The 'Plus' in Wright Plus

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

The "Plus" in the annual Wright Plus Housewalk is the unexpected bonus. This year it was Wright Plus Rain — steady showers, punctuated by downpours, a little thundery rumbling, but no lightning to chase away the architecture enthusiasts and the army of volunteers, some 500 strong.

Wetness prevention added an extra wrinkle to the myriad logistical challenges. Dripping umbrellas had to be surrendered at the front door and clustered in the backyard for pickup. Clear plastic ponchos were provided to those caught protection-less. The dedicated corps of volunteers thought of everything — except sometimes the answers to our questions. Some of the 'splainers were world class. A few seemed more concerned about moving us through without leaving puddles and touching the furniture.

Some said it was the first rainy Wright Plus ever. Others insisted it was the third in 42 years. Either way it was unusual for this normally weather-charmed event. But the clouds dried up around noon and, besides, Oak Park looks good even in the rain, or at least this portion of it does, arguably the prettiest stretch in the village, a concentrated collection of greatest-hit homes between Chicago Avenue and Elizabeth Court, Forest Avenue to Kenilworth. Nine homes in all (10 if you were a member or held a fast pass). We managed to see eight, beginning at 9 a.m. sharp with the Laura Gale and Mayo houses on Elizabeth Court, then moving up the east side of Kenilworth, to and through the homes of (once upon a time) Harrison Young, John Schmidt, and Charles Matthews. We broke for lunch at Winberie's, then resumed on Forest Avenue with the Heurtley (longest line), Hills-DeCaro and Charles Purcell houses. By then it was 4:30 and we were spent. 

People come from all over the world for this walk and likely wonder, "How is it I've never heard of this village? Is all of it this lovely?" Well, not quite, but rich or poor — and we cover the full range — almost all the homes front their streets. There are no security posts to pass. The only "gated" parts are the backyards, and the higher the fence, the more local passersby shake their heads in disapproval. We are a democratic people, an integrated community, and we don't like it when people isolate and insulate. It was nice, in fact, to see that a number of our "museum quality" homes have kids living in them, their toys neatly stacked in bins as we passed their bedroom or playroom doors. I like to think they're not always so neatly stored.

On this third Saturday in May, private homeowners are willing to make their showcase houses accessible to the public, one sign of our intertwined community, which makes Oak Park different from most other burgs. 

Moving along, we encounter longtime volunteers like Frank Pond, Pat Cannon (one of the originals who helped save the Home & Studio in the early '70s), Yvonne Smith (who researched the Laura Gale House), and Doug Freerksen (of Von Dreele-Freerksen, which has worked on no less than 28 Wright homes, including the Heurtley House renovation). Even my old neighbor Jack Koberstine, who has lived in a Gunderson home on the 600 block of South Elmwood for almost 60 years and is himself within shouting distance of 90, is still here giving a room spiel. All have been volunteers for 30 years or more and remain devoted to this remarkable heritage enterprise.

I've been through some of these homes more than once and always find them visually refreshing and creatively stimulating. But the past comes alive too: imagining what it must have been like on rainy mornings as former owners looked out these windows and went about their lives. Our sense of community includes echoes of those who came before.

We have homes that extend almost to the birth of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose sesquicentennial we mark this June 8. The firehouse-red Schmidt House on the tour this year, for instance, dates back to 1872. That's a lot of lives, and a lot of living.

One docent last Saturday pointed out the level of detail that Wright employed to underscore his trademark horizontality: using a lighter mortar along the uninterrupted length of the Roman brick, but between the vertical ends, a darker mortar matches the color of the bricks. It complements, and compliments, the flat prairies on which these homes were built, in contrast to the hierarchical verticality of European architecture. 

Horizontal is more egalitarian, more democratic, and therefore more American.

We, of course, are the bricks of this community, but the essential element is the mortar that binds us. As author John O'Donohue puts it in his book, Beauty:

"This is one of the deepest poverties in our times. That whole web of 'betweenness' seems to be unraveling. It is rarely acknowledged anymore, but that does not mean it has ceased to exist. The 'web of betweenness' is still there but in order to become a presence again, it needs to be invoked. As in the rain forest, a dazzling diversity of life-forms complement and sustain each other; there is secret oxygen with which we unknowingly sustain one another. True community is not produced; it is invoked and awakened. True community is an ideal where the full identities of awakened and realized individuals challenge and complement each other. In this sense, both individuality and originality enrich self and others."

That pretty well sums up the "Plus" in my Wright Plus experience, here in the rain forest of Oak Park.

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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