Oak Park architect's work lives on

The late John Thorpe's archives donated to Art Institute's Burnham Library

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

The Oak Park architectural world lost one of its biggest champions in 2016, when John Thorpe passed away at the age of 71. Noted for his work in saving Frank Lloyd Wright's Home and Studio in the 1970s, he was one of the founding members of the organization now known as the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust. 

A noted architect in his own right, Thorpe founded his practice in Oak Park in 1984 with a focus on historic restoration work. Over his life, he provided restoration and preservation design services to 55 Wright-designed buildings, including the Home and Studio, Unity Temple, the Arthur Heurtley House and the Frederick C. Robie House. His portfolio also included 68 other Prairie School architect-designed buildings.

After Thorpe's death, his twin brother, Tom, a Colorado-based architect, took it upon himself to find an appropriate home for his brother's work. With drawings and project files for 33 Frank Lloyd Wright projects and 27 projects by other Prairie School architects, the archives consist of approximately 3,000 documents. 

Tom Thorpe and his wife, Kathleen, donated the archives in June 2017 to the Art Institute of Chicago, where they became part of the collection of the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries.

Early influences

Tom Thorpe recalls that it was in the Thorpe blood to participate fully in the architectural wonders of the Chicago area. Along with one older sister, the twins were raised in the northern suburbs by parents who were engaged with the world in which they lived. Tom says they took regular adventure outings around the city on weekends. 

"We called it the architectural interest tour," Tom said. "Our father was an architect, and our mother was an enthusiastic tour-giver, just like my brother became. What stimulated John to become so passionate about architectural preservation and volunteerism? I think it came from our family's background. As kids, we were just interested in buildings and the place of the city."

An early highlight was a 1958 family trip to Taliesin, where the famous Mr. Wright wandered through the drafting room during the tour.

With a successful commercial architecture career with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, John Thorpe grew more and more interested in historic preservation after working as a tour guide in Chicago's Glessner House. 

He started doing walking tours of Wright-designed buildings in Oak Park for the Chicago Architecture Foundation when he sparked a friendship with Charlotte Nooker, who owned the Home and Studio. 

That friendship proved an integral part of negotiations to purchase the Home and Studio. From 1974 to 1987, John Thorpe was part of the team that worked tirelessly to restore the Home and Studio. Thorpe also helped author "The Plan for Restoration and Adaptive Use of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio" in 1978, which became a definitive text on historic restoration.

Tom Thorpe says that the life-changing experience of working on the Home and Studio led his brother to change the focus of his career. 

"It's how his career started evolving," Tom said. "He really liked this kind of work, and he was good at it. He began working on more and more restorations of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings."

Finding a home

Following John's death, Tom and his wife thought a lot about the best way to preserve and share John's archives. 

After considering donating to Taliesin and Columbia University, two institutions with significant Wright collections, Tom Thorpe ultimately decided that the Art Institute was the best home for his brother's records. 

For Tom, it not only meant that many would enjoy access to the archives, but it seemed fitting to keep the archives in the city John loved.

"When we were growing up on our adventure tours, we would go to the Art Institute and really came to appreciate what it was," Tom said. "When I met with Nathaniel Parks at the Art Institute, he said they would not charge for access to the archives and emphasized that the library has a strong research component. 

"My interest was in having my brother's work stay in the Chicago area where there are so many Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. Owners can go to the Art Institute and have full access to the archives. That would please John. That was the perfect fit."

Once the decision was made, Tom Thorpe's work was not done. Parks, the Tigerman McCurry Art and Architecture archivist for the Art Institute's Ryerson and Burnham libraries, said with gifts of this size and nature, it can often take up to three years to fully document the collection. 

Tom Thorpe didn't want people to have to wait that long, so he hired John's former assistant, Myrna Delacruz-Galvez, to help him create a catalogue.

The process of cataloguing and indexing his brother's archives took about a year, but it was time well spent. 

"I wanted to make it available to the public much faster," Tom said. "The idea of open access and popularizing historic preservation was so important to my brother."

The archives have already begun to serve their purpose. Sue Blaine, a volunteer with the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, visited the archive to further her research for this year's Wright Plus house tour, for which she is researching Burnham and Root's Charles Roberts House, which John Thorpe worked on.

She says his documents were invaluable. 

"You can use them to see what's happened to a house over time," Blaine said. "The first thing he did is draw an 'as is' drawing to document current conditions. He was really meticulous, because he specialized in historic homes and knew it was really important to document what was being changed."

Blaine, who calls John Thorpe the go-to architect in Oak Park and River Forest if you lived in a significant home, says that his extensive work throughout the area made a real mark on the historic preservation efforts of homeowners.

For Tom and Kathleen Thorpe, Blaine's experience is just the beginning of what they hope will be a long and fruitful experience stemming from the archives. At the end of the day, Tom Thorpe says, these connections between historic preservationists and his brother's life's work as one of the most meaningful ways to keep his memory alive. 

He says that the experience of working with John's materials and preparing the donation was quite meaningful on a personal level as well.

Tom and his wife made six trips from Colorado to Chicago to connect with John's friends and the people he worked with.

"As John's twin, it was extremely important for us to do this," Tom said. "He was never married and never had children. His friends were his family."

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