One thing I’ve recently appreciated from afar besides James Norton from the TV series “Grantchester” or Beagles on the internet is architecture. I’ve always loved gothic cathedrals and enjoyed finding a mix of Victorian style buildings with modern designs in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, but I never fully understood the thought and meaning behind architecture until one man. No, I’m not talking about the architecture of Chris Hemsworth’s chiseled abs, I’m talking about renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. After my visit to Fallingwater, I was impressed by his combination of architecture with nature and finding every way to tie natural elements into his designs. Once I learned I would be in Chicago, I knew Frank Lloyd Wright would be at the top of my list, and luckily for me there were plenty of sites to see. If you want to see how nature can influence design and see the thought behind the architectural framework and plans, then follow me on a journey with Frank Lloyd Wright to Chicago, Illinois and Racine, Wisconsin.
Rookery Light Court
Located in Chicago’s financial district, the Rookery Light Court was constructed after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 when the Brooks Brothers purchased the lot and commissioned Daniel H. Burnham and John Wellborn Root to design the structure. Root took an innovative approach of using load-bearing masonry walls and interior metal framing. Known as “Grillage Foundation,” this method helped disperse the vertical weight of structural columns into a horizontal plane. The design also incorporated a light well built into the ceiling with offices constructed around it to let light shine from outside through the ceiling. Eventually the building was renovated in 1905 by Frank Lloyd Wright who incorporated his own vision and with Burnham and Root’s intentions. A combination of Moorish, Romanesque, Indian, Venetian, Arabian, Islamic and Byzantine influences are what immediately caught and held my attention to this commercial space. Climbing stairways and peering up into circular staircases, I felt as though I was glancing into the past while being surrounded by gold décor along the stairways and elegant lighting.
Under the guidance of architect Louis Sullivan of Adler & Sullivan, the Charnley-Persky House shows the beginning of Frank Lloyd Wright’s pursuits to develop a form that would be specifically an American style. Sullivan’s design encompasses modern ideas and the search for a true American architecture, with oval and horizontal designs and shapes throughout the house in the windows, door frames, railings and bookshelves. But Sullivan didn’t solely consider design, he also considered practicality. Upon opening the front door, I was led into a small hallway where another inside front door resided. It may sound unreasonable to have two front doors, but knowing the infamous harsh winters in Chicago would be inevitable, the design incorporates a hallway that can block people from letting wind and cold into the house when they enter. The inner front door itself is a feature to behold after learning that the carving in the wood was actually done first and then the piece was sanded down to fit the doorway and allow the carving to protrude from the surface. These ideas into functionality and the desire to discover an American style of architecture are the guiding principles behind Frank Lloyd Wright’s future designs.
Frederick C. Robie House
Located near the University of Chicago, the Frederick C. Robie House’s design showcases Wright’s innovations that led to modernism. In his desire to develop an American style of architecture, all elements of the Frederick C. Robie House are horizontal to reflect the prairies of Illinois. Everything from the bricks being placed so only the horizontal mortar is seen by making the vertical lines flush and covered to match the brick to embedding the chimney in the center of the design to work in harmony with the horizontal elements are considered in order to make this home flat like the Illinois landscape. Walking through the elegant interior features and peering out the windows from the wide and open living room to the gothic style buildings at the University of Chicago humors me to think how much Wright disliked Gothic architecture. It’s not because he didn’t care for it, but because he thought it should be in the past and in Europe, not in 20th century American architecture. Leaving the house to the iron garage gates makes me see the point he was trying to make. Architecture from the past is elegant and beautiful, but it doesn’t fit the style of America, a country on the search for a new way of life and living.
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio
Nestled in the charming neighborhood Oak Park, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio gives a glimpse into the mind of this determined and talented architect. The home was made with Japanese influence and respect to Sullivan, Lloyd’s mentor. Elements of nature are prevalent throughout the house as lights designed to represent a lotus and stained glass in the studio ceiling represent light coming in through the leaves. One aspect of Wright that I admire is his dislike of basements and attics. His reasoning for this is that he felt they were places where people stored junk and felt it was demeaning to have the hired help live in the attic and work in the basement. He probably wouldn’t like the fact that I’m currently storing my belongings in my parents’ basement as I reconfigure my temporary living conditions. After learning bits about Wright’s personal life it seems it was not without conflict and constant relocation, so perhaps he might not disapprove as much as it would seem.
SC Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower and Wingspread
With the help of the Chicago Architectural Biennial, I headed north to Racine, Wisconsin to explore Wright designed SC Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower along with Herbert Fisk Johnson, Jr.’s home, Wingspread. Family-owned and run business for five generations, SC Johnson has also had family leaders known for commitments to respecting the environment. As Johnson says, “We should not worry about whether we have lived up to the expectations of our fathers but whether we as fathers have lived up to the expectations of our children.” It seems Wright understood this principle in this design of the Administration Building and Research Tower, but it wasn’t without a few shortcomings. Ahead of his time, Wright’s buildings unfortunately struggled with leaking and Research Tower scientists complained of strange piping connections and wanted sunglasses for the harsh light. Looking up at the ceiling of glass tubing in the Great Workroom, it’s clear to see Wright was ahead of his time, and thankfully a few of these problems were eventually resolved in the future as technology caught up with silicon caulking to seal the spaces in between the tubing that could expand and contract with the extreme changes in the Wisconsin weather. Eventually fabric shades were also installed in 2011, combating harsh glare from the sun. What stands out in the Great Workroom are the tree-shaped Dendriform columns that have a base with a nine inch diameter and a top of 18½ feet. Originally there was great concern that the base would not be able to support enough weight, but testing the columns overnight with weight and no cracks the next morning, the worry was alleviated.
Although Wright and Johnson’s relationship had tension in the beginning, it’s clear Johnson valued Wright’s work to not only build his company’s workspace, but also his own home, Wingspread. Wandering through the long hallways and open living areas, it’s easy to see Wright’s influence as he thought of open spaces for family activity and it’s amusing to see his forethought of a table that slides in and out of the wall for the hired help to pull the table in and change the table setting for the next course. Even though it wasn’t the best idea in practice, it’s an example of Wright’s forethought in all of his designs.
While Wright’s designs can be found throughout the United States, it’s here in Chicago and the mid-west where the spirit of his work began and resides. I plan on seeing plenty more of this architect and I’m eager to think that where his work began is where my journey started as well. Although a Hollywood movie star may be glamourous and perfectly structured, Wright’s architecture is just as every bit impressive because it’s just as fascinating up close and personal as it is from a distance.
Hours and Locations:
Rookery Light Court: 209 S. LaSalle Street, Chicago, Tour Hours: Monday-Friday, Noon.
Charnley-Persky House: 1365 N. Astor Street, Chicago, Tour Hours: Wednesday, Noon, Saturday (April-October) 10am and Noon (November-March) Noon.
Frederick C. Robie House: 5757 S. Woodlawn Avenue, Chicago, Tour Hours: Thursday-Monday 11am-3pm, Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio: 951 Chicago Avenue, Oak Park, Tour Hours: Daily 11am-4pm, Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and two weeks in Jan-Feb.
SC Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower: 1525 Howe Street, Racine, Wisconsin, Tour Hours: Year-round, reservations required.
Sites I Missed:
Emil Bach House: 7415 N. Sheridan Road, Chicago, Tour Hours: Wed-Thursday (May-Mid October) 11am-3pm.
Unity Temple: 875 Lake Street, Oak Park, Tour Hours: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday 9am-3pm, Saturday 9am-1pm. Currently closed for restoration.
This post is a part of Monday Escapes hosted by My Travel Monkey and Packing My Suitcase, The Weekly Postcard hosted by Travel Notes and Beyond, A Hole in My Shoe, As We Saw It, Selim Family Raasta, and Eff It, I’m on Holiday, Our Beautiful World, Travel Tuesday hosted by Bonnie Rose, and ABC Wednesday.