Frank Lloyd Wright and Survey Serendipity

Second Empire, Solomon Thatcher House

Second Empire, Solomon Thatcher House

I’ve spent most of my adult life living in Oak Park, Illinois, that well-known Chicago suburb celebrated for being the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway and the home of that other distinguished gentleman, Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed a number of his Prairie School homes and buildings in the community during the first couple of decades of his illustrious career.  I love living in Oak Park for many reasons but I admit that being able to walk among Wright’s significant works here, such as his Home and Studio and Unity Temple, among many of his early gems, is a real treat for an architecture fanatic like myself.  When I give tours of Oak Park to visiting relatives and friends, they notice the glee exuding from my face when I explain to them how Unity Temple is not just your ordinary poured concrete church edifice.

But unbeknownst to many of my friends, my favorite Frank Lloyd Wright house is not even in Oak Park – it’s in adjacent River Forest, which developed alongside Oak Park from the 1880s to the 1940s.  It’s the William Winslow House, constructed in 1893 and Wright’s first independent commission after he left Louis Sullivan’s architecture practice the year before.  And it’s a stunning house at that and path-breaking for the time when Victorian and other traditional architecture was the norm for both Oak Park and River Forest.  The House’s broad eave lines, use of Roman brick and its distinguishing horizontality contrasted greatly from the gables and ornament that characterized nearby Queen Anne and Italianate residences.  Its somewhat modern look would inform Wright’s later Prairie Style work, as well as inspire a generation of other Prairies School architects that practiced throughout Oak Park and River Forest, the Chicago area and the Midwest.

Well, my life-long fascination with Frank Lloyd Wright turned to outright bliss when in early 2012, The Lakota Group was awarded the contract to conduct a village-wide architectural survey for the Village of River Forest, which, surprisingly, despite having the Winslow House and a significant collection of important Victorian, Prairie, and Revival homes, had yet to conduct a complete and comprehensive survey of its historic resources.  To me, receiving the work was a bit of serendipitous luck: having lived next to River Forest and admiring the community’s architecture for so long, I never thought I would have the opportunity in my preservation career to actually survey and document Wright’s work, particularly the Winslow House!  However, beyond my own excitement in receiving the work, the survey project is also quite important to the village, especially in identifying other architecturally significant properties–ones that are not only associated with Wright and his followers, but also with other architects and builders that contributed to making what most Chicago-area people readily know about River Forest: a distinctive suburban enclave of high-style mansions and country houses set within a lush landscape of mature trees and expansive lawns.  It is also the Village’s goal to consider future preservation measures for its significant historic resources, which again, surprisingly, has yet to enact a strong preservation ordinance.

The survey project itself documented 2,900 plus properties within the entire village of River Forest and took more than five months to complete by a four-person survey team–yours truly; Jean Guarino, an architectural historian who helped conduct background research; Douglas Gilbert, AIA, a preservation architect; and Michael “Petey” Peterson, a Lakota intern and graduate student in landscape architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology.  Doug assisted in the field survey work and Petey was the mastermind behind the development of a customized survey software program we used with Apple iPad’s to document all the properties in the field.  Essentially, with Petey’s software and the iPad, we conducted a “virtual,” “paperless” survey, which otherwise would have been quite challenging if we used back-in-the-day pencil and paper.  Coincidentally, Jean and Doug are both Oak Parkers too.

Rather than go into the details of the survey project and its findings (which you can do by going to this website: www.thelakotagroup.com/riverforest/), we thought showing some images of the homes and buildings we surveyed would spark your interest in River Forest’s architecture.  I discovered through this months-long survey project that River Forest’s architecture is more than just the Prairie School, as it encompasses an incredibly diverse range of architectural styles and building forms–from the Carpenter Gothic, Colonial Revival and the Mid-Century Modern, to the ubiquitous bungalow to the low-slung Ranch home.  I never knew there was more to River Forest than the Winslow House.  Having lived next to River Forest for so long, I guess I need to get out more–it is truly a treasure of a place.  Enjoy they photos!

For those of you in the Chicago area who want to know about the River Forest survey project, our team will speaking at the monthly Landmarks Illinois Snapshot Lecture on May 16 at the Chicago Cultural Center. For more information, contact Landmarks Illinois at 312-922-8112.

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About Nick Kalogeresis, AICP

Planner, preservationist, urbanist, architectural historian, practicing Celtic musician, lover of great of places - all-around good guy. Currently works for the Lakota Group in Chicago, Illinois.

4 comments

  1. David Schure

    Nick,

    Nice report on your fabulous experience.

    David

  2. Peg Becker

    Nick, that is a great article. My family lived there ages ago and it brought back some,great memories. Thanks so much. Peg

  3. Susan Dorris

    You have the coolest job in the world, Nick!

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