He was born in 1867. In 1887 at the age of 20 and with $7.00 in his pocket, he moved to Chicago to become an architect. He went on to become one of the greatest architects in the world. His name: Frank Lincoln Lloyd Wright. Growing up in Oak Park, I was surrounded by many Prairie Style homes. As a young child, I had the opportunity to visit some of his homes, owned by some of my mom’s friends. Many years later, my wife and I took a tour of his Home and Studio in Oak Park. While it seemed bland compared to many of his Prairie Style homes (Fallingwater, Robie House, Meyer May House, Wingspread, Dana Thomas House, Zimmerman House), it was where he lived and worked. There was a certain charm in it. At the end of the tour, the interpreter remarked that “If you liked the tour and would like to give tours, you can sign up to be an interpreter.” My wife and I both signed up on the spot.
After several months of training, we began giving tours. I had been through the house as a child and was not very impressed. It certainly is not a Prairie Style Home, although it contains many Prairie Style elements. After going through the training and having spent one weekend a month for a couple of years giving tours, it has become one of my favorite Frank Lloyd Wright homes. The original house was constantly being remodeled and expanded as his family grew and his design philosophy became more refined. He used his house as a laboratory; testing out his new theories along the way. The many classical elements in the entry way evolve to more Prairie Style elements as you move throughout the house.
Even from its beginnings, the house broke from its Victorian neighbors. The house is set back from the street, nestled into the landscape rather than thrust upon it. The roof is incorporated into the second floor rather than sitting atop the house like a hat on the adjacent Victorian houses. The first floor has large rooms flowing one into another with no clear distinctions rather than the small, boxed rooms indicative of the Victorian homes of the time. The windows are positioned towards the corner of the room, arranged to break the box of traditional rooms. The second floor windows are clustered into a long ribbon, which will become a Prairie element. The fireplace, being an integral part of the home, is placed in the center of the house, rather than on an outside wall. It becomes the heart, or hearth, of the house. The leaded glass windows throughout showcase original Wright designs and vary from simple geometric patterns in the living room, to his own lotus blossom motif in the dining room, to colored glass in the upstairs rooms to the most intricate stained glass piece in any of his homes located in the studio foyer. On the second floor, Mr. Wright built a large playroom for his children. This room features a large fireplace, a large vaulted ceiling with an intricate wood carved prickly ash pattern lay light and a balcony. Mr. Wright wanted a piano in the room, which could only be a grand piano. Not wanting to take up valuable play space, Mr. Wright cut a hole in the wall, cut off the back legs, and recessed the piano over the back stairs. There is also a mural on the wall by Charles Corwin depicting “The Fisherman and the Genie” from the Arabian Nights, a favorite of Mr. Wrights and his children.
Over time, Mr. Wright added his Studio to his house. There are two sculptures outside the studio by Richard Bock – Boulder Man that features a man crouching and breaking free from the ground beneath him. This is to symbolize mankind struggling from the ground to transcend earthly bonds. The stork capitals that adorn the columns outside the studio represent Mr. Wright’s mission statement. There are images showing the tree of life, the book of knowledge, an architectural scroll, and two storks representing wisdom and fertility. Inside the studio, the two story space housed the drafstmen on the first floor and the artisans on the balcony. The structure is exposed, which is an example of Mr. Wrights honesty in architecture. An octagonal chain circles the roof and holds the walls in (creating a compression ring) like the ring in a cathedral dome. Chains hanging down from the octagonal chains support the balcony so no columns need support the balcony. There is also a central fireplace that was usually lit, providing a focal point and warmth for the studio. It was in the studio that Frank Lloyd Wright and his apprentices perfected the Prairie Style and produced one quarter of his life’s work (125 structures) in the 20 years he lived there. Mr. Wright wanted his work to be viewed slowly so one could take in all of his great design and notice the details. He though his architecture should be a “path to discovery” and he often hid his entrances and did not offer a direct route into the buildings. In 1909, Mr. Wright left Oak Park, traveling to Europe and never returned to live in the Home and Studio again. He died in 1959 at the age of 72. Thankfully, the home and studio was taken over by the FLW Trust in 1974 after it had undergone several renovations. At one time, it was (7) separate apartments. The Trust launched a massive 3.5 million dollar renovation to bring it back to the way it was in 1909 when Mr. Wright left. There are many more details and stories contained within the house and studio. With every trip through the house, new details are seen and one can begin to sense the design process working and evolving over time.
Written by our FLW expert: Rob Oppenborn