OAK PARK, Ill.
Frank Lloyd Wright died 50 years ago, but if he were alive today, he'd like what Mark and Sallie Smylie have done to his 1906 Hills-DeCaro House.
Honoring the master architect while incorporating modern innovations, the Smylies installed an up-to-date kitchen showcasing prairie-style cabinetry and fixtures such as pocket doors with art-glass panels modeled on Wright's window design. An adjacent bathroom was renovated with board-and-batten walls like those in the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio down the block. The enclosed veranda has been restored to its exterior appearance with stucco walls and rough-sawn trim, while the terra cotta floor has been cleaned and repaired.
The Hills-DeCaro House isn't normally open to the public, but visitors will be able to see all this and more on May 16 as part of the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust's 35th annual Wright Plus Housewalk 2009.
Mark Symlie, who has been working on the house since he bought it eight years ago and describes it as "a great place to raise our three children and two dogs, not a museum," will be on hand, along with trained volunteer docents. They'll lecture on historical and architectural details, such as the fact that the prairie-style stucco house started out as an 1870s frame Victorian that Wright remodeled, and after it was devastated by a fire in 1976 — the first floor fireplace and built-in oak cabinets were among the few furnishings to survive — the then-owners rebuilt using the architect's drawings.
The home originally was a wedding gift to Edward Hills and his wife, Mary, from her father, Nathan Moore, who owned the splendid mansion to the north, also designed by Wright. You can look out the Hills-DeCaro's windows for a glimpse of a delightful ticket booth from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, as well as three more Wright houses on Forest Avenue.
In fact, Oak Park and neighboring River Forest boast the largest collection of Wright houses anywhere, 31 in all. Every year the Wright Plus Housewalk, which began as a Preservation Trust fundraiser for the restoration of the Home and Studio, includes eight private residences as well as three public buildings: the Home and Studio, Unity Temple, and Robie House in Hyde Parkstory on Page 6).
Michele Donley, Wright Plus coordinator, says the initial all-Wright repertoire has expanded to houses by his contemporaries working mostly in the prairie style. "Visitors can see the blossoming of American architecture from the late 19th into the early 20th century," she points out.
Besides Hills-DeCaro, the Wright homes on this year's tour include the 1897 George W. Furbeck House, with a pair of conical roof-topped octagonal towers flanking an octagonal living room (reflecting the same octagon obsession as the Studio, built the same year), and the 1909 Laura Gale House, which the architect deemed a precursor to his famous Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, though all the elements, including cantilevered balconies and art-glass windows, are in miniature. A bold departure from everything around it, the Laura Gale House was designed just before Wright boldly abandoned his family and practice, escaping to Europe with his lover Mamah Cheney (the wife of a client), escapades that are covered in two novels, T.C. Boyle's The Women and Nancy Horan's Loving Frank. He left his associates to supervise construction.
Full houses normal for annual tour
About 3,000 regulars and newcomers are expected on the tour and it has sold out the last couple of years (with people trying to buy last-minute tickets on Craig's List). The self-guided tour allows you to visit the homes in any order. The number of people allowed in at a time varies with the size and layout of the building, but it is usually 10 to 12; guests move from room to room as the docents deliver their spiels. This means you can expect lines.
Donley also suggests arriving at the beginning or end of the day when waits are short; get there by closing, 5 p.m., and you'll be allowed in. Wright novices should start at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, because it functioned as a laboratory of his ideas from 1889 to 1898 and illuminates elements you'll see elsewhere — and a few he discarded. Wear comfortable shoes and be sure to stroll around the neighborhood observing the jaw-dropping diversity of architectural styles. Consider leaving Robie House for another day; it's half-an-hour drive away.
Anne Spiselman is a freelance writer based in Chicago.