Frank Lloyd Wright, considered by many to be one of the greatest American architects, spent the first 20 years of his career in Illinois at his studio in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. Unlike the striking skyscrapers of Chicago’s skyline, which stand in stark contrast to the natural beaches and rural farmland that surround the city, Wright believed in designing structures that were in complete harmony with humanity and its surroundings. Known as the “Prairie” style, Wright’s ground-breaking ideas ignited a design revolution and made the Chicagoland area an epicenter of pioneering architecture that exists to this day.
During his lifetime, Wright designed more than 1,000 structures, 532 of which were completed. Oak Park itself is home to 25 buildings designed or redesigned by Wright, more than anywhere else in the world! It’s no wonder that architecture enthusiasts from across the country and around the globe come to Illinois to marvel at Wright’s work.
While many of the private Wright homes still stand in Oak Park today, Illinois also boasts eight Wright structures that are open to the public. Visitors can take walking tours in Oak Park or go inside the B. Harley Bradley House in Kankakee, the site of what is widely acknowledged as the first ever “Prairie” style design. Additional Wright homes are available to tour in Chicago, Rockford and Springfield.
Chicago is home to three famous Wright designs— Charnley-Persky House, Robie House and The Rookery. Wright helped design The Charnley-Perskey House, located at 1365 N. Astor Street in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood while a junior draftsman at the Adler & Sullivan architecture firm in 1892. The house is considered internationally as a pivotal work of modern architecture. It also represents the extraordinary collaborative power of Wright and his original mentor, Louis Sullivan.
Across the river in downtown Chicago is The Rookery. Located at 209 South Lasalle St., The Rookery served as Wright’s downtown Chicago office in 1898, and a satellite for his Oak Park studio. In 1905, Wright was commissioned to update the interior design and plan of the light court and lobbies. He realized a stunning balance between Burnham & Root’s ornamental ironwork and his own vision to create a spectacular environment. The Rookery remains one of his most dramatic interior compositions.
The Frederick C. Robie House, located at 5757 S. Woodlawn Ave. on Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park, is a U.S. National Historic Landmark on the campus of the University of Chicago. In 1926, the house was sold to the Chicago Theological Seminary, which was interested in the site for purposes of future expansion. In 1941 a graduate student at the Illinois Institute of Technology accidentally discovered plans to demolish the Robie house and the subsequent outcry eventually lead to the Chicago City Council declaring the Robie House an official Chicago landmark. Considered an architectural masterpiece, the Robie House remains a cornerstone of modern functional form.
Oak Park, where Wright spent the first 20 years of his career, is another prime destination for exploring Wright’s work. His home and studio, an unusual complex located at 951 Chicago Avenue, served as Wright’s architectural laboratory where he tried out design concepts before sharing them with clients. Here, he raised six children with his first wife, Catherine Tobin, and designed such famous buildings as the previously discussed Robie House, Larkin Building and Unity Temple, also in Oak Park. The Unity Temple was Wright’s first public commission, and the only surviving public building from his Prairie period. With 25 Wright buildings in the neighborhood surrounding his home and studio, Oak Park is an outdoor museum of architectural history.
In Rockford, architecture enthusiasts can visit the Kenneth and Phyllis Laurent House, a single-story, solar hemicycle Usonian designed by Wright in 1949. It represents the only building ever designed by Wright for persons with disabilities, including Kenneth Laurent, who became paralyzed after undergoing surgery to remove a spinal tumor. The Laurents were the only owners of the house. In 2012 it was recognized by the National Park Service with a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Visitors to the state capital of Springfield will not want to miss the Dana-Thomas House at 301 E. Lawrence Avenue. Built for socialite Susan Lawrence Dana, a patron to the famous architect, the Dana-Thomas house reflects a shared affection Wright and Dana had for architectural organic to the flat landscape of Illinois and Japanese aesthetics as expressed in Japanese prints, of which Wright was an active dealer. Dana was a leading hostess in Springfield society and, thus, had her house designed for display and entertainment, with an arched doorway that invited guests into a series of expanding spaces, the vestibule and reception hall. The home contains the largest collection of site-specific, original Wright art glass and furniture.
With such a significant portion of Wright’s famous career represented in Illinois, his buildings draw thousands to the state each year. Architecture students along with artists, intellectuals and creatives from all walks of life come to experience Wright’s evolution as a designer. His work fuels the imagination and inspires ingenuity, and is likely the reason Chicago is today considered one of the ultimate destinations for architectural studies.
Though not all are open to the public, many of his 25 works located in the state can be seen from the exterior and are worth looking up before the next road trip or stroll through Chicago neighborhoods.
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