Historic preservation in Oak Park lost one of its stalwart supporters in May when Donald Kalec died at the age of 87. One of the founding members of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio Foundation (now the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust), Kalec devoted his life to architecture and historic preservation.
Kalec received his B.A. from Auburn University and his B.Arch. from the University of Florida. From 1965-69, he apprenticed with the Taliesin Fellowship at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
He began teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1969 and in the early 1970s was one of a group of preservationists dedicated to saving and restoring Wright’s Home & Studio in Oak Park.
“I met Don the first day I ever got involved with the Home & Studio,” said Jack Lesniak, architect and longtime FLW Trust volunteer. “Don was already involved. He knew a lot about Frank Lloyd Wright, and when he approached the first group of volunteers, they grabbed him with open arms.”
Working alongside architects John Thorpe, Bill Dring and Carl Hunter, Kalec developed a master plan that was used as a guide to restore the Home & Studio. The book was adopted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a model for other restoration programs across the country.
In an email recalling his time working alongside Kalec, Dring called him a quiet and modest man, who had “a strong determination to get the project finished and finish it right.”
Dring recounts a moment in the restoration when they were focused on the dining room — the first major restoration project, which would set a precedent for the rest of their work. The Wright-designed furniture was a key part of the room’s design, and the group considered having reproductions of the high-backed chairs commissioned.
Kalec remembered that the original chairs were stored in an outbuilding at Taliesin in Wisconsin and suggested contacting Wright’s widow, Olgivanna, about them. Dring says Kalec drafted a letter to the architect’s widow, and to their surprise, she agreed to donate the chairs.
“She was jealous of any group that tried to take part of FLW’s legacy,” Dring wrote. “Plus, the value of the chairs was very high — possibly $500,000. The gift was unprecedented. This could not have happened without Don.”
Lesniak states that after much deliberation, Kalec and the early founders decided to return the Home & Studio to what it looked like in 1909, the last year that Frank Lloyd Wright lived and worked in there.
While Kalec was one of the major players involved in making decisions and drafting drawings of the restoration, Lesniak says the quiet man who smiled a lot wasn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and do dirty work either.
“There was a group of volunteers called the Saturday Strippers, who would go in on weekends and touch up the walls and try to determine the original paint colors. Don was often part of that group doing the hands-on demolition or investigation,” Lesniak recalled.
Kalec became the director of research and restoration for the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust and worked to undo many of the changes that had been made be later owners to Wright’s early design.
Several small apartments were deconverted to accurately recreate Wright’s studio. The studio restoration garnered a National Merit Award in 1987 from the American Institute of Architects.
At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Kalec helped develop the interior architecture program and also developed a graduate curriculum for the Master of Science degree in historic preservation.
Although he retired from the School of the Art Institute in 2012 and assumed professor emeritus status, Kalec continued to teach through the 2018-19 academic year. Kalec lived much of his adult life in Chicago, just over the border from Oak Park. He died near his family in Florida on May 26, 2023.