Time and time again, Dan Nichols has told the story of how he became an architect. "I first learned of Wright when I was about 10 years old growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, in an old magazine that featured his work. His houses were a big deal to me," Nichols once told Curbed. "It all tied together, and I pursued a career in architecture."
So it makes sense that the architect, who works for Ragan Design Group, is now the owner of a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, just nine miles from Philly. But when Nichols and his wife bought the J.A. Sweeton House in March 2008, they quickly realized that their new home would involve at least 20 years of renovations and restorations to bring it back to its original state.
Fast forward to today. Nichols has just completed a year-long restoration of the ranch-style home—his biggest project to date.
"It was a rather large project," says Nichols. "We rebuilt the whole window wall in the living room, and we did some structural repairs to the roof in the living room. And we returned all of the exterior and interior paint back to the original colors."
The J.A. Sweeton residence dates back to 1950, when Frank Lloyd Wright designed the home on a small budget of $24,000. At 1,500 square feet, it is the smallest of the four homes that Wright designed in New Jersey.
"Most Usonians turned out to be a lot more expensive, but this was tight budget. It was constructed with painted concrete block and the window frames are fir rather than mahogany," says Nichols. "Wright was working on a tight budget and made really actually a great use of what he could, and it still has all the hallmarks of a Frank Lloyd Wright house, considering."
But the seemingly minuscule budget also meant that there's a lack of detail one would expect from drawings and construction documents of a Wright-designed house.
"It’s a great puzzle to solve because there are construction details that weren’t always worked out very thoroughly from Wright’s office," Nichols says. "On his higher budget projects the details were there. But since this fee was lower, the drawings weren't as detailed."
That made it a challenge for Nichols, who hired a local craftsman he could trust to restore the home, since "you can't just purchase something from a catalog and install it in this kind of house." He turned to Lee D. Cozens & Sons, who specializes in colonial and Victorian homes. "He hasn’t worked so much on modern houses, but when you get down it, you just need someone who can do good millwork and cabinetry," says Nichols.
The French doors had to be replaced and custom made, since they had begun to rot. They also installed gutters along this side of the roof to prevent more rotting in the future. The exterior and interiors got paint jobs with the colors originally intended for the home.
It’s a great puzzle to solve because there are construction details that weren’t always worked out very thoroughly from Wright’s office
But the most important change was made to the pitched roof, one of the focal points of the house. While the rest of the house features steel in addition to the wooden frame, for whatever reason Wright failed to include that in the living room.
Over time, the roof began to slope to one side as a result. Says Nichols, "I went through with an engineer and used Wright’s own bag of tricks to repair the roof. We used the basic framing plan, and added a fair amount of steel to places where it needed it to be."
So what's next for the J.A. Sweeton House? Nichols says they'll have to replace the ceilings in the master bedroom and second bedroom and re-insulate the roof. "After the house proper is done, we need to do landscaping. Eventually, I'd like to build a detached garage at a respectful distance from the house."
"We just need improve upon Wright’s construction detail so that the outward appearance remains same, but we make house more durable in the long-term."