Thursday, September 24, 2015

Frank Lloyd Wright's First Home


Frank Lloyd Wright’s First Home


Frank Lloyd Wright used his home in Oak Park, Ill., as a laboratory for exploring innovations that caused a revolution in architecture.

with Carla Anderson


     What a special treat it was for us to visit the Frank Lloyd Wright House and Studio in Oak Park, Ill. The town has a historic district with a major collection of buildings designed by America’s most-famous architect.

     Wright lived in Oak Park for almost 20 years between 1889, when at the age of 23 he first built the home, and 1909. It was the birthplace of his architectural philosophy and of many of his design concepts. He lived here with his first wife and their six children and worked constantly on modifying the house and studio, both now restored as they appeared in 1909. Throughout his life, his homes evolved as he used them as laboratories for exploring innovations that caused a revolution in architecture.

     Our volunteer guide was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Wright’s work, but we found it interesting he talked only about Wright’s life during the time he lived here and mentioned nothing about his flamboyant attitude, affairs, other marriages or later work. The guide ended his spiel with no explanation of why Wright left his wife in 1909. Because we give talks on Wright, we were aware of the scandal caused when Wright left his debts behind and fled to Europe with Mama Borthwick Cheney, who was said to be the love of his life. Later, another source suggested that guides were encouraged to keep the focus on Wright’s life at Oak Park.

     When Wright began his work, wealthy people had a mindset that a house should look like a typical Victorian mansion. Wright had different ideas, and slowly others began to see his work had advantages over the old style. Our guide was very knowledgeable about the different innovations in the house. Victorian mansions were typically placed in front of the yard, and Wright’s house and studio are placed some distance back. They have a whole different use of windows for lighting, and the interior has much open space flowing easily from room to room. In a Wright home, there is never a parlor, a room in the past only opened for visitors, but instead there’s a game room for the kids and parties. He also designed the furniture, some of which looked uncomfortable. One innovation was a bench that doubled as storage for kids’ toys.

     Some innovations were strange. For example, a piano was built under the staircase so the steps had to be lifted to allow the music to be heard. Some rooms are small, keeping with Wright’s philosophy that buildings are for people and should be intimate. Our tour group of 16 pretty well filled the rooms.

      His ideas appealed to some of his neighbors, who began to use him as their architect, and this got him into trouble with his boss in Chicago. Wright was fired for moonlighting.

     His studio is a wonder with its beautiful rooms and use of wood and light. It was hard to imagine something this modern was designed in 1889. He had a private entrance from the house. Originally, his studio was open to the street, but so many people wandered by and tried to enter that he put up a wall.

     The streets in this area of Oak Park are filled with old Victorian houses with Wright-designed houses liberally distributed among them. We will tell you about them in our next column.




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