A boost for a Wright house ( Lamp House )
New owners, new plans for downtown home
By Ron McCrea
January 21, 2006
One of Madison's hidden architectural landmarks, the 1903 Lamp House at 22 N. Butler St. designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright for his chum Robert "Robie" Lamp, has changed hands and may gain a much-needed restoration if the stars of downtown development line up.
The house, tucked behind other buildings on Butler Street, is a diamond in the rough. The courtyard in which it sits is overgrown, the pavement and terrace buckled, the brick exterior covered with dingy white paint.
And there is a third-floor enclosure plopped on top of the original roof garden that Wright designed for Lamp's enjoyment. Lamp, one of Madison's first travel agents and insurance agents, liked to sail and he could see both lakes from the garden.
But it was Lamp who enclosed it, in order to create a safe play space for his son, according to a definitive account compiled by veteran state historian Jack Holzhueter, who years ago lived in the Lamp House as a tenant.
In September 2005, the house was sold for $470,000 by its longtime occupants, Peter Stephenson and Marty Massey, to Bruce Bosben, a 40-year-old, sixth-generation Madison-area resident and his Apex Group.
"They were just waiting for somebody to approach them," Bosben said. "They wanted to move to a condominium."
Bosben, who said Friday he got his start in real estate with $40,000 he saved from peddling The Capital Times as a youth, also had purchased houses along East Mifflin Street, on the Lamp House block, including numbers 209, 215, 219 and 223.
He has an idea of someday creating one or two Lamp House Condominiums on Mifflin that would reference the Wright house, expose it to better view and embrace it as the centerpiece of a landscaped courtyard.
The Lamp House is "really quite small, with small rooms, 2-foot staircases, low ceilings, not too much space suitable for receptions. But you could have a nice late afternoon or evening gathering on the roof garden," Bosben said.
Apex has specialized in house-to-apartment conversions over the years, and Bosben says he has found "our biggest job is undoing the hack work that people have done in the past. It's just astounding to me what people do to houses."
He gave credit to Stephenson and Massey as "fair custodians" who left the Lamp House alone and lived on the third floor.
Although preservationists may bristle at the idea of a developer buying a Wright landmark, "Having people like us buy this house is the best thing that could possibly happen to it," Bosben said.
"We have the money to help the house and we ultimately if we are able to do a development on the block in front of it we would like to have it be a guest house for that development."
He said he would have it open to public tours once a week or month at no charge.
"The people who owned it before bought it because they wanted to live downtown, close to work. They didn't buy it because it was a Wright house. We bought it because it is a Wright house and because of where it is. We would not have sought this house out if it were not in the proximity of the other properties that we own."
But since restoration is a "money pit," he said, the profitable end will have to be in place first. That means approval of a condo idea for the Mifflin Street block that is now just a concept, or a green light for a current development plan on the city's far west side near UW Research Park that has run into a bureaucratic wall in City Hall.
In the meantime, he said, Apex will upgrade the Lamp House to tenant standards, get it occupied, continue to rent the Mifflin Street houses and put the project on the back burner until the time is right.
"If our idea of developing the block falls flat, maybe we'll restore it and sell it back to a single-occupant user again," Bosben said.
"Owning this house is a responsibility. How many existing Frank Lloyd Wright houses are there in the world? I own one of them, and I'm damned if I'm going to be the person who screws it up."
WANT TO LIVE THERE? IT'S FOR RENT