Saturday, September 12, 2015

24 hours in Chicago, Part 1 of 2

Halfway through my month away in Madison, I invited Dear Husband to meet me “halfway,” in Oak Park, so we could spend a day together. After fueling myself (with triple-chocolate Super Premium “Badger Blast” ice cream from the famous Babcock Hall Dairy Store) and the car (it had to settle for unleaded gasoline), I hit the road with all the other Friday evening rush-hour traffic. A long 2.5 hours later, I pulled into a parking lot in Westchester, a suburb of O’Hare International airport. DH had arrived that afternoon, having taken an Amtrak train, the Pink Line Metro, a CTA bus, and a mile-long hike back to the hotel after missing his stop. Dinner was Panera.

 The next morning after a leisurely breakfast that involved competing for the sole waffle-maker with half a dozen other guests, we checked out and headed to Oak Park. First stop: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio, where I had purchased a photograph pass in addition to tour tickets. The original five-room house was completed in 1889, when the area was still largely prairie. It already has some elements of his later prairie style, like an off-set entrance, built-in furniture, and earth tones. In the entranceway you see nods to Greco-Roman art and culture in the form of a Venus de Milo statue and a bas-relief near the ceiling (left).

The central brick fireplace (right) can be enclosed to create “a room within a room”—but there are cut-outs on the short axes and near the ceiling to allow light, air, and sight-lines to pass through. I am a big fan of the window seats with their mint-green cushions (below).

The brick floor of the formal dining room (below) hints at its original purpose: as the house’s kitchen. The walls are covered by cloth and feature special windows. Check out the intricate wooden stencil covering the light fixture! If the house wasn’t originally wired for electricity, it was by the time FLW did the first remodeling in 1895. He pushed out the back and one side of the house, adding extra space on the ground and second floors.

Typical straight-backed wooden chairs in the dining room. Lovely custom windows in the recesses. 

Upstairs, FLW’s original studio was divided to allow the two girls to sleep on one side and two of the four boys on the other. Our tour guide Nikki explained that the barn-like interior in this part of the house harks back to FLW’s childhood growing up on a farm.

The master bedroom has been painstakingly restored, with FLW-designed furniture, gold stenciling, and stylized murals of Native Americans high on two walls. The doors and windows to what used to be a large balcony are supposed to form the shape of an open, unfolded kimono for a little Japonisme. (Appropriate ALL the cultures!) The tear-drop lights on chains are original, having been discovered during the remodeling.

The bathroom’s wide horizontal paneling reminds me of a cabin in the woods in Maine. Apparently the Wright children wished their bathroom had more fashionable (and hygienic!) tile.

Catherine’s room has one of the few original pieces of furniture in the house, the nineteenth-century cradle that rocked generations of Tobins and Wrights.

The children’s playroom with its high, arched ceiling makes up for the small size of their bedrooms. There are built-in cabinets and drawers, window recesses with beautiful stained glass, a small organ, and a baby grand piano. That’s just the keyboard you can see—FLW cut a hole in the wall and cantilevered the sound board over the spiral staircase behind! I didn’t get a photo, but there is a sign on it now that says “watch your head.”

In 1898, FLW added a much more architecturally daring studio to the property. You can see that already from the outside, with the "Atlas" figures on either side and several unique crane details made out of plaster and painted to look like bronze. The entrance way is hidden behind this portico.


The waiting room features my favorite stained glass, in the ceiling light fixture below, and a back wall painted gold. Apparently Wright thought he was important enough that he deserved a gold wall.

The studio itself is remarkable for the outside walls bearing all the weight of the multi-story structure, with the help of the chains you see (left). The octagonal library is an intimate space for reading or drawing up plans (right).

This is the second Frank Lloyd Wright tour we have taken; a few years ago we drove out to Taliesin while visiting Madison; and later we stopped by Fallingwater. We wanted to see Unity Temple during this trip, but it is currently shrouded for major renovations. Instead, we made pilgrimage to Ernest Hemingway's museum and birth house. Read about that here.   

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