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Frank Lloyd Wright mother lode in Illinois town

Associated Press Modified: September 19, 2012 at 3:01 pm •  Published: September 19, 2012

OAK PARK, Ill. (AP) — Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, but Frank Lloyd Wright lives here.

Wright died in 1959, two years before Hemingway, but the famous architect's legacy is so strong in this village west of Chicago that he seems to be part of the present. Home to more than two dozen Wright structures, including a church, two stables and a fountain, Oak Park boasts the largest collection of Wright-designed sites in the world. Wright lived in Oak Park for the first 20 years of his career, between 1889 and 1909, developing Prairie style architecture in a studio there. In contrast, Hemingway couldn't wait to leave, reportedly disparaging it as a place of "wide lawns and narrow minds." (The future novelist left at age 18 to become a reporter for the Kansas City Star.)

Some 80,000 people tour Wright's Oak Park home and studio each year (and about 10,000 visit the Hemingway sites) but visitors can also get a sense of Wright's impact just by strolling up and down the streets. In addition to the homes he built, his designs are incorporated into everything from windows to mailboxes to lamps at scores of houses the architect had nothing to do with. This village of 52,000 is a living testament to his influence.

That's part of why visiting Wright's home and studio is such a treat: A chance to see where the person responsible for it all lived, worked and created. "This is like a creative lab," said Tim Samuelson, Chicago's cultural historian and a member of the advisory board of the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust.

As guides lead visitors through the house, often past furniture that Wright built, they explain Wright's use of space: how he not only controlled room size, which every architect does, but also influenced how big or small the rooms felt to people inside them.

For example, the drafting room looks even bigger than it is, a guide explains, because of a small passageway that opens up into the room, creating a bit of an illusion about the size. And where did he get that idea? The pyramids of Egypt employ the same trick.

In another room, the playroom, Wright cut a hole in the wall and shoved much of a piano into it, so that the keys of the piano are in the room and the rest of it hangs above a stairwell in space that wasn't being used for anything anyway.

Then there's Wright's attention to what occupies all that space: Light.

"Whenever he got a job he'd look at the site and see how the light fell" at different times of day, said Samuelson. Samuelson said he almost hates to take a picture in a Wright home because he knows the photograph will not do justice to how different the home looks from season to season and even from hour to hour.

"He thought of those things," said Samuelson.

And while Wright didn't spend a lot of time consulting clients about where this wall or that room would go, he did have a sense of what they would like.

"He had happy first clients, the houses fit them like a glove," said Samuelson. Of course, someone as eccentric as Wright, who famously strode about with a cape over his shoulders and a cane in his hand, tended to attract clients who appreciated Wright's sensibilities.

Wright also understood in the early years of the 20th century that the automobile wasn't a passing fad and that he'd better design his houses to cope with shining headlights and noisy engines.

Listen, the tour guide says, pointing to one of Oak Park's busiest streets, just outside Wright's window. The columns outside are not just decorative; they absorb noise, rendering near-silence.

But what really makes a tour of Wright's home and community fun — especially for those who don't know much about architecture — is that it brings a man who has been dead for more than a half century back to life as a neighbor, businessman, father and husband, without whitewashing his flaws.

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