Two noteworthy Oak Park forces will combine on May 23 in a timely fundraiser for the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest. The National Historic Landmark Heurtley House will open its doors for a rare glimpse into its Frank Lloyd Wright-designed interiors and local graphic novelist Chris Ware will be on hand to sign copies of his "time-warp" poster, featuring the Heurtley House, and to share insights into his work on the acclaimed "boxed" novel, Building Stories along with his covers for the New Yorker and work with the New York Times.
Frank Lipo, executive director of the Historical Society, says the genesis of the fundraiser goes back several years to when Ware and his wife opened their home as part of a Historical Society housewalk.
"It became apparent that he really appreciates historical homes and historical neighborhoods," Lipo recalled, "and he offered to design a poster for a fundraiser for us."
Ware actually designed two, featuring iconic area homes. The River Forest poster features the Purcell House and the Oak Park illustration highlights Wright's Heurtley House. The relationship between the Historical Society and Ware has continued, nurtured by the posters, says Lipo.
"When he handed us these posters, we could see a connection between his book, Building Stories, and the posters," Lipo noted. "We contacted both the Purcell House and Heurtley House homeowners to present them with the posters and took Chris on tours of both homes. The idea for the fundraiser grew out of this."
Like many newcomers to the area, Ware's interest in the history and architecture of Oak Park began when he and his wife were looking for a place to live.
"My wife and I moved here in 2001 because we wanted to live in a well-designed and well-built old home and have good schools amidst a tolerant, liberal community," Ware wrote in an email. "What we've come to think of as a typical American home life has arguably been forged, or at least strongly reflected, in Oak Park — from the primly conservative church-going community that so rankled Hemingway, to the infidelities that forever marked Frank Lloyd Wright's character and anticipated the 1960s, to the expanding notions of interracial and same-sex relationships that 20 years ago would have seemed unthinkable to so many.
"No matter where you stand in Oak Park," he added, "whether in front of the Heurtley House, on Westgate (the former African-American neighborhood) or simply in the middle of your own kitchen, you're standing in the middle of history, and I wanted to capture that sensation for better or for worse."
In choosing a subject for his Oak Park poster, Ware was swayed by the Heurtley House's history as well as its visual appearance. "I chose Heurtley because it not only typifies and defines early on what came to be known as the Prairie Style, but also for its oranges and terra cotta, which I knew would stand out against the green trees. I kept thinking I was making the house too fat when I was drawing it, but discovered it actually appears longer and lower to the ground than it really is. Its long expanses of brick, connected by soap bubble-thin tissues of glass, make for an almost syn-aesthetic experience; it 'looks' like a string quartet."
According to Lipo, the characteristics that drew Ware in are what classify the 1902 home as one of the great homes of the early Prairie period.
"Along Forest Avenue, this is one of the biggest draws and one of the iconic Wright homes. It's known for its nearly 100 art glass windows, and the banding of the exterior, along with the ribbons of windows that create a great horizontal statement."
The home is rarely open to the public, and the fundraiser promises a rare glimpse into the interiors of the house. Caitlin Dreger, niece of the homeowners, who lives in the home, says the fundraiser offers a great opportunity.
"The house was on a tour about three years ago, but other than that, it is never open to the public. Just imagine being able to walk through the home while drinking a glass of wine and talking to Chris Ware!"
Dreger notes that her aunt and uncle, Patty and Ken Hunt, bought the home from a couple who completely restored it.
"They did a stunning, museum-quality restoration," she said, "and had the home classified as a National Historic Landmark. When they put it on the market, my aunt and uncle weren't specifically looking for a Frank Lloyd Wright home, but they fell in love with the way the light birch interior created a golden feeling on the inside of the home. They just loved it."
The interior of the house offers glimpses into many of Wright's stylistic choices. In an unusual design choice, the living spaces, including the dining room and kitchen, are on the second story of the home. Many of the upstairs rooms are decorated with museum-quality Wright-designed furniture. Dreger notes that some of the furniture pieces are reproductions because the original pieces are in the Art Institute. A signature Wright inglenook fireplace graces the living room.
According to Dreger, just entering the home allows a visitor to view things through Wright's eyes.
"When you come in, you weave your way through a dark and constricting entryway that begins to expand when you enter the house. People just gasp when they see the light streaming in through the 68 glass windows as they enter the second floor."
Lipo thinks that view, combined with a world-renowned cartoonist, give the Historical Society a unique opportunity to combine Oak Park history with a bit of its future.
"It's been a great thing in my time at the Historical Society to make the connection with Chris," says Lipo. "He's a comparative newcomer who really loves the town. It's great to have people with deep roots and newcomers who embrace the community. We're delighted to have this event and really appreciate the generosity of the homeowners and Chris."
For more information on the event or to purchase a Chris Ware poster, please visit www.oprfhistory.org.
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