Oak Park, in Chicago, boasts 25 buildings that were designed or remodelled by Wright, the largest collection in the world. Frank Lloyd Wright lived in Oak Park from 1889 until 1909, his formative years as an architect and his legacy is protected as a federally designated Frank Lloyd Wright/Prairie School of Architecture Historic District.
This looks like a good house to visit…
Frank Lloyd Wright arrived in Chicago in 1887, at the age of 20, and got a job as a “tracer” at a salary of eight dollars a week with one of Chicago’s most prestigious architectural firms, that of Joseph Lyman Silsbee. At that point, Wright’s drawing skills were already impressive.
In less than a year, Wright consolidated his position as a draftsman in one of Chicago’s best office and he had designed and constructed his first building on his own, the Hillside Home School in Spring Green, for his Aunts Nell and Jane, in 1887. Silsbee had apparently allowed him to take the necessary time to execute the commission.
While Silsbee represented the top of the establishment, Wright was far more interested in pushing the boundaries of architecture, and left Silsbee to join the firm of Adler and Sullivan, who were on architecture’s leading edge. Dankmar Adler was a solid, amiable, dependable businessman and expert structural engineer. Louis H. Sullivan was a handsome, moody and aloof Irishman trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, whose brilliant work was defining the new building.
Sullivan apparently recognised Wright’s exceptional talents as a draftsman and they shared an intense preoccupation with the art of building. Sullivan found a willing pupil in Wright, eager to listen and learn. For Wright, Sullivan was the teacher and role model he had sought. Wright soon became so skilled an assistant that he could create his own version of Sullivan’s characteristic ornament, easily imitating the rich foliate curves of its interlaced Celtic forms. The way he could anticipate and carry out Sullivan’s ideas was the architectural equivalent of finishing his sentences.
Even at this early date, Wright was clear in his own mind about his preference for a cleaner, more geometric style; he rejected the picturesque pastiches that dominated the office’s domestic practice. Sullivan had no interest in designing houses, those “courtesy” commissions for his clients were handed over to Wright.
Just one week from his 22nd birthday, on 1 June 1889, Wright married Catherine Lee Tobin, not yet 18 on the day, after a two year courtship. Both sets of parents opposed the marriage, and all the in-laws wept copiously on the wedding day. They separated in 1909 and got divorced in 1922.
Wright had informed Sullivan that he intended to marry, being careful to add that he could afford neither a wife nor the home they would need on the money he earned. Sullivan, unwilling to lose “the good pencil in his hand”, rose to the occasion and offered him a five-year contract and a loan for the house. Sullivan himself inspected and approved the lot Wright selected in Oak Park, a rustic corner plot on Forest and Chicago avenues. Fortuitously, it included an existing for Anna, his mother. After the land was purchased, $3,500 was left for construction, a sum Wright promptly exceeded by $1,200, a fact he never mentioned to Sullivan; the cost overrun established another lifelong practice.
When the house was not in domestic uproar, it was being torn apart and reassembled by Wright, who spent much time rearranging furniture and accessories. His homes were always being altered or added to, as his needs and his vision changed.
The original first floor consisted of a living room, a dining room and a kitchen. At the centre of the plan is an inglenook with a fireplace and built-in seating. This central mass of fireplace and chimney would become a trademark of Wright’s designs.
The original kitchen was converted to a formal dining room in the mid 1890s. In this room, Wright played with establishing a space within a space. The large, rectangular and decorative light fixture defines the room’s centre while the high-back chairs form an enclosure of sorts.
Wright’s use of built-in furniture is evident in Oak Park as well. From the overall room space to all the details, including the furniture and colours, Wright wanted to control the environment. Leaving nothing to chance, he preferred to build in sideboards, storage, seating etc., rather than having furniture added as objects to a room (unless, of course, he designed the furniture).
In 1893, Wright added the Playroom, a handsome space topped by a barrel vault with a central skylight, the curving ribs traced in dark wood. The playroom, the largest room in the home, receives light from intricate art-glass windows and the central skylight. He had six children with his first wife, Catherine (Kitty) Wright, so the addition gave the children some much-needed space. A piano is hidden under the stairway leading to a balcony in the room, which adds to the allure of Wright’s designs. This is where the Wright children learned to play musical instruments and were encouraged to put on plays for family and friends.
And we finally found Puffles and Honey! 🙂 This is big enough for our beary celebrations with friends!
Light flooded from the room’s 6m high ceiling and through a continuous band of windows where the ceiling vault sprang from Roman brick walls. An oak floor was patterned in the circles and squares that had stayed with Wright from the memory of the childhood Froebel “gifts”. In a lunette above a massive fireplace at the end of the room was an Arabian Nights mural, a painting commissioned by Wright; festive clusters of hanging glass globes formed chandeliers, completing the fairy tale atmosphere. The balcony invited amateur theatricals. The Playroom was an artful, enchanted space, conceived with Wright’s already accustomed ease and theatricality.
There were frequent parties in the Playroom; the Wright-designed setting, toys and all, served as much to impress a growing circle of friends and clients as to accommodate the children’s games.
Wright stayed with Sullivan until 1893. To meet expenses, which meant, for Wright, not just supporting a family but sustaining a standard of living that included season tickets to the Chicago Orchestra, be began to design “bootleg” houses, as he termed them, on his own time. Wright’s five-year contract specifically prohibited moonlighting and when the bootleg houses came to Sullivan’s attention, he promptly fired Wright. Sullivan felt a betrayal of trust and friendship, and the break was bitter and lasting, the two men did not speak again for 17 years.
Once Wright was on his own, his work quickly flowered into the tradition-shattering and history-making houses of his Prairie style, accompanied by a philosophy of “organic architecture” which he proclaimed, and preached, for the rest of his life.
The Playroom was followed quickly by the Studio, in 1895, along the Chicago Avenue side of the property. Building the Studio gave Wright a professional space for himself and the architects who worked with him. It was here that Wright pioneered a unique new vision for American architecture, the Prairie style. The Oak Park Studio years were an incredibly prolific period in Wright’s career, with more than a third of his life’s work produced at the site between 1898 and 1909. Major buildings of the Prairie style, including the Larkin Building (1904), Unity Temple (1908), and Wright’s Prairie style masterpiece, the Frederick C. Robie House (1910), were all designed at the Studio.
Contributing to the legacy of Wright’s Prairie years were a group of talented young draftsmen, architects and artists drawn to the Studio by Wright’s vision. These included Marion Mahony, the first practicing woman architect in America, Walter Burley Griffin, William Drummond, Charles E. White, Francis Byrne, George Grant Elmslie, Frances Sullivan, John S. Van Bergen, Andrew Willatzen, George Willis, Harry Robinson, Richard Bock, George Mann Niedecken, Orlando Giannini and Isabel Roberts.
An open loggia reached by stairs behind a low wall brought the visitor from the street to an offset entrance.
Behind the loggia was a generous waiting area, with beautiful green and gold stained glass windows, with Wright’s study just beyond.
Immediately to the left was a large, double-height drafting room, the studio proper, topped by an octagon with clerestory windows.
A library on the opposite side repeated the octagon at a smaller scale.
The horizontal flow of the plan gave continuous, changing vistas through open passageways. Constructed around a large willow tree, the Studio became known as the house with the tree growing through it, adding to Wright’s local reputation for eccentricity.
Wright left this home for the last time in 1909 at the zenith of his career. With client Edwin Cheney’s wife, Mamah, he fled to Europe, abandoning his wife, Catherine, and their children. After 1909, the Studio was converted into a residence for his wife and the younger children. Later on, the Home and Studio became an apartment building. In the 1960s it fell into disrepair as the owners began to neglect the property due to financial problems. In 1974, the structure was handed over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a long restoration program restored the Home and Studio to their 1909 status.
To see residences designed in the Studio, Puffles and Honey went on a walking tour of the surrounding area. The long, low lines, interlocking forms and open spatial planning of Wright’s Prairie houses not only “broked the box”, as he put it, of the traditional house with its unyielding vertical plan and circulation, they created a connection with the site that broke the barrier between indoors and out with banks of windows, terraces and indirect approaches through visually related landscaped settings. Even when the house did not escape the restricted suburban lot, it made it into a different kind of place.
With the Heurtley House, we see Wright’s Prairie Style continuing to mature. The refined, monolithic façade is reminiscent of the Winslow House (FLW, 1894), with it’s arch detail and massive central fireplace. But here, Wright has put more of an emphasis on horizontality with long bands of windows and a brick treatment that called for the vertical mortar joints to be dyed the same color as the brick itself – thereby obscuring them – while the horizontal mortar joints were left in their natural color. Additionally, alternating layers of brick were laid slightly proud of the rest of the surface, creating more horizontal bands.
Another unusual feature of the home is that Wright put the living quarters – the kitchen, living room and dining room – on the second floor, a characteristic he would continue to use in other Prairie designs, including the Frederick C. Robie House (1906). All of the home’s six bedrooms are situated at the rear, providing privacy from the street. Over the years, numerous owners (including Wright’s own sister) have altered the original design, but when the home was sold in 1997, its new owners painstakingly restored it to its original condition.
At first glance, the Davenport House does not appear to have been designed in the Prairie Style, but with the exception of it’s gabled roof, all of the tell-tale signs are indeed there. Although the home’s façade was altered in 1931, the home as it looks today has been restored to its original appearance. It’s essentially an inverted version of a spec house that Wright designed which was published in the July 1901 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal. About the home, Wright had written, “the average homemaker is partial to the gable roof. This house has been designed with a thorough, somewhat new treatment of the gable with gently flaring eaves and pediments, slightly lifted at the peaks, accentuating the perspective, slightly modelling the roof surfaces, and making the outlines crisp.”
Widely acknowledged as Wright’s first full-fledged Prairie Style home built in Oak Park, we finally see the culmination of over a decade’s worth of experimentation and honing. All of the hallmarks of the Prairie aesthetic are presented here in an organic, cohesive form that is pleasing to eye. The arched entry at centre is not the front door, but rather leads into a tiny courtyard where access to the front door is gained after turning left and climbing a stairway. There are three floors in the home, with the partially submerged ground (or basement) floor originally used as servants’ quarters. The family’s living quarters encompass the upper two floors with all four bedrooms being arranged in a line on the top floor – a design characteristic that would re-surface in many of Wright’s later Usonian designs.
The dichotomy of the William G. Fricke House (also known as the Emma Martin House, circa 1906) is that while its Prairie elements focus on highlighting its horizontal features, the home’s design is unequivocally vertical. While being anchored by a soaring three-story central tower, Wright gracefully employs layers of cascading rooflines and horizontal exterior bands to help draw one’s attention away from the home’s height. Unfortunately for Mr. Fricke, he was only able to enjoy it for a short while, as divorce and later financial troubles forced him to sell the property to Emma Martin in 1906. Martin wasted no time hiring Wright to design a garage for the home, and a wall connecting the two buildings was later added. A covered veranda on the south side of the original home was demolished some time ago when the lot was sold and later developed.
As with its predecessor, the Fricke House, the William Martin house exhibits an undeniable vertical prowess, but through Wright’s brilliant design execution, the home’s height is again considerably downplayed. This was Wright’s last three-story Prairie design. The original owner of this home was the brother of Darwin Martin, for whom Wright would design the expansive Darwin Martin House Complex in Buffalo, New York a few years later.
Although the Beachy House is technically considered a “remodel,” the only remnant of the original Gothic style home that exists is part of the basement foundation, and none of it is visible on the exterior. His first commission upon returning from a trip to Japan, Wright chose to adorn this Prairie Style home with seven gables, perhaps a nod to the Asian architecture he encountered on his trip. Wright also designed much of the furniture for the home, some of which is still in use today by its current owners. Like its neighbour the Nathan Moore House, the home is situated on the extreme northern edge of the property, leaving a wide expanse to take better advantage of southern exposure to sunlight.
One of the most advanced examples of Wright’s use of the cruciform floor plan to date, this home was designed and built (on a limited budget) for one of Wright’s draftspeople (who would go on to become a notable architect in her own right), Isabel Roberts. Of note is the sunken two-story living room with floor-to-ceiling windows and the second floor balcony that overlooks it, as well as the accommodations that were made to allow a growing British Elm tree to penetrate the roof of the south porch. Isabel lived in the home with her mother, Mary, for several years before moving to Florida around 1915 when Mary’s health deteriorated. The home was renovated in 1922 by fellow Wright draftsman, William Drummond, and updated again by Wright himself in 1955, where he employed some of his later Usonian ideals.
Wright was particularly fond of this unusually symmetric home that he designed for his good friend Kibben Ingalls. A floor plan based on a Greek cross enabled Wright to satisfy his client’s request that every room have windows on three sides. The omnipresent central fireplace is flanked by the entry on south side and the dining room on the north; the living room extends out of the front of the home to the east where it gracefully collects unencumbered morning sun. Upstairs, balconies extend from bedrooms on both sides, while the master bedroom looks out over the front lawn. Ingalls lived in the home until he passed away in 1937, and his wife remained until her death in 1950. The home now belongs to a Chicago architect who has worked on several other Wright-designed homes.
Laura Gale, widow of Thomas Gale, for whom Wright designed two nearby homes in 1892, commissioned this home on property that she acquired following the death of her husband in 1907. The construction date was 1909, but there are conflicting reports regarding when Wright actually designed the home, which may have been as early as 1904. Significant for its slab roof, multiple cantilevers, and rectangular massing, Wright later acknowledged that he explored themes with this home that he would expand upon decades later with his masterpiece, Fallingwater.
As the story goes, Wright abandoned his wife and family in 1909 and ran away to Europe for a year with his mistress, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. The Balch House represents one of the first commissions he received upon his return to the United States in 1911. Like the Laura Gale House, the Balch House has a flat roof and a protruding parapet surrounding a ground floor terrace. A nearly continuous band of art glass windows spans the entire street-facing façade, which is then capped by the thin brow of the flat roof.
The Adams House represents the culmination – as well as the termination – of the homes that Frank Lloyd Wright would design in Oak Park and River Forest, Illinois. The now fully matured Prairie Style is exhibited here with its wide longitudinal stance, hipped roof, brick exterior finish, and porte-cochère (the only one of Wright’s Oak Park homes to have one). Vaguely reminiscent of the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo, this design was actually the third that Wright prepared, after the first two were rejected by Adams due to their cost.
The Hills-DeCaro House, was remodelled in 1906 Wright in his signature Prairie style. The Hills-DeCaro House represents the melding of two distinct phases in Wright’s career; it contains many elements of both the Prairie style and the designs with which Wright experimented throughout the 1890s. The Hills-DeCaro House has another claim to fame, a ticket booth from the World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893 stands in the garden. Since its retirement from the ticket business, the structure has been used as a garden toolshed, a rabbit hut and now a garden decoration.
Designed as a public sculpture for Oak Park’s Scoville Park, the fountain, which is variously referred to as the Scoville Park Fountain and the Horse Show Fountain, was developed by Wright in collaboration with sculptor Richard Bock. Between 1903 and 1910, Bock worked almost exclusively for Wright in the stimulating environment of the Oak Park Studio. The sculptor’s creations enriched many of Wright’s most famous Prairie buildings, including the Heller House (1896), the Dana House (1902), the Larkin Administration Building (1903), the Darwin Martin House (1903), Unity Temple (1905) and Midway Gardens (1913).
The Scoville Park Fountain is composed of a series of rectilinear concrete slabs. Two vertical piers support a lintel incised with geometric patterns, and a square-shaped void marks the centre of the architectonic monument. Over time, the structure suffered severe deterioration and was eventually demolished. In 1969, in commemoration of Wright’s 100th birthday, a replica was installed just east of the original site.
Opposite Scoville Park is the Red Hen Bread, with cherry Danish on the menu!