At Frank Lloyd Wright's home, a lab for world-class architecture

Visitors to the Oak Park, Ill., Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio are in for a treat: A look at the place where the famed architect tried out some of the early innovations that would make him famous. CNET Road Trip 2013 takes a behind-the-scenes tour.

The dining room in the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio showcases several of the famed architect's innovations, such as windows made from art glass, hidden radiators, a skylight that matches the size of the table, and much more. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

OAK PARK, Ill. -- Before Frank Lloyd Wright became the most famous architect in the world, he was a struggling employee who had to borrow money from his boss to build his own house.

That house, and the adjoining professional studio, make up the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in this posh suburb of Chicago. I got a chance for a behind-the-scenes tour Monday as part of Road Trip 2013, and as a Wright fan who has toured other favorites like Taliesin West in Arizona, Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, and the Marin County Civic Center in California, this was a treat.

And why not? This stunning property, set amidst leafy trees, and close to a plethora of other Wright buildings, is where the young architect began his career in earnest. From 1889 to 1909 Wright lived and worked here, trying out many of the ideas that eventually became his signatures in what amounted to his own architectural lab. Those ideas included open floor plans, built-in furniture, windows that encouraged residents to see the nature outside, high ceilings, and much more.

When Wright moved in with his wife and newborn in 1889, he was still working for Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. Indeed, Wright needed to borrow $5,000 from Sullivan to afford the property. As part of his agreement with his boss, he wasn't allowed to moonlight, but needing money, he designed a number of what are known as "bootleg" houses, several of which can be found within a stone's throw of his own house. That moonlighting eventually got Wright fired.

The house he built was known as a shingle style, a popular design on the East Coast that had been brought to the Midwest by the architect Joseph Lyman Silsbee. It had a peaked roof, and featured many of Wright's now well-known flourishes: windows that let in lots of natural light, a building set far back from the street, high ceilings, and more. It was also an example of what Wright termed "organic architecture," meaning a building that was designed to blend in with the surrounding environment.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio is an example of what the famed architect called 'organic architecture.' Daniel Terdiman/CNET

While most Chicago buildings used standard red bricks on their facades, and relegated the use of earth-tone Chicago bricks to the side, Wright favored such tones, and decided he wanted to use the material on the front of his home. He also wanted sets, or bands, of windows that were side by side, rather than separated. And he chose a front door that was much wider than the norm.

Though Wright was at the vanguard of a new, modern, style of architecture, he was nevertheless a man who had grown up in the Victorian era, and his house could not avoid some artifacts from that age. An example is the classical frieze found in the molding of the house's entryway.

But walking into the house's living room, one could have told right away that they were in a new style of building. The room was large and flowing, rather than the standard of the time, which was smaller rooms, one after the next, with a door in between.

Another new idea he tried out here before implementing it in his commissions was the use of built-in furniture. He enjoyed that style because it maximized the use of space -- and gave him more control over the room.

Similarly, he wanted to bring the outside in, so he used lots of windows that brought in natural light, as well as views of the exterior. This would become one of his most famous design elements.

And not only did he want to let residents have views of the nature outside, he sometimes wanted to bring it physically inside. Here, he built an interior passageway around a willow tree, which was allowed to grow into the house. That original tree is now gone, but preservationists have done their best to recall it with a new tree.

Yet another innovation was the way he built hearths into many of the house's rooms, yet didn't put the flue directly above. He wanted to use that space for things like windows or mirrors, so he created double flues, with one on each side of the wall.

Throughout the house are brilliant and unexpected flourishes, such as a gorgeous skylight in the dining room -- that just happens to be exactly the same size as the dining room table below -- or radiators hidden in the floorboards. The building reflected a genius designer just coming into his own, trying out the ideas that would make him world famous on his own family and business.

A spectacular children's playroom had a gallery that allowed spectators to watch from above. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

As he struck out on his own, Wright grew to need a sizable space for the teams of draftsmen and artisans he employed. So, alongside the residence is a studio where Wright worked, met with clients, and kept on coming up with his famous ideas.

What better place, then, to try out things that would eventually become highly sought after than at home? For those who venture to Oak Park to take a look, an education in architectural experimentation awaits in Wright's lab.

 

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