A view from the balcony

Wright legacy year events kick off with public viewing

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Writer

Two important anniversaries take place in 2014 for Oak Park's Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio. First is the 125th anniversary of Wright's iconic home. In 1889, he borrowed $5,000 from boss Louis Sullivan to build his home at the corner of Forest and Chicago avenues (in 1898, he also added the famed studio onto his home). 

This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust (originally the Wright Home & Studio Foundation), which was founded in 1974 to restore the Home & Studio. 

Kicking off its "legacy year," the Wright Trust plans to open a part of the Studio — the balcony — to tours for the first time in its history.

Trust curator David Bagnall noted that the balcony was an important part of the Studio during Wright's use of the building. 

"The balcony really helps to tell the story of Wright's Studio," Bagnall explained. "Contrary to some people's opinion, Wright was not a lone genius. He had many architects and artists who worked in the Studio with him. With the opening of the octagonal balcony, which looked down on the architects' drafting tables below, we have expanded the story we tell of the Studio. We've installed an interpretative display in the balcony to describe the atmosphere of what it was like to work there, while also exploring the others who worked there with him." 


Building an architectural community

Wright worked from his Oak Park Studio for only 11 years, 1898 until 1909, but those years were some of his most prolific, producing more than one third of his life's work. During those years, Wright cemented his vision for American architecture by developing the Prairie Style of architecture.

He surrounded himself with talented architects, draftsmen and artists, all of whom contributed to the creative environment. According to the Trust, surviving documentation of the years in the Oak Park Studio indicate that the environment contributed much to the success of Wright's works, with employees engaging in spirited discussions and critiques of each other's work on art, architecture and politics.

The master was joined in his studio by many notable architects and artists, including William Drummond, Charles E. White, Francis Byrne, Richard Bock, George Mann Niedecken, Orlando Giannini and Isabel Roberts. Marion Mahony, the first practicing female architect in Illinois, worked for Wright from before he opened his Studio until it closed in 1909. She eventually married fellow architect, William Burley Griffin, who also worked in the Studio.

Bagnall notes that an exhibit in the newly-opened balcony will highlight the significance of Mahony and Griffin. 

"The two of them acted as a sounding board to Wright," Bagnall said. "Working with them, he came up with the design for the Robie House. They were quite accomplished in their own right. Griffin worked on Prairie designs himself, and in 1907, Mahony and Griffin won a competition to design the town of Canberra, Australia. It was the largest project to come out of the studio. Although Wright later designed plans for cities, his plans were never realized."

Artists also utilized the balcony space and were a critical part of the creative environment in the studio. Richard Bock, an architectural sculptor (creator of the Horse Show fountain at the entrance to Scoville Park, Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street), met Wright while working for Louis Sullivan. Later, Bock worked from the balcony of the studio, creating the sculptures for the architect's Oak Park home. Orlando Giannini, an art glass maker who fabricated many of the art glass windows from Wright's designs also worked in the balcony.

Opening the balcony

Although the space was restored along with the rest of the Home & Studio in the 1980s, Bagnall pointed out that it was not quite indicative of its original state. 

"Several staff members of the Trust had office space up there, but it was not open to the public," he said.

For some time after Wright left Oak Park, the Studio was converted to apartments. One of the tenants was Charles MacArthur, the writer, who co-wrote The Front Page with Ben Hecht.

For the past two years, the Trust worked to clear out the space and restore it to more closely resemble its early feel. On Friday April 4, they will begin to open the balcony on the first and last tours of the day. At 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., guests can take an extension of the Home & Studio Interior Guided Tour, with an Inside the Studio look at the balcony. A members opening preview will be held the night before. 

Legacy year events

After kicking off the celebration on April 4, the Legacy Year festivities continue with this year's All Wright Housewalk and ragtime benefit concert on the weekend of May 17-18. All of the homes on this year's housewalk will be Wright designs and all designed in the Home & Studio, the first time in over 10 years that the Trust has had an all-Wright walk. The ragtime concert celebrating the music of the studio's era will take place on Saturday May 17 at 7 and 8:30 p.m. at Oak Park's Unity Temple.

On June 17, 40 years after the founding of the Trust as a nonprofit, the Trust will hold their Founders Day celebration to honor the Trust's original volunteers as well as current volunteers and introducing the new Legacy Society.

July 17 marks 40 years to the day that the Home & Studio opened for tours. To recognize the occasion, on July 17, 18 and 19, the Home & Studio will be open free of charge to residents of Oak Park and River Forest. During these days, the backyard will feature a display on the restoration of the Home & Studio as well as history of the Trust.

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