Saturday, November 29, 2008

Another Frank Lloyd Wright affair


Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was once the proverbial prophet without honor in Oak Park. Early in his career, Wright showed bad form in skipping town with a client's wife. Last year a writer from Oak Park, Nancy Horan, found the story intriguing enough to imagine it from the woman's perspective. I read her book Loving Frank as my wife and I planned our own intimate association with Wright. We would live in one of his houses, if only for a day or two.

When I first came to Oak Park 30 years ago, Wright was re-emerging from obscurity nearly 20 years after his death. His turn-of-the-century early work were known mostly as the inspiration for the ranch house, and neighbors told me that for a long time his sprawling single-story commissions were viewed as no different from any other home in the comfortable Chicago suburb. Except that local roofers kept patching their leaks.
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But in 1978 the village had seen enough tourism potential in Wright to publish a guidebook to his homes, and a housewalk was organized to show Wright buildings that were on their way to becoming museum pieces. In the local weekly newspaper, the Oak Leaves, I reported with some fascination that "they have color TVs and children and dogs, like other homes." In Oak Park it was easy to buy into the Wright mystique.

In the '70s Wright's architectural office was being restored and opened for tours. That's where volunteer docents told me of the Cheney scandal, which did not involve Haliburton, an energy task force or a quail hunt. Wright built a low-slung rambler of a single-story home on East Avenue for Edwin and Mamah Cheney. Then he left his wife and split with Mamah for Europe, where he would publish a portfolio that influenced the emerging Bauhaus designers. Horan paints the couple as hounded by scandal-mongering press, which struck me as 21st-century embellishment until I read the actual news coverage. In 1909 the Chicago Tribune called the affair "an affinity tangle of character unparalleled even in the checkered history of soul mating."

Oak Park is home to 34 Wright structures, according to the most recent catalog of his homes, plus another 11 in neighboring River Forest. Wright designs had a name, the Prairie School, with carpenter-Gothic examples scattered throughout the Midwest. Wright moved his architectural practice to Wisconsin so I saw a lot of Prairie homes growing up. The Prairie School had a required reading list of Emerson and Thoreau, the better to recognize patterns from nature in his art-glass windows. There was even a typography based on his drawings, which influenced the Oak Park map I drafted for my wedding invitations.

Wright originals were not particularly lucrative for the architect. A running theme of Horan's book was Wright's continuous borrowing to finance a globe-trotting lifestyle and high-profile divorce. The architect made ends meet selling art prints he picked up cheap in Japan. Wright also designed massive wood furniture in the Arts & Crafts style, which in the 1970s was eagerly being bought up by Domino's Pizza baron Thomas Monaghan. Craftsman sofas built like workbenches were an acquired taste, though, and I had found one of its mass-market descendants for my college apartment at the Goodwill shop off campus.

The townhouse Brenda and I bought in Oak Park was across from the Unitarian church Wright designed, and we considered selling postcards to tourists scaling our front porch for a better camera angle. We could imagine living in a Wright house — the oak benches actually were pretty comfortable — but not paying for one. Wright homes now all have million-dollar price tags, even the so-called bootleg houses Wright designed while moonlighting from the Louis Sullivan firm. A Phoenix house he designed for his son is listed for $4 million.

This past March, Brenda spotted a New York Times article about Wright homes available for overnight rental, and was taken with the idea of living in a Wright house, if only for a couple of days.

So we planned a road trip through Pittsburgh to visit Fallingwater, Wright's best known house — a river runs through it. We booked a tour of another Wright curiosity: Kentuck Knob is maintained by the British lord who once owned Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House south of Plano. He lives there only a few weeks a year but keeps Claes Oldenburg sculpture and a piece of the Berlin Wall on the premises.

And we'd stay in a Wright home somewhere off the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Acme, PA. Mapquest could get us to the Dairy Queen in Donegal, where we could call for directions: turn right at Brady's Restaurant, when you see a fork in the road bear right, open the gate yourself and don't kick up too much gravel.

At the end of the rocky road was a ranch house on steroids, very long and low. We parked under the carport and let ourselves in. It was a time trip to the 1950s: a red Formica kitchen with built-in oven; a greatroom with stone fireplace and shag carpeting, and not Wright built-is but House of Teak knockoffs. This wasn't a museum piece, it was Graceland. What had we gotten ourselves into?

Owner Tom Papinchak arrived and filled us in. We had just taken a coals-to-Newcastle trip: Duncan House was built outside Lisle in DuPage County.

Wright's engineer in the 1950s, Marshall Erdman, was one of the early manufacturers of prefabricated homes. Duncan House was a 1957 attempt at a Wright prefab, a ranch house on steroids but modest by Wright standards. The Wright prefabs were a failure: Multiple changes to the stock plans ate up Erdman's profits. Only 11 were built.

Elizabeth Duncan saw the prefabs in a magazine and convinced husband Donald, an electrical engineer, that they could afford a stripped-down version in cinderblock instead of limestone. After Don Duncan died the 2-acre lot was subdivided, and four years ago the house became another DuPage County teardown. It escaped demolition, though. Crews dismantled the house, labeled the parts and packed them on semitrailers for a 500-mile trip East.

There the pieces sat for two years. An attempt to reconstruct the house as a museum ran out of money. (See a pattern emerging?) Papinchak, a contractor in the rebuilding effort, finally bought the warehoused house and spent a year piecing it back together, upgrading to a stone facade in the process.

He rebuilt Duncan House on the grounds of yet another failed Wright project, a subdivision of Wright homes that stalled after the architect's death. This would be the third house, joining two designed by a Wright apprentice. A year after the home was completed, Papinchak's plan to turn the grounds into a conference center appeared to be faltering as well. Catering supplies and gift-shop goodies were packed in the basement.

Secluded it was, but not exactly a resort. We could use the microwave and toaster oven but not the wall oven or range. The mattresses were hard. The wireless connection worked if the computer was docked against the wall. Cabinets were bare but for odd pieces of trimwork, its location labeled in Magic Marker.

Yet, spending time there, it was obvious the architect knew how his homes would be lived in. Thirty years ago, the owner of one of those Oak Park Wrights told me about "a constant play of light through the windows." It kept changing day and night. Learning firsthand what she meant made this an affair to remember.

Monday, November 17, 2008

"Am I Here," He Asks, as City Goes Wild with Frenzy of Joy


Watching Barack and Michelle Obama tonight on "60 Minutes," I'm struck by the pace of events. This spring I could walk past the Obama household on the way to the 57th Street Art Fair. Now in mid-November, the Obamas are laying claim to a much bigger house, with what Michelle slyly calls a really big home office. And after a walk-through with the current occupant, the next tenant is reviewing his closing-day list with Steve Kroft. Obama seems relaxed. Inauguration is two months away, but he's ready to seal the deal now.

Obama's every day seems groundbreaking. As he reviews his agenda for Day 1, Brenda is choking up. "Look," she said, pointing to the screen. "He's the president."

History is usually coming at me from my blind spot. Ten years ago, as database whiz pressed into service as election-night reporter, I had to divide my time among three contenders in a state senate primary race. I spent probably more than I could afford with one of the Bronzeville challengers. I was curious whether he viewed the University of Chicago incumbent as a dilletante. Finally the assignment editor called and said the 13th District was looking like a lock. So I rushed toward Hyde Park, where Jesse Jackson is holding court before a perfunctory acceptance speech from the victor, Barack Obama.

I missed my chance to go one-on-one with the future president. But I'm more in my element as a concerned citizen than a political reporter. And my job makes it easier to take sides in preservation than in politics. When a historic district was proposed for East Village three years ago, I testified in its support. When the city's landmark commission recommended the proposal, I stayed to thank the alderman and a group of commission members. Later I find that table of Daley appointees included the wife of the junior senator from Illinois, Michelle Obama.

So I've covered him, lobbied her. But I keep missing the mano a mano moment. So much for my eye for up-and-comers.

Brenda too had seen Obama only from a crowd. Still, on election night we want to be close to the event. As do a million other people. The scant information available on the Grant Park rally is front-page news. The party seems like an invitation for supporters to spend time camping in line rather than escorting voters to the polls. When Brenda is offered tickets, she put me on notice that I'd be holding her place.

In fact she wraps up canvassing and is queued on Balbo before 3 p.m. on Nov. 4. I stop to bring for sandwiches and Starbucks when Brenda phones. The line is moving! I grab a cab and soon am introducing myself to her new friends, a police lieutenant improvising a series of entry lines, and a pair of student photographers, shooting for publication in Facebook. Brenda makes a break for the bathroom at the Hilton and the line starts moving again. I go through the checkpoint without her, surrendering the sandwiches and Starbucks, and by phone talk her back to my new location, the closed-off intersection of Congress and Columbus.

One of the Facebook photographers asks me, OK, is the press really in the tank for Obama? Well, it's like the pressbox at a ballgame. Of course you have favorites. But, no cheering. This is more like the crowd in the box seats, and everyone is in high spirits showing off their Obama paraphernalia. We wonder how the women with the long jacket covered in campaign buttons is going to get through the metal detectors. And I'm concerned about getting even that far: Beyond the barricades, the police are huddling. Do they know how they'll keep the penned-up crowd from turning into a stampede? One of them peels off and talks us down with a bullhorn. When we move the sawhorses, stay cool and wait for our signal.

Sure enough, there's no mad rush when we're let loose, just a brisk walk to another holding area. Here we get two choices: Turn toward the lake and the concession stands, or toward the stage and get searched. It's dusk and we've only eaten the crackers I managed to get past the first checkpoint, but we're all in. A mass of Secret Service screeners is lined up under a canopy west of Hutchinson Field, and in no time at all we're through their metal detectors.

We're close to the stage, but no closer than I can afford seated at Lyric Opera, and not as close as Oprah will get tonight: a half-dozen rows beyond bunting that marks off the VIP area, behind three press photographers who thought they too should be much closer. A man from the campaign comes through every so often as a courier for their memory cards.

The VIP area extends the width of a football field, marked off by network reviewing stands, rows of press tables under bright lights, and to our left the stage, with a big-screen TV airing scant but encouraging CNN returns. The drama builds despite the network's odd serenade from Hank Williams Jr. and an even more head-scratching in-studio projection of Will.i.am.

CNN teases a big projection at 10. The sound system is cranked up and the network's election theme blares. Then then we see Obama's photo onscreen, and the announcement is drowned in cheers. A couple hugs beside me and my wife covers her mouth and cries. We keep reliving this moment, partly because we're still in the photographers' sights and Brenda's 10:01 p.m. gasp goes out on the Reuters wire.

The crowd's roar seems to continue for hours, quieting only for the victory speech. It's simple, it's commanding, it's everything I missed hearing at close range 10 years ago. Thanks to the TV coverage, you can picture the scene. Bright lights in a dark night, the Chicago skyline framing waves of people, happy to be in Grant Park just then.

The headline is authentic history, borrowed from the Chicago Tribune report of Charles Lindberg's 1927 transcontinental flight. Does election night in Grant Park measure up? I'm no judge of the historic moment. But it was a grand night in Chicago. That's big enough.