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Fight for your Wright

State budget cuts may close Frank Lloyd Wright's Dana-Thomas House.

Photograph: Copyright Doug Carr, Courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency
SUMAC ATTACK A window from the Dana-Thomas House (inset, 1902–1904) evokes local plants.

Unless Illinois lawmakers take immediate action, one of the most important Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the U.S. will close October 15.

The Dana-Thomas House (301 E Lawrence Ave) in Springfield, Illinois, which Wright completed in 1904 for socialite Susan Lawrence Dana, is “the most complete early [Wright] home in existence anywhere in the world,” according to site manager Donald Hallmark. Unlike Wright’s 1898 home and studio in Oak Park, the Dana-Thomas House is a definitive example of his famous Prairie style. And unlike the Robie House in Hyde Park, it retains almost all of its Wright-designed custom furniture, sconces, and 450 dazzling stained-glass windows, doors and chandeliers. It’s thus one of the only places where the true extent of Wright’s “top to bottom” design genius is still visible, Hallmark says. (When we visited the Dana-Thomas House earlier this month, we learned it also has its own bowling alley.)

Unfortunately, Gov. Rod Blagojevich doesn’t seem to be an architecture buff. On August 28, his administration announced it would lay off about 450 state workers—and close 23 state parks and historic sites—to help make up a $2 billion gap in Illinois’s 2009 budget. The cuts strip $2.8 million from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA), forcing the Dana-Thomas House to fire four of its five full-time employees and turn away its 120 volunteers. Visitor tours will cease. The single staffer left behind will be responsible for maintaining the 12,600-square-foot property, says Hallmark, warning that this strategy takes “tremendous risks” in leaving the house more vulnerable to damage and theft. Yet, given that Blagojevich’s budget cuts eliminate 300 jobs in the Department of Children and Family Services—endangering abused kids—should Chicagoans worry about an eccentric Springfield heiress’s mansion?

If we don’t—if the governor abandons the state’s tourist attractions—we’re “shooting ourselves in the foot,” says Regina Albanese, executive director of the nonprofit Dana-Thomas House Foundation. “They say they’re cutting ‘nonessential items.’ When did the economy of the state of Illinois become ‘nonessential?’ ” Albanese explains that thousands of out-of-state visitors come to Springfield every year to tour its Abraham Lincoln shrines; she’s met plenty who decided to stick around an extra day to visit the Dana-Thomas House—and patronized local restaurants, hotels and other businesses.

Illinois state representative Donald L. Moffitt (R–Galesburg), who cosponsored a bill to restore the IHPA’s funding with Mike Boland (D–Moline), agrees that historic sites should be seen as “revenue generators.” Moffitt adds, “Tourism is generally considered Illinois’s number two industry. It’s a clean industry; it’s a growing industry. We just have to market it properly.” James Peters, president of the nonprofit Landmarks Illinois, believes that closing the Dana-Thomas House “after all the investment that was made is so shortsighted.”

Once she lost her fortune, Dana sold the house in 1944. It was purchased and used as an office building by publisher Charles C. Thomas; thanks to his preservation, the state purchased the property unusually intact. A three-year, $5 million renovation project, completed in 1990, restored the house to its former glory.

Hallmark says it’s impossible to estimate how much the house and its contents are worth today since a collection of that size has never gone on the market. But he’s confident the house is “worth much more than it was” when Illinois bought it for $1 million in 1981 at the urging of then-governor James R. Thompson. (In 2002, a lamp from the house—one of a few objects that were lost—went for almost $2 million at Christie’s.)

IHPA spokesman Dave Blanchette insists his agency appreciates the Dana-Thomas House’s significance—but he says, with half its funding slashed, the IHPA must focus its resources on the historic sites with the greatest attendance. The Dana-Thomas House receives 40,000–45,000 visitors per year: too few to compete with Illinois’s Abraham Lincoln sites, especially during the sixteenth president’s 2009 bicentennial. Blanchette won’t blame Blagojevich, citing the state law that requires the governor to balance the budget. He suggests it was easiest for the governor to target the IHPA because it’s the only state agency “with no state or federally mandated programs.” But if the IHPA’s funding is restored, Blanchette hopes the house could reopen as soon as July 1, 2009, when fiscal 2010 begins.

That will be too late for the Dana-Thomas House’s staff—and some legislators are trying to speed up the process. On September 10, the Illinois House of Representatives passed three bills that call for restoring the IHPA funds. Moffitt, who’s put his own bill on hold as a result, says a “funds sweep” would make up the shortfall by tapping state bank accounts that contain extra money from various fees.

The bills must now be approved by the State Senate and the governor. At press time, Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr. is asking the governor to keep the threatened historic sites open until the Senate returns for the November veto session. (The governor has agreed to keep the parks open until November 30. The historic sites’ doomsday has already been postponed from Wednesday 1, reportedly because the layoffs can’t be processed fast enough.) Some state senators are pressuring Jones to call an early special session to consider the bills—but that would involve doing something before the election.

To find out how to contact Blagojevich and the State Senate about the cuts, visit landmarks.org. To learn more about why the Robie House will offer fewer tours as of October 31, visit timeoutchicago.com/blog.

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