Frank Lloyd Wright was not one for humility.
Famously, a story in “Look” magazine written two years before his death in 1959 reported that Wright, in the courthouse, waggishly agreed on the witness stand that he was then the world’s greatest living architect. When his wife protested, chiding him for his arrogance, Wright snapped back: “You forget, Olgivanna, I was under oath.”
The self-described world’s greatest architect believed the homes he designed should complement their surroundings. Homes, he felt, were not static, but spaces capable of exerting a pull on the environment — and vice versa.
“No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it,” wrote Wright in his autobiography. “Hill and house should live together, each the happier for the other.”
The Glencoe Historical Society is celebrating this way of thinking by honoring the centennial anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright in Glencoe, switching only one thing — the topography. It is trading hills in favor of the village’s ravines, while honoring the architect’s prairie-style homes.
“[Frank Lloyd Wright] was terrific with these large, beautiful homes, but he also had this desire to create affordable housing,” says president of the Glencoe Historical Society Board of Directors Karen Ettelson. Capitalizing on the opportunity, Wright, along with friend and business partner Sherman Booth, developed seven properties that make up the Ravine Bluffs subdivision in Glencoe.
Wright had just returned from a scandalous romp in Europe with a client’s wife — leaving behind his wife and children in Oak Park — when Booth commissioned the acclaimed architect to build a mansion-size residence on 15 acres of triangular land in Glencoe. It was never built, “basically because it was too expensive,” notes Ettelson.
However, the drawings remain, which hint at the excess that may well have been the project’s downfall. (The project called for stables, a tennis court, landscape design by noted landscape architect Jens Jenson, and an elaborate bridge that would lead to the property.) Seizing on the chance to subdivide, Booth and Wright decided to cut the land into smaller lots and sell them off. Seven of the 25 proposed lots were eventually constructed, including the bridge, the only Wright-designed bridge ever built.
Those seven homes, along with two pre-existing buildings, give Glencoe the third largest concentration of Wright’s designs in the world.
Built in the prairie style that Wright made famous, the smaller properties in Ravine Bluffs allowed him to flex his creative muscles. “A Fireproof House for $5,000” appeared in the “Ladies’ Home Journal” in April 1907 written by Wright. It called for an inexpensive home made of concrete, effectively making it fireproof. The Edmund F. Brigham house, built in Glencoe in 1915, is a variation of this design, featuring roof overhangs that extended significantly over the concrete walls of the house.
In September, a house walk will allow guests to tour properties like the Brigham house, which haven’t been open to the public in over 20 years.
“Even with the smaller homes, which is what most of these are — there’s a draw to them, not only for architects but also for Wright aficionados,” says Eddis Goodale, an architect and co-chair of the GHS Ravine Bluffs Centennial Committee. “Particularly since there’s been very little experience of these homes, they’re private — they have not been open to the public.”
“I think the other interesting thing about [them] was that today we talk about environmentally friendly and green architecture, and [Wright] was doing that and talking about it more than 100 years ago,” adds GHS Treasurer and Committee Co-Chair Adam Steinback.
The GHS has various programs planned throughout the year with the goal of celebrating the architect’s influence on Glencoe. A public art project, Wright Around Town, modeled after Chicago’s Cows on Parade, will allow artists to design replicas of the Wright-designed street markers that delineate the boundaries of Ravine Bluffs. GHS will also unveil the results of new historical research at an exhibit opening at 375 Park Avenue museum this spring — culminating in a new book in the fall — that features three of Booth’s grandchildren who are providing “quite a few never-before-seen aspects” of the town’s history, says Ettelson.
And programs like Wright in Context, starting at 5 p.m. this Sunday at the Glencoe Public Library, 320 Park Avenue, will provide more information for those interested in hearing about Wright’s life and career from architect and Glencoe resident Peter Van Vechten, who has lived in the Lute F. Kissam House in Ravine Bluffs for many years.
“A lot of people look at [Wright] and his buildings solely from an architectural perspective: the various features, the details,” says Ettelson. “But one of the things I think that’s impressed all of us, and has impressed us even more as we’ve gotten into it, is the story here of the people behind these buildings.”