Jeanette Fields

Jeanette Fields, one of the towering figures in Chicago-area architecture, died peacefully at home on Sunday, Nov. 2. She was 94. Funeral arrangements are pending. While we await the details, here is a profile of the unofficial “Queen of the Prairie (School of Architecture)” by Lydialyle Gibson, which ran in Wednesday Journal on June 1, 2005: 

You might say Jeanette Fields’ future was cemented when she was just 10 years old, a little girl living in a Sears mail-order home just beyond the Des Moines city limits, in Madrid, Iowa. People always said her family’s house looked like a Frank Lloyd Wright. And so it did, a little.

“I said, ‘Frank Lloyd Wright? What is that?'” Fields recalls now, six decades later. “I’d never heard of him before that.”

Certainly, Fields’ path was chosen long before the afternoon in 1970 when she disappointed a real estate broker during a house-hunting tour of Oak Park and River Forest. He’d hoped to sell her on a new place with a sturdy roof and perfect gutters and reliable insulation. She couldn’t wait to get a look at the ramshackle house Wright had built for E.A. Davenport back in 1901.

“It was in terrible condition: The gutters were rusting off the house, the garage was dilapidated. Inside, the wallpaper was peeling off the walls,” Fields said. “I was ecstatic. I mean, a real Frank Lloyd Wright house. For sale!

Her real estate agent thought Fields was crazy — “You Wright buffs are all the same,” he chuckled — and so did her husband, Ellis. But Ellis took a shine to the place, too, so after an architect promised that the walls wouldn’t come crashing down around them, they bought it. The way Fields remembers it, that first night with Ellis and the kids in their charming new wreck was positively glorious.

“There was one light bulb in the house, and it formed these shadows on the ceilings and the walls. It went through a wood partition and threw shadows on the other side,” she said. “It was breathtaking. Wright is like that — there’s an interplay of light all the time. It’s beautiful.”

For more than 30 years, Fields has been Oak Park’s acknowledged expert on local architecture. She’s turned a fascination with Frank Lloyd Wright into a civic calling, helping to save one Wright building after another — most of them right here in the village, but a few as far away as Ohio and Oregon.

Beginning in the early 1970s, when she joined a group of devotees looking to restore the Wright Home & Studio on Chicago Avenue, Fields has served on more boards than she can count — the Hemingway Foundation, the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation (now the Wright Trust) are just a few — often as a founding member and always as a diligent one. Over the years, her toils have earned her a wall full of awards from the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, the League of Women Voters, and her alma mater, the University of Chicago, among others.

“She was instrumental in restoring the Wright Home & Studio, which has been a catalyst for restoration around Oak Park and River Forest,” said Joan Mercuri, president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust. “The building was really taken apart piece by piece and restored back to the original. It really stabilized the community and spurred restoration to preserve the character of the village.”

CAF’s first director

In 1970, Fields became the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s first executive director. Her office was the recently rescued Glessner House on Prairie Avenue, south of the Loop, which she’d helped to save.

“At that time, I was the only employee in that great big house,” she said. “I gave tours, I did fundraising, I organized everything, and Icleaned the house. And I was hired part-time, you know.”

Rattling around in a hundred-year-old mansion all by herself, Fields decided to start training docents to help out with curious visitors and occasional tours. She helped organize a faculty and a curriculum, and in 1971 she graduated her first class of volunteers. Before long, Fields’ docent-training program had ballooned into a full-fledged roster of architectural tours for which docents led sight-seers through the Loop and the city — and into Oak Park.

Hanson Award winner

For Fields, things are always like that, said longtime friend Mimi Cooper. Both women have long volunteered for the League of Women Voters chapter in Oak Park and River Forest. Recently, the league recognized Fields’ decades of community devotion by presenting her with its 2005 Hazel Hanson Award. Cooper was on the nominating committee. The vote, she said, was unanimous.

“Jeanette does the work,” Cooper said. “She doesn’t just send in her dues and say, ‘Well, I belong to the League; I support it.’ Every one of the groups she’s involved in, she believes in taking part, sometimes as a chief and sometimes as an Indian — which is unusual. She said to me a couple years ago when I retired, ‘Now it’s time for you to get involved in the League again.’ That’s the kind of person she is.”

Mercuri likes to tell a story about the time Fields came in on a Sunday morning eight years ago to give a tour of the Home & Studio to some heavy-hitter from Architectural Digest.

“He called the next day and said he had such a wonderful time with Jeanette and she was such a knowledgeable interpreter that he’d like to help our organization,” Mercuri said. “It was music to my ears. Architectural Digest became a sponsor of Wright Plus and it’s grown into a deep and important friendship for us. … Jeanette never said no when we needed something done.” 

For the love of architecture

“If we can get people turned on to architecture, then once they turn on, we’ve got them,” Fields said. “And that leads to preservation. That’s what I’m really all about — the need to save our architectural heritage. We’ve lost too much already.”

When she isn’t in the trenches, Fields is chronicling the cause. For more than 20 years, she’s written about architecture for Wednesday Journal and she published other articles in the Tribune, the Sun-Times and the Daily News. She has also authored and edited guidebooks on local architecture.

“She really reaches people,” Mercuri said. “She helps people realize how important all this is, that this is our cultural heritage, and it’s our responsibility to save it for future generations. She’s a real leader who inspires other people to get involved and stay involved. I’ve learned so much from her.”

Restoration architect and Oak Parker John Thorpe, who shares Fields’ affection for Wright and has served alongside her in more than one preservation effort, calls Fields a “volunteer professional.” To his way of thinking, her architectural writing serves an invaluable purpose.

“Her articles are first-class cultural journalism,” Thorpe said. “Anytime she writes about a particular building, she shines a spotlight on it, and the best tool we have to help save architectural landmarks is to have the public exposed to them, for the public to be aware and involved. She is a treasure in this town, and we are lucky to have her.”

Thirty-four years ago, Thorpe was among Fields’ first crop of Chicago Architecture Foundation docents. Fresh out of college, he’d just snagged a job at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Fields set him to work giving walking tours of Oak Park and River Forest.

“And generally, I’ve been following her around to some great civic causes and board service ever since,” Thorpe said. A founding member of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio Foundation, Thorpe has also been instrumental on the board of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, an organization Fields co-founded. It aims to save Wright-designed structures across the country, and mostly it succeeds.

“In the 1980s, a group of us homeowners in Oak Park and River Forest got together because people were tearing down Frank Lloyd Wright houses left and right,” Fields recalled. “They were saving the windows, but they couldn’t afford to keep up the houses. We banded together to save these buildings, and since then the conservancy has lost only one building.”

In 2000, the group bought a home in Springfield, Ohio, to rescue it from the wrecking ball, and later they did the same thing in Michigan.

If Fields traces her attraction to Wright back to her Iowa childhood, the origin of her expertise must be the University of Chicago, where Fields got a minor in architecture and where she met her husband. He was already a Ph.D. student in chemistry when she was just a freshman. The two were married before she was out of school. In 1962, when Ellis was a visiting professor at the University of London and the couple was living abroad, Fields took a class on architecture.

“And guess what we were studying? We were studying Chicago,” she said. She returned to Chicago curious and invigorated. Within a few years, she and her husband and their three daughters were fixing up the Davenport house. Even Ellis became a Frank Lloyd Wright admirer in the end.

In 2003, Fields’ husband died. Last year she sold her house to an architect and his family — they’re carrying on the restoration — and moved into Holley Court Terrace in Oak Park. She gave away a lot of furniture, mostly to her daughters, and what books she could bear to part with. But she’s still filing periodic pieces for the Journal, answering friends’ and colleagues’ frequent questions and requests, and offering her vigorous service to the village’s charitable boards. She still shows up to give the occasional tour of the Home & Studio. After her husband’s death, Fields auctioned off his extensive sherry collection — Ellis was famous for brewing wines — and donated the proceeds to the Hemingway Foundation and the Wright Trust.

“Most people would have just given it away,” Cooper said. “Not Jeanette.”

“It seemed like a good way to remember my husband,” Fields said. “It seemed like the right thing to do.”

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