Local residents contributed to preserving Wright legacy

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Christine Gawne Vernon

John Eifler is a former board member of Landmarks Illinois and the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. He is considered an expert on matters of architectural and historical value. His opinions carry a lot of credibility. So it was interesting to read that this expert is not only opposed to the idea of the demolition of the Italianate House at 925 Chicago Ave. next to the Frank Lloyd Wright properties; he is also opposed to using that 20,000 square feet for the proposed 8,000- to 9,000-square-foot visitor center. 

His opinion is shared by many of us residents opposed to the demolition and special use of a residential property adjacent to Frank Lloyd Wright's Home & Studio. The disturbing lack of historical perspective on the evolution of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio, and its place and relationship with the neighbors and neighborhood, since its founding, is truly amazing. Mr. Eifler said the current Frank Lloyd Wright Trust Board has "members with little architectural and preservation training experience." That is exactly as it appears to many of us residents who have worked to safeguard the FLW Home & Studio, some of us for almost half a century.

My husband grew up in "Roberts Stable" at 317 N. Euclid Ave., beginning in the 1950s, and it was his family home until the 1990s. They were good stewards of this property, keenly aware of its significance. The structure was first built by Burnham and Root as a stable for the Roberts House at 321 N. Euclid. It was later remodeled by Frank Lloyd Wright. Charles White remodeled the structure a third time. The home is a trifecta when you consider the architects involved in the evolution of Roberts Stable. (The summary of this history, changing over the years, as more information comes to light, is in a "Research Report for Wright Plus 2018" by Sue Blaine.)

During our years of restoring our houses, my father-in-law gave my husband a newspaper clipping about his maternal grandmother going over to Scoville Park to wash Frank Lloyd Wright's horse trough down because it was too filthy for any horse to drink water from it. It was then that I got a sense that family interest in taking care of local architecture went back several generations in both of our families.

My parents owned 418 S. Harvey, the Griffith House by John Van Bergen for almost 60 years. In terms of zoning, the neighborhood was the most architecturally diverse part of Oak Park consisting of multifamily units and single-family homes. That is where I grew up and it quickly began changing in the 1950s and '60s when it came under siege by developers. There were four single-family homes in a row on our side of the street in between a two-flat and a three-flat. There were three massive three-story apartment buildings a house away on Washington Boulevard. 

Over time, all the single-family homes to the east side of us, and to the west of us, were demolished in favor of some pretty soulless and hastily-built architecture. The most architecturally significant thing I remember is when architect, Paul Sprague, an expert on the work of Wright and Prairie School architects, came to see 418 S. Harvey and my father, a plumbing contractor, showed him the house. They went outside and I went with them. My father showed him that the foundation was clay tile. Paul Sprague was surprised by that fact, but my father recognized it was unusual and significant.

Around this time, when we bought a rowhouse at Forest and Ontario, the Home & Studio was given into the hands of Wright's trusted roofer, an Oak Park resident and businessman whose grandson had been my husband's college roommate, Tom Tuscher. The Tuscher Family, whose business was still operating in Oak Park, were custodians who "saved" the home from an uncertain future. The Tuscher Family preserved and handed over the house to a formal organization for safekeeping, the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 

The Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio became a formal entity in 1974. Then, the 13-year restoration began. It became a national landmark in 1976, owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Today it is operated as a museum and had a name change from The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust to simply The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust.

In 1976, the Hills House at 313 Forest was destroyed by fire. The house was owned by Tom and Irene DeCaro. The DeCaros' insurance was not going to cover the cost of restoration. Neighbors made the decision to open 12 houses to the public in order to help the DeCaros rebuild their home. The neighbors moved into action to open those homes to the public on one day, in order to raise money to help the DeCaros who were not obligated to rebuild in any way, and at that time there was no ban against demolition. 

The Neighbors' Housewalk got international coverage, which ultimately attracted people from around the world and made more than $20,000 to help the DeCaro family. The Home & Studio was not involved in this endeavor. 

The Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976. One of the things that we heard repeatedly was that Oak Park had a "living historic district," that the buildings were still being used for the purpose for which they were designed. Unity Temple was still a church, FLW's houses were still family homes and the same was true of his students' houses. A living historic district was said to be preferable to a district that looks like an empty Hollywood stage set where buildings become simply empty edifices, where people wear costumes, reenact and explain the past, closing up the buildings at night, and going home to their real homes. Preservationists at the state and federal level as well as architects encouraged renovation and helped create a unique point of pride in the residents who were doing their part to protect this living historic district.

Bigger battles and concerns for Oak Parkers involved development and the village's willingness to easily issue "special use" permits. Those included the twin 55-story towers suggested in the Rohrbach plan in the late 1960s … which the village approved. When that was defeated by Oak Parkers, the board then approved a proposed 35-story tower for Forest and Lake that came to be known as the Stankus Tower. Again, Oak Parkers worked to defeat that monstrosity and ultimately HUD found the project to be not feasible economically. 

It was residents who worked to defeat these ill-advised ideas and plans that were approved by the village board. The problem with special-use permits continues, most recently, the pressure to develop the Golub property across from the library. Golub's proposed project again threatens to block the sunlight to Unity Temple, recently named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Putting the proposed visitor center behind Wright's mother's house sounds like one of the ugly stepdaughters trying to force her foot into Cinderella's shoe. A building that is going to have "events" and, in essence, be a commercial enterprise, does not belong on a lot zoned residential in a residential neighborhood. http://flwright.org/visitor-center.

Christine Gawne Vernon is a fourth generation Oak Parker, a 47-year resident in the neighborhood of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio, and a writer with a special interest in public advocacy.

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Christine Vernon  

Posted: August 4th, 2019 6:48 PM

Another expert, Lisa DiChiera weighed in on this controversy respresenting Landmarks Illinois, in a letter in the WJ on July 23, 2019 saying pointedly, "Landmarks Illinois understands, and even commends, Frank Lloyd Wright Trust's goal of creating a new visitor center that would allow more people to learn about America's most noted architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, at Wright's Home & Studio in Oak Park. However, we cannot support such an effort if it means removing and altering historically significant properties." Their organization is dedicated to protecting and preserving Illinois landmarks. "Nearly 250 preservation, civic, and business leaders have served on Landmarks Illinois' board since the organization's founding in 1971." https://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/7-23-2019/Landmarks-Illinois-opposes-Wright-Trust-house-removal-plan/

Susan Montgomery from Chicago  

Posted: July 31st, 2019 3:15 PM

First, I'd like to say that I am a volunteer with the FLW Trust and proud to be affiliated with such an amazing organization. I'd also like to add my comments to this thoughtful opinion piece written by a dear friend and longtime neighbor of my family's. I've known Christine Vernon since the days prior to the founding of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio. I grew up on Elizabeth Court when the house museum first opened. At the time, government leaders and museum founders promised that the museum's operation as a business in a residential areas would be closely monitored so as not to impact the neighborhood. I might also add that the museum's outdoor tours have benefited from the efforts of neighbors who invest 10's of thousands of dollars (and more) each year to maintain their historic homes. I'm saddened that the Trust's board lacks that appreciation of historical knowledge in their current proposal to demolish one of Oak Park's oldest homes and a contributor to the charm of this historic area. While I fully understand the Trust's desire to have a space adjacent to the museum in order to accommodate an expanding number of visitors, and to hold special events in a lovely residential neighborhood, their proposal would add to the subtle erosion of the predominantly single-family residential nature of the area. There is no real reason that the Trust could not seek to operate a visitor's center in the Downtown area of Oak Park.

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