Mistake house_bluff

Palisades of the Mississippi (c. 1909) by Frederick Oakes Sylvester

Sitting on a bucolic limestone bluff in Elsa, Illinois, overlooking the Mississippi River is an odd little building built some 80 years ago. This rather famous discombobulated little structure, a structure lovingly belabored over by Bernard Maybeck, has long come to be known as the Mistake House.

Mistake House, northeast elevation

Mistake House, Bernard Maybeck

Architects today rarely have the opportunity to make mistakes. Given their client’s expectations, the cost of construction and professional liability, architects are expected to build with precision and to build once- all with the exactitude of science. ASTM standards dictate materials and standards in such a way that even “innovative” buildings have had all of their components tested and certified for their performance in the field. Rarely ever is there a client that encourages risk taking and tolerates the possibility of mistakes.

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Students sketching

Yet, in 1931 embarking on a 17-year building program for their college campus, that’s exactly what the Board of Principia College did. Trusting in their architect’s principle of building with nature, they set out to build a structure that would exemplify the heart of their campus in both material and method.

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Juxtaposition of traditional materials with  poured in place concrete

As Principia College describes, “The Mistake House—originally intended to be called the Sample House—embodies the architect’s eccentric pragmatism and was built as a way to experiment with the building techniques that would be used in the construction of the Maybeck buildings.” However, after many “creative accidents” of the “architect’s eccentric pragmatism” the Sample House was quickly renamed by the craftsmen following Maybeck’s directives-as the “Mistake House”, by which name it will lovingly forever be known.

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Named after the example of unorthodox creativity, the school’s literary Journal, The Mistake House, described the structure “as a “peculiar confection of constructional ideas” by Principia College alumnus and Cornell University professor emeritus Dr. Robert M. Craig, the Mistake House reflects Maybeck’s dedication and adherence to the idea of process as a building craft. It also served as a reference tool, an instructional guide, and an example of the playfully creative processes all craft and creations must embody. Maybeck insisted that “monotony is a sin,” and through his creation of this peculiar little house, he encouraged both thoughtful and dedicated study as well as liberated risk-taking.” 

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The influence of the Mistake House clear in conceptual study of other campus buildings

He very much wanted the visual effect of unsophisticated, uncontrived craftsmanship. Walls and roof are a testament to Maybeck’s exploration in craftsmanship, each surface was an exploration in the possibility of the material; one side of the roof of a thatched scratched concrete gunite, the other of terracotta. One wall would be built in a “laughing happy color” brick and the other of rubble stone.  Even down to the iron rods meant to encourage greenery to soften the structure– all designed as “a painterly image of the campus with buildings that looked like they just grew there and were a natural part of the landscape– as though they have always been there. Even acid stains were used under the eaves in order to obtain proper effect.”

Mistake House

Edward Hussey, who arrived on site to supervise construction, said of Maybeck, “He’d listen really, to anybody who had an idea, and if it were something new. In other words, he never assumed he knew all there was to know about architecture….He was progressive in that sense.”

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Class Room Groupe

The structure, now a proud symbol of the campus, “embodies the architect’s eccentric pragmatism and was built as a way to experiment with the building techniques”, a laboratory for “creative accidents”, reflecting Maybeck’s directive,“Instruct the mason with general orders… and then keep your fingers out of it.”