This year was a milestone year for the Frank Lloyd Wright House Walk Tour in Oak Park Illinois. It was the 125th anniversary of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio and the 40th anniversary of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust.
I had always wanted to attend a FLW House Walking Tour but never thought I would make it to Chicago to do so. Chicago was a scary big city, expensive to get to (it’s actually cheaper for me to fly to the east coast than to Chicago) and I was positive no one would want to spend an entire day traipsing though a bunch of FLW homes with me.
And then I had this realization – I didn’t need someone to traipse through the FLW homes with me. I could traipse through by myself. And so I tossed aside my fears of the big city and the cost and purchased a single ticket for the walking tour 8 months in advance. Apparently the tickets sell out well in advance and since I’m a “Nervous Nelly” I purchased them within a few weeks of them going on sale in October the year prior.
Fast forward 8 months and it was finally the day of the All Wright House Walk. I took the train from Chicago out to Oak Park and followed the other fellow Wright fans to the FLW Home and Studio. This was the “command center” for the event. I was able to bag check my backpack here, which I was grateful for the opportunity to drop off my heavy backpack for the day.
I was handed a map and a ticket that would grant me access into all 8 Wright homes in the Oak Park area and The Unity Temple Church. The ticket also included entry to the Frederick C Robie House and Rookery Building as well as a Sunday only entry to the Isidore H Heller House. I was lucky enough to get to the Robie House and The Rookery earlier in the weekend, but unfortunately I was not able to get to the Heller House as my flight out of Chicago left early Sunday morning.
As I left the “command center” I walked around the corner and got in line for the FLW Home and Studio tour. I was shocked as I was the only person in line for the tour. How could I be the first in line? Then I was informed by the docent that I had made a “rookie mistake”. The Home and Studio is open all the time, so why waste my time touring a home that is open all the time whereas the other 7 homes on the tour were only open for today’s viewing. I took the docent’s advice and left the Home and Studio behind.
As I walked down the street I soon realized this was no joke. The lines to get into the houses were long… really long. After I reached the end of the line for one of the three houses on that street I came to understand that I was probably not going to see all the homes in one day.
As I travel alone it often attracts strangers who talk to me (and yes I know about stranger danger – so no need to cover that). The married couple in line in front of me struck up conversation with me and I found out that they lived in the Oak Park area. The wife was a former volunteer for this event and gave me some great incite to the event. While speaking with her I learned that typically the annual tours consist of a few FLW houses sprinkled among other homes designed by prominent architects in the Chicago area. As it was the 125th anniversary the foundation had secured all Wright homes for the event, hence the “all Wright tour”. Although I do appreciate other architects I was quite pleased that I had the opportunity to view so many Wright homes.
The first house that I toured was the Arthur B Heurtley House. This home was built in 1902 and at one time was owned by Wright’s sister, Jane Porter. It is an impressive example of Wright’s Prairie Style. The home also included a Japanese inspired guest house that had been added on by the current owners, which I felt paid homage to Wright in a way as he was heavily influenced by Japanese artwork and architecture in his career.
The next home I toured was the Peter A Beachy House. This home’s design was considered to be inspired by Wright’s visit to Japan in 1905. This house also used red clinker brick, which obtained its color from being overheated during firing. They were considered burnt but Wright found them desirable.
The Hills-Decaro House was the last on the block open for viewing. The line was long but gave me the opportunity to view another Wright home that was not open for viewing that day, the Moore-Dugal house. This was Wright’s first independent commission in Oak Park. This house reminded me more of his earlier work before he got into the prairie style.
The Hills-Decaro House was again assumed to be influenced by Wright’s visit to Japan in 1905. This home had a devastating fire in 1976 that demolished most of the house except for the first floor along with the blueprints drawn by Wright. The house was rebuilt and renamed, which was uncommon as the house name traditionally remained as the original owner.
At this point in the day I was starving and had blisters on my feet that was making walking uncomfortable. The blisters had formed from the days of walking in Chicago and getting lost. The walking around to the different Wright homes did not help either, so I decided to take a break. I took the provided trolley to the main hub of Oak Park to grabbed a quick bite to eat and some blister packs from the local pharmacy. After I bandaged myself up and stuffed my face I headed over to the Unity Temple. I knew that the Unity Temple was open all the time but how often am I in Chicago? Not often as this was the first time in 33 years.
The Unity Temple was an example of Wright’s concrete phase, which is my least favorite style. He may have accomplished a lot by pushing the boundaries of using concrete but to me it is cold and un-Wright like. He used this style a lot in California, which I will still tour the homes of California but they are not my favorites. It was the only building of the day that I could take interior photos of, so I have a few more snap shots to share with you!
I returned back to the walking tour for my next house, the William E Martin House. This house not only has an impressive amount of leaded art glass but also multiple step roofs which gives the house an interesting visual appeal. This house was also where I realized I may be getting burned out on touring Wright homes. In a period of 5 days I had toured 7 structures. Now I love Wright don’t get me wrong but I think it was the repetition of information, such as his compression and release theory, repeated over and over that started to gnaw at me. And for those of you who do not know what compression and release is, as you entered a Wright designed home the entry way’s ceiling would often be lower than the room Wright intended you to spend your time in. The lower ceiling encouraged you to move out of the entry way into the main room as fast as possible. It was genius, but after hearing it 7 times I thought to myself “yeah, yeah I got it”.
I decided in my current condition I would tour the Home and Studio. Regardless of it being open “all the time” I would have been super annoyed if I did not tour Wright’s home after I had come all the way from Idaho. It is also an important part of history and a home of someone I admire. His home was interesting to me as it was not a typical Wright designed home. The home is beautiful, but I much prefer Wright’s prairie style over his early work. Looking at this home I do not see Wright, which is ironic as this was his home… for a few years until he built Taliesin in Wisconsin. I can appreciate however that this is where he designed many of my favorite homes: the Darwin Martin House, the Frederick C Robie House and the Dana-Thomas House (which I have yet to visit the Dana-Thomas house, but it is high on my list!)
It was now the end of the day. I had heard rumor that if you were in line for a house by 5pm that they would let tour the house. I stood on the street and contemplated what I should do. My feet hurt, it was hard to walk and I had overdosed on Wright theories. I decided to skip the last two homes. It’s blasphemy I know as I am a Wright fan but I could not physically do it. Maybe if I was more of a fan… maybe if I didn’t have horrible blisters on my feet I could have made it… maybe I should have muscled through. Maybe! But I can tell you that the tours were awesome even if I did get burned out at the end. It is after all unbelievable that people allow you to walk through their personal homes, allowing you to see a functioning masterpiece.
I will say that the people of Oak Park, regardless of owning a Wright home or not, are very house proud and the neighborhood is filled with stunningly beautiful homes that anyone should admire regardless of who designed them.