By Ken Trainor
Preservation architect John Thorpe, who led the charge to save Frank Lloyd Wright's Oak Park Home and Studio, died in his Oak Park home on Jan. 25. The Wright Trust issue the following remembrance. We'll have more on John's career and funeral arrangements at OakPark.com as soon as they are available:
John Thorpe was one of the founders of the organization now known as the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust. He led negotiations with the then owner of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio to purchase the property in 1974, restore it to Wright's original vision and operate it as a historic house museum open to the public.
From 1974 to 1981, Mr. Thorpe lived on the property as he worked on its restoration. As Wright's Home & Studio made a gradual transition from apartment house to museum, he joked, "I sort of restored myself out of a place to live."
During that time, Mr. Thorpe and a group of dedicated volunteers carefully peeled back layers in walls, floors and ceilings, uncovering clues that helped these grassroots preservationists accurately restore the Home & Studio. They dubbed themselves the "hole in the wall gang" when they discovered the connecting wall between the home and the studio sections of the building.
Karen Sweeney, the Wright Trust's current preservation architect and member of the original preservation team stated, "John Thorpe was the reason I got involved at the Home & Studio so many years ago. He was a great architect who saw problems as challenges to be solved — never backing down, but just moving forward until they were solved. He was also a wonderful mentor to young architects. I will greatly miss his enthusiasm and kind nature."
After an association with several Chicago firms, Mr. Thorpe opened his own architectural practice in Oak Park in 1984, specializing in restoration of historic homes. His work over the next three decades continued to strengthen the movement to preserve historic homes in Oak Park, which he had initiated at the Home & Studio.
He continued to volunteer for the Wright Trust and other organizations charged with preserving Wright's work. He also served on the House Selection Committee for the annual Wright Plus Architectural Housewalk.
In 2014, Thorpe received the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust Lifetime Service Award.
John Rafkin, chairman of the Wright Trust Board of Directors, said, "The Home & Studio is truly John's home. He worked in this community to protect and restore its great architectural heritage, and he has been generous to everyone with his time and his architectural expertise on so many occasions over the years. His integrity and his talent are well known locally and nationally, and I am proud to say he was a personal friend."
Bill Dring, another one of the original Wright Home & Studio volunteers from the 1970s, said, "John, more than anyone, was the soul of the Home & Studio, and the most moving force in preservation locally. His generosity of time and talent will be greatly missed."
Local preservation advocate Bob Trezevant added, "John Thorpe's role in the history of architectural preservation in Oak Park and nationwide is impossible to summarize. He was the first docent of the Chicago Architectural Foundation in 1970, and he established the first bicycle tours of Oak Park in 1972 and started living here then. He was a founding member of the national Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy. John had a vast and detailed knowledge about architecture in Oak Park and its importance to the community. He will be sorely missed."
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