-----In 2004 we bought a falling-down house and 30 acres. This blog documents our progress-----

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Frank Lloyd Wright's Chicago home

Back in early January I was in Chicago, fleetingly, for business. Sadly I ended up working the entire time we were there, except for a free afternoon the day before we left. So, I went to visit Oak Park, Frank Lloyd Wright's old neighbourhood.

Now, I'm not a Frank Lloyd Wright fan, in the sense that I wouldn't ever like to live in his houses. A lot of his interiors are beautiful but they don't fit me... and his houses don't look very welcoming from the outside (at least to my eyes). But, he's been so influential I thought I'd see what the fuss was about.

The centrepiece of Oak Park is the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio, at 951 Chicago Avenue. It was among the first houses he designed and was very different to what I expected.

This is what it looks like from the outside at the front on Forest Avenue, which was the entrance to the house:

001 front garden of frank lloyd wright family home

It was very unusual to have the bricks on show as the base, but that was done deliberately to provide a kind of visual anchor. I like the wooden shingling and how it matches the leading in the window. Apparently this was deliberate to have diamond paned leading to make it seem like the 'shell' of the house continued over the windows.

But, I don't like the front path layout. It was done deliberately so you enter from the side, walk straight up and then across, to make you take the time to observe the garden and house from different angles. It was a big difference from the more welcoming Victorian approach of having a path straight from the gate to the front door... I don't like it, it feels too guarded.

This is what it looks like from the Chicago Avenue side, which was the entrance to his studio

003 sideview of FLW studio

I like the concrete planters that are built in as part of the balastrading. It's an unusual entrance... first, there are two entrances and so apparently he used to watch potential clients entering and judge how they'd react to his ideas based on how they chose to enter!

It's unusual in that it has statues up high, effectively on the roof. According to the guide, this was a bit of arrogance, in that the octagonal studio roof was so unusual that he expected people to look up and thus they'd be in view! There's also all sorts of elaborate carving on the pillars, each with a symbolic meaning.

Overall, I found it intriguing, but I'm not sure I like it.

To see inside, you have to go on a guided tour. As it was midweek and offseason, I lucked out and there were only 5 of us, with a guide who'd been working there for over 20 years and been instrumental in its restoration. She told us some great stories.

For instance, the house had been almost derelict after spending many years converted to a rooming house... it was about to be demolished but then the Louvre museum asked to salvage some of the rooms. The city council then figured if one of the top museums in the world thought it was valuable, perhaps they should reconsider smashing it up! Thank God for the French (and I don't say that very often).

Also... when he built there it was the middle of nowhere, still dirt roads, and hardly any other houses around. Very soon after his house was finished, the lot RIGHT NEXT DOOR was bought and they built a classic Victorian style house, right up against the boundary! So he then had top remodel the entire side of that house to try and block out the view of nextdoor... that's why windows on that side tend to be high up rather than at a level you could look out of.

As per usual, they wouldn't let you take photos inside, so the pictures below are scanned from the guidebook. (This is by no means a substitute for the book though, it's well worth buying if you're ever visiting). If you want to follow along, this is the floorplan.

The first room you enter is the entrance hallway, and I was astonished.

entrance hall

It felt so very English! Oak everywhere, tasteful shades of green, even a classical frieze up high on the walls. It felt a lovely warm and welcoming place, nothing like the feeling I had outside.

You then veer left and it opens out into the main living area, complete with a stereotypical Arts & Crafts inglenook. (The entrance hall is on the far right of the first photo). It's quite a large open space, with built in seating, in a kind of L-shape leading into a small dining area.

lounge area

dining area

This whole area just felt lovely to be in.

We walked through to the dining area and then out into a kind of mini-hallway, to the left of the 2nd of the pictures above. This had the most glorious pantry area, complete with a hatch for passing food through into the dining area.

pantry outside dining area

I just adore this... you really can't beat a well-crafted built-in cabinet.

We then walked across the hall (which you could also reach directly from the front entrance area) to the more formal dining room. This was quite dark because the windows were so high up, to block the view of next door, but it had a lovely skylight positioned right over the table.

formal dining room

Except, it's not a skylight! It is wrought ironwork, with japanese paper behind it and lamps above. Apparently before dinner parties, Frank Lloyd Wright used to unscrew it and prop up some branches in there, so it gave the effect of being a skylight with the shadows of trees! It's a very clever idea.

After a brief peek into the kitchen we then went upstairs. The first room we saw was the children's bedroom, which started out as one big room and as the family grew it got divided in half... except he kept the top part open. Our guide, who'd interviewed several of his children, said that during the day the mattresses were kept in cupboards along one wall and only rolled out (japanese style) at night, with the girls on one side and boys on the other. Of course the inevitable mayhem ensued of the kids throwing things over the wall to each other etc!

Nowadays, the dividing wall is still there but it's set up as part office, part single bedroom.

kids bedroom

After that, we moved onto the master bedroom. The thing that I liked here was the attention to detail. The same chain that is in the mural painting is reflected in the shape of the hanging lights, and so on. I like the oak, but I don't like the shape of the roof... it reminds me of a barn!

master bedroom

This house was special when it was built for having the 'modcon's. In fact, when it was built it was before electricity, but as he knew it was coming he planned in for it. Heating wise, he apparently bought the steam from a factory 10 miles away and piped it in...except that a lot of the heat got lost enroute so it didn't work too well, but it was a valient attempt! But most amazing of all, it had indoor bathroom plumbing!

This is the bathroom, not bad even by today's standards:


What I found most interesting about this was the way he positioned the window... it looks into the alcove behind the sink, so you get a sense of natural light but with absolute privacy.

The other bedroom on this floor was the South bedroom, most notable to me for having the built-in radiator cover benches. I also likedthe lowered ceiling with the small windows marking the drop.

south bedroom

But the piece de resistance, and the room that the Louvre most wanted, was the children's playroom. This has a giant barrel ceiling and windows designed deliberately to be a children's height. The mural over the fireplace was chosen to reflect one of the Ali Baba stories, which the kids nominated as their favourite.


At the opposite end of the room from the fireplace is a little stage area, where the kids could play and give concert recitals. There is a grand piano built in under this but it apparently sounds dreadfully muffled. Overall, it seems pretty formal for a playroom, but it has a nice spirit to it and I love all the oak.

playroom (other end)

From there, our tour moved from the family part of the house over to the studio extension. On our way out we passed through a hallway that appeared to have a tree growing through it! Nowadays it is just a fake effect, but apparently in the beginning it really was a tree branch. The problem was though that it killed the tree, because part of its trunk was inside the house and getting heated, it put out buds too early and was killed by the winter. I really like the idea of making your house feel part of nature by having it seem like a tree is growing through it... I'd love to do this at Amherst in the study, perhaps, but I'd make it a much bigger branch!

hallway with tree

This is the entrance hall to his studio:

studio entrance

Although I don't care much for the patterns here, what I took from this is the notion of stained glass rooflights! It gives a lovely soft lighting effect.

At one end of the studio is his office, where he used to sell ideas to clients. This is a really nice room and quite practical even given it's odd shape. By having the windows up high he used all the walls for cupboards and corkboards, to pin out plans. I can imagine it was quite an impressive environment for selling.

octagonal study

Our guide said that during it's days as a rooming house, this office was split into two with one part being a bathroom! It's hard to imagine how odd that must have felt.

At the other end of the studio area is the split level space where all his employees worked - draftsmen, craftsmen working on particular furniture pieces, whatever. Notice the chains especially... they are integral to the stability of the building, by providing the force that holds the octagonal shape together.

drafting room

The things that look like pillars on the ground floor are actually specially designed cupboards, where plans were stored. They were on casters so the room could be rearranged easily. There was also a big safe in one wall, that wasn't for valuables but instead for keeping plans to protect them from fire.

And that's the end of the tour.

Overall, I found it far more fascinating than I'd expected, and there were a couple of ideas (fake skylights, stained glass roof windows) that might even come in handy at Amherst!

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