Oak Park — ground zero for Frank Lloyd Wright

By Michael Raffety 7-15-13

Nowhere can one find as many Frank Lloyd Wright homes in one location as Oak Park. I counted 34 on the Frank Lloyd Wright map of Oak Park and River Forest. Two of those 34 were interior remodelings.

Setting up shop in Oak Park proved to be a good location for the 22-year-old associate of the architectural firm of Dankmar Adler & Louis Sullivan. With a five-year contract as an 1889 wedding present from Sullivan, Wright also obtained a $5,000 loan from Sullivan to buy a home in Oak Park at the corner of Michigan and Forest avenues.

It was a Queen Ann-style house, but as he remodeled it and added to it, one could see the evolution of his architectural style. The kitchen was moved and in its place was an enlarged dining room lit with a semicircle of windows with Wright’s signature craftsman-style stained glass windows. The lower level of windows were filled in when someone built a house next door.

The front entry to the original home featured a low ceiling and stairs to the second floor. Stepping out from the entry took one into the living room with a higher ceiling. From the second floor a low arched hallway must be traversed before opening up to a high barrel-vaulted room that is the children’s playroom.

This room is always featured in photos of the interior of Wright’s Oak Park home. Neither my wife nor I have liked it. It always looked old and peculiar in photos we’ve seen. But seeing it in person changed our perspective on it dramatically. What is never noticed in photos is that the room is flanked by two rectangular boxed-out window seats that flood the room with light. There are small windows on the side and a skylight decorated with Wright’s stained glass. In the rear corner of the room is a grand piano with one leg protruding into the stairway below. Above and behind the piano are theater bench seats for the audience to watch a child’s performance.

Other rooms, such as the master bedroom, feature high ceilings by moving the ceiling into the attic space.

To earn extra money, Wright started “moonlighting,” eventually designing nine homes in his neighborhood. When Sullivan found out about it in 1893, that was the end of Wright’s employment with Adler & Sullivan, though Sullivan withheld the deed to his house until the five-year contract period was up. Adler sent him the deed not too long afterward anyway.

Wright just added an architectural studio on to the side of his house. It was big enough to employ a team of architects and draftsmen and a secretary in another room.

When we arrived to tour Wright’s Oak Park studio and home, we parked on Forest Lane. After completing the tour we wandered down Forest Lane and were just knocked over by the houses Wright designed on that street. One was kind a strange cross between French alpine and a Germanic-Swedish country house. It clearly had Wright’s key design features, including the central fireplace, overhangs, limestone flower bowls on the stairs and a balustrade that was a decorative way to fence off the corner.

Another house was a three-story crafstman-style house that was absolutely Wrightian — including the flower bowls on the entrance stair columns, interior fireplace, gutterless downspouts and overhangs.

But the real crown jewels of Forest Lane were two brick homes that moved his design closer to what others would come to call his “prairie style” designs. These were huge homes. One with an arched entry was built in 1902. It included long horizontal window space on the second story and a sheltered porch on the side made private by a long brick fence.

Another large brick and stucco three-story house built in 1906 had a huge veranda on the side.

Each home was a unique design, but one you would clearly expect only from Wright.

They both remained architecturally stunning more than 110 years later.

Many homeowners remain devoted to the Victorian homes prevalent in Oak Park. One such homeowner who was part of our tour group in Wright’s home-studio appeared to get faint or overcome with the heat even though it was a mild day. Someone else was called to lead her out to sit in the shade outside. Our suspicion was she was too Victorian clingy and was repulsed by Wright’s interior designs.

As we wandered around other streets in search of one of Wright’s true prairie style houses six blocks away we noticed that many of the craftsman homes had made some modifications and styling changes to appear more like a Wright style home. His influence continues to have an effect on Oak Park.

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