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Historic Frank Lloyd Wright home gets ongoing restoration by LTU alumni, faculty, staff

Release Date: August 10, 2018
Affleck House

The Affleck House, a Frank Lloyd Wright design entrusted to LTU's care since 1978.LTU file photo

Soon, the sun will shine through new skylights at the Affleck House in Bloomfield Hills.

And more importantly, when it rains, water won’t drip into the home around those skylights.

Affleck House, one of just three homes in metro Detroit designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright in his Usonian style, is in the midst of a restoration, guided by alumni of Lawrence Technological University, which has owned the home since 1978.

The latest effort -- being overseen by three winners of LTU's Distinguished Architecture Alumni Award (DAAA) -- is a $46,000 replacement of the Affleck House’s 19 skylights.

Affleck House - dining area

This view looks toward Affleck House's dining area from the living area. The kitchen to the left, past the fireplace. The interior of the home is tidewater cypress wood, brick, and tinted concrete. LTU file photo.


“The skylight work was on our agenda for years, but it was becoming more and more of an issue because of leaks pretty much every time it rained,” said Benedetto Tiseo, who earned a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from LTU in 1978 and received the DAAA in 1999. “We determined the leaks were not the result of the roofing but of skylight deterioration, and we were able to raise the funds to get that work done.”

Affleck House’s restoration began in 2010, when Tiseo and fellow DAAA winners Frederick F. Butters (2003) and Dierdre Jimenez (2009), along with LTU faculty, began compiling a list of projects that needed to be done to preserve the historic home.

“When I first joined, the program had a price tag that was pretty much insurmountable,” recalled Jimenez, who earned a Bachelor of Science in Architecture in 1983 and a Bachelor of Science in Interior Architecture in 1985, and has had a successful career in corporate real estate management. “The strategy we came up with was to break the work down into smaller projects that we could raise money for, execute, and leverage the success of that project to raise money for the next project.”

The first project, repair of a critical retaining wall that Tiseo said was “probably a year away from collapse,” used money raised by selling $400 custom Affleck House pens – pens that Butters, a hobbyist woodworker, made by hand out of spare pieces of the tidewater cypress wood that is used inside and outside Affleck House. Butters received three degrees from LTU -- a Bachelor of Science in Architecture in 1983, a Bachelor of Architecture in 1984, and a Master of Architecture in 2009. He also earned a law degree from Wayne State University in 1991 and is a specialist in construction litigation.

Other projects have included removing a paved driveway that was causing major drainage problems, and a kitchen restoration that replaced countertops, cabinets and appliances while remaining true to the home’s original design and improving the kitchen’s ability to handle catering. Butters said the new LED kitchen lighting is so efficient it uses less power than a single 60-watt incandescent bulb.

More LED lighting has also been installed throughout the house. “The problem is there are not a lot of reflective surfaces in the house -- it’s all dark tidewater cypress siding, brick and dark colored concrete inside,” said Tiseo, who has been an adjunct professor at LTU since 1980 and owns a successful architecture firm. “It’s fine during the day because a lot of natural light gets in, but at night you need more lighting to function in the house.”

Jimenez said another key to the success of the restoration was forming a separate subcommittee to address the condition of Affleck House’s expansive hillside landscape.

“One thing that neither the faculty nor we architects could get their arms around was the site,” Jimenez said. “It needed so much work, there were so many issues. We needed real expertise in landscaping.”

Affleck House - living area

This view of the Affleck House looks toward the living area from in front of the massive fireplace. LTU file photo.


The subcommittee focused on two parts of the site – the natural woodlands, which Jimenez said had become infested by invasive species, and the manicured part of the lawn. Eventually, with funds raised by special landscaping tours, Jimenez said the invasive species were removed – and as for the manicured lawn, “we were able to put Mrs. Affleck’s rose garden back in the front yard, and we put back in the evergreens, what we call the eyebrow bed, along the road, which was in Frank Lloyd Wright’s original sketches.”

Butters is also working on restoring the home’s basement workshop area into usable space.

The Affleck House has been closed to tours during the restoration. Regular tours will resume in September.

Affleck House was commissioned in 1940 by Gregor Affleck -- a Wisconsin native who had invented a fast-drying paint used in the auto industry -- and his wife,  Elizabeth. They asked Wright to design a country home after seeing pictures of Wright’s Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania. At the time, the Afflecks were living in Pleasant Ridge.

The home is built in Wright’s Usonian style, which was his answer to the need for low-cost housing for the average American. Usonian houses were typically one story, reflecting the horizontal nature of America’s midwestern plains. Attics were eliminated to avoid building unusable space -- Usonian homes have flat roofs. Wright also introduced skylights as a way of providing additional light. Hallways and staircases are narrow to save space and cost. The homes also used the latest in building technology but emphasized using low-cost native materials.

Affleck House features a long living-dining area and a small kitchen. Leading back from the living area is a long, narrow hallway off which are three bedrooms and two bathrooms, giving the house roughly a T shape. There’s also a partial walkout basement with a fourth bedroom, another bathroom, and a workshop-laundry area.

The Afflecks raised two children in the home and lived there from 1941 until their deaths -- Elizabeth in 1973, Gregor in 1974. They allowed curious visitors to tour the home while they lived in it -- they kept a guest book that grew to more than 10,000 names. The Affleck children donated the home to Lawrence Tech in 1978 as a teaching resource.

For more information on Affleck House tours, contact Tami Stanko at (248) 204-2800 or tstanko@ltu.edu. More information about tours is also available online at eventbrite.com -- just search for “Affleck House.” And more information is available about the house at this webpage.

Jimenez said the tours are intended to provide an ongoing funding source for Affleck House maintenance. She credited former LTU professor Harvey Ferraro and Michael Slaughter, volunteer docents “who do all of the tours out of the goodness of their hearts.”

Also crucial to the project are architectural historian and LTU professor Dale Allen Gyure, and professor emeritus Janice Means, an expert in energy systems, who Jimenez said helped with design of the home’s heating and electrical systems. LTU advancement staffers Robin LeClerc, executive director of outreach and special events, and Julie Vulaj, director of major gifts, have also been instrumental, as has LTU facilities manager Brian Raymond, whom Jimenez said “knows every inch of that house.”

Future plans for tours include musical events in the yard, taking advantage of its natural amphitheater elevations, Jimenez said.

All those involved in the project say it’s a real labor of love.

“There comes a point in time where everybody who’s been involved with the project says the same thing – you get sucked in,” Jimenez said. “I find myself many times talking to Frank (Lloyd Wright), or Mrs. Affleck, or Mr. Affleck, asking them, ‘Do you like what we’re doing? Is this all right?’ Everything we do is viewed through the lens of what the vision was for the house, and how the Afflecks lived there. We’re hoping they’re happy with what we’ve done.”


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