By Garret Eakin
Growing up in a small, dusty, rural town in northeastern Oklahoma was hardly a rich cultural experience. I was 8 years old and Bartlesville was void of any architecture. But that was soon to change thanks to a chemist, Harold Price, his two sons, and the need for an office building to house their booming electric welding company.
My father, a petroleum engineer, and I were driving home in our 1954 two-tone green Buick hardtop with jet age fins when we stopped to watch a new 19-story high-rise building under construction. It was striking as it was the only high-rise building in town. The concrete frame was in place revealing an intricate geometry. The site was strewn with construction materials and equipment.
I was intrigued by a geometrically fashioned component that was clad in a deep blue-green material. My father explained that the material was copper which had been treated with chemicals to oxidize the metal, turning it into this surprising color. He also said that the architect probably employed the colorful material to contrast with the exposed concrete. Right there and then I had an "aha!" moment, shocked into the realization that people care about the aesthetic quality of a building. I was hooked — this is cool. As it turns out, that building, the Price Tower was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Fast forward: Following completion of architecture school, I was lured to move to Chicago to live in the growing forest of great buildings. SOM was hiring and I quickly went to work at the biggest architectural firm in the world. The city is a magnet for young architects and designers who crave growing up in a rich, vibrant community. The firm was not the kind of practice I had imagined when in school — I needed something else, more hands-on.
Each Sunday afternoon I would crank up my new 850 Norton and, in a blur under the mesmerizing Lake Street el, find myself in Oak Park. I was recruited and trained to be a docent, conducting tours through the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio. This returned me to my roots, and the experience of learning and talking about Wright and his work was a unique education.
Oak Park and River Forest are composed of layers of historic architecture. Years of affairs with these architectural gems taught me the value of preservation and renovation. I learned that architecture is independent of fashion. Great architecture transcends style. Modern architecture is of its time and is a style that will challenge the norm. Wright said, "Every great architect is, necessarily, a great poet. He must be a great original interpreter of his time, his day, his age." His Prairie-style buildings were intended to grow from the earth, the flat prairie of the American Midwest. They defied the popular styles of the time. His conviction, in each of the projects, to build unique structures was unparalleled.
His own home of 1889 was heavily influenced by the emerging English Arts & Crafts movement, which rejected the repetition of the machine, favoring a return to the handmade craftsmanship. Wright not only designed the exterior and how it related to the site, but the furniture, skylights, light fixtures, textiles, carpets, art glass windows and decorative accessories. This makes the yearly housewalk, Wright Plus, so perfect, as you can see the total composition designed by the Master Architect.
After living and practicing in Oak Park for many years I feel very connected to the history and architecture of this special place. Wright was a bad boy with all his women, flashy cars, and financial woes. How he was able to be so prolific while dealing with all his shortcomings is an intriguing legacy. Yet the Wright drama continues, supported by thousands of yearly visitors. His work, his life, his romantic image remain magnetic for an 'Okie' from Bartlesville.