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Doing the Wright Thing

The state of Illinois' spectacular restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright's Dana-Thomas House was carried out, in the words of a former Wright apprentice, "the way God would if he had the money."

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Forget the State Capitol. Forget Lincoln's home. Forget Lincoln's Tomb. The most beautiful man-made object between Interstate 80 and the Saint Louis Arch is the house at the corner of Fourth and Lawrence streets in Springfield that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Susan Lawrence Dana 88 years ago.

Today the house--along with its 103 pieces of furniture and about 450 pieces of exquisite art glass, all designed by Wright--belongs to the state. Unlike any other surviving Wright house from early in the century, this one--now known as the Dana-Thomas House after its first and second owners--contains an amazing 95 percent of the original furniture and decorative glass Wright designed for it. At Governor James Thompson's instigation, the state paid $1 million for it in 1981, and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has just spent three years and another $5 million to restore it to its prime. "My intent," says restoration architect Wilbert Hasbrouck, "is that the house should have the same impact on a visitor today as it would have in 1910, and I think we've succeeded."

Site superintendent Donald P. Hallmark expects more than 100,000 people a year to visit the building after it officially reopens September 7. At that rate, tourism revenues (in sales and gasoline taxes--admission to the house is free) would soon repay the state's investment, and perhaps assuage those who think $6 million is a lot of money to put into any one house.

Why would Chicagoans want to travel 200 miles southwest to see a Wright home? After all, you can see a larger number of his revolutionary and beloved "prairie houses"--most built between 1901 and 1909--on a stroll around a few blocks in Oak Park than anywhere else in the world. Even a novice can spot their strong, simple horizontal lines, their low, wide chimneys, and their horizontal bands of windows.

But only a few of them are open to the public and then only once a year. So most of the time you can see only their outsides. The rest of the prairie- house idea--flowing interior spaces instead of separate rooms, earth-tone color schemes, a minimum of extraneous decoration--is hidden. (Wright's Oak Park home, his base from 1889 to 1909, has been restored and is fascinating, but it was built too early to be considered a full-fledged prairie structure.) Only two true prairie houses, authentically furnished and restored as residences, are open to the public year-round, inside and out --the small Meyer May House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, restored by Steelcase Inc. in 1987, and the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield.

Most Wright houses pose problems for sales and delivery people--they can't find the front door. But not the Dana-Thomas House. Concentric brick arches above the entrance welcome visitors (and remind architecture buffs of the transportation building at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair Columbian Exposition, built by Wright's mentor Louis Sullivan. Dana probably insisted that her front door be conspicuous--it's hard to entertain grandly if your guests can't find their way in.

Inside the front door is a small low-ceilinged room with a sculpture, in white terra-cotta by Richard Bock, of an architect contemplating a skyscraper. "The sculpture keeps you from seeing very far into the house," says Hasbrouck. "You feel pulled to the left, up a staircase, around a corner--all rather dark and under low ceilings. And you suddenly come into this huge open space with its vivid colors and the windows over the doorway and the fireplace hearth that you couldn't see before."

This is vintage Wright--the seemingly effortless conversion of space and light into drama, just in an entryway. In a recent issue of the Illinois Historical Journal, Donald Hallmark described this reception area and the two other two-story gathering places in the house as its "emotional highlights . . . all related but remarkably different, like the major themes of a symphony. These themes are connected by rich and subtle passages of glass, rough-textured plaster, oak woodwork, and a stunning variety of architectonic furniture pieces and built-ins."

Even so, it is possible to forget the age of the house and the genius it took to build it 88 years ago. In a sense, Wright's work has become the victim of his success. The revolution of the early 1900s is the common sense of today: every time you strip paint off wood to let the grain show, every time you knock out a wall to open up a space, every time you visit a suburban ranch house, you are under Wright's influence. His ideas have become so much a part of the culture that you can tour a house of his and think, what a nice place--and forget that it was designed when your grandfather was a boy.

In 1901, when Wright conceived the prairie house, Queen Victoria ruled England and its "empire on which the sun never set." Theodore Roosevelt was president. Automobiles were sputtering, exotic toys for the adventurous rich; no airplane had ever flown. Women wore corsets and couldn't vote. And well-to-do families housed themselves in elaborately decorated wedding-cake houses, whose turrets and flourishes enclosed a series of boxlike rooms whose wallpapered walls were crammed with knickknacks and photographs. One historical style was piled atop another, to great excess; novelist Edith Wharton wrote that if an upwardly mobile businessman "had omitted a style, his friends might have thought the money had given out."

Wright detested these houses with the passion every revolutionary has for the establishment. "Our aesthetics are dyspeptic from incontinent indulgence in 'Frenchite' pastry," he wrote in the Architectural Record in 1908. "We crave ornament for the sake of ornament; cover up our faults of design with ornamental sensualities that were a long time ago sensuous ornament. We will do well to distrust this unwholesome and unholy craving and look to the simple line; to the clean though living form and quiet color for a time, until the true significance of these things has dawned for us once more. The old structural forms which up to the present time, have spelled 'architecture' are decayed."

Hasbrouck suggests that Wright's reputation has been the victim of his showmanship. He cultivated the image of a flamboyant artiste, a dogmatic prima donna among prima donnas--dictatorial to his clients and insufferable to his staff.

This image couldn't possibly have been the real Wright, says Hasbrouck. "If I hear one more time how he was arrogant, I'm going to throw up." Consider the quality and quantity of the work coming out of his studio during the golden years of 1901 to 1909. (Wright lived and worked until 1959, but according to Hasbrouck, "He could have died in 1915 and still be the greatest architect of all time.") During that decade Wright designed 169 buildings, of which 106 were built. That's about one design every three weeks, and it's not assembly-line stuff. About 50 of those buildings are now part of the National Register of Historic Places, and several--the Robie House in Hyde Park, Unity Temple in Oak Park--are, according to Hasbrouck, "among the most important buildings in the world."

"He accomplished this feat with an office of only about a dozen people," says Hasbrouck. Many of his helpers became highly competent architects in their own right, but none was Wright's equal. Hasbrouck concludes that to achieve what he did Wright had to have been "an incredibly efficient manager of architecture" as well as a great designer. And he had to have had the full confidence of his clients. "You don't average a commission every three weeks for ten years by being arrogant."

The 34-year-old Wright and the 39-year-old Susan Lawrence Dana apparently met in early 1902, possibly through Jane Addams, a friend of both. Following the deaths of her husband in 1900 and her father in 1901, Dana decided to remodel her family's 1868 Italianate home in Springfield, turning it into an entertainment and artistic center.

You might not expect an architect of Wright's views to be too excited about such a commission. But Dana, the only child of a self-made millionaire, was used to getting her way. And, as it turned out, Wright was too.

Somewhere on the way from the initial commission to the finished product, the remodeling project became an almost entirely new house. We know this happened sometime in 1903, but we don't know how. (The building and its contents have survived the decades amazingly well, but Dana's correspondence has not.) We can guess, though: Hasbrouck, in the course of publishing the Prairie School Review from 1964 to 1978, visited about 50 surviving Wright clients, most of whom had employed Wright in his later years. "They all had certain things in common. They were all convinced that their house was exactly what they wanted, that it was Wright's favorite, and that they really designed it themselves with a little help from him. And they loved him. I never met a single client who disliked him. I'm dead sure Mrs. Dana would say the same things."

Present-day guesses put the cost of the house to Dana at somewhere between $60,000 (Hallmark) and $120,000 (Hasbrouck)--at a time when a typical midwestern eight-room, two-story masonry house could be had for $4,000. It was Wright's largest commission up to that time. The house was built in two two-story units connected by a "conservatory" hallway, with a large enclosed garden. Its size alone would have made it noteworthy in the town, but it seems to have bewildered the locals. Its red tile roof suggested Spain to some; its saucily slanted copper gutters reminded others of Japan. Its windows with their subtly colored geometric patterns echoed the native sumac; the long horizontal lines of its roof and tan brickwork echoed the flat central Illinois prairie itself.

But the house was no throwback: it was one of the first homes in Springfield to be lit by electricity, though it did include gaslights in case the "juice" failed. (The old 14-candlepower bulbs have been restored.) There was even a master switch at Dana's bedside, so that she could illuminate strategic spots throughout the house if she was alarmed. The concealed radiators and unconcealed multistation intercom system were state-of-the-art.

"Simple" is not a word one automatically associates with the Dana-Thomas House. Its up-to-date gadgetry, statuary, barrel-vaulted gallery, musicians' balconies, and omnipresent art glass surely make it one of the grandest three-bedroom homes ever built. In fact, Wright biographer Brendan Gill put it down as a "freakish structure" and a "gargantuan folly" and not a prairie house at all. (Donald Hallmark suggests Gill's opinion lacks credibility, since he disliked Wright's other large houses as well.) One suspects that Gill--whose biography alternates between worship and contempt--has transferred his distaste for the client onto the structure.

Wright's designs almost always reflect the client as much as the architect. For example, the south-facing living-room windows in the Meyer May House were scaled precisely so that its owner, a man of short stature, could gaze directly out of them at the street below. Taller visitors find themselves staring at a wooden molding. Likewise, the Dana House reflected its owner's interest in entertaining on a grand scale, and it may be that Gill was just the wrong height to appreciate that.

To celebrate her home's completion in December 1904, Dana hosted a series of lavish parties--for the workmen and their families (155 people), for children, for residents of a local old- people's home, and for the Springfield Women's Club.

For the next 15 years or so the house was a glittering Springfield landmark--especially between 1905 and 1913, when her friend Charles S. Deneen was governor. From it Dana conducted charitable works, campaigned for women's suffrage, and led the fight for an equal-rights law ("I am convinced that all men are liars!" she stormed after its defeat in committee in 1923). During these years she made two changes in the house that proved significant for later owners--she added screens to many windows and shellacked the woodwork so that it didn't have to be waxed every few months.

After World War I, she was older, the house quieter. A longtime believer in spiritualism--she consulted her father's spirit regularly by occult means and had insisted that his Victorian study, with its mantelpiece and furniture, be preserved within the new house--she came to host the Lawrence Center for Constructive Thought. In 1928 her invalid Aunt Florence, who had lived with her for many years, died, and the house began to seem too large for her alone. Around the same time the downtown district-heating system that had supplied the house's radiators with steam was turned off, and the house began to seem unmanageable. Dana moved to the smaller (non-Wright) house next door. By the late 1930s the big house, unheated in winter, was virtually abandoned.

But not by its architect. Frank Lloyd Wright had taken to traveling cross-country with an apprentice in tow, visiting old commissions in the midwest, dropping in unannounced on his former clients. A well-corroborated tale has it that he knocked on the door of the small house one day in the winter of 1935-36. A disheveled Dana cracked the door and asked uncertainly, "Can I help you?"

Wright exclaimed, "Madame, it is I!"

"Well, who is 'I'?"

He finally persuaded her to lend him the keys to the big house but not to accompany him through it.

Wright lamented the building's emptiness in the 30s, but worse was to come. Dana was hospitalized and declared incompetent in 1942 (she died in 1946); her personal belongings were auctioned off in a circuslike atmosphere over five days in July 1943. After everything else had gone under the gavel, the auctioneer's helpers began dragging out the Wright-designed chairs. But no one would bid on them, and they were set back inside to sell with the house--if that would sell. An appraiser estimated the building and contents were worth only $5,000, though he said if an unsuspecting buyer could be found, they might bring $20,000. Wright's repute, both personal and architectural, was at its nadir.

In 1944 Charles and Nanette Thomas bought the house for $12,250 (and settled a lien of an uncertain amount, possibly $5,000, against the property) to use as office space for their medical publishing company. Considering what could have happened, the Thomases proved to be nearly ideal stewards of a building that most people had viewed as a bizarre white elephant. In 37 years the company made only relatively minor changes, including filling in the garden reflecting pool and (in 1980) removing the decrepit plaster frieze just under the roofline.

"The hidden hero of this story is Charles Thomas," says restoration project manager Michael Jackson. The house was closed to the public during the Thomas years, which helped keep it intact. In 1981 the Thomases' son Payne sold the building and contents to the state for $1 million.

Governor James Thompson came up with that million in a tight budget year, and there were those who felt that his mania for antiques had got the better of him. Since then, however, he has been amply vindicated. The market for the Wright houses--and especially for Wright-designed furniture--skyrocketed in the middle 80s, and that $1 million purchase now looks like a garage-sale steal. In 1987 and '88 the governor raised well over $1 million from private sources with which to buy a few of the lamps and chairs from the house that had come on the market, including four dining-room chairs for $125,000 (a single chair had just sold for $198,000) and one double-pedestal lamp for $704,000 (a comparable lamp from the Robie House had sold for the same amount).

The state bought the house as an architectural shrine, not a financial investment. But the fact is that even in the presently unsettled state of the Wright market, it is probably worth 40 to 70 times what it cost nine years ago. Had it fallen into private hands, only a billionaire or a saint could have resisted the pressure to sell it off one window at a time.

During the daytime the art glass in the windows and over the light fixtures changes colors as the angle of light changes. At night, says Hasbrouck, "the glass almost disappears and the colors of the walls become more vivid." At night the dining room too comes into its own, with its table that's adjustable for parties of all sizes, its severely erect Wright-designed chairs (high and low backs alternating so the servants could get an arm in), and its four multicolored "butterfly chandeliers" for illumination.

In this setting it becomes clear that Wright designed environments, not houses. And he designed them as Edgar Allan Poe said all literature should be designed--with every detail contributing to one single planned effect. In this room that point is the food and the other guests. The chairs screen out the rest of the house, creating a room within a room; the chandeliers' light seems to bring down the high ceiling and make the guests focus on the table scene--"you can't see above them," says Hasbrouck. A dinner at the Dana table was as much an architectural experience as a culinary one.

The Dana-Thomas House restoration has been comprehensive, and it has not been cheap. From the red roof tiles and green copper downspouts to the duckpin bowling alley in the basement, from the patterns of plants laid out in the garden to the pattern of the upholstery of the chairs on the landing above the entrance hall, virtually everything has been checked out and put back to the way it was in 1910.

The choice of that date is a matter of practicality as well as of authenticity. You can't make such a house look new (i.e., as in 1904) without virtually rebuilding it. But you can re-create it as it was after a few years of parties had given it a "patina of use." Moreover, since photographs do help, 1910 is the best-documented year.

The restoration has been so comprehensive that it is almost easier to list the items that have not been restored to period: the coach house (to become a bookstore, visitors' center, and exhibit hall), the trees (two full-grown horse chestnuts in the yard were deemed too beautiful to take down), the intercom system for calling servants (which would have required fishing another set of wires through the walls). And the lilies and goldfish that have been restored to the reflecting pool can stay only if they can survive its weekly draining and cleaning, says Hallmark.

The house's "infrastructure" has been modernized rather than restored--but the new climate-control, electrical, and security systems are (except for the smoke detectors) invisible to visitors. Fan-coil heat exchangers, controlled by separate thermostats, hide behind the original radiators, pumping out hot or cold air according to season and time of day from a plant in the carriage house. The old push- type electrical switches remain on the walls, but the wiring behind them is 1990 standard. "That house had the most obsolete electrical system I ever saw," says Hasbrouck. "I was afraid it would burn down." (A sprinkler system now protects against that catastrophe.)

To hold up the gallery floor, contractors had to replace Wright's inadequate ganged 2-by-12s with steel beams. (Structure does not seem to have been Wright's strongest point. At the Meyer May House in Grand Rapids, Steelcase had to do a similar but much more elaborate replacement of the roof structure.) The house's security system is now fully up-to-date--and no one will say more about it than that.

Closest to Hasbrouck's heart is the other major part of the restoration, bringing back Wright's original color scheme. "Many of my friends have done studies of Wright. They've looked at his plans, his elevations, his client relationships. But they all overlook two very important things. One, Wright designed in three dimensions. He's the most three-dimensional architect I've ever studied. He used to draw floor plans in two or three different colors, one on top of another--because he could draw in two dimensions and imagine it in three.

"Two, when he designed a building he enhanced it with color. The colors add what amounts to a fourth dimension to the building." Re-creating that dimension is not easy, considering that all we have on paper from the glory days of the house are black-and-white photographs. "The Dana House had turned gray and black," like the photographs, says Hasbrouck.

In the case of the woodwork, the jobs of ascertaining the original color and re-creating it were almost one and the same. The shellac Dana had had applied to the wood around 1910 had indeed given it a nice shiny no-wax surface--but after 20 to 25 years it had turned black. "I wondered why the wood was black," recalls Hasbrouck, "and I found that it washed off with alcohol. So instead of stripping the wood, we just washed it off with alcohol. What you see is the original surface," with a stain and a glossy no-wax finish called Deft to bring it as close as possible to its 1910 look.

Not everyone was convinced that the resulting rich reddish tones could have been Wright's. Hasbrouck needed more evidence, and it seems only appropriate that Dana, whose shellac had created the difficulty, had also inadvertently provided the proof with her window screens.

Project manager Michael Jackson remembers how Hasbrouck led him into one of the back servant bedrooms, opened a screen, and pulled off a long thin piece of molding that had been guiding the screen--and shielding the wood below it from being shellacked. There it was, a long strip of warm brown red next to the aged black patina.

"On painted surfaces, we had an entirely different problem," says Hasbrouck--especially the painted plaster. Decades of additional coats had not only changed the color but had virtually eliminated the rough, sandy texture Wright had intended. "Wright didn't like to paint things," says Jackson. Letting the sand in the plaster show through "was a way of coloring the wall and still allowing the material to reveal itself." So the old paint would all have to come off, a daunting task rarely attempted on this scale.

First, says Hasbrouck, "We did a huge amount of investigation." They took 250 paint samples and examined them under the microscope to try to deduce the original colors. The rough surface made this harder, but the fact that Thomas had used noticeably shiny aluminum-based paints made the job easier. "One consultant told us that the original colors were gray and yellow," says Hasbrouck. "I knew that couldn't be true." On one typical stretch of wall they finally found that gray had been put on the bare plaster first, then yellow, then brown, and then some of the brown was wiped off for an even more textured effect.

Using a new chemical-stripping product called Peel-Away, they were able to remove all the old paint without damaging the rough plaster. "Then we just had to do exactly what Wright's workmen did." Easier said than done--would-be contractors from as far away as Milwaukee and New York prepared samples that failed to measure up. As the months passed, Hasbrouck's anxiety level rose. Then last fall a couple, Leota and Mickey Thompson, bid on the job. "I explained to [Leota] what I wanted, and gave her a space to try it out in the master bedroom. I came back a few hours later, and it was just exactly perfect. It's still there, in fact. I heaved a huge sigh of relief. I'll be forever grateful to them." With a consultant's guidance, the Thompsons were also able to re- create the detailed shades of green and bronze on the reconstructed plaster frieze under the eaves. This required three coats of linseed oil for waterproofing, one coat of sealer, and four layers of glaze--dark green, silver, gilt bronze, and light green, mottled to give subtle variations to the finished work.

"The state of Illinois is restoring the Dana-Thomas House the way God would if he had the money," joked former Wright apprentice Edgar Tafel during a recent visit to Springfield. And the state is taking care that this, the first building it has bought for architectural rather than historical reasons, is not displayed simply as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous back dated to 1910. The house is in effect a museum, but the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA) has adopted the unmuseumlike policy of allowing visitors to appreciate Wright's architecture by walking through its spaces. Says Hallmark, "Some things will be roped off, but not many."

Still, the acclaim is not unanimous. "At a time of limited resources, how can you justify putting all this money into only one building?" asks Ruth Knack, editor of the 1977 book Preservation Illinois, former researcher for the Springfield Historic Sites Commission, and now senior editor of Planning magazine in Hyde Park. "There are endangered Wright houses throughout the state. It seems to me that a more creative use of the money would be to establish some kind of trust fund that could be used to help maintain them. I'm not in favor of blockbuster preservation." Springfield, she argues, has seen preservation resources concentrated on two house museums, Dana-Thomas and Lincoln--while the once-pleasant urban landscape between them is now a morass of parking lots and blank-walled buildings.

No thanks, replies Susan Mogerman, deputy director of the IHPA. "The state can't be responsible for all those buildings. There are lots of log cabins in Illinois too, but we aren't responsible for them all--and we shouldn't be. This is one of the most important creations of Wright's career, and [even if it were not] it would be a practical investment for Illinois. It is going to create a tourism explosion for Springfield." She points out that one of Japan's top photographers was recently scheduled to spend two days there in preparation for an entire issue of Global Architecture devoted to the Dana-Thomas House--international exposure unlikely to be garnered by small grants to shore up crumbling Wright roofs in Decatur or Kankakee (though IHPA does offer some limited grants to owners of properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places).

Carla Lind, who headed the Meyer May restoration and who is now executive director and sole staff member of the Wright Conservancy, agrees with both the critic and the state. "There is a desperate need for some funding for the private home owners" of Wright properties, she says. The conservancy, centered in Oak Park (708-848-1141), at present serves only as a network and information source for them. "But I think having these really good examples of pure Wright interiors is also an inspiration to other owners. We need these role models. And this particular house was such a unique opportunity--so many others weren't as grand to start with, or had little left--it would have been very hard to pass up."

Related criticism, heard more often in private than in public, is that $5 million might have been better spent outside of historic preservation altogether--on housing or education, say--rather than on re-creating the playground of a turn-of-the-century heiress. But supervising site architect Lesley Gilmore argues, "The house is educational." And now, unlike 80 years ago, it will be open to anyone who comes by.

Restoring the lines and colors outside the house involved less detail work and more physical labor. In early August, when I visited, workers were restaining the concrete capstones along the garden wall and the house foundation--re-creating the long horizontal golden-brown strips that tie the house to the landscape. They had already painstakingly deepened the horizontal mortar joints between the bricks and filled in the vertical joints to the point of invisibility.

I strolled across the street to get some perspective. The Chicago-to-Saint Louis Amtrak passes next to the garden wall. Behind the house are a six-flat with law offices and the Springfield YMCA. Across the street to the south is a row of houses with identical glaring white aluminum siding, disfiguring the end of the 20th century much as their curlicued predecessors disfigured its beginning. The Dana-Thomas House stands out like a sunflower in a soybean field.

Free reservations for one-hour house tours are available by calling 217-782-6776. Group reservations will be accepted after October 1. More information is available from the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-545-7300.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/David Blanchette--Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, Lesley Gilmore--Hasbrouck Peterson Associates.

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