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Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust shows the exterior of the home Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust shows the exterior of the home side of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, Ill., which was built in 1889 as Wright’s family home and went through several renovations through 1898. This is where the famous architect developed Prairie style architecture. The home side of the building provided access to the family home.
Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust shows the exterior of the home side of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, Ill., which was built in 1889 as Wright’s family home and went through several renovations through 1898. This is where the famous architect developed Prairie style architecture. The home side of the building provided access to the family home.
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Published: Sunday, 9/30/2012

Frank Lloyd Wright mother lode in Illinois town

Architect’s home, examples of his Prairie Style architecture in Oak Park near Chicago

ASSOCIATED PRESS

OAK PARK, Ill. — Ernest Hem­ing­way was born in Oak Park, but Frank Lloyd Wright lives here.

Wright died in 1959, two years be­fore Hem­ing­way, but the fa­mous ar­chi­tect's leg­acy is so strong in this vil­lage west of Chi­cago that he seems to be part of the pres­ent. Home to more than two dozen Wright struc­tures, in­clud­ing a church, two sta­bles, and a foun­tain, Oak Park boasts the larg­est col­lec­tion of Wright-de­signed sites in the world. Wright lived in Oak Park for the first 20 years of his ca­reer, be­tween 1889 and 1909, de­vel­op­ing Prai­rie style ar­chi­tec­ture in a stu­dio there. In con­trast, Hem­ing­way couldn't wait to leave, re­port­edly dis­par­ag­ing it as a place of “wide lawns and nar­row minds.”

Some 80,000 peo­ple tour Wright's Oak Park home and stu­dio each year but vis­i­tors can also get a sense of Wright's im­pact just by strolling up and down the streets. In ad­di­tion to the homes he built, his de­signs are in­cor­po­rated into ev­ery­thing from win­dows to mail­boxes to lamps at scores of houses the ar­chi­tect had noth­ing to do with. This vil­lage of 52,000 is a liv­ing tes­ta­ment to his in­flu­ence.

That's part of why vis­it­ing Wright's home and stu­dio is such a treat: A chance to see where the per­son re­spon­si­ble for it all lived, worked, and cre­ated. “This is like a cre­ative lab,” said Tim Samuel­son, Chi­cago's cul­tural his­to­rian and a mem­ber of the ad­vi­sory board of the Frank Lloyd Wright Pres­er­va­tion Trust.

As guides lead vis­i­tors through the house, of­ten past fur­ni­ture that Wright built, they ex­plain Wright's use of space: how he not only con­trolled room size, which ev­ery ar­chi­tect does, but also in­flu­enced how big or small the rooms felt to peo­ple in­side them. For ex­am­ple, the draft­ing room looks even big­ger than it is, a guide ex­plains, be­cause of a small pas­sage­way that opens up into the room, cre­at­ing a bit of an il­lu­sion about the size. And where did he get that idea? The pyr­a­mids of Egypt em­ploy the same trick.

In an­other room, the play­room, Wright cut a hole in the wall and shoved much of a pi­ano into it, so that the keys of the pi­ano are in the room and the rest of it hangs above a stair­well in space that wasn't be­ing used for any­thing any­way.

Then there's Wright's at­ten­tion to what oc­cu­pies all that space: Light.

“When­ever he got a job he'd look at the site and see how the light fell” at dif­fer­ent times of day, said Samuel­son. Samuel­son said he al­most hates to take a pic­ture in a Wright home be­cause he knows the pho­to­graph will not do justice to how dif­fer­ent the home looks from sea­son to sea­son and even from hour to hour. 

And while Wright didn't spend a lot of time con­sult­ing cli­ents about where this wall or that room would go, he did have a sense of what they would like. “He had happy first cli­ents, the houses fit them like a glove,” said Samuel­son. Of course, some­one as ec­cen­tric as Wright, who fa­mously strode about with a cape over his shoul­ders and a cane in his hand, tended to at­tract cli­ents who ap­pre­ci­ated Wright's sen­si­bil­i­ties.

Frank Lloyd Preservation Trust shows the playroom at the famous architect’s home and studio in Oak Park, Ill., which draws some 80,000 visitors a year. Oak Park is home to 29 Wright-designed structures, the largest collection of Wright sites in any one place in the world. Frank Lloyd Preservation Trust shows the playroom at the famous architect’s home and studio in Oak Park, Ill., which draws some 80,000 visitors a year. Oak Park is home to 29 Wright-designed structures, the largest collection of Wright sites in any one place in the world.
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Wright also un­der­stood in the early years of the 20th cen­tury that the au­to­mo­bile wasn't a pass­ing fad and that he'd bet­ter de­sign his houses to cope with shin­ing head­lights and noisy en­gines. Lis­ten, the tour guide says, point­ing to one of Oak Park's bus­i­est streets, just out­side Wright's win­dow. The col­umns out­side are not just dec­o­ra­tive; they ab­sorb noise, ren­der­ing near-si­lence.

But what re­ally makes a tour of Wright's home and com­mu­nity fu­n is that it brings a man who has been dead for more than a half cen­tury back to life as a neigh­bor, busi­ness­man, father, and hus­band, with­out white­wash­ing his flaws.

For ex­am­ple, he liked the finer things in life but of­ten strung mer­chants along when they came af­ter him for pay­ment. And when he moved to Oak Park, he bor­rowed money to buy a house from his boss at the time, famed ar­chi­tect Louis Sul­li­van. Sul­li­van lent him the money on con­di­tion that he not do any side jobs. Wright agreed but se­cretly “boot­legged” houses around town. “He'd sign an ar­chi­tect's friend's name on nec­es­sary per­mits or doc­u­ments so Sul­li­van wouldn't no­tice,” Samuel­son said.

Wright also got tongues wag­ging when he ran off with the wife of an­other cli­ent, leav­ing his wife and kids in his house and his mother in the house next door. At the same time, Wright was kind. He sup­ported Sul­li­van for well over a de­cade when the older man fell on hard times late in life, the guide said.

Maybe the best story about how Wright's work and per­son­al­ity came to­gether is the one told at the end of the house tour in what was his of­fice. Wright's houses tended to have leaky roofs, at least partly be­cause Wright asked con­trac­tors to build houses un­like any­thing they'd built or even seen be­fore. But Wright didn't seem much both­ered by it. When peo­ple would call to com­plain, “There's wa­ter leak­ing on my desk,” Wright, as the story goes, would sim­ply ad­vise them to move the desk.

If You Go

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT HOME AND STUDIO TOUR: 951 Chi­cago Ave., Oak Park, Ill., www.gow­right.org or 312-994-4000. Tours of­fered daily 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (ex­cept Thanks­giv­ing, Christ­mas, and New Year's) week­ends ev­ery 20 min­utes and week­days hourly and 20 min­utes past the hour (Sep­tem­ber-Decem­ber sched­ule). Tour lasts 45-60 min­utes. Adults, $15; stu­dents and se­niors, $12. Self-guided au­dio walk­ing tours of his­toric dis­trict sur­round­ing the home are $15 (of­fered week­ends on a lim­ited ba­sis with live tour guides, check Web site for de­tails) or $10 if com­bined with stu­dio and home tour.

HEMINGWAY MUSEUM AND BIRTHPLACE: 200 N. Oak Park Ave. and 339 Oak Park Ave., Oak Park, Ill., www.eh­fop.org or 708-524-5383. Open daily, Satur­day 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sun­day-Fri­day 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Adults $10 (ad­mis­sion to both mu­seum and home), $8 for ages 65 and over, col­lege stu­dents with ID and chil­dren 6-18. 

GETTING THERE: Oak Park is about 10 miles west of Chi­cago. Ac­ces­sible by Chi­cago blue and green el­e­vated rail lines, the Union Pa­cific West Line Metro train, and by bus, www.oak-park.us or www.vis­i­toak­park.com. Com­bi­na­tion tick­ets avail­able to visit Hem­ing­way and Wright sites.



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