Is Prairie Style dead?

Homes associated with architects like Wright no longer in demand


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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

A Crain's Chicago Business article in January on last year's biggest winners and losers in real estate posited that the Midwest's love of Prairie Style has hit a wall. 

While acknowledging that homebuyers appear to prefer new and contemporary to traditional and historic homes of any style, the article also cites the decided lack of appeal for the designs of noted architects with Chicago roots, including Oak Park's beloved Frank Lloyd Wright. 

Here in Oak Park, Wright properties and their brethren have not been flying of the shelves at breakneck speeds, and those that do sell are often doing so at a discount. One of Wright's bootleg houses at 1019 Chicago Ave., the Robert P. Parker House, sold in October 2019 for $685,000. 

The house was put up for sale over two years earlier in May 2017 for $840,000. Prior to its October 2019 sale, the last sale of the house was in 2014 for $750,000.

Another Oak Park home with Wright connections that has failed to find a buyer is the William H. Copeland House at 400 Forest Ave. Designed in 1883 in the Italianate style, the home underwent a Wright-designed remodel under its second owners in roughly 1909. 

The remodel altered parts of the exterior and completely reimagined the home's first floor in the Prairie Style. Originally listed for sale in the summer of 2018 for $1,650,000, the home hasn't found the right buyer. As of press time, the price had dropped several times to $1,167,500.

River Forest is not immune to the lack of interest in Prairie. Crain's cites the case of the former River Forest Women's Club at 526 Ashland Ave. as an example of the Prairie Style's demise. 

Designed by architect William Drummond, who got his start in Wright's studio, the house was originally a public institution in the village. Renovated and turned into a single-family home, the house hit the market at $1,575,000 in May 2012, and failed to find a buyer. 

Most recently listed for $632,000 in October 2019, the home is in foreclosure, with an auction scheduled for early 2020.

In River Forest, the property has been the subject of discussion at both Historic Preservation Commission and Economic Development Commission meetings. Jon Pape, assistant to the village administrator, said that Historic Preservation Commission Chairman David Franek has met with potential buyers of the home who were interested in understanding the historical baggage that comes with it before making an offer. 

The village's Economic Development Commission also discussed the home at a January meeting, with commission Chairman Lee Neubecker wondering if there was any possibility of a private club taking control of the home.

"The Historic Preservation Commission is considering ways to help conserve the house," Pape said, noting there might be an education angle there. "The Economic Development Commission is concerned with trying to drive economic development and keeping up property values. In the future, one of the commissions could make a recommendation to the village board. Each commission has entertained the option, but neither has decided to take any action on it."

Pape says that everybody has a shared interest in doing what's best for the property going forward, and notes that there are a lot of moving parts regarding the property. Chief among those is an easement with Landmarks Illinois covering the entire exterior and some portions of the interior of the home.

Suzanne Germann, director of grants and easements for Landmarks Illinois, notes that the history of the club is interesting. 

The building functioned as headquarters for the River Forest Women's Club for over 90 years. When membership in the club was dwindling around 2004, members reached out to the River Forest Park District about a possible donation of the building for their use. When the park district could not guarantee the building wouldn't be demolished under its ownership, the club backed away from the transaction.

Instead, private buyers Paul and Ellen Coffey, stepped forward and purchased the home. The Coffeys committed roughly $2 million to restoring the house's main floor, lower level and landscaping. In 2008, they received a Richard H. Driehaus Foundation preservation award for their efforts. 

After restoring the home, the Coffeys sought and received an easement on the property that covers both the entire exterior and portions of the interior.

The interior easement includes the majority of the first-floor space, ensuring that the main auditorium of the Women's Club cannot be greatly altered. 

"Essentially, the easement is trying to preserve the fact that it was a women's club," Germann said. "The auditorium and balcony should remain as they are."

She adds that Landmarks Illinois has met with many potential buyers to discuss what would and wouldn't be possible under the easement. 

 "If it's reversible, it's OK," Germann said.

She said that the woodwork cannot be painted, but the walls can. The bedroom, currently in the open balcony, cannot have permanent walls constructed around it, but there are possibilities to create privacy while minimally altering the space. 

Pape said at the Economic Development Commission meeting earlier this month that one concern raised by potential buyers is the lack of a garage. There is a small shed at the rear of the property, and while plans were drawn up for a multi-car garage, it was unclear where it would be built. 

Germann said the shed is not protected under the easement and that construction of a detached garage would be permissible under the easement.

Another possible concern raised at recent commission meetings was that original plaster walls could not be altered for plumbing work. Germann said that while the walls are protected, if necessary plumbing or electrical work was called for, "We would not prevent owners from doing that."

She points out that under the easements, owners can fill out a request for alterations form, and the organization's Easement Commission, which meets monthly, will review the request. 

Landmarks Illinois also has a Restoration Resource Directory that includes listings for professionals skilled in the restoration of significant historic buildings.

According to Germann, Landmarks Illinois has six exterior easements in River Forest but no other interior easements. While the village's historic preservation ordinance can only delay demolition, the Landmarks Illinois easements have more teeth. 

"The easement absolutely does prohibit the demolition of this house," Germann said.

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Reader Comments

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James Peters from Oak Park  

Posted: January 29th, 2020 7:43 PM

The house pictured above was designed by FL Wright in 1892 and was a precursor to the Prairie Style. It is NOT a Prairie Style house. Yes, Wright began to use components of what would become the Prairie Style on this house, but most historians say 1900-1901 Bradley House in Kankakee, IL was the first Prairie house. Key Prairie elements in the Robert Parker house pictured above are the banded windows; they "butt" against each other, letting in more light than contemporary Victorians. I've heard the term "Queen Ann cottage" in reference to the Parker House. Want to learn more?? During the Summer, the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust runs a tour called "Wright Around Oak Park." Take it and get the fascinating details, along with insights on the Huertley House (Forest Ave. in Oak Park), an excellent example of the Prairie Style. See about 8 other Wright buildings, too.

Susan Montgomery from CHICAGO  

Posted: January 29th, 2020 2:57 PM

John Cork, yes, the house on the cover for this article is a Prairie Style home. In fact, it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It's one of his earlier designs from the 1890s, dubbed a "bootleg house" as Wright took on the commission outside of his regular job with Adler & Sullivan. I grew up down the block from this home.

Gregg Kuenster from River Forest CPA  

Posted: January 29th, 2020 2:28 PM

$ 5,000 per month property tax on a $1,500,000 home purchase. Property tax is scheduled to double within the decade. The money has already been spent. Who is going to buy our public operating debt? Schools, Village, Parks ... The rich are not foolish with money. Why are the rich "donating" property? Millions have been sunk into these albatrosses and they cannot sell for half the appraisal value. This is a BIG problem IMO. Look at all of the FOR SALE signs between Chicago and Division the length of River Forest. As those expensive buildings lose value everyone else is going to pay a lot more.

Adrian Rohrer  

Posted: January 29th, 2020 12:31 PM

I think a big rub on owning a FLW house for many isn't simply the inability to alter it, it's the fact that you end up with strangers in your yard almost daily taking pictures and looking in your windows. It's essentially like living in a tourist attraction.

John Cork  

Posted: January 29th, 2020 11:21 AM

The headline of this article asks if the Prairie style is dead yet the house featured is NOT of the Prairie style, it is Victorian. The author should learn the difference.

Josh Vanderberg  

Posted: January 29th, 2020 10:35 AM

When you can't significantly alter something your bought this diminishes the meaning of 'ownership', and thus the value of the thing owned. So it's not that prairie style is falling out of favor, it's that people want to fully own their primary residence.

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