a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Frank Lloyd Wright's laboratory wasn't built for comfort

The dining room chairs Frank Lloyd Wright designed for his home in Oak Park, Ill, weren't built for comfort, but rather to create an illusion the space was taller than it appeared. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

OAK PARK, Ill. – Frank Lloyd Wright built his first studio in such a manner to impress upon potential clients that he stood out from all competing architects.

Wright positioned its front porch across the street from a row of tidy Victorian-era houses in order for him to frown down on those buildings when greeting prospective customers at his front door, a tour guide said today at the Oak Park, Ill., home and studio of one of the best architects America ever produced.

"This is where he could look across the street and say, "I don't do that. Those are stick houses,'" said Monte Levinson, a retired physician leading about a dozen visitors today through this complex Wright began building in 1889 for his family and business.

Levinson presented himself as a Wright devotee, spitting out anecdotes with perfect accuracy and in rapid fire, often focusing more on them than the architectural details of this national landmark house built in the seaside style at the corner of Chicago and Forest avenues.

He's read the newer books: "Loving Frank," a historical novel by Nancy Horan about Wright's unfortunate mistress who was the love of his life; and Roger Friedland's "The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesan Fellowships," stories that have spawned even greater interest in the architect's remarkable life.

"He was absolutely a difficult man," Levinson said, while standing in Wright's former office, an octagonal room adorned with the architect's signature oak furnishings and art-glass windows. "He was a curmudgeon."

Wright's customers were forbidden from entering the drafting room and kept waiting in the adjoining foyer.

"He would not ask you what you wanted. He'd tell you what your needs were."

In private Wright berated city planners for ignoring nature in their designs and then would play the role of a contrarian in public.
Levinson leads tourists through Wright's office in Oak Park, Ill. (Scott Beveridge photo)

The hero of this story, though, was Catherine Wright, the rejected first wife of this builder and mother of his six children for whom Wright erected this two-story house constructed with Chicago brick and wooden shingles painted brown.

She was a suffragette who gave many civic lectures on the responsibility of the wealthy to care about the less fortunate and earned a master's degree in social work after Wright left her in 1909 for Mamah Borthwick Chaney.

Wright and Chaney fell in love while he built a nearby house on East Avenue for the Chaneys while they, too, were still married.

That house still stands today, albeit in need of attention in an otherwise well-kept suburban Chicago neighborhood speckled with either Wright designed or inspired houses.

However, Mamah Chaney met an untimely death in 1914 during a murderous rampage at Taliesen East, the house Wright built for her in Wisconsin.

Wright designed 1,200 buildings in his lifetime and 125 of them were produced in this studio, Levinson said. He built a debated 460 of those designs, including 30 around the corner from his studio.
Frank Lloyd Wright chose a seaside-style of construction for his first home, using it to experiment in organic and prairie-school architecture. (Scott Beveridge/O-R)

The home and studio grew from a $5,000 loan from Wright's boss, Louis Henry Sullivan, a renowned Chicago architect. To get the money Wright made a promise to continue working for Sullivan, only to sneak behind his back and build four "bootleg" houses in Oak Park, Levinson said.

Wright used this house as a laboratory, designed similar to a spin wheel to maximized the size of rooms that jut out from a central fireplace. It was here where he experimented with organic design techniques that made it appear the rooms flowed seamlessly to and from the outdoors.

While pocket doors were fashionable during this era, Wright shed them in order to allow the eye to travel throughout the first floor of his house. Widows were arranged high on walls so visitors would gaze out to trees rather than neighboring houses.

Paint colors for the walls were limited to those of the autumn, including olive green and Wright's favorite, Cherokee red.

He included built-in couches in the living room, something he would include in many more houses to follow, including Pennsylvania's beloved Fallingwater in the Laurel Highlands.

"He wanted people to sit where he told them to sit," Levinson said.

In the dining room it didn't matter if the chairs were comfortable for seating. Wright designed them with seats too low for sitting and backs so tall they would have given his dinner guests leg cramps.

More importantly the furniture design, Wright believed, made the ceiling above the table appear taller, Levinson said.

Wright was an illusionist. At 5-feet, 6-inches tall, he wore two-inch heels to make himself look taller, Levinson explained, before embarking to the second floor to show off two opposing rooms with vaulted ceilings that hover over the first floor like giant lunchboxes.

The property is owned by the by the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, which was established to acquire and care for the site. Advance tour reservations are suggested.


Amy Jo said...

Love the houses in Oak Park. We've been a few times before. You should check out the Wright Walk weekend, usually in early May, where you get to tour several private residences.

Amy Jo said...

Love the houses in Oak Park. If you haven't already, you should do the Wright Walk weekend, usually in early may. You get to tour several private residences.