Preservation for preservation's sake goes too far

Opinion

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Richard Katz

In 1974, Frank Lloyd Wright's Home & Studio was acquired by the newly formed not-for-profit corporation, the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio Foundation (now known as the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust), for the purpose of saving and historically restoring the master architect's first masterpiece, designed and built when he was just 22. Save it they did, by heroic effort. 

Since then, the level of people touring has grown from a mere 5,000 to a staggering 90,000 people a year, coming from everywhere in the world to see this work and others in Oak Park.

Consider a few basic questions: If 90,000 people a year show up at your doorstep to tour your house, and you want to make them feel welcome and comfortable, where do they go to the bathroom? How do you accommodate, comfortably and smoothly, people confined to wheelchairs or with other disabilities? How do you protect your guests from severe weather or freezing or melting temperatures? Before taking your guests on their tour, do you have a place for orientation?

Beyond the many practical questions, there remain some larger questions: How do you provide opportunities to enrich each visitor's understanding of Frank Lloyd Wright and his architecture? How do you accommodate our local community in its own quest for continuing education of all things architecture in the village?

 One thing should become clear. You can't do these things within the confines of a delicately restored museum house. You need to add functional space, thoughtfully, sensitively, leaving the museum house intact and untouched.

Three years ago, a rare opportunity was presented to the Trust. The owner of the neighboring property at 925 Chicago Avenue offered her property to the Trust for purchase. After considerable internal planning, the Trust purchased the property in late 2017.

The trust was then able to pursue an architectural solution to the myriad of problems posed by the large numbers of visitors to this now-famous birthplace of modern architecture. After consulting several respected Chicago area firms, a concept developed by John Ronan Architects was advanced because of the strength of its solution.

The proposed building provides many much-needed amenities, from practical public bathrooms, to education and conference facilities. The project successfully addresses all the practical aspects of welcoming visitors, in all kinds of weather conditions, in a comfortable environment, suitable for visitor orientation. The garage (bookstore/gift shop) can now be used for a far more appropriate use, a gallery of Frank Lloyd Wright's art and sculpture, artifacts and art objects. All this allows for a greatly enhanced and extended tour, and a much deeper and more meaningful visitor experience.

The design and footprint of the building itself is very sensitive to not competing with the Home & Studio. In its deference to the architectural masterpiece, it is there to serve; it is a "quiet" building, making no architectural statement other than to be of service to our visitors and our community.

It is strong in concept, its footprint is set back and unobtrusive to the Chicago Avenue streetscape. There will be some room for some fine-tuning, but conceptually and functionally, it is an excellent solution. Some notable architects agree that this is the right project, sensitively designed to fulfill the multiple functions so needed to enhance the Home & Studio tour experience. 

Last Thursday evening, after three years of study and development, the proposed concept was presented to the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission. Unfortunately, the process had no positive result. The preservation commissioners could not respond to the vision of the plan. In the end it came down to preservation for preservation's sake — no more, no less. 

This project is, in my view, an absolute necessity to the future viability of this world-class site. Ninety thousand visitors are not coming to spend their time and money in Oak Park to see the contextual Italianate wood structure on Chicago Avenue. They are coming in busloads to see the Home & Studio. 

 With appreciation for the architectural professionals who have devoted their time, energy, and brainpower to give our village a strong stake in the future of the Home & Studio, we cannot miss this opportunity.

 Therefore, I urge our elected officials to take all steps necessary to protect this rare opportunity and recognize the priceless gift that the Home & Studio is to Oak Park by supporting this project.

Richard Katz, an Oak Park resident, is an Illinois-licensed architect and a certified interpreter for the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio.

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