Bradley House, visited

Artbeat

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing reporter

Leaded-glass windows with geometric bits of color, an open floor plan sans support beams, a low-pitched roof overhanging a flat, seemingly-low structure — all things most now recognize as characteristically Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie-style design, but in 1900 when he applied these techniques to two homes in Kankakee, they were groundbreaking (in more ways than one).

A new documentary, An American Home, tells the story of one of these homes, the B. Harley Bradley House, built for the plow and farm-implement manufacturer and his family, from whom the neighboring town of Bradley gets its name. 

Producer Tom Desch, of House Painter Media in Chicago, started working on the project in 2014. He researched, wrote, directed and edited the film. A Kankakee County native, the home caught his attention while working on a documentary about marshland near the Kankakee River and the Bradley home, situated on the river, was highlighted as a place to visit.

David Bagnall, curator and director of interpretation at the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, as well as an Oak Park resident, provided Desch with some research materials and photos for the production. Bagnall was excited to learn the Bradley House documentary was being made.

"It's seen as one in the first set of prairie houses, along with the Hickox House, the Frank Thomas House in Oak Park and the Willits House in Highland Park, so it is important," he said. "These are a group of key houses as Wright hits his stride from 1900 to 1901."

The Warren R. Hickox House is next door to the Bradley House in Kankakee, built at the same time for the brother-in-law of B. Harley Bradley. It is currently privately owned. The Bradley House has been open to the public since 2010.

To uncover the tale of the Bradley House, as well as Wright's story, Desch traveled beyond Kankakee, to Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, to Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, and to the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio in Oak Park, where the Bradley home was designed by Wright.

"The film is about more than the Bradley House," Desch said. "It is about the challenges the house faced and the challenges Wright faces in his life too."

The tale of the home has all the elements of a juicy novel. It evolved from being cared for by loving owners to being transformed for business use, including a high-end restaurant. During an economic downturn, it was boarded up and the stables were left to rot. Later, it even became the scene of a crime before new, determined owners rescued and restored the property to its original state.

Desch faced his own challenges when it came to editing the film. Rich with interview footage from more than a dozen people, including Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, and others ranging from previous owners to preservationists to Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation representatives (Taliesin and Taliesin West) to cousins of Wright himself, some hard choices needed to be made when the production first turned out to be 90 minutes long.

"We had to trim it down to a broadcast hour," Desch said. "It was hard to decide what to include. We may use some of it later for a DVD."

But no need to wait for the DVD to see An American Home. A premiere benefit screening will be held at the Lake Theatre in Oak Park on Wednesday, Sept. 20.

"After planning an invitation-only showing at Classic Cinemas' [Paramount Theatre] in Kankakee, they gave the idea to do a showing in Oak Park," Desch said. "We were thrilled! Willis and Shirley Johnson, owners of the Lake, are giving the night so it can be a benefit."

Proceeds will go to the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust in Oak Park and Wright in Kankakee, which runs the B. Harley Bradley House. Desch will be there to introduce the film.

The documentary is also set to air on public television station WYIN on a soon-to-be-determined date. This station is located in northwest Indiana, but its programming is available in the Chicago area. The PBS station is also submitting An American Home to American Public Television, a distributor of programming to national public television stations, in an attempt to get the documentary shown nationwide.

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