In December 1914—four months after a rampaging servant burned down his Wisconsin retreat and hacked to death seven people there, including his mistress—Frank Lloyd Wright was living in a little red-brick house at 25 E. Cedar in Chicago. He'd just made it clear to his wife, Catherine, that he wouldn't be coming back to her and their six children in Oak Park when he received a flattering letter of condolence from an intriguing stranger. Her name was Maude Miriam Noel, and her letter, signed "Madame Noel," piqued his interest enough to spark a meeting.
Noel was a divorced, 45-year-old artist and sophisticate from Memphis—a fiery, self-dramatizing beauty who'd planned her seduction of the famous architect even before she fled her adopted home in Paris at the outbreak of World War I. She was also a morphine addict and more or less out of her mind, but Wright took the bait. They went from strangers to lovers in a flash and shacked up together in the little house Noel described as "rare and lovely as a miniature Palace of Baghdad."
For a while, anyway. Although Noel eventually became Wright's second wife (they married in 1923, separated in 1924, and divorced in 1927), it was a fraught relationship from the beginning. In April 1915, in the midst of one of their knock-down, drag-out battles, he moved out. It's not clear how much time Wright spent at 25 E. Cedar after that, but the house is still there, with a marker dedicated to him out front.
Supposedly built as a coach house in 1891 (one neighbor claims it was designed by Drake Hotel architect Benjamin Marshall and constructed around 1910), Wright's former love nest is the prettiest thing on a pricey block—a storybook Georgian Revival with a bright red front door flanked by two small, deep-set windows. A tiny second-floor balcony sports French doors topped by a half-moon window and a whimsical embellishment suggesting a pair of wings. A big skylight on the attached garage echoes the steeply angled roof. Oozing history and character, the house is, as one neighbor put it, the kind of place that makes the neighborhood the Gold Coast.
Or so it was until a couple years ago, when construction on a new, four-story mansion only inches away, at 21 E. Cedar, apparently began to destabilize it. Now the garage is boarded up, there's an obvious fault line running through the facade, and the house stands unoccupied, morphing from asset to eyesore.
Last week an ad hoc group of about 30 protesters gathered outside the place, brandishing handmade signs that said save 25 e. cedar and passing around a petition to that effect, addressed to 42nd Ward alderman Brendan Reilly. Another handmade sign, taped to the plywood covering the garage door, posed a question. giannoulias, it read, how about taking a little responsibility?
The imposing new mansion next door was built by George Giannoulias, brother of state treasurer and Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias, who lives across the street. Like Alexi, George, the president of the Giannoulias family's real estate company, United Investors, was formerly an owner and executive with another family enterprise: Broadway Bank, which was taken over by the government three months ago at a cost of nearly $400 million to the FDIC.
For the last quarter century 25 E. Cedar has been home to physician Gordy Siegel and his wife, Clari. But the Siegels moved out in June 2009, when, they say, the house became unsafe. Gordy says they noticed cracking as soon as construction began next door. "We called the neighbors. They came over with their contractor and said, 'This is just cosmetic, we'll fix it for you.'" But when doors went out of alignment and floors began to slope the Siegels contacted their insurer. That's when they learned that the "foundation was cracked and the house was leaning."
Now "we don't know if it can be saved," Gordy says. "There are conflicting opinions" among the consulting engineers. "It could've totally been avoided if the proper precautions were taken in the beginning."
A spokesperson for the city said the building department has conducted inspections and "obviously something happened during the demolition and construction at 21 E. Cedar that caused the damage." But, he said, "the Department of Buildings doesn't regulate means and methods of construction." The structural engineer for the new house submitted a retention-wall plan and "we rely on the structural engineer's measurements and calculations that this will be sufficient to protect the property next door." What the department does require is that the general contractor—in Giannoulias's case, according to the city, Swain Development—carry insurance.
Neither George nor Alexi Giannoulias responded to calls for this story, nor did Reilly, and when I tried calling Swain I found that their phone has been disconnected.
DeeDee Spence, who once lived in a condo just east of 25 E. Cedar and still lives nearby, organized last week's protest. A member of a group calling itself Near North Neighbors, Spence says that when she first saw a sketch of the new mansion posted in front of the construction site she thought it looked handsome and would be a good addition to the neighborhood. Concerned about bricks she now sees shifting "from day to day" at the Siegel's house, she contacted Reilly—only to be told, she says, that it's outside the alderman's purview.
One neighbor at the protest who wanted to remain anonymous said he sent photos of the deteriorating building to Reilly three times without response. But Richard Mandel, who lives down the block in another historic building, said the protest looked to him like a Tea Party event, calculated to cast the Giannoulias name in a bad light. It was only after he spoke up, Mandel said, that "George" was added to the sign on the garage, making it clear that the complaint wasn't against Alexi. Neighbor Jeff Jarmuth, on the other hand, summed it up this way: "These are connected people," he said, pointing at the mansion. "And these," he continued, turning toward the battered little house, "probably are not."
Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago, was also in the crowd, "observing," as he put it. The Siegels' house doesn't have landmark protection, he said, but "we're hoping that the building can be restored so it can continue to tell the story about the brief but important time that Frank Lloyd Wright spent here."
The Siegels' structural engineer, Allan Gold, says Giannoulias's builders "undermined" the house's foundation, causing "severe" damage. "We tried to repair it but weren't able to lift the house back as much as it dropped." Gold says the city "probably should've been more diligent" when construction on the mansion started. In contrast, he adds, "We had trouble getting the building permits to try the repair. It took almost a year."