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.
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.

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