Frank Lloyd Wright’s Chicago

Do Wright right on these Chicago architecture tours.
By: Alan Solomon

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No architect was more influential in creating a uniquely American style than Frank Lloyd Wright, whose talent was nurtured in Chicago during his early association with architect Louis Sullivan and blossomed after he opened his own studio in neighboring Oak Park in 1889. Today, 17 structures linked to Wright exist within the city limits of Chicago. One is a shuttered factory. Most are homes. Four are located in Beverly, a leafy neighborhood on the city’s Far South Side. Two early Wright designs, which bear only hints of what would become the Prairie style he would eventually embrace -- and a third, a masterwork -- are situated a few blocks from Barack and Michelle Obama's home in the South Side Kenwood neighborhood, near the University of Chicago.

Photo by: Photographer: David Schalliol

Photographer: David Schalliol

The house on old-money Astor Street, a few blocks from the bustle of the Rush Street nightlife district, stunningly combines Wright's still-developing aesthetic sensitivities with those of his famous mentor, Louis Sullivan. Other examples -- dozens of them -- are scattered throughout the city and various suburbs.

To enjoy all the Wright-related properties, take a tour through the Chicago Architecture Foundation or the Frank Lloyd Wright Tour group.

The Chicago area boasts 3 Frank Lloyd Wright sites that are essential stops for any Wright fan. All 3 are open to the public and all 3 are located near more Wright structures.
The first stop is Robie House, surrounded by the University of Chicago (which owns it). It was completed in 1910, when Wright's skills and his devotion to Prairie style were in full flower. The horizontal rooflines, the geometrical patterns in the stained glass, the light fixtures and furniture are so Prairie and oh, so Wright. The house provides a story itself. Lived in for only a few months by the Frederick C. Robie family for whom it was designed, it passed through a succession of owners until 1926, when the Chicago Theological Seminary converted it into a dormitory.

Today it's maintained by the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, which offers tours and works tirelessly to restore it and keep the beautiful place from falling apart.
3. Wright Home & Studio
Essential stop number 2 is the Wright-designed studio-home in Oak Park, a suburb immediately west of the Chicago city limits. The original house was built in 1889, in part thanks to a $5,000 loan from Sullivan, Wright's then-boss. After a series of expansions and tinkerings, the combination house and studio looks today as it did in 1909, thanks to a series of restorations. For a time, it was subdivided into 6 apartments.
Walk out the gift-shop door and take a left on Forest Avenue, and within a couple of blocks you will spot 6 Frank Lloyd Wright houses.

One, at 333 Forest, is an early 1895 design (adjusted later after a fire), which from the outside shows little of the architect's trademark elements and is, in fact, kind of a stylistic mess. But the others are pure FLW, notably the Heurtley House (1902) at 318 Forest, which with its sleek rooflines and earthen materials practically screams Prairie. Nine more Wright houses are on neighboring streets, making this a don't-miss tour for students of the man's work.
Essential Stop No. 3, also in Oak Park on Lake Street, is Unity Temple. When it opened for business in 1908, it was unlike any church anyone had seen anywhere, and perhaps still is.

"They teach it in every art school and architecture school in the world," says volunteer greeter Brian Flora, whose sign-in sheet typically has more foreign signatures than American. "It broke the box."

From the outside, the church looks a bit like a multilevel concrete bunker, in stark contrast to the ornate, steepled churches of the time that still dot the neighborhood. But the inside is a wonder of elegant yet functional simplicity and is classic Frank Lloyd Wright: much use of unpainted wood, hanging light fixtures that combine geometric supports and unadorned globes, splendid natural light and, seen so often in Wright homes, a fireplace as a gathering spot.

It's still a working church, now Unitarian Universalist, and serves as a performance venue and community meeting place.

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