One of my favorite books that I have read this year was a historical fiction novel titled Loving Frank by Nancy Horan. The book is about a scandalous love affair that Frank Lloyd Wright had with one of his clients which began in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. This book was a page turner and when I came to the end I was stunned and found myself googling Wright and his client Mamah Borthwick Cheney, wanting to know the true history of this couple. Upon my search I also learned that I could visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio, so I made plans to add a vacation day to my October business trip in Chicago in order to see first hand where the torrid love affair began.
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio
Frank Lloyd Wright lived in his Oak Park home with his wife Catherine and their six children from 1889 to 1909. In 1898 he added a studio which became his workplace for the first twenty years of his career.
The only way to explore the home and studio is by guided tour. I purchased my ticket to the 10 am tour in the gift shop and noticed several architecture students roaming around, so I thought I would be on a crowded tour. Surprisingly, the students were already finished with their tour and I found myself with one other visitor who was from Germany, so the two of us embarked on what turned out to be a private tour. The gentleman that guided the tour shared many stories about Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style architecture and geometric design. In fact, pure geometric form existed throughout the home and was evident in the triangle gable, circular fireplace arch, circular veranda and octagonal bays.
In the playroom there was a set of wooden building blocks that the young Frank played with as a child. It was interesting to learn how these simple geometric blocks influenced his career. On a side note, next to the building blocks developed by Friedrich Frobel (who also created Kindergarten) there was a set of Lincoln Logs that were later invented by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son John Lloyd Wright in 1916. I love historical tidbits!
The architect was also known for his love of open spaces and nature which is obvious the minute you walk through the front door. One of my favorite rooms was the open living room with an arch fireplace in a nook and built-in seating along the perimeter. Above the fireplace was an inscription, “Truth is Life” which Horan described in the book when the Cheney’s visited the Wrights at their home for dinner.
I was also taken with the beautiful windows throughout the home that “let nature in”. Each one was unique in their own way. I loved the stain glass and built-ins found in room after room and it gave me ideas for my home office and I am now considering ringing my carpenter Bob to find out about possibly installing built-in bookcases and a desk under my office window.
Wright’s studio consisted of a large two-story drafting room for himself and his associates, his office, an office for his secretary, and a beautiful reception area that had an amazing abstract glass skylight. Along with his associates, he designed over 125 structures including the Robie House and Unity Temple. One story that was passed along by the tour guide that I thought was interesting was about Marion Mahony. She was the first employee hired by Wright and became the world’s first woman to be officially licensed as an architect. She actually finished some of Wright’s homes after he sold his practice in 1909.
Walking tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District
The world’s largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright designed homes and buildings are in Oak Park. With a map of the neighborhood and my headset I set out for a twenty stop audio tour. All of the homes were private homes and I thought about how cool it was for the owners to live in a historic home. Some of the houses were his famous Prairie style and others were Victorian. The tour took me about an hour and I enjoyed every minute walking around the fall foliage on an unseasonably 70 degrees day.
Mamah Cheney’s house was not on the walking tour, but it was easy to find being only seven blocks from Wright’s home. The brick wall in front of the home for privacy was exactly as I pictured it, but for some reason I didn’t picture the entire home being made of bricks.
The Rookery is located in Chicago’s financial district. The original architects were Daniel Burnham and John Roots and it was the most expensive and largest commercial building when completed in 1888. Frank Lloyd Wright rented space in the Rookery Building to serve as his downtown office. In 1905 Wright was commissioned to update the interior design of the lobbies since the elaborate ironwork had gone out of style. Wright’s design included geometric patterns prismatic glass and white marble which can be seen today.
I am fascinated with the life of Frank Lloyd Wright thanks to reading Loving Frank and the day I spent in Oak Park. I picked up brochure when I was in the gift shop about visiting Taliesin which was his home with Mamah in Spring Green, Wisconsin. I would love to visit what has been described as “the greatest single building in America” and it is now on my bucket list. With no trips to Wisconsin on the horizon though, I might just have to settle on a closer Wright design, which for me would be the Guggenheim Museum in NYC. It is known to be Wright’s most recognizable masterpiece and a trip to cylindrical building would hardly be “settling”. Looks like a day-trip into the city is in order. Will I see you there?