In Oak Park, Frank Lloyd Wright is known for a lot of things. Not only is he the father of the Prairie Style of Architecture, but his personal exploits have added intrigue to his narrative. Personal life and foibles aside, Wright houses are not typically thought of as family-friendly. Architecture aficionados often treat Wright homes as lived-in museum pieces. Lovers of modern, open-concept homes, meanwhile, think Wright’s style means small rooms, low ceilings and dark interiors, ill-suited to the way families live today. One Oak Park family says both stereotypes are wrong, insisting their Wright home is perfect for their family of four.
Alec Harris and Carollina Song purchased the Peter Beachy House on Forest Avenue eight years ago when they were looking for a larger home for their family. At the time, their son Gabriel was approaching first grade and daughter Lindy was in preschool. The couple didn’t set out to buy a Wright house, but the inclination was there from the beginning.
Song says the couple’s predilections were already established. “We’re both old-house people. We found out that we both respond well to the Prairie Style, so we were thinking along those lines as we looked for a house.”
After seeing the Beachy House on a Wright Plus tour, Harris says both he and Song walked away thinking it could be their next house.
“At the end of the day,” he recalled, “we had both separately fallen in love with this house. There’s the obvious historical interest in the home and its architecture, and it was very clear that it would function well for a family.”
Song adds that the footprint of the house, as well as the timing of the move, fit function for their family.
“We knew it was an important time in the life of the kids,” she notes. “I had moved around a lot as child and wanted to make this move early so as to ease any disruption in their lives.”
According to Harris, Wright designed the home shortly after returning from a trip to Japan and that influence is evident in the home’s stucco and brick exterior lines. He designed the many windows to have a rice-paper effect, leaving his signature art glass for the light fixtures, most of which are still functioning throughout the home.
Far from being a dark, enclosed bunker, the house is flooded with light and each room flows seamlessly into the next. Harris and Song point out that the home was one of the first in Oak Park to have picture windows, allowing the wide expanse of lawn to be a part of the interior view. High ceilings in the formal living room and dining room are connected by lower ceilings in the transition spaces, a method Wright used to direct interior movement within his homes. A wide, covered side porch is another example of bridging the gap between indoor and outdoor living, which functions very well for modern families.
While the home is filled with original Wright pieces, Harris stresses that it’s all livable.
“One of the things we really like about the house,” he says, “is that it functions for family and is not just an art piece.”
Case in point: original Wright furniture is used in the family’s dining room. Some might consider the chairs and table to be museum pieces, but the family believes they were meant for everyday use. The fact that the table was discovered by previous owners painted green and being used as a pong-pong table in the basement points to the fact that other families took the idea of everyday use to an even greater extreme.
Like many older homes, the Beachy House required a bit of modernization to function well for Song and Harris, so they redid the kitchen when they first moved in. They kept to the home’s original footprint but made some changes to the floor plan.
Notes Song, “When you have an older house, you always have a conversation about how faithful you want to be to the original. These houses were built for live-in help, which we don’t have. We had to consider how we live in the house versus feeling like we were living in a museum.”
Harris and Song worked hard to balance respect for the home’s history with their evolving needs. They reconfigured original built-in cabinets to house the family’s dishes and kitchen items. Harris says their choice of materials is intended to honor the past.
“Our philosophy was to use materials Wright would have used,” he observes. “Carollina’s a baker, so it had to work really well for her, too. We used original materials such as soapstone and curly maple, and we put in modern appliances, but we tried not to impose them as if they were always here.”
Having spent most of her life in a Wright house, 13-year-old Lindy admits that this masterpiece is just home to her.
“Growing up, I’ve gotten used to it,” she says. “Now I’m used to telling tourists to get off the lawn. My friends like to come over here. We can play downstairs if Gabriel and his friends are upstairs.”
While the kids enjoy free range in the home, one family member is restricted. Family dog Maizy is confined to the rear of the home, notes Song, “When she was a puppy, I found her snacking on the trim. I didn’t want to leave and come home to a pile of toothpicks, and I didn’t want to be known as the person who let her puppy eat the Frank Lloyd Wright furniture.”
What’s off limits to Maizy, however, is not off limits to the kids. “We do eat pizza in the dining room,” Song says. “We like being the hang out house.”
Harris concurs: “We love it when the kids have friends over.”
Fifteen-year-old Gabriel acknowledges there is something different about living in a famous architect’s house.
“It just feels normal to me now,” he says, “but I think it’s kind of cool that people from all over the world come to see your house.”
The family has memories of the kids selling lemonade during Wright Plus weekends to raise money for charity, and Gabriel fondly recalls the time he and friends built a snow fort in the front yard and pelted pesky tourists with snowballs. Song believes the house has turned out to be all they hoped for and more.
“We got really lucky. We fell in love and suspected it would be a good house to raise kids, and it’s worked out better than we could have imagined.”
Note: The Beachy House will be featured in next May’s “All Wright Plus” tour.