The Wright stuff
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. • visitoakpark.com/wright-homes • flwright.org • ehfop.org
Laura Gale House in Oak Park, left; Children’s Playroom at Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, above