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Illinois town has a Frank Lloyd Wright mother lode

By Don Babwin
Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012, 9:20 p.m.

OAK PARK, Ill. — Frank Lloyd Wright's legacy is so strong in the 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.

Some 80,000 people tour Wright's Oak Park home and studio each year, 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,” says 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, Samuelson says. The historian says 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,” Samuelson says.

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,” Samuelson says. 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.

For example, he liked the finer things in life but often strung merchants along when they came after him for payment. And when he moved to Oak Park, he borrowed money to buy a house from his boss at the time, famed architect Louis Sullivan. Sullivan lent him the money on condition that he not do any side jobs. Wright agreed but secretly “bootlegged” houses around town.

“He'd sign an architect friend's name on necessary permits or documents so Sullivan wouldn't notice,” Samuelson says.

Wright also got tongues wagging when he ran off with the wife of another client, leaving his wife and kids in his house and his mother in the house next door.

At the same time, Wright was kind. He supported Sullivan for well over a decade when the older man fell on hard times late in life, the guide said.

Maybe the best story about how Wright's work and personality came together is the one told at the end of the house tour in what was his office.

Wright's houses tended to have leaky roofs, at least partly because Wright asked contractors to build houses unlike anything they'd built or even seen before. But Wright didn't seem much bothered by it, whether the owners blamed him or not. When people would call to complain, “There's water leaking on my desk,” Wright, as the story goes, would simply advise them to move the desk.

Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Tour: 951 Chicago Ave., Oak Park, Ill., or 312-994-4000

Don Babwin is a staff writer for the Associated Press.

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