I call 2017 my year of Wright for in November I had the opportunity to head out to Chicago to where it all began – 951 Chicago Avenue in Oak Park, Illinois.
Frank Lloyd Wright purchased the property and built the home in 1889 with a $5,000 loan from his employer Louis Sullivan. It was to be his primary residence and studio until 1909 when he left his first wife Catherine for Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of an Oak Park client.
The original 1889 structure consisted of a relatively small Queen Anne style house (the gabled roof can be seen in the image below). It was extensively remodeled in 1895, when among other changes, the kitchen was enlarged and converted to a dining room, the upstairs nursery was expanded and converted for use as Catherine’s dayroom, and the children’s playroom and a new kitchen were added to the back of the house
We’ll start with the studio and connecting corridor, added in 1898.
By 1898, Wright was a fairly established architect. With a majority of his projects at the time in Oak Park or neighboring River Forest, Wright relocated his practice to his home. in 1898 in order to bring his work and family lives closer.
The wall leading to the entrance of the studio was made of Chicago common brick, skinnier than Roman brick, chosen mostly due to its inexpensive cost. Wright’s friend and collaborator, Richard Bock, designed much of the sculptures, including the two hunched boulder figures flanking the entrance.
Bock also designed the capitals on the exterior loggia of the studio with images signifying the tree of life, the book of knowledge, an architecture scroll, and two storks full of wisdom and fertility.
Also of interest is the fact there was no direct entrance to the main doorway, hidden behind the exterior wall and loggia and placed perpendicular to the building.
Inside, the client waiting area exuded a quiet, solemn power and authority. Drawing were displayed fro potential clients to peruse while they waited to meet with Mr. Wright.
At the end of the corridor, to the right, a doorway led to Wright’s office (also accessible from the drafting room).
Lighting posed a conundrum, which was eventually solved by strategically placing an opening in the back wall behind the Wright’s desk to allow for light to stream into the room from the windows while hiding the stairs leading to the basement restroom accessible from the waiting room from view.
The floor plan below gives a better sense of the layout and the problem it posed.
The drafting room was a brightly-lit two-storied space; and marked one of Wright’s first experiments with innovative structure.
Revolutionary at the time, the open floor plan allowed for “thinking space” and enhanced collaboration. Specially designed cabinets were carefully placed to psychologically break up the room and create a sense of private space allowing for focused activity.
As the space was designed with a free-standing dome ceiling, a system of chained weights had to be put in place to balance second floor hanging balcony, from which a visitor could observe the buzz and hum of the working studio, and prevent it from collapsing inwards.
A door at the intersection of the drafting room and Wright’s office led to a connecting ally with the main house.
And no, your eyes are not playing tricks – that is (or rather was) a living tree which had been incorporated into the design for the new studio addition.
Wright designed the main entrance of the original family house in 1889 to face south so his second-floor studio with its row of large airy windows would get the benefit of the full sunlight throughout the day.
Coming in from the entrance, a cozy inglenook sits off to the right with a sunrise fireplace and words carved by Wright himself.
Wright would later write in his autobiography “I had carved in the oak slab above the fireplace in the living room, “Truth is Life!” A challenge to sentimentality, I though. Soon after if occurred to me that Life is Ruth. And I could not make it say what I really meant. It was done.”
The living room is the only room in the house that remains today as it was in the original 1889 home. A continuous flow of natural light would filter through the two bay windows throughout the day with one facing south, the other west.
For the dining room, Wright specially designed the high cathedral-back chairs and inland ceiling light to create a “room within a room” for a more intimate dining experience overall. Frosted windows are placed high on the far wall to allow for natural light, yet still retain a sense of privacy.
Also on display in the house is Wright’s use of compression and release – a philosophy that he would continuously explore, perfect and use to dramatic effect. In this case, a constrictive, dark hallway opens to the children’s playroom, flooded with light.
The large graceful mural is painted by Orlando Giannini and depicts a scene from one of the children’s’ favorite stories, Arabian Nights. It being November when we visited, the Christmas tree was set-up in its ceremoniously spot int eh center of the room and the stockings hung up over the fireplace as they would have been in Wright’s time.
Looking up, one sees the intricately designed skylight windows with stylized flora and fauna, found also all other window panes through house. Sadly no records detailing the designs, but it is believed to be of plants and flowers native to the Wisconsin woods where Wright grew up.
Looking back toward the hallway, there is a raised upper gallery that the children used as a play area and stage. Set into the wall is a grand piano…
…which overhangs into the staircase in the back leading down to the first floor. Wright wasn’t willing to compromise on sound nor aesthetics, and so he opted for a bit of ingenuity instead.