They say you can’t go home again, but sometimes if home is Oak Park, it’s not that easy to stay away. Architectural historian Lisa D. Schrenk may no longer live in Oak Park, but she hasn’t been able to leave the village behind.
In her latest book, “The Oak Park Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright,” the former education director for the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust delves into the evolution of Wright’s studio in Oak Park from 1898 to 1909.
Schrenk says the book has been percolating since she worked at the Home and Studio from 1988 to 1992. Her education and career have led to her to work at the University of Arizona.
As an associate professor, she continues to educate others about Wright’s life and work in her courses and makes frequent trips back to Oak Park, where she volunteers with the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust during Wright Plus housewalks.
After earning her master’s degree in architectural history at the University of Virginia, Schrenk says her interest in Chicago’s architectural history was enhanced when she visited a friend who lived near Unity Temple in Oak Park.
“I visited Oak Park, and thought I could really see myself living here,” Schrenk said.
At the time, the trust — then known as the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation — was wrapping up years of restoration on the Home and Studio, and Schrenk fortuitously interviewed for the position of education director on Wright’s birthday.
A National Endowment for the Humanities grant to document the restoration of the Home and Studio made the position full-time, and she jumped in with both feet. By the end of her tenure, the Home and Studio had programming for all ages, from kindergarten to graduate students.
Schrenk says her job also entailed gathering materials and making them more accessible to scholars on topics as varied as Wright’s family, decorative arts and lists of resources.
“Those were the germs of this book,” Schrenk said.
In writing the book, she spent hundreds of hours going through archives and interviewing family members, trying to assess what life was really like in the Home and Studio and notes that first-person memories are not infallible.
She points out that Frank Lloyd Wright was not the most reliable narrator, and she discovered writings from others who lived and worked in and around the studio that revealed a different take on circumstances.
The book details the contributions made by other architects in the studio and the influence of Wright’s family on work in the studio.
“There may be a few Wright aficionados that may be unhappy with the way the narrative kind of breaks the myth of the lone wolf genius,” Schrenk said.
But she stresses there was constant dialogue, discussion and debate taking place in the studio in Oak Park, and notes that Wright took inspiration from his time at working in Steinway Hall, where he was one of many young progressive designers, and tried to replicate that at his studio with the young men and women who came to work there.
At the end of the day, she says that she tried to be meticulous with the details in the book.
“There are about 1,200 footnotes in the book,” Schrenk said. “It’s jam-packed with information. It was very important for people to know where this information was coming from.”
The book also is the story of the physical space of the Home and Studio, and includes many illustrations of the building and changes it went through.
“One thing I think that nobody had really talked much about before was the history of the building between 1911, when Wright leaves, and the founding of the Home and Studio Foundation in 1974,” Schrenk said. “Particularly, in the 1920s and 1930s when it was used by the Austin Oak Park and River Forest Art League, and there were artists living in the home. There’s a lot more to discover here.”
“Many people know the basic story from the tour but don’t know the evolution of the building.”
In her courses at the University of Arizona, Schrenk brings her students to Wright’s buildings in Arizona and in Oak Park, noting that it’s important for them to see the architecture firsthand. She times her visits to coincide with Wright Plus, the annual housewalk in Oak Park, so the students can volunteer for the walk, something she calls a great educational experience.
Post-COVID, Schrenk hopes to schedule a local book signing event to coincide with Wright Plus, rescheduled and for Sept. 18 this year. While the pandemic put her travel on hold last year, returning to Oak Park is something she plans to continue as she finds meaning in reconnecting with others volunteers from the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust.
In fact, she dedicates the book to John Thorpe, Don Kalec and the other early volunteers so pivotal to saving the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, and says the importance of volunteers to the successful restoration is something to celebrate.