Nothing helps pass the winter like an architectural lecture series, and there may be no more pleasant surroundings in which to do it than Pleasant Home”and no more appropriate subject matter than Pleasant Home’s architect, George Washington Maher.

That at any rate was the reasoning behind the Pleasant Home Foundation’s third annual lecture series. “This year we thought it was time to revisit George,” said foundation Director Laura Thompson. “We looked at some of the recent research and found some new angles.”

One of those angles was explored in last Thursday night’s first lecture of the series, delivered by Wilbert Hasbrouck, a familiar name to Oak Park architecture buffs. Back in the 1960s (“or was it the ’70s?” Hasbrouck said), he and partner Paul Sprague conducted a groundbreaking survey of Oak Park structures.

All Oak Park structures.

“I’m probably the only person who has looked at every building in Oak Park,” said Hasbrouck. The village was putting together its first master plan at the time, and the hired firm realized the plan couldn’t be done without some assessment of the historical significance of the residential and commercial buildings. But such a survey had never been attempted before, so Hasbrouck and Sprague had to develop a method. It went like this: Hasbrouck or Sprague would drive around every block in the village (counterclockwise) and make observations about each structure, which would be recorded by the passenger (sometimes a student of Sprague’s from the University of Chicago). Photos were taken as well. They covered the whole village in 3-4 months and published the results, which became the basis of similar architectural surveys throughout the state of Illinois (Hasbrouck was involved in about a dozen).

In the early ’90s, he was called upon again, this time by the Park District of Oak Park, to do a study on how to renovate Pleasant Home. Hasbrouck’s in-depth report, accompanied by an hour-long video, recommended, among other things, an elevator for accessibility and excavating the basement to install a theater for tour groups coming through. But as Hasbrouck noted, “The guy with the deep pockets never came forward,” so neither happened.

We discussed this during the half-hour wine-and-cheese reception in the great hall (cheeses provided by the Marion Street Cheese Market), which preceded the lecture in the living room. At 7 p.m. or thereabouts, Hasbrouck, a tall, avuncular sort with white hair and goatee, took off his jacket, revealing the architectural underpinnings of suspenders and settled into a classic green leather chair next to a classic brass desk lamp that illuminated a modern laptop wired for modern Power Point.

The soft rasp of his voice evoking a more scholarly version of Burl Ives, he led an amiable hour-long tour of the old Chicago Architectural Club, a training ground and support system for the many turn-of-the-century Young Turk architects and draftsmen (including, of course, George Maher) who would transform America through the developing Prairie School of Architecture.

Hasbrouck recently published a book of some heft (600 pages, $75) on the subject, titled Chicago Architectural Club – Prelude to the Modern, which served as the basis for his ramble through the years 1885-1940. He has a ready-made venue for the book since his wife, Marilyn, is the proprietor of the Prairie Avenue Bookshop, 418 S. Wabash Ave., which specializes in architectural books and out of which Hasbrouck maintains an office (after a 50-year career with the American Institute of Architects”he was also instrumental in the group that purchased and restored the Glessner House at 18th and Prairie).

The Chicago Architectural Club was a fascinating collection of characters who came along in the right place at the right time. Following the Chicago Fire, there was a great demand for office space in downtown Chicago and buildings to put them in. Fortunately, there was likewise a great supply of eager young architects and draftsmen”in addition to the big names like Sullivan, Adler, Burnham, and Root. George Maher was 21 in 1885, the year the CAC was founded (originally draftsmen only), and he joined a few years later.

Around 1913, Maher was one of three architects commissioned by the club to develop a definition of American architecture. The Midwesterners were riled up by the fact that an eastern architect was commissioned to design the Lincoln Memorial, and the finished product incorporated no Midwestern influences whatsoever. While Maher and his colleagues couldn’t agree on a definition, his thinking led to publishing the 1920 book An Indigenous Architecture (“reflecting the character and aspirations of the nation”).

Maher also was instrumental in saving the Columbian Exposition’s Fine Arts building, which by 1921 was in ruins. The fully restored structure today houses the Museum of Science and Industry. The project wasn’t completed until 10 years after Maher’s death (“by his own hand,” as Hasbrouck put it).

Frank Lloyd Wright was another CAC member in spite of his reputation for arrogance. But Wright had his charming side, Hasbrouck noted. In fact, Hasbrouck met approximately 50 of Wright’s former clients and “not one had a bad thing to say about him.” Wright did three things, Hasbrouck said, that endeared him to his clients:

1) He made them feel that they had designed the house and Wright was just drawing the plans;

2) He made them believe the house was perfect; and

3) He made them believe that it was his favorite of all the buildings he ever worked on.

Hasbrouck could tell stories all night long. One of the more interesting yarns involved the acquisition of the Glessner house in the mid-1960s. The group assembled to save it had raised only $35,000, roughly half of the asking price. They consulted a contact who knew about such matters who told them: “Nobody else wants this building. It would cost the owner more to demolish it. Fly to Pittsburgh and offer them $35,000.”

They did, and the rest is Chicago architectural history.

Remaining talks in the 2006 Lecture Series, presented by Pleasant Home Foundation, partly funded by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Illinois General Assembly:

• Maher and Lawrence Buck: Beautiful Drawings

Thursday, March 23

Donald Aucutt, architectural historian and editor of Prairie and the Geo. Maher Quarterly, reveals his most recent research into the work of Maher and his collaborations with Lawrence Buck.

• Maher’s Legacy in Kenilworth

Sunday, April 9

Architectural historians Kathleen Cummings and William Hinchliff will lead a guided tour of Kenilworth Community Development, George Maher & Sons’ 1920s planned development on the village’s west side. The afternoon begins with a viewing of the Kenilworth Historical Society’s exhibit “The Suburban Ideal, Revisited.”

• Maher and Wright: A Prairie Comparison

Friday, May 19

Vincent Michael, director of the historic preservation program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, takes a look at the similarities and differences in these two leaders of the Prairie School of Architecture with some of their best work in Oak Park.

All programs (with the exception of the April program) will be held at historic Pleasant Home, 217 Home Ave., with a wine and cheese reception at 6:30 pm. The event in Kenilworth on Sunday, April 9, will begin at the Kenilworth Historical Society, 415 Kenilworth Ave., followed by a walking tour. Cost is $10 per program or $35 for all four. Students free with ID. Proceeds benefit Pleasant Home Foundation. Reservations are encouraged but not required (383-2654 or e-mail mahergw@sbcglobal.net.

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