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Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Workshop in Oak Park Illinois

Timothy. C. Hain, M.D.


Frank Lloyd Wright (from here), who designed the buildings discussed. Interior view of the FLW Unity Temple (the FLW preservation trust, which operates the FLW home and Robie house, does not allow pictures.) The Unity Temple Foundation does.

I live in Chicago and I like Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture (FLW), so I thought I should check out the FLW home/workshop in Oak Park, Illinois. Oak Park is a near suburb to Chicago - - easily accessible by car or public transportation (a combination of Metro train and cab would be best I think -- it would be a very long walk from the Harlem Metro stop). Other interesting FLW places in Chicago are the Robie house (in Hyde Park), and the Prairie bookshop in downtown Chicago. The Unity temple is also close, but I have rather mixed feelings about the cost/benefit ratio of the tour as well as the propriety of selling tours to a house of worship (see below). If you are really a major FLW enthusiast -- OK - -see it. )

Oddly, the FLW house does not "look" like a FLW house from the outside -- it was Frank's first house, and from the outside it looks pretty much like an ordinary old Oak Park house. It does not have the "Prairie" look of later FLW houses (many of which line adjacent Forest avenue), but rather looks pretty much like an ordinary house. Curiously, there is presently some controversy concerning whether or not FLW designed many other houses in Oak Park, or whether these were imitation FLW houses.

The FLW house is operated, and I use this word intentionally, by the FLW preservation trust. This is a group that supports itself by selling FLW merchandise in many places and providing docents for tours of FLW property. As far as I can tell, the FLW people are don't create anything new themselves -- they just market and sell FLW's previous output, and prevent other people from accessing the output until they pay the foundation.

The FLW has a gift-shop in the house basement, which has almost the same merchandise as one can find in other FLW Preservation operated sites - -such as the Robie house in Hyde Park. Seems to me that there is room for a lot more merchandise.

A myriad of FLW organizations !

Curiously however, Taliesin East in Spring Green Wisconsin is operated by a different group - -Taliesin Preservation, Inc. Taliesin West in Phoenix is operated by a third group -- The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Of course, the Unity temple tours are operated by a 4th group -- Unity temple Restoration Foundation I wonder why these groups don't all get together and form a single foundation ?

The rant part -- The various FLW foundations (I will use FLW foundation as a generic term -- including the several organizations named above) have a built in conflict of interest between what is good for the greatest # of people (disseminating FLW's work) and what is good for the foundation - - in other words they make money by restricting access to FLW's work. If FLW's work were generally accessible, they wouldn't make any money. Thus, it is in their interest to restrict access. This conflict of interest is a natural one with intellectual property -- if intellectual property were easily accessed, then there would be no way to sell it. My thought though is that the FLW foundation takes this too far -- I think that as of 2008 -- FLW's work should be public domain.

As an example of the restriction process, during the tour, we were told that we could not take any pictures of anything in the house (flash or not). I see this as a shame as the house is full of interesting and instructive features. Another example of the conflict of interest was in the pricing structure -- the tours were rather unreasonable. They used a "one price for everything" methodology - -each of 3 tours costs $12. So, as a couple -- you could easily spend $50 on a walking tour. My thought is that $5 would be about right. The people at the FLW house didn't mention this, but practically for someone who really likes FLW and lives in Chicago, it would be cheaper to join the FLW preservation trust. For $55 one gets free admission to the Home- Studio and Robie house and a 10% discount on various FLW stuff.

We were also offered a $4 map of surrounding FLW houses - -my thought was that a group that was truly interested in FLW would not be selling $4 maps useful for 2 hours only. While the map is nice - - and perhaps something I might have purchased as a souveneer -- a xeroxed diagram would have been far more welcome at that particular point.

Perhaps I am cynical, but the FLW foundation group has a monopoly on some of FLW's work, and they seem to be using this leverage to extract as much cash as they can from the public. It seems likely (although not really documented) that the FLW foundation does something other than activities that support itself and organizers -- the foundation probably at least pays the property taxes, puts in air conditioning and maintains the property. I am certainly for that. I think the foundation might also attempt to buy up the surrounding FLW houses (given sufficient funding). It would be interesting to know more about the fiscal structure of the foundation, and how the income and outflow are distributed.

The rave part: Although the tour was expensive, I really liked the house and the tour -- the guide seemed to know his stuff in surprising detail. The house (seen on a sunny day in early Summer at about 4PM), was beautiful, due to the natural light coming in through the sky-lights and stained glass windows. I plan to come back on another day to take the neighbohrhood tour (another $12 I guess).

An interesting FLW trick that he put to great advantage in his own house was to use overhead skylights, with stained glass windows or grids overlaid on top. These are very neat.

FLW also seemed to be fond of simply using leaded panes in his windows -- without any colored glass. On the bottom floor, they are simple diamond shapes. On the second floor they are parabolas resembling a vault of a church ceiling. One would think that this simple and attractive design pattern could easily be put to use in contemporary buildings.

I was also fascinated to learn that FLW collected and dealt Japanese woodblock prints. Various prints (which don't look like the real thing) are thumbtacked up here and there throughout the house (the use of the fakes seems a bit "tacky" to me). There seems to me to be a great deal of similarity between FLW and Japanese lanterns, shoji screens, and art found in the Japanese shrines. The snapshot below shows a statue in an exterior garden of the house which reminds me of the stone lanterns that Japanese favor in their gardens.

Statue from exterior of Frank Lloyd Wright's house. The FLW Preservation trust does not allow the public to take pictures of the inside of the house.


© Copyright June 13, 2015 , Timothy C. Hain, M.D. All rights reserved.
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