Some Moving Thoughts

January 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

An article in the New York Times this week announced that the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, bought the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Bachman Wilson House in Somerset County, New Jersey.  The plan is to move the three bedroom, 2,000 square foot house and furnishings from its current site in New Jersey to one of the 3.5 miles of trails surrounding the museum in Arkansas.  The article triggered many questions in my mind the biggest of which is, “How are they going to do it?”

The idea of moving buildings from one location to another has always fascinated me, and I have often wondered how workers in 1902 moved the house that was on the property of Susan’s father down the street and across the tracks to its current location to make room for Susan’s new home, the Lawrence House. Of course, I turned to the Internet and found that there are two methods of relocating a structure: dismantling/reassembling and transporting as a whole.  I suspect that the Lawrence “cottage” was moved in one piece, and an article on the Shiawassee County, Michigan, History web site describes a moving method that might possibly have been the way the Lawrence building got from one block to the next. Below is a picture and an excerpted version of that article:

First of all, the house was jacked up off its foundation and placed on heavy wooden beams. .. The ends of these beams were pointed and tended to act as runners similar to those on a sleigh. A temporary wooden track was put down in the street and the greased runners slid along it…As the house inched along the street, the planks and ties left behind it were picked up and manually carried to the front of the house and laid down ahead of it…

It was necessary to mount a capstan in the middle of the street. This capstan was anchored to some very strong objects well ahead of the house. ..A pulley was fastened securely to the front of the house… One end of a very strong rope, or steel cable ran from this pulley to a tree trunk or other highly immovable object. It then went through the pulley and was wrapped around the capstan. The capstan was then turned by horses which walked in a circle and tugged on a pole connected to the capstan. As they walked, the cable would slowly wind up on the capstan and pull the house forward.


The extremely slow process took days, and the building that was being moved often sat overnight in the street for weeks, inconveniencing the neighborhood. In fact, the Encyclopedia of Chicago reports that the practice of moving houses in that city was so common that at one point some citizens petitioned the city council to pass a law that said only one building could stand in the street of any block at one time.

I can’t picture a modern day version of the horse and capstan method moving the Bachman Wilson Home.  I can’t even imagine the house on the back of a flatbed truck.  I suspect that Crystal Bridge Museum staff plans to dismantle and reassemble.  I wish them well.

A Historical Hangup

January 19, 2014 § 1 Comment

The Lawrence/Dana-Thomas House offers history lessons in the most unexpected places.  For example, the windowless cavernous coat room on the lowest level of the house holds a fascinating illustration of a historic truism.

One hundred thirty six coat hooks are hidden behind oak boards near the ceiling of the room.  Conceivably, this is where the coats of 272 guests could be hung during one of Susan’s famous parties.  By contrast, when we have parties in the house today, racks holding an infinite number of coat hangers are wheeled into the coat room.  This would have been impossible in Susan’s day because the coat hanger as we know it did not exist when Frank Lloyd Wright designed the house in 1902.

Albert J. Parkhouse is generally credited with inventing the wire coat hanger in 1903. He was an employee of Timberlake Wire and Novelty Company in Jackson, Michigan, and John B. Timberlake, the owner of the company, applied for and received the patent for the hanger in 1904. Others were inventing new ways to hang clothes at the same time, and one source says that between 1900 and 1906, over 189 different patents were granted on different versions of “garment-hangers” worldwide. Hooks became out-of-date.

The irony is that Frank Lloyd Wright strove to install in the Lawrence House the most modern elements available in 1902 (for example, indoor plumbing, electricity, a duck pin alley).  Unfortunately, he missed the coat hanger concept by just a few years.  As anyone who has bought a new phone six months before the  next model is released can tell you, there’s always something new on the horizon.

Old Meets New
Old Meets New

Track Talk

January 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

tracks2In an earlier post I described the dilemmas caused by the possibility of high speed trains passing on the Third Street tracks behind the Dana-Thomas House (click here to read).  That crisis was averted when the Federal Railroad Administration ruled to route the “super trains” (110 mph) on Springfield’s Tenth Street tracks.  Now officials are planning to upgrade the Third Street tracks so that freight and passenger train speeds through Springfield can be raised from the current 25 mph to 40 mph.  Once again, damage to the House from train vibrations is a concern.

This isn’t the first time the property was endangered by a fast train. On July 9, 1910, both the Illinois State Journal and the Illinois State Register reported that two “empty” rail cars jumped the tracks at Third and Lawrence and crashed into the brick wall surrounding the Lawrence House.  The train was running at a “fair rate of speed,” and the brake beam on the first car broke, derailing them both.   The Journal further reported that the boxcars were not really empty because several hoboes spilled out of them and fled the scene immediately.

The startled travelers were undoubtedly riding the rails to Chicago which, according to the Encyclopedia Chicago History, was the Hobo Capital of the World at that time.  Those same rails frequently took Susan to Chicago, the transportation hub of the country, where she made connections to other destinations. Continuing the tradition, I boarded an Amtrak train and traveled on those tracks to the Windy City this week-end.  The Third Street tracks have a long history of making Chicago journeys easy for all kinds of people.  I will be watching with interest as the next chapter of that history unfolds.

Some New Year Thoughts

January 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

  New years babyI’ve discovered an interesting coincidence.  I am starting my life as a widow at the beginning of 2014, and Susan was a new widow exactly 100 years earlier.  Her second husband, Lawrence Joergen-Dahl, had died July 26, 1913. Plagued by ill health, grief, and overwhelming responsibilities, Susan was at a low point in her life. In Chapter 12 of Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House I describe her state of mind:

Susan remained cloistered in the Lawrence House for the last half of 1913 and most of 1914.  Her whole world was collapsing around her.  While Europe, her frequent playground, was about to break into World War 1, Susan was nursing her cousin Flora back to health and trying to regain her strength.  The resiliency that she had mustered in the past did not come easily this time.

Since I wrote the book, I have uncovered some new research references, and now know that while she almost completely disappeared from the society pages of the newspapers during that period, Susan was beginning to re-invent herself as an entrepreneur.  An Illinois State Register article dated February 3, 1914, announced the re-organization of the Commercial Association council (perhaps a precursor of today’s Chamber of Commerce).  According to the article, 40 groups representing specific commercial endeavors each had a chairman and secretary as well as two delegates to send to the council. The names of the groups included professions that one would expect such as   architects and civil engineers as well as bankers and bond brokers.  Other groups reflected the times.  For example, horseshoers, locksmiths, junk dealers, roofers, and tinners; ice and brick manufacturers; steam railways; and saloons were listed. The article identified 160 members of the groups, and the only woman named was Mrs. Susan Lawrence Joergen-Dahl, the secretary of the capitalists group. In May of 1914, 150 members of the Commercial Association attended the ground breaking ceremony for the construction of the Wilson Pneumatic Tire Company. The Illinois State Register reported that “Among the interested spectators present was Mrs. Susan Lawrence Dana Joergen-Dahl, who had the honor of being the first woman in the city to purchase stock in the new concern.”

Susan recovered, and by February, 1915, she married her third husband Charles Gehrmann.  In Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House I describe their ill-fated relationship as a business partnership.  1914 was a year of transition for Susan.  She replaced the artistic life she had enjoyed with Lawrence with the adventurous business world of Charles.  I wonder what 2014 has in store for me. 

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