January 15, 2020

Tough Break: The Structural Mystery of the Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio

The exterior of Frelinghuysen Morris.

photo by: Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio

George Morris had to sell a Picasso painting for $4,500 to complete the construction of Frelinghuysen Morris House and Studio.

It’s difficult to miss a 5-foot crack in a 12-foot span of glass.

And it was one of the last things that Kinney Frelinghuysen, director of Frelinghuysen Morris House and Studio in Lenox, Massachusetts, wanted to see.

The preservation of the house, once occupied by abstract artists Suzy Frelinghuysen and George L. K. Morris and now part of the National Trust's Historic Artists' Homes and Studios program, is more than just a professional matter for Kinney. As a nephew of Frelinghuysen, Kinney knows how much the place meant to his aunt. Her and her husband's Cubist frescoes adorn its interior, but the largest work in the collection is the house itself.

The dining room at Frelinghuysen Morris c. 1940.

photo by: Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio

The dining room as it appeared circa 1940.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1911, Suzy Frelinghuysen began painting at a young age, though she never took formal lessons. A Realist painter early in her career, Frelinghuysen married Morris in 1935 and discovered the world of European Modernism. Drawing influence from the likes of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris, Frelinghuysen carved out a personal brand of Cubism that placed her among the foremost abstract artists in America, eventually joining the American Abstract Artists group which Morris helped found. Her works appeared in exhibitions across Europe and are now displayed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., and more.

For a pair of midcentury abstract artists, a Modernist house was the perfect base of operations. Morris commissioned local architect John Butler Swann to draw up plans for the building, which would be incorporated with his existing 1931 studio. Completed in 1941, the two-story stucco-and-glass block house featured local Lee marble in the foyer and appropriately Modern furniture throughout.

About 12 frescoes decorate the interior of the building, in addition to several on the exterior. Morris handled the living room ones, while Frelinghuysen created the six located in the dining room. Four of those six demand your attention as you enter the room, and the other two can be found in alcoves behind shelves of antiques—glass bowls, a statue of Buddhist goddess of compassion Guanyin, and china that matched the frescoes’ color scheme.

Kinney remembers the antiques fondly from his many visits to the house as a child. “The artist loved to combine antiques with the modern setting […] I always felt that was part of the workings of the room. The murals were integrated with the brass fireplace and these shelf objects. The room had a unity to it, a harmony to it,” he says.

Aunt Suzy was a distant-enough relative for Kinney to feel free to discuss matters he wouldn’t have with his parents. When he decided to commit to painting as a young adult, he was inspired by her works. And when Frelinghuysen passed away in 1988, it was Kinney who served as her executor. The house took on a different meaning to him then.

“It started saying, ‘I’m this big, bold, white block and I don’t compromise, and nature doesn’t compromise, but we complement each other,’” he says. “Somehow it seemed very natural for me to want to be there and watch over the place.” Ten years later, the building was reborn as a house museum, under the stewardship of Kinney and his wife, Linda.

When they began transforming the structure from livable to tour-able, the bones of the structure seemed sturdy. But, as is often the case, the biggest issues are the ones that are hardest to detect early.

A patio at Frelinghuysen Morris under repairs.

photo by: Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio

Water infiltrated the dining room from underneath the marble ledge outside.

The dining room at Frelinghuysen Morris under construction.

photo by: Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio

The dining room under construction. The cracked glass pane is covered by plywood on the right.

The 5-foot crack appeared one day in 2013. The glass pane in question was part of a sliding door connecting the dining room and an outdoor marble ledge. At first, Kinney and the rest of the staff were perplexed. What could have caused such a large fracture?

Eventually, they realized the crack was a symptom of weakness both above and below. A hipped roof added in the 1950s increased the pressure on the slider's steel header. Decades of 20-person tour groups pacing around Suzy’s bedroom directly above conspired to further strain the beam. Meanwhile, water had seeped beneath the marble patio, rotting the bases of some wooden studs.

The result? One giant crack, and many high-priority repairs.

“What seemed to be a very strong piece of steel was not adequate for the job,” Kinney says. “It all came to a head with that cracking of the glass.”

The signs had been easy to miss; lacking blueprints, no one knew that the house even contained any steel components. Regardless, the problem at hand needed to be addressed. Over the next few years, the team brought in structural engineers to devise a plan of attack.

Replacing the weakened beams and posts that had caused the giant crack would require sawing through two inches of stucco and sheathing. But the location of the two smaller frescoes in the dining room alcoves made the difficult job even harder. If the process of cutting through the wall vibrated the 80-year-old frescoes too violently, they would crumble. No one was sure exactly how much shaking they could take, and no one wanted to find out.

There was no true solution except to watch and hope. Staff members observed the frescoes and placed their hands on the wall during the cutting, yelling over the din at the craftsman to stop whenever it felt too intense. To everyone’s relief, the frescoes held. Contractors could proceed with the rest of the repairs, replacing the rotted wall studs with stainless steel posts and inserting a flitch beam above the glass for additional support.

When the house museum reopens to the public on June 25 for the 2020 season, no remnants of those months of work will be visible. Kinney wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s still plenty to be done in the future—conservation work on the four large dining room murals will be performed by Catherine Myers, and the outdoor patios still need fixing—but the house’s greatest structural challenge has finally been solved.

“Doing all these things now—getting rid of these mysteries that date from the beginning—the house will be a much easier place for someone to manage in the future,” he says.

Nicholas Som is an editorial assistant at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

nsom@savingplaces.org

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