Within your own backyard lies adventure that will transport you to a place that feel miles from home. So leave your passport at home and start exploring The Nearest Faraway Place.
Frank Lloyd Wright is arguably America's most famous and influential architect and nowhere in the world can you find a more concentrated collection of his work than in the Chicago area. With buildings like the Rookery and Robie House in Chicago and countless private homes in suburbs like Oak Park, Wright's designs offer a look into the birth of modern architecture.
But how can you see them? Between the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) and the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust (FLWT), there are about 20 tours that either focus entirely on Wright's work or incorporate specific buildings into tours done by foot, bus, and boat. Experienced guides and docents offer incomparable knowledge about Wright's work, background, and history in Chicago. And every tour can be somewhat unique.
"Being the tour guide, you have the flexibility of reading your group and getting a feel for who they are," said Jacob Hagen, a volunteer tour guide with the FLWT who has led groups through the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park for the last three years. "We don't use a standard tour. There's content for different things and different guides have different perspectives. If we have people who have greater experience with the buildings, you can add more depth. If it's students or kids, you can add more anecdotes."
To get the most in-depth look at Wright's work, start with a tour of his Oak Park home and studio. Built in 1889, this home is where Wright spent 20 years living and working — and truly changing the face of modern architecture. You can drive to Oak Park or take the CTA's Green Line and walk through downtown Oak Park, a charming suburb on the western edge of Chicago, to the home and studio. You'll get an inside look at his work and his influence on residential design.
"I love how ahead of the curve and forward thinking he was. His architecture goes well beyond the years he was working in Chicago," said Chicagoan Matt Rucins who has taken a few Wright tours in Oak Park. "I'm fascinated with the sight lines in all the rooms. You get a view out of the windows from wherever you're standing. And his studio...it's a stunning space and you can picture everyone working at their drafting tables working for this genius."
With more than 80 buildings in the Chicago area, it's easy to see how Wright took his work under famed architect Louis Sullivan to the Prairie style, with horizontal lines, stained glass, overhangs on the exterior, lower verticality in terms of interiors and very light in orientation, according to Lynn Osmond, president and CEO of the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
"[Wright's work] shows a move from architecture that reflected the Victorian Era — dark in terms of the light in the house, very traditional in terms of the exterior," Osmond said. "When he was designing in the 1900s, nothing was being built like this. He established the American niche ... he epitomized modernism. He was the style people considered the American style. There's a lot of wannabe Frank Lloyd Wrights, but there's nothing like the real thing."
Osmond said you can see those details in much of his work, but the Robie House in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood is a great example where he brings nature inside. You can see that on the second floor living and dining rooms, she said, where those rooms flood with light and showcases interesting filtered light. It's also the most complete expression of his Prairie style work, according to David Bagnall, curator and director of interpretation for the FLWT.
Bagnall explained that while many architects of that era often had big egos, Wright was able to put that aside when he was asked to work on the Rookery Building in Chicago's Loop. Daniel Burnham and John Root originally designed the building, which at the time of its completion in 1888 was the tallest building in the world at 11 stories. In 1905, Wright redesigned the two-story glass-covered central light court.
"Watching him work in another architect's building and respecting what's there before and doing something different allows you to step back in time to see how Downtown Chicago looked around the turn of the century," Bagnall said. "He's incredibly respectful of Root's design and created a luxurious space with Carrara marble that you wouldn't expect of Wright. He worked with simple materials like wood, plaster and brick, but he relates the design work with Persian ornamentation that reflects elements in the rest of the building when it was originally designed.”
The Rookery draws numerous visitors daily, but his home and studio in Oak Park is one of the top destinations. It was where his career began. "He used it as a laboratory to explore ideas he was developing at the time," Bagnall added. "He would try them out at home and then build them into commissions for clients." In addition to Wright's home, Oak Park features the densest collection of his work in any one area so just walking through the neighborhood people can view many homes, including the Arthur B. Heurtley House, the Charles A. Purcell House and the Laura Gale House.
Up on Chicago's Far North Side in Rogers Park on Sheridan Road, Col. Jennifer Pritzker recently completed a full restoration of the Emil Bach House, which is part of tours given by both the CAF and the FLWT. It was originally built as lakefront property as a country home. "It's a great example of Wright's work because it has a huge overhang, the horizontality and a lot of windows," Osmond said. "It includes art glass to allow the filtering of light, and has cube like massing you see in a lot of Wright homes making it very modern. When it was built in 1911, it was so totally different than anything being built at the time."
Wright designed and built hundreds of structures during his career, both in and outside of Chicago. Some of his most famous works include the S.C. Johnson Administrative Complex in Racine, Wis., Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa., and the David D. Martin House in Buffalo, N.Y. But in Chicago, you can soak up so much of his work. In fact, it's something locals should put on their bucket list.
"Anyone who is mindful of the history of Chicago and what it holds in the history of architecture," Rucins said, "it's a no brainer."
For tours and more information, visit the Chicago Architecture Foundation and the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust. Open House Chicago, which takes place Oct 17 and 18, will feature 200 sites around Chicago, including many Wright buildings, and is free to the public.