Chicago: Oak Park’s Frank Lloyd Wright and “Papa” Hemingway

I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.
– Frank Lloyd Wright, American architect and interior designer, Truth Against the World: Frank Lloyd Wright Speaks for an Organic Architecture

The front of Frank Lloyd Wright's first home and studio.

The front of Frank Lloyd Wright’s first home and studio.

When traveling with children, adults have to find the balance between visiting sites that children will enjoy and doing things they will enjoy. On our third day of our Chicago vacation from last week, it was our turn: We took the train to Oak Park, which is 10 miles west of the Chicago Loop, to tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s first home and studio and the other homes that he designed. While our kids weren’t thrilled to walk to 20 sites, they retained some of the information from the audio portion of the tour, which I consider a small victory.

Exterior detail of Wright's home.

Exterior detail of Wright’s home.

Oak Park became a destination for Chicagoans who fled for wide open spaces after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which killed hundreds and destroyed more than three miles of the city. So just in case the house next door went up in flames, one’s property line would be far enough away to be safe from catching fire. Our touring day could not have been any better – warm but pleasant, with low humidity and a slight breeze. Led by a guide, we saw his home and attached studio first, which had beautiful stained-glass and leaded-glass windows, built-ins, interesting ceiling lines, and sconces that showed off a house wired for electricity.

The beautiful children's room.

The beautiful children’s room.

Wright’s mother, to whom he was very close and who bought the house next door to his home, knew he was going to become a famous architect. His mother, who was a teacher, fostered this belief by hanging photos of buildings around his crib. The top floor of his home features a very large open room that was called the children’s room. He didn’t believe that children should be seen and not heard – the prevailing Victorian attitude. An interesting piece of information: His mother and wife developed the concept of kindergarten – no doubt in that great room – by letting their children play with building blocks, which was the foundation for the kindergarten curriculum. In addition, Wright’s son created Lincoln Logs.

The Frank Thomas House, 1901, 210 Forest Avenue.

The Frank Thomas House, 1901, 210 Forest Avenue, Oak Park.

Wright had to borrow money from his mentor and boss, Louis Sullivan, whom he called Lieber Meister for beloved master, in order to build the house for his wife and growing family. Sullivan helped shape Wright’s career and influenced what became known as the Prairie School of Architecture. They parted ways when Sullivan discovered that Wright had designed a number of homes on the side, which was a violation of his contract. The many homes we saw on the tour were in fact Wright’s early bootleg homes. They all represented the Prairie School of Architecture’s philosophy of being close to Nature. The style is characterized by earthy interior and exterior colors, horizontal lines, obscured front doors, rows of vertical windows, and integration with the landscape. The massive Unity Church was an artistic breakthrough for Wright, who realized while designing and building this church that “the reality of the building is the space within” – in other words, the walls and roof don’t define the building.

The Frederick C. Robie house in Chicago.

The Frederick C. Robie house in Chicago.

We also toured the Robie House (5757 South Woodlawn Avenue, Chicago, 312.994.4000), which is a U.S. National Historic Landmark located on the campus of the University of Chicago in the Hyde Park neighborhood. Wright considered this house the crowning achievement of the Prairie style and ultimately the structure that he cared about the most in terms of preservation. Designed and built between 1908 and 1911 for Frederick Robie, a successful businessman, and his family, the house cost nearly $60,000, which is the equivalent to approximately $1.3 million today. Interestingly enough, the built-in dining room cabinets are made of plywood, which at the time was a new technologically advanced building material.

The Nathan G. Moore House, 1895/1923, 333 Forest Avenue.

The Nathan G. Moore House, 1895/1923, 333 Forest Avenue, Oak Park.

Robie only lived there for a little over a year; he was forced to sell to pay off his father’s debts when his father passed away and his wife divorced him after finding out about his mistress and his frequent trips to brothels. Two more families lived in the house, with the last family selling it to a seminary, which turned it into a dormitory for married students. Two plans to demolish the house were defeated, with the last attempt in 1957 bringing out Wright, at age 90, to protest via a press conference. The house was saved and donated to the University of Chicago in 1963, and has been undergoing restoration since 1997 by the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust. There is still much to be done before the house is returned to its former glory, but historians have been working painstakingly to ensure that the house reflects its original state.

Hills-DeCaro House, 1896/1906, 313 Forest Avenue.

Hills-DeCaro House, 1896/1906, 313 Forest Avenue, Oak Park.

I have long been a fan of Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, and Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, mostly for their devotion to simplicity and attention to detail. Seeing the intricate patterns in the stained-glass windows and rugs and lighting fixtures, the murals in his first house, and the built-ins was definitely a spiritual moment for me and a very moving experience – you truly feel close to Nature. If you’re ever in Chicago, touring Oak Park and the architectural buildings in the City is a must to fully appreciate the history of this great area.

Hemingway’s legacy in Oak Park
As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.
– Ernest Hemingway, American author and journalist

Paying homage to "Papa" Hemingway in front of the house of his birth.

Paying homage to “Papa” Hemingway.

By the time we finished up our Frank Lloyd Wright tour and walked to Ernest Hemingway’s birthplace (339 N Oak Park Avenue, Oak Park, IL 60302, 708.848.2222), I only had an hour to do either the tour of his birthplace home or the museum. I could not do both. I stole a glance around the first floor of the three-story Victorian house, which was decorated in period style. When I was told by the guides that the tour focused on the first six years of his life in his grandfather’s house (his family moved afterwards to a house that his mother designed and had built) and that the museum, which is located in the Oak Park Arts Center (200 N Oak Park Avenue) a few blocks away, was comprehensive and focused on his writing career, I opted for the museum – while the kids grabbed a bite to eat. My appetite was literary.

The Oak Park Center, which houses the Hemingway Museum.

The Oak Park Center, which houses the Hemingway Museum.

I wish I could have done both, but the museum was a treasure trove of Hemingway memorabilia and had numerous artifacts that required more than an hour of one’s time to see and read everything, including two videotapes that were running in a loop. Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, and went to school through high school in Oak Park.

I took a seminar on Hemingway when I was an undergrad at UC Davis, and I loved reading his novels and short stories, sharing and discussing what was going on in his stories, and examining the structure and rhythm of his sentences and the choice of his words. One of the best pieces of advice Hemingway has given to other writers is his famous theory of omission, from Death in the Afternoon: If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. He also wrote, “Never confuse movement with action,” which is another great lesson for writers.

The crowded room that housed myriad photos and other memorabilia from Hemingway's life.

The crowded room that housed myriad photos and other memorabilia from Hemingway’s life.

I knew that he was an ambulance driver during WWI and was injured by trench mortar and machine gun fire while passing out supplies to soldiers in Italy in 1918. I knew that he fell in love with one of the nurses who cared for him and that she eventually gave in to his advances, but when he returned to the States, she wrote him a Dear John letter. It was fascinating to read Agnes Von Kurowsky’s letter. Little did she know that her letter would be displayed in a museum for all to read!

Some interesting things I learned: His high school teachers gave him a solid foundation for his writing. One teacher in particular had her pupils imitate the writing styles of well-known authors, which I think is a great exercise. Instead of going to college, Hemingway became a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star newspaper, which taught him to be the writer that he best known for: short sentences, short first paragraphs, and vigorous English. There were so many things to see and read that I could not get through in an hour. Another trip to Chicago warrants another trip to Oak Park, which is also a quaint, bucolic town by itself. After leaving the museum, I felt inspired and look forward to rereading some of Hemingway’s classic novels and short stories.

I leave you with this Hemingway quote: “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”

The Simpson Dunlop House, 1896 by E. E. Roberts, 417 Kenilworth Avenue. Not a Wright design, but just another beautiful home in Oak Park.

The Simpson Dunlop House, 1896 by E. E. Roberts, 417 Kenilworth Avenue. Not a Wright design, but just another beautiful home in Oak Park.