Of course you know Frank Lloyd Wright. You probably learned about him in school, and you’ve probably seen photos of Fallingwater, the incomparable house built over a waterfall in the middle of the Pennsylvania woods. You might also know that Wright grew up in the Midwest before settling down in Chicago as a young, married man. But did you realize he built his first house in the late 1800s, right in Oak Park, or that it was the precursor for the most famous works of his career?
That’s right. Of the hundreds of architectural masterpieces Wright built, it all started with one when he was 21 years old, living just outside of Chicago. Over the 20 years he lived in Oak Park, the house underwent many transformations and additions as Wright tinkered with the layout, both to accommodate his growing family—he and his wife ultimately had six kids—and to experiment with design.
Once inside the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, you’ll find surprising details at every turn (and there are a lot of turns—it’s an old house full of narrow hallways). Just off of one room, a tree is preserved as it cuts through the middle of a passageway, just because Wright liked it. In another room, murals that hang behind large light fixtures (also designed by Wright) seem to come to life. In the Prairie-style studio next door, Wright exposes the tension system of chains that supports the roof and walls—a move most architects kept hidden. Then there are the walk-in closets and bathroom—luxuries at a time when most people were using outhouses and no one had such extensive storage.
But it might be the playroom that is most remarkable in the main house. Full of light, it’s a perfect example of Wright’s naturalist sensibility, with shades of browns and a subtle tulip design in the art glass. Here, Wright used the windows to toy with his cantilever design. It’s work that would later inform Fallingwater.
Why you should go
You like history or art, or you’re just plain nosy.
It’s one of the area's best architectural tours, and it’s inexpensive—$17 for adults. (Book tickets in advance.) Plus, parking is easy—you can often find a spot on one of the beautiful side streets. It's also a short drive for most to get to the house at 951 Chicago Avenue, about 11 miles from downtown Chicago.
When you’re done, you can stroll through the neighborhood for even more fine architecture, as Oak Park is home to the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright houses.
To see Wright’s family room—the kind of space that didn’t much exist in the late 1800s or early 1900s. While you’d think most families during that time would want their kids to sit quietly, the Wright family encouraged their children to climb up into the balcony overlooking the playroom and be adventurous, even putting on plays.
To see some of the most intricate art glass of Wright’s career.
To see it all—the architecture, the furniture and the art. Most of the furnishings in the house are original. Did you know that when a client contracted a house with Wright, they got a lot more than a house? He had a much larger vision for his customers—from the chairs to the carpet to even, at times, the lady of the house’s dress.
Photograph: Courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, James Caulfield
RECOMMENDED: Sleep in a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Rogers Park