiva said it is instructive to see what went into building the original house and what has been changed from the original plans.

Change was a constant for Wright and his houses. Mrs. Lutomski remembers that when Wright visited a few months after her family's house was completed "one of the first things he did when he walked in was pick up a saw and cut off the end of a built-in bookshelf that made the space for our piano a little tight."

Wright enjoyed designing houses to fit unique settings. "Find a site on which no one else can build," he wrote to original owner Gregor Affleck.

Affleck House is considered a daring solution to the problems presented by the site. Sleeping spaces are recessed below grade while living spaces cantilever over a ravine. Skylights and floor wells provide natural ventilation. The house is faced with cypress siding and red brick and has polished concrete floors and interior walls of ship-lapped cypress.

Affleck House is on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, and is one of the 50 most significant structures in the state, according to the Michigan Society of Architects. 

Aided by donors, Lawrence Tech completed a wide-ranging restoration of the house and grounds in 1990. But maintenance and restoration are never-ending tasks at many historic buildings, and that's especially true for houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Lawrence Technological University, ltu.edu, offers over 80 undergraduate, master's and doctoral degree programs in Colleges of Architecture and Design, Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Management. Founded in 1932, the 4,500-student, private university pioneered evening classes 75 years ago, and today has a growing number of weekend and online programs. Lawrence Tech's 102-acre campus is in Southfield, and programs are also offered in Detroit, Lansing, Livonia, Petoskey and Traverse City. Lawrence Tech also offers programs with partner universities in Mexico, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.