All Wright walk marks milestone year

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Wright Trust

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Gardening blogger

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 Trust. 

It's 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 Founders 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 said.

And what they have made it over the last four decades is … bigger. In fact, just in the past three years, she said, 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 noted. "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."

Mrs. Nooker and the corsage 

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," recalled John Thorpe, local preservation architect and founding member and former president of the Home & Studio Foundation (now the Wright 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 said. "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 (now the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation), and representatives from the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce and the Park District of Oak Park.

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." said 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 recalled, was $174,000, but it was Art Replogle, executive director of the newly formed OPDC, who negotiated the final offer.

"He brought a wrist corsage to Mrs. Nooker because he thought that would work," said Thorpe. "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 said. 

A year to remember

Now they needed to raise some money, and fundraising began with the "Ten by Wright" concept, which was conceived by Jacobsen in 1974 and held for the first time in May of 1975.

Thorpe noted 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?' Well, we had money coming in from various sources, but there was still a gap. Elsie's contribution, one of many, was that idea. She was an amazing person who just decided she could do this."

The early 70s were turbulent times in 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 said.

To counteract that and encourage new economic development here, 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 Historic District, 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 said. 

"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."

Timeline

  • June 17, 1974 – Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio Foundation was established in Oak Park as a nonprofit organization.
  • July 17, 1974 – First official tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio.
  • May 17, 1975 – Inaugural fundraising housewalk debuts.
  • 1975 – Became a co-stewardship property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, enabling the group to pursue its goal of restoring the structure, as well as operating it as a historic house museum.
  • 1976 – The Home & Studio was declared a National Historic Landmark.
  • 1987 – Received the American Institute of Architects' National Honor Award after completing a $3 million plus restoration.
  • Feb. 1997 – Assumed sole responsibility for the management, operation, and restoration of Wright's Robie House, located on the University of Chicago campus.
  • 2000 – Changed name to the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust. 
  • Dec. 2010 – Established central offices at The Rookery, a Wright- influenced Chicago landmark building.
  • May 2012 – Acquired sole ownership of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 
  • 2012 – Began operating tours at the Emil Bach House, a Chicago landmark in Chicago's Rogers Park. 
  • Sept. 2013 – Assumed responsibility for operation of tours and programs at Unity Temple in Oak Park. 

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