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Street Scene with Getaway Guys and FLW House

PRAIRIE PROPHET
Frank Lloyd Wright and Oak Park

getaway-chicago logoNeil and Alan had visited the Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Oak Park, Illinois in the past, but this time they were in Oak Park as the Getaway Guys. Of the many, many people around the world familiar with Mr. Wright’s work, there are those who are ardent admirers of the man and his legacy and those who think he was a bit of a scalawag. Very likely America’s best known architect (1869-1959), everyone seems to have an opinion one way or the other! As for the Getaway Guys, Neil finds many aspects of his work quite interesting and Alan isn’t overly nuts about a lot of it. Regardless, a trip to Oak Park, IL and this architect’s home and studio (1889-1909), at 951 Chicago Avenue, is well worth the time and the price of admission. flw1The guided tour the Guys took was a little cheek-by-jowl (the spaces are small and the tour groups are tightly scheduled) and was geared toward anecdotal tidbits about Mr. Wright’s family life more than the Guys anticipated. Both expected a more in-depth discourse about the overall influence of Mr. Wright’s architecture. However, their guide was well-informed and an engaging speaker. In addition to the obvious visual attributes of the Home and Studio, the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust Research Center maintains an archive of more than 20,000 visual resources available to the public and scholars at no charge. The Home and Studio is host to about 90,000 visitors each year.

Despite his third or fourth visit in 20 years, Neil had forgotten the significance of this particular Wright structure. As illustrated by the tour, the Home and Studio encapsulates Mr. Wright’s early evolution as an architect of revolutionary domestic space. From a rather typical early 20th century shingle dwelling with fussy interior embellishments, the tour begins to encounter Wright nuances more in keeping with his signature innovations.  Neil and Alan (not the first people to notice) commented on the smallness of everything for which there seems to be a billion different reasons (everything from Mr. Wright’s small stature to his supposed belief in womb-like enclosures).

flw2With or without Mr. Wright, Oak Park is a pretty interesting place anyway. Although Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Kettlestrings (sounds like a name made up by either Dickens or W.C. Fields) are credited with being the first permanent settlers (on 172 acres) in 1837, Oak Park wasn’t officially incorporated until 1902 or 13 years after Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW) moved to town. Until then it was a part of Cicero Township. Its development from rural back water to a Chicago suburb is attributable to the construction of the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad (1850) and the supposed desire of more affluent home owners to put some distance between themselves and the City of Chicago following the fire of 1871.

If you like Wright-inspired stuff, Prairie School do-dads and Arts and Crafts reproductions, the Gift Shop & Bookstore at the Home & Studio is a place to check out. It is well stocked with quality merchandise and a very nice selection of books about FLW and related material about The Prairie School and The Arts and Crafts Movement. The Gift Shop & Book Store occupies what once was Mr. Wright’s garage and is accessible without having to take a tour of the Home and Studio. Coincidently, while visiting the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana, Neil and Alan saw a very snappy, restored Auburn roadster once owned by Mr. Wright. Snappy enough to ponder “just how groovy was this guy?”

flw3There are organized architecture walking tours of Oak Park, but the Guys chose to stroll along Forest Avenue and take in the various Wright residences at their own pace. The mixing of late 19th century Victorian and Queen Anne residences with early 20th century Wright structures raises some interesting questions and maybe some imaginative answers as well. The presence of radically different design elements along Forest Avenue struck the Guys as funny. They imagined staid avenue residents complaining about “those Bolsheviks” with their weird houses.

In addition to Mr. Wright’s “native son” stature in Oak Park, there’s that other guy, Ernest Hemmingway (1899-1961) who’s memorialized by his birthplace over at 339 N. Oak Park Avenue, and Museum at 200 N. Oak Park Avenue. The creator of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) lived in Oak Park for a long time and the modern dance practitioner, Doris Humphrey (1895-1958) was born there, as were the comedians Bob Newhart (1929- ) and Betty White (1921- ). A visitor not already fatigued by the residual presences of Wright and Hemmingway, could embark on an extensive architectural walking tour of Oak Park-River Forest where something in the vicinity of 63 structures by various well known architects (FLW included) can be viewed. flw4The works of George Maher, William Drummond, John Van Bergen, Vernon Watson and Thomas Tallmadge (to name several) are well documented. While walking, looking and enjoying themselves it occurred to the Getaway Guys that Oak Park, IL has tastefully turned residential architecture into a cottage industry

Lunch in Oak Park proved to be more of a challenge than looking at architecture. One or two interesting places beckoned, but weren’t open until dinner time. A recommended bistro named for a famous writer proved to be disappointing. During their second foray into Oak Park, the Guys went to Winberie’s on the main drag. The atmosphere was neutral, but service was good, the food plentiful and the price very reasonable.

For directions, go to www.wrightplus.org. November 2007

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