Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses must have been very influential to Paul Schweikher, who designed a number of modest homes in the Chicago area. He designed a church in Austin and a home and studio for his family in Schaumberg, but unfortunately none in Oak Park. He did complete an intimate single-story structure cantilevered above a spectacular ravine in Highland Park in 1950.
Usonian houses were defined by how the home meets Mother Earth and their interest in conservation. The designs were oriented to the south to absorb the warm sunlight while the north, east and west elevations were windowless, intended to deflect winter storms from the north and west.
I can attest that the strategy works as we have spent some time as guests in the Highland Park house while a number of fierce storms rolled in.
Highland Park’s topography is characterized by deep, spectacular ravines and lakeside beaches. The house is small — two bedrooms and two baths with a studio and a car port. What it lacks in size it makes up in architecture.
In 1953, Schweikher was named chairman of Yale School of Architecture and later the Carnegie School of Architecture.
Terri Weinstein is the home’s owner, an accomplished interior designer, trained at the School of the Art Institute. The beautiful interiors are furnished with an eclectic mix of modern and vintage furniture, sympathetic to the architect’s aesthetic sensibility. Anchoring the studio south wall is a dramatic, polished, steel-plate bookshelf contrasting with the redwood walls. Ms. Weinstein’s inventive passion respects the architecture while forging her own language of color and materials.
Mr. Schweikher’s eclectic employers and teachers included George Fred Keck, David Adler, Phillip Mayer and Mies van der Rohe. One can see the influences of these accomplished architects in this single house. Schweikher built the house with minimal materials: redwood siding, glass walls and knotty pine floors. The transparent surfaces wash the interior with natural sunlight. Cantilevered wood decks wrap the dramatic ravine, filled with mature trees.
Centered in the plan, the architect placed an elegant fireplace built of Chicago common brick. A unique detail is the projecting brick hearth mimicking the residence’s cantilever. Without any visible support, the brick is simply grouted in place.
Architectural mysteries are quite wonderful the way they create character. The home contains loads of concealed storage behind shoji screens in each room. The architect had visited Japan and loved the Asian aesthetic, following Wright’s interest.
“Japanese architecture influenced my work,” Schweikher stated, “probably in too many ways but certainly, first of all, in the relationship of the house or home to the out of doors and to the land: a casual, easy refinement of indoors with very little loss of sun lite, winds, breezes and growing things.”
The architect obviously was interested in sustainability and how the home engages the landscape.
The structure is a display of modern principles, including the visual extension of materials from inside to outside, exposed and expressed framing, an open plan, minimal sloped roofs, walls of glass, cantilevered terraces into the ravine, surfaces void of decoration, built-in furniture, and a massive centrally-placed fireplace. Every room is beautifully proportioned and skillfully illuminated with skylights, sliding glass doors and adjustable lighting.
Wright’s strong influence on the design of this house was responsible, i.e. sympathetic to the planet.
Paul Schweikher was a master architect, aware of all the influences around him, yet he built innovative and human-scaled buildings with confidence and restraint.
Terri Weinstein is a sensitive interior designer, who has brought a new creative life to this striking home.
Garret Eakin, is an architectural journalist, Oak Park plan commissioner, and adjunct full professor at the School of the Art Institute.