The Wright Passion

Tony Hillebrandt, left, and Marika Broere relax in the restored Eppstein House in Galesburg.
Couple restores two houses designed by famed architect

Tucked in the woods outside Galesburg is a collection of hidden gems created by one of America’s most innovative architectural minds. And the couple who brought two of those back from disrepair want you to know about it.

Originally from the Netherlands, Marika Broere and Tony Hillebrandt, both 64, have lived in Canada for the past 17 years, the last nine in Cambridge, Ontario, about an hour west of Toronto. Broere has worked as a journalist, shipping agent and translator and in other occupations. Hillebrandt had his own company and was a marketing specialist. Both have home restoration experience and are ardent admirers of architecture.

They often found themselves traveling the United States, admiring the nation’s diverse architectural landscape, including architectural icon Frank Lloyd Wright’s cutting-edge work, from the Guggenheim Museum in New York City to perhaps his most well-known project, Fallingwater, a 1935 home in southeastern Pennsylvania that features, among other things, a creek running under its cantilevered porch.

In 2016, while surfing the internet, Broere and Hillebrandt found a Frank Lloyd Wright house for sale in Southwest Michigan. They immediately drove to The Acres development in Charleston Township, which includes five Frank Lloyd Wright houses, four designed by the legend himself and one by architect Will Willsey, one of Wright’s students.

The 82 acres of land were originally purchased in 1947 by a group of Upjohn scientists who approached Wright to design a small subdivision of “Usonian” homes, a term Wright used to describe simple, stylish homes of modest cost designed especially for the middle class. Wright’s homes are known for their minimalist designs, large windows that bathe the interior space with natural light, and harmonious relationship with the land they sit on.

The Acres, which was first slated for a 21-home development, has five homes and is the only place in the world where there is such a saturation of Wright homes, Broere says. In The Acres, each home is named with the original owner’s surname.

“These homes are meant to be lived in,” Broere says. “Most Frank Lloyd Wright homeowners are very passionate about their homes.”

Broere and Hillebrandt certainly are.

‘Almost everything’ was wrong

On their first visit, they bought the three-bedroom, two-bath Eppstein House, named after Samuel and Dorothy Eppstein. They could afford to buy the home because it was in significant disrepair, having been neglected for 16 years, says Broere.

Such a fate is an unfortunate theme for many of Wright’s homes and buildings, she says. Of the more than 1,000 structures Wright designed, only about 400 remain.

“We have always been passionate about architecture,” Broere says. “There’s lots of interesting architecture in the United States, and little by little we came across more of his work on our travels. We never thought we could buy one, though.”

The seller had initially not wanted to spend the capital to refurbish the home, but his real estate agent, Fred Taber, who himself is passionate about Wright homes, encouraged him to repair some of the concrete blocks and replace the wood facia. Still, a lot needed doing when Broere and Hillebrandt took over.

“To say it was a fixer-upper is an understatement,” Broere says. “What was wrong with it? Almost everything.”

The massive restoration project started in the fall of 2016 and was completed in December 2017. The couple sank their entire retirement nest egg into the project, hiring highly specialized local craftsmen to perform the detailed, intricate work of revitalizing the home.

Everything from the window framing and door moldings to the doorknobs and handles had to be custom-made. Mahogany — the wood Wright used very often — was utilized throughout. Electrical and plumbing systems were rebuilt. Now the home is registered with both the National Register of Historic Places and the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy.

Generating interest

The work on the Eppstein House has gotten a lot of buzz.

Journalists have come from across the United States and as far away as Mexico and Japan to ogle the home, Broere says, with more than 150 articles being written about it, including in the New York Times. Architects and photographers from across the globe, including from Brazil and Chile, have also traveled to the home to take in its splendor.

“You need people who respect (Wright’s) legacy,” Hillebrandt says. “You can’t just tear things down and use drywall. You have to bring back these homes to their original splendor.”

A flat roof — a central element of Frank Lloyd Wright homes that makes them stand out — is also one of their weak points. At the time the homes were built, the materials didn’t exist to make the roofs 100 percent leak-proof. The Eppstein children told the couple that they had been trained by their parents to grab pots and pans and place them around the home when it rained, Broere says.

But thanks to modern restoration materials, the house now has a roof that’s as tight as a snare drum.

Not long after the renovation was completed the couple offered it up for rent on Airbnb. They didn’t anticipate it at the beginning, but demand for the Eppstein House surged, especially after the website marketed the home as a “Must Stay.” By paying at least $500 a night, groups of five or fewer with kids no younger than 14 could experience a fully restored Wright home, complete with all the mid-century accoutrements, from the furniture to the artwork, that make it a special experience. Although the home is not currently available for rent, the couple hope to repost it on Airbnb again soon.

The income Broere and Hillebrandt earned from renting the Eppstein House had a bonus benefit — it allowed them to purchase the house next door, the Pratt House, named for Eric and Pat Pratt. It is another three-bedroom, two-bath Wright house that had been vacant for more than a decade.

The seller, a criminal defense attorney from Detroit, is equally passionate about architecture but just didn’t have the time to tackle a full restoration, Broere says, so he asked her and Hillebrandt to buy and restore the home. When they said they didn’t have the money, he agreed to sell the home to them on a land contract with zero interest, Broere says.

The restoration of the Pratt House, which was in much better shape than the Eppstein House, has been less extensive but has necessitated a new roof and utility upgrades, repair of the concrete block, and restoration of the woodwork, among other things. When the project is complete, the couple plan to live in the home part of the year as well as offer it as a teaching tool for area kids and give tours to Wright enthusiasts.

“There are amazing homes, but the Frank Lloyd Wright homes, even when they seem to look drab, they put you under a spell,” Hillebrandt says. “He was a magician. We are surprised to see how it impacts people. People come in and look around and their jaws drop.

“We will probably never get our money out of these houses, but that’s not the point. We want to pass on this legacy to the future generations to appreciate.”

Chris Killian

Chris is an award-winning freelance writer. He a frequent contributor to Encore.

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