The Wright stuff

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE -

Strolling the streets of the pros­per­ous Chicago sub­urb of Oak Park, I imag­ine a scene from late 1899, with a prom­i­nent ar­chi­tect on an in­spec­tion of his projects greet­ing a neigh­bour with a pram.

“That’s a healthy-look­ing young chap you have there, Mrs Hem­ing­way,” prof­fers the ar­chi­tect. “Well, thank you, Mr Wright,” replies the young mother. “Yes, Ernest does seem to have a prodi­gious ap­petite.”

Ernest Hem­ing­way went on to feed that ap­petite — for wars, wives and booze — af­ter leav­ing his child­hood home, which is still there, at 339 North Oak Park Av­enue, and it’s the kind of Queen Anne-style house, with tur­rets, gables and fret­work, that Frank Lloyd Wright, who lived just around the cor­ner, spent much of his time in Oak Park tear­ing down for rich clients, re­plac­ing the build­ings with the Prairie style that launched his em­i­nent ca­reer.

Wright was 22 when he came to Oak Park, a 30-minute train ride from down­town Chicago, in 1889, build­ing his first home there and estab­lish­ing a stu­dio to sup­ple­ment his city of­fice. And he found a ready mar­ket among his neigh­bours for his “bold, sim­ple ar­chi­tec­ture, un­fet­tered by his­tor­i­cal Euro­pean styles”, de­scribed by the Wright Trust as “mid­dle-class Amer­i­can men of busi­ness with un­spoiled in­stincts and ideals”.

Th­ese clients, for the most part, let Wright have his way. Just a few min­utes on foot south on For­est Av­enue from the Wright Home and Stu­dio on the cor­ner of Chicago Av­enue takes you past half a dozen strik­ing ex­am­ples of the Wright style. At No 210 is the Frank Thomas House (1901), re­garded by Wright as his first foray into Prairie style proper, for the way it flares out­wards, “open­ing like a flower to the sky”. The style matured at the house he built the fol­low­ing year for banker Arthur B. Heurt­ley at No 318, with its con­trast­ing colours of brick and re­ver­sal of tra­di­tional style by plac­ing the main rooms on the up­per floor.

Sev­eral other For­est Av­enue homes — Copeland (No 400), Beachy (No 238) and Hills-De­caro (No 313) — are ren­o­va­tions of ex­ist­ing houses but with that ob­vi­ous Wright trait of strong hor­i­zon­tal ge­om­e­try.

Turn into El­iz­a­beth Court off For­est Av­enue and there’s a sense of deja vu about No 6, the Laura Gale House. It’s a mod­est stucco and wood dwelling but the can­tilevered roof and bal­conies led Wright, on re­flec­tion, to call it the “pro­gen­i­tor of Falling­wa­ter”, the mas­ter­piece he de­signed in Penn­syl­va­nia 25 years later.

There are about a dozen other sig­nif­i­cant Wright homes in Oak Park but on the self-guided au­dio tours from the Wright Home and Stu­dio, all gen­er­ally must be ad­mired from the out­side only. To get in­side Wright, as it were, there is a tour of the Home and Stu­dio in­te­ri­ors. It’s a slightly odd ex­pe­ri­ence as most res­i­dences are dec­o­rated in stages, us­ing many eras and in­flu­ences, and not ev­ery­thing is meant to go to­gether. In here, it’s all a bit too per­fect.

Wright de­scribed Oak Park as a place with “so many churches for so many good peo­ple to go to”. The one he cre­ated, Unity Tem­ple on Lake Street, was his paean to con­crete, solid and al­most im­pen­e­tra­ble. But the in­te­rior is a rev­e­la­tion, geo­met­ric and pre­cise, and where no seat is more than 15m from the pul­pit. Wright said this com­mis­sion made him re­alise he needed to de­sign space not walls, and it’s earned the la­bel of the world’s first “mod­ern” build­ing.

In 1909, not long af­ter com­plet­ing Unity Tem­ple, Wright left his wife and four chil­dren to be with his mis­tress Mamah Cheney (a for­mer Oak Park neigh­bour) in Europe. The sub­urb hung on to Ernest Hem­ing­way for an­other eight years, un­til he an­swered his first call of war and be­came an am­bu­lance driver in France. Be­sides the child­hood home, he’s re­mem­bered with the Hem­ing­way Mu­seum fur­ther down Oak Park Av­enue, full of let­ters, pho­tos and arte­facts. Then maybe take a long lunch across the street at Hem­ming­way’s (sic) Bistro (no doubt a copy­right lawyer tweaked the spell­ing), housed in the sort of tra­di­tional brick build­ing that no re­spectable ar­chi­tect in his “Wright” mind would have coun­te­nanced. • vis­i­toak­ • •

Laura Gale House in Oak Park, left; Chil­dren’s Play­room at Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Stu­dio, above

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