A plea to the Wright Trust

Opinion: Columns

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Douglas Gilbert

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In 1889, Frank Lloyd Wright began a 130-year relationship with Oak Park when he built a modest home for his family at the corner of Chicago and Forest. At the time, Wright was an unknown apprentice architect, not the world-famous genius he would later be known as. And while Oak Park would be the heart of his early career where he developed his Prairie Style and changed architecture forever, at the time it was a tiny village with only a few thousand residents.

Wright's new home was a radical departure from houses of the 1880s. And as he added to it and eventually built a studio, the contrast of his work with the ordinary buildings of the day grew. It is that contrast that is now in jeopardy. 

The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust now wants to remove a historic house that provides that early contrast in order to build a much-needed visitor center. The house at 925 Chicago sits adjacent to what was Wright's property, and existed at the time Wright built his home. It is a typical house of the time: frame construction with a front gable and some Italianate details. It is the type of home most Oak Parkers lived in at the time. One can stand across Chicago Avenue and see the dramatic contrast between that house and Wright's own. Later homes in the neighborhood show the contrast between popular Victorian-era architecture, like the Queen Anne style, and Wright's low-slung, earth-hugging Prairie style. The Wright Historic District also has numerous examples of other architects' interpretation of the Prairie style, as well as later revival styles after the Prairie style fell out of favor. But the loss of 925 Chicago would eliminate a rare early example of a house from before Wright moved to Oak Park.

The effort to purchase and convert Wright's Home & Studio to a state-of-the-art house museum took extraordinary efforts by volunteers, village government and the National Trust for Historic Preservation over several decades, beginning in the 1970s. I have no doubt that the Wright Preservation Trust needs a new facility to keep itself relevant and to serve the thousands of visitors that still flock here from all over the world. I support the goals that this facility would achieve. But it cannot happen with disregard for the village's commitment to historic preservation. That commitment also dates back to the 1970s, and was reaffirmed in the '90s by a long court battle to prevent a house demolition. 

As the former chair of the Preservation Commission, I know firsthand how much pressure exists to redevelop historic buildings in our districts. It is constant and continues even today. What message would the village be sending to those developers if it allows this project to proceed as proposed? Why wouldn't it become open season on Oak Park's incredible wealth of historic architecture?

My plea to the Wright Preservation Trust: Please respect our architectural heritage in planning for the new visitor center. Find a reasonable way to build the new center without eliminating our history. For that, you will have my full support.

Douglas Gilbert is the former chair of the Historic Preservation Commission in Oak Park.

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