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Couple shares 25-year love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright home

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A view of the Penwern estate from Delavan Lake in Wisconsin. The rebuilt boathouse, left, was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright to sit below the sightline of the home’s patio so that it doesn’t obstruct views of the lake. The 1902 house is owned by Sue and John Major of Rancho Santa Fe.
(Courtesy)

Twenty-five years ago, Sue and John Major were shopping for a house to enjoy weekend getaways from their jobs in Chicago when they came upon a large, but somewhat-dilapidated property on Delavan Lake in Southern Wisconsin.

The boathouse had burned down, the stables were a shambles and the aging house had broken windows, warped floors, dodgy wiring and some resident mice and chipmunks. But, Sue Major said, the house had great bones.

Built in 1902, the house known as Penwern was designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the period he was developing his signature Prairie style and it bears many of his famous design elements. But in 1994, Wright wasn’t a familiar name to the Majors. All they knew was that the moment they saw the stately home, with its sweeping arches and gabled roofs, they had to buy it.

“At the time we were still trying to figure out who Frank Lloyd Wright was. It wasn’t his name that attracted us to the property, it was the beauty of it. We fell in love,” said Sue Major, who now lives with her husband in Rancho Santa Fe.

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Sue Major, photographed at her office in Rancho Santa Fe, holds a copy of the new book she and her husband, John, co-commissioned, “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Penwern: A Summer Estate.” The Majors have spent the past 25 years restoring the Wisconsin lake house to Wright’s original drawn plans.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune
)
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On June 6 at the now-meticulously-restored Penwern, the Majors celebrated the publication of “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Penwern: A Summer Estate.” The 146-page book — by writer, photographer and Wright historian Mark Hertzberg — chronicles the history of the home, its architect, its original owner and the “stewards,” the latest being the Majors, who have loved and cared for Penwern ever since.

The Majors bought the property in 1994 for $750,000 and figured they’d have to spend a couple years and a fair amount of money on much-needed repairs. But when the seller handed the Majors Wright’s original hand-notated drawings from 1900, it invigorated them to dig deep and restore the home to its original glory.

The $2 million restoration has taken most of the past quarter-century and the Majors have supervised most of it from 2,000 miles away. They moved with their children to San Diego in 1997 when John was hired to lead Qualcomm’s wireless infrastructure division. They could have sold Penwern when they moved, but Sue said the thought never crossed their minds.

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“We just got caught up in it,” she said. “We didn’t want to sell because we loved the neighbors and friends we’d made there. We loved the house. We’d joined the local yacht club and the country club. It was where our family grew up.”

But the Majors weren’t always welcome at Delavan Lake. In the book, Hertzberg writes that suspicious neighbors angrily confronted the Majors when they heard the couple was planning major renovations to restore the house to Wright’s original design.

Fortunately, the Majors’ good intentions have made them prized lake residents. They open the house regularly to tour groups and the Wisconsin Historical Society Press published the Penwern book that the Majors co-commissioned two years ago with historian John K. Notz Jr.

In the book’s forward, architectural writer Paul Kruty said Penwern was designed at a pivotal period in Wright’s career and it’s the most ambitious of all the summer homes he designed between 1891 and 1916. Kruty said Penwern bears Wright’s signature Prairie style of severe geometry, simplicity and symmetry, as well as many of his other trademarks: a Roman fireplace, extensive windows that let the outside in, built-in cabinetry, archways, towers and stone walls that seem to erupt organically from the earth.

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A view of the Penwern estate from Delavan Lake in Wisconsin. The rebuilt boathouse, left, was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright to sit below the sightline of the home’s patio so that it doesn’t obstruct views of the lake. The 1902 house is owned by Sue and John Major of Rancho Santa Fe.
(Courtesy)

Penwern — which Wright named after his mother’s ancestral home in Wales, the name meaning “head of the field” — is one of five Wright-designed houses built on Delavan Lake between 1902 and 1910.

It was commissioned in 1900 by Chicago businessman Fred B. Jones as his summer home. Wright clearly tailored the 6,500-square-foot main house to the wealthy bachelor’s manly tastes. It has the look of a huntsman’s lodge, with copper water spigots in the billiards and cards rooms where he could fix his favorite whiskey-and-water cocktails. And his cards room, built in a tower across an arched walkway from the home’s second floor, has a urinal built into the wall so Jones and his buddies never had to leave the room during games.

In 1909-10, Jones built a five-bedroom addition to the west side of the house, apparently for servants quarters. The Majors’ decision to remove that 1,500-square-foot addition was at first controversial with neighbors, but it was lauded by the state’s historical society and Wright historical groups.

The restoration project also included three other buildings on the property: a stables that was later used as a garage; the gate house built as a caretaker’s home; and a boathouse, which was destroyed by an arsonist in 1978 and rebuilt by the Majors from Wright’s original drawings. He designed the boathouse to be built into the hillside by the lake so that despite its large size, it doesn’t obstruct lake views from the house.

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Working with architect Bill Orkild, the Majors reinforced the home’s second floor to avoid collapse, removed 75 old radiators, re-paned 75 percent of the 115 diamond-pane windows, laid new heart pine floors, restored the four fireplaces, re-mortared the stone walls, winterized the property, replaced the antiquated electrical wiring and put on a new roof. They also added a few modern touches -- more bathrooms and updating the kitchen.

The Majors both still work full time — he runs a telecommunications business and she owns an executive search firm — but they now spend all of their summers at Penwern. The highlight of each year is the July 4 party they throw for the community and their family in the boathouse.

The Majors take their role as Penwern’s stewards seriously and it’s a job they hope to pass on to their children, John B., 31, of Los Angeles, and Barbara, 27, of New York. Sue said her children also feel a sense of love and responsibility for the property.

“Penwern has been a gathering place for our family and our friends. There’s nothing quite like it,” she said. “From the patio, the sunsets are spectacular and the eaves of the house are so wide I can watch the thunderstorms rolling in and never get wet.”

For more information on Penwern and the book, visit penwern.com.

— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune


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