Chicago 2018 – The Wright Tour

I was pretty happy to book a room with a fully equipped kitchen. I Googled grocery stores and found a Target not too far away, in what turned out to be the Sulivan Center – the original Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. Building, dating to 1899, that I had taken photos of the last night. I think it must be the most ornate Target store in the world, with its glass rotunda and a cast iron facade (designed by L.H. Sullivan) covering the face of the store for the entire block. It even has a marque! I buy eggs and vegies for omelettes, and coffee. I’ll save time and money by eating breakfasts in-suite this week.

I hop the “L” to Oak Park. What a marvel the L is – a mostly elevated system which has greatly expanded since the first line (The South Side Rapid Transit) was built in 1892, and which efficiently services much of Chicago. I hop off and walk past a corner where there’s a wall of love locks (like the ones I saw in Florence). These commemorate a birthday celebration for Hemingway, who also lived and worked in Oak Park. I walk past the Hemingway Museum but it’s not open yet. The area is well planted and fragrant and in the mist-laden morning, makes for a very pleasant walk about. I wander around the various shops and neighborhoods before taking a right turn to head towards 951 Chicago Avenue.

Hemingway’s neighborhood

Our tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio is led by Daniel, who has lived here since he was 4 years old. He spoke briefly about the Arts & Crafts movement, and the globalization, mechanization, and urbanization that would bring major changes to Chicago during the 19th century, when it was the fifth largest city in the US.

Wright built his Oak Park home in 1889 and expanded it to include a workspace (The Studio) in 1898. He worked and lived here until a marital scandal drove him out of Chicago in 1909. His next project was the Taliesin House in Wisconsin. The home was restored to how it existed in 1909, taking 13 years to complete, at a cost of $3.5 million, 80 different design firms and more than 200,000 volunteer hours. More about Frank Lloyd Wright’s works can be found at flwright.org

One of the first things you see upon entering is the Englenook fire room – a small central fireplace surrounded by pew-style benches, which Wright described as “the hearth at the heart of the home’. It served a more emotional than functional need, as the home has central heating.

Electricity was brought into the home in 1891, but the light fixtures were 15 watts. I think a kerosene lamp puts out more light than that…

Wright concentrated on light and space rather than structure. I admired the lotus patterned glass in the dining room, and the diamond-patterned glass on the exterior windows which allowed light to come in but offered enough visual distortion from the outside of the building to provide privacy.

The dining room has walls upholstered with artist’s linen that had been dyed brown. The ceiling light is thought to be the first use of recessed, indirect lighting. The grillwork in this ceiling light is stylized oak branches and leaves, and is the same size as the dining room table below. The chairs were very high straight backs which formed a sort of ‘room within a room’ when everyone was seated. Wright designed most of the furniture for his homes, and what he called “spacial opportunity” was more important to him than comfort.

There was neither attic nor basement in this home, the gamboled and gabled top opened into his drafting room.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Studio was a two story octagon. The top story is a mezzanine that looks down onto the drafting floor and was sometimes used by artists as a design space for glass and sculpture projects, although I don’t recall seeing any tables here.

The chains support the mezzanine floor and remove the need for structural columns. They also form a tension ring that pulls in the roof beams and upper walls. Our guide said that a similar system was used for the Duomo in Florence.

It was in this studio that Wright developed his signature Prairie style architecture, and he used this home as a testing ground. His son John used to throw things from the mezzanine, down onto the draftsmen’s tables.

Wright’s wife Catherine, had a personal space on the top floor as well, the only room on that floor that did not have a gabled ceiling. I noted the sewing machine here, and her citizenship certificate in a frame on the wall.

The six Wright children also had their own room – with a barrel vaulted ceiling 18 feet high, lit by a skylight and including a loft at one end. There are cases of books and toys here, and the family played a variety of musical instruments here, including a baby grand piano, whose end is punched through a wall and suspended over a staircase (which you have to duck to avoid) because Wright thought the piano took up too much room else wise. His son John sand that Wright would bring home helium balloons by the dozen and release them in this room for the children to play with.

I started to notice Celtic motifs, and David mentioned that Wright was Irish (born in Wisconsin, his mother was actually Welsh), and incorporated motifs from the Tree of Life and the Book of Knowledge. I would find Celtic crosses in the stone planters in the garden, which was quite endearing. He also carved Celtic crosses into plaster and painted them to look like bronze. He used a similar technique for the Stork columns shown here:

We took a tour of the neighborhood, and learned that the Prairie Style homes were ‘one story, above a ground basement’. The living space was on the second floor, and the main floor was used for servants quarters and utilitarian rooms like kitchens and store rooms. I have posted these photos as well as additional shots of Wright’s home and studio on Pinterest. You will also a blog dedicated to my favorite design elements, which may end up on my future hats, at August Phoenix Hats.

A separate tour took me through the Unity Temple – built from cast concrete, birds-eye gravel and rebar, with flooring made of magnasite (concrete mixed with magnesium oxide and sawdust) which still holds the imprint of a cat who walked across it before it had set. It was Wright’s first public building, finished in 1909 at a cost of $35,000. Restoration work in 2015 commenced to make the building more stable, at a cost of $25 million. I have posted additional photos of the Unity Temple on Pinterest.

It’s 80+ degrees today. I thought I might succumb to heat stroke but fashioned a turban out of my scarf, which saved my day and elicited favorable comments from passerbys.

I arrive back at the Hemmingway Museum after it has closed, and find the Hemingway House, his birthplace, also closed. Dinner tonight is at the Hemingway Bistro, a French provincial themed restaurant in the bottom of The Write Inn, which opened in 1926 as Oak Park Manor and is now a historic landmark. It’s just down the street from Hemingway’s home, and is where he used to hang out and write.

I was the only customer when I walked in, so I asked Catrina – the barkeep / waitress to whip up something off-menu. Her creation included fresh ginger puree and 3 shots of Stoli “because it’s Monday.” Best Vodka Mule Ever.

I splurge on dinner, a strudel which arrives in a phyllo bag stuffed with mushrooms, spinach, goat cheese and roasted red pepper, tied at the top with a roasted green onion. It was every bit as tasty as it was picturesque. A storm touches down, rain, thunder, lightening, the works – so I’m convinced to tarry awhile longer over coffee and a cheesecake parfait – another off-menu item. Sometimes it pays to be the only customer…

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