Chicago, Oak Park and Frank Lloyd Wright

The Lloyd Wright Family Home and Studio, Oak Park
The Lloyd Wright Family Home and Studio, Oak Park

On a windy day, in the windy city I’ve spent several hours discovering the architectural gems of Frank Lloyd Wright. He is probably the most famous American architect, known for his organic approach to design and his development of the unique Prairie style of architecture.

Wright started his career working as a draftsman and later as an architect in the city of Chicago. He worked for Louis Sullivan who was both his mentor and his boss. He could not have arrived at a better time. Chicago was a dynamic and vibrant hub. The railways had opened up the entire North American continent and Chicago was the trading centre for the whole of the west. After the great fire of 1871 rebuilding created a flurry of activity in the construction and design sectors. Architects were busy as successful entrepreneurs jostled with one another to create the biggest and grandest company head-quarters. Chicago became the city of the modern sky-scraper. Sears Roebuck had just started and would grow to become the largest mail-order service across the United States. A famous advertisement of the time shows a grand piano being dispatched by rail from Chicago and delivered to a remote destination in the west. This was an age of optimism and excitement, an age when anything was possible. The owners of these businesses wanted the finest, most innovative houses. Frank Lloyd Wright was perfectly placed.

It was in this context that Lloyd Wright persuaded Louis Sullivan to lend him $5000— to build his first family home. Today this house on Chicago Avenue, Oak Park is preserved exactly as it would have been in 1909. In fact the FLW House was almost certainly a promotional exercise, a ‘calling card’ for existing and future clients. It was designed as both a family home and a working studio. The house is built in the typical shingle-style of the 1880s with a deep gable and enclosed porch area. The facade of the house is embellished with two large carvings of men/apes that appear to be red granite. There is the ‘arts and crafts style’ logo of Frank Lloyd Wright and painted panels that appear to be bronze show richly carved birds, the tree of life and classical architectural scrolls. Mr Wright was determined, with these decorations to show the caller that this house belonged to a man of substance.

When Wright began designing his home in Oak Park the area was still a village, a small upright community, right on the edge of Chicago’s urban sprawl. The house had views of fields and open countryside extending to the north and to the west. Inside the house Wright used oak flooring, oak panelling and carefully designed and created furniture to create a balanced, harmonious look. Space was used carefully and economically. This was a family house, with a playroom for the kids, complete with window seats and a piano suspended from the ceiling.

In nearby Forest Avenue you can see several Wright homes demonstrating different stages in his career. The Tudor-style house below is the Nathan Moore House, built in 1895. Almost opposite is the Arthur Heurtley House. The Heurtley House is the earliest example of the full Prairie style of architecture. The Prairie style is said to be the first truly home-grown American architectural style. Here the house blends with its surroundings and borders between building and garden are not clearly defined. Low roof angles, open plan interiors and an original and distinctive look characterise these properties. The Robie House in downtown Chicago is an excellent example of this.

Frank Lloyd Wright was soon to outgrow Oak Park. He headed to Europe in 1909 anxious to get his work recognised on the other side of the Atlantic. His trip raised many eyebrows, his companion was the wife of one of his clients! When he returned to America it was to build a true Prairie style house for himself in the countryside of Wisconsin, where he built the Taliesin estate. Mr Wright wasn’t the only famous resident of Oak Park either. Just a few blocks away from Wright’s house and studio is the house where Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899. He had a fairly mixed time at school and ended up as a cub reporter on the Kansas Star before volunteering to work as an Ambulance Driver in the First World War. By 1918 he was on the Italian Front close to the border with Austria. His war-time experiences resulted in injury and a medal. Later he wrote two novels, A Farewell to Arms and Across the River and into the Trees, based on his experiences during the war. Interestingly Wright and Hemingway had seven wives between them – three and four respectively. Neither returned full time to Oak Park after their European experiences.

I’m curious to know if Frank Lloyd Wright was influenced in any way by Charles Rennie Mackintosh who was working in Glasgow at roughly the same time and was responsible for the Willow Tea Rooms. Mackintosh developed a unique and very charming style of interior and exterior design, including furniture which I would regard as a mixture of ‘arts and crafts’ and ‘art deco’. His style is reminiscent of the stained glass and window decorations in Wright’s house and studio.

I’d strongly recommend a couple of days in Oak Park. The Lloyd Wright houses are quite exceptional. Once a year there is a special tour where you can visit inside many of the houses that are privately owned. The gift shop too at the ‘House and Studio’ is really good. A huge range of souvenirs and cute little gifts. I bought quite a few.

As always I’d love to hear what you think. Don’t hesitate to comment or e-mail me:

janet@educated-traveller.com

For more on Frank Lloyd Wright and Chicago check out:

Enjoy! Don’t forget to tell me what you think.

4 thoughts on “Chicago, Oak Park and Frank Lloyd Wright

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