Oak Park photographer capturing blocks of Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District

A photo project of historical proportions

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

It's no secret that in Oak Park a fascination for historic homes exists. In a village proud of architectural pedigrees, one could probably throw a rock in any gathering and hit a self-professed house junkie, someone who not only lives here because of its historical significance, but who is vocal about that appreciation.

Don't mistake Mary Vostal for a run-of-the-mill historic home enthusiast. While she may look like a typical Oak Parker, she's taken her love of historic homes to a whole new level and created a lasting legacy for the village. For the past eight months, Vostal has been working on a photographic study of the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District, and her creation puts the everyday history buff to shame.

 

The background

 

Vostal grew up in Elmwood Park but says she always wanted to live in Oak Park. "Even as a kid, I loved the houses in Oak Park."

When she moved to the village in 1974, she bought the H.R. Henderson Home, an E.E. Roberts-designed house on Oak Park Avenue. Happy to finally be living in the village, it took a home renovation to pique her interest in the architecture of her home.

"It really started when we did an addition on the back of the house," she says. "That got me interested in the whole architecture field. I wanted that addition to fit in with the period of the house, so I really started paying attention to the architecture around me."

A graphic designer by trade, Vostal has always had a strong interest in the arts. Over the years, she has devoted her creative energy to the area she calls home.

"I've done a lot of work for the village. I worked on projects for the Hemmingway centennial, the opening of the new library, and the River Forest logo."

 

The idea

 

About 10 years ago, when she was working on the centennial project, Vostal had the idea that she should do a photo project of the homes in the village.

"At that time, I had to shelve it because my business was so busy," she recalls. "I just really love Oak Park, and this seemed like a good way to explore that. At first, I wanted to photograph all of the homes in the village, but that seemed a little ambitious."

This year, she finally decided to pursue her dream. It begins with where she lives, the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District.

"Although there are plenty of pictures of individual, architecturally significant homes, there are no pictures that capture the entire block," she says. "I wanted to show all of the homes on one block in a single photo. I started in February, because it was so nice outside and began taking photos of all of the homes in the district."

The method

The weather and organization were key to Vostal's plan. While warm temperatures in February motivated her to begin her project, it was important to get the photos taken before trees leafed out completely, obscuring her view of homes from the street.

Vostal set out with a notebook and a simple camera to document every house block by block, highlighting her map of the district as she went. She was careful to record each side of the street, east and west, and the photo numbers assigned to each home. With a plan to morph individual photos of each home into one view of an entire block, Vostal took pains to create unity in her photos.

The project required she photograph all of the homes on one side of the block on the same day and at roughly the same time of day in order to achieve a continuous sky in her combined photo. She made sure that she stood the same distance from the curb while photographing each house. Vostal also had to get to know her neighborhood. Garbage days and activities around OPRF High School made for tough conditions, since she didn't want the distraction of garbage cans or too many cars in her photos.

Once she was finished photographing every house — over 5,000 photos in all — the real work began. Drawing on her graphic design experience, Vostal got to work on her home computer.

"First, I download the raw photos, making sure every block is carefully identified. The numbering system is very important. Then I reduce the photos, shaving off areas of overlap. I probably use about five photos to create one section of block. Then, I have to work around trees and clouds, things like that. That's where my design experience comes in. It's kind of fun; it's like doing a big jigsaw puzzle."

Once one side of the block is finished, she gets to work on the opposite side of the block, creating one large photo that is about 30 inches by 5 ½ inches. After completing both sides, Vostal goes back and identifies each historically-significant home by name and year of construction. All in all, each block takes about five to six hours to complete.

 

The finished product

 

Vostal calls her project the Oak Park Photoramic series. At this time, she has photographed every house in the district and has finished creating five full blocks in panoramic form. She has many ideas about what she can do with the finished project.

"I can't print the finished product at home because they are so large, so I have to send them out for printing, which is expensive," she explains. "I'm hopeful that people who live here and people who love architecture may be interested in the individual blocks. It would be great to get people together to sponsor their blocks."

Vostal says the work has been a dream of hers and is also important documentation for the village.

"As I walk through Oak Park, every home is so beautiful and so different. There's just something about the history that I love, but it's constantly changing. Even in the time that I was doing this, the village is changing, with the work on the Holmes School playground and on Scoville Park. These photos capture the spring of 2012 in our village."

Anyone interested in sponsoring a block, may contact Mary Vostal at mary@vostaldesign.com.

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