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Forty years old is fairly young for a house, particularly in Oak Park where many of our homes hit 100-plus. However, in terms of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home (& Studio), 40 is significant. That's the age of the Wright Preservation Trust.
This new year marks a milestone, says Celeste Adams, CEO/president. Seventeen is also a significant number. May 17 is the 40th Wright Plus Housewalk; June 17 is the nonprofit organization's Founder's Day; and July 17 marks the day in 1974 when the Home & Studio opened for its first tour.
And there is one other happy coincidence — the 1889 Home & Studio at 951 Chicago Ave. celebrates 125 architecturally significant years.
"Our 40th anniversary is the beginning of the next generation of the Trust and a way to celebrate all those who have made it what we are today," Adams says.
And what they have made it over the last four decades is … bigger. In fact, just in the past three years, she says, the Trust has grown to oversee five Frank Lloyd Wright touring/education/restoration sites in the Chicago area.
"The Home & Studio is the oldest Frank Lloyd Wright site in the world, and is now a museum," Adams says. "For me, all this represents 40 years of welcoming new friends and talent to the Trust and building with each passing year on the talents of the wonderful volunteers who are already there. We have just launched a new website, flwright.org, and are doing more things with technology, so I hope, like Frank Lloyd Wright, we're able to capture the attention of a younger audience and continue to inspire all people with these wonderful, original sites."
It started on a tour bus
The mighty grass roots movement that sparked this positive change in Oak Park's fortunes began in 1972, during a Historical Society bus tour excursion attended by a group of passionate architects, local history buffs and determined community activists.
"Elsie Jacobsen got to talking about trying to take back [the Home & Studio] building because at the time it was for sale," recalls John Thorpe, a local preservation architect and a founding member and former president of the Home & Studio Foundation (now the Preservation Trust).
Back then, Mrs. Clyde Nooker, whose husband had owned the structure since the 1940s, was looking for a buyer. They were Wright's clients, circa 1956, for a remodeling of the office, library, kitchen and bath and had opened part of the building to the public since 1966 for tours.
"Clyde died and Charlotte put it on the market around 1972," Thorpe says. "Around that time, she went to a big-shot realtor in town, Arthur Rubloff, and he told her it was worth $400,000. Nobody could deal with that."
Undeterred, a group of community activists formed the "Committee to Purchase the Building," which by 1974 solidified and swelled into a core group of more than 100 individuals, representing a range of interests — from the Landmarks Commission to the manager and trustees of the village of Oak Park, neighbors, a lawyer, architects, local banks, the Oak Park Development Corporation (OPDC), and representatives from the Oak Park Chamber of Commerce and the Park District Oak Park.
And, as momentum grew, more influential people joined in with the goal of creating a Wright space for public access: "State senators and reps, realtors, the business community, state of Illinois, as well as National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Park Service, HUD block grants, etc, etc." says Thorpe.
Believing he might have some influence on Mrs. Nooker, Thorpe, who was living then in Lincoln Park, was tapped in 1974 "because I had met Mrs. Nooker through the Architectural Foundation Walking Tour, which I led, so it was thought that I was one of the people who would be able to convince her [to lower the sales price]."
The final price tag, he recalls, was $174,000, but it was Art Replogle, the executive director of the newly formed Oak Park Development Corporation, who negotiated the final offer.
"He brought a wrist corsage to Mrs. Nooker because he thought that would work. She accepted the corsage and we had a deal."
With the property sold to OPDC, members of the coalition stepped up to fill out the first board of directors of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation.
"We consider that first board of directors and our first volunteers as the founders," Thorpe says.
All Wright now
Now they needed to raise some money, and fundraising began with the "Ten by Wright" concept, which was conceived by Elsie Jacobsen in 1974 and began in May of 1975.
Thorpe notes that the late great Jacobsen was known as the "tour lady" of Oak Park because she developed several bus tours and festivals.
"So Elsie asks us, 'What if we have a Ten by Wright house tour, with 10 houses built by Frank Lloyd Wright open to the public in May, during National Preservation Week, to help pay the final costs of buying the building?'" Thorpe recalls. "Well, we had money coming in from various sources, but there was still a gap, so Elsie's contribution, one of many, was that idea. Elsie was an amazing person who just decided she could do this."
The early 70s were turbulent times Oak Park, a battle between fair housing and red-lining as the village sought to integrate racially in a stable manner.
"That means we were considered 'iffy' in the real estate market," Thorpe says.
To counteract that and encourage new economic development here, he adds, in 1974, the Home & Studio Foundation formed, along with OPDC, the Oak Park pedestrian mall on Lake Street, and the Landmarks Commission, which established the Frank Lloyd Wright National and Local Historic Districts, including the designation of the Home & Studio as a National Historic Landmark
"The Oak Park Housing Center [formed in 1972], the Home & Studio Foundation, the Oak Park Tourism Center and Visitors Center with the bus, walking and Unity Temple tours, all helped turn around red-lining in the1970s, and sent Oak Park forward," Thorpe says.
"Everyone in the community wanted to help, whether it was a nickel or whatever they could give. We used to call it 'an Oak Park kind of thing to do,' which meant everyone got behind it. That was 1974."