Insider's Guide to the Oak Park Area for Fans of Frank Lloyd Wright
Only about 15 minutes away from downtown Chicago, the Oak Park area is an enclave of treasured homes and buildings designed by one of America's most treasured architects, Frank Lloyd Wright. For diehard Wright fans or curious amateurs, the Oak Park area is one of the preeminent destinations in the entire country to learn more about Wright and see samples of his work. In Oak Park, the historic Wright District is known for the size of its collection and the beauty of the structures located within it. Tours can be taken on foot or by bike to see some of the area's gorgeous Prairie Style houses—a revolutionary design in the architectural field. Most buildings are privately owned, which means many tour stops are to be admired from the exterior, but a few are open to guests. Here's an insider's guide to the top places to see in the Oak Park area for fans of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio
The Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio on Chicago Avenue in Oak Park offers tours at this former private residence of the late architect who lived there from 1889 to 1909. There, Wright devised many of his famous designs, altering the architectural landscape of the time. Tours are available every 30 minutes throughout the day, and guests can explore the rooms with oak wood walls and floors. Fans will get a glimpse of the architect's living quarters and see his immaculate laboratory filled with his original drawings (only opened recently to the public for the first time).
What's Nearby: A number of great lunch spots are located within walking distance of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, including Hemmingway's Bistro (French Cuisine), Penny's Noodle Shop and Whole Foods Market.
Not far from the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, Unity Temple in Oak Park is another architectural marvel. The only surviving public building of Prairie Style architecture, Unity Temple was built between 1905-1908 on a limited budget. Despite the low budget, Wright used unconventional methods by pouring slabs of concrete in intricate designs as walls, columns and structures of the building. It was unusual for buildings to be built with such materials that are normally reserved for warehouses and factories. Inside, the temple reveals an upscale interior design of art deco style with yellow walls and vertical wooden stripes. The temple is open to the public, allowing guests to wander inside and admire the indoor structure and details. Time Out has cited the temple as one of the 50 most beautiful buildings in the Chicago area saying the "stark concrete structure was highly unorthodox at the time of its construction."
Need to Know: The temple is currently undergoing renovations, set to be complete in early 2017. You won't be able to see anything on a visit before then.
Arthur B. Heurtley House
Built in 1902, Arthur B. Heurtley House on North Forest Avenue in Oak Park is one of the earliest examples of Wright's Prairie Style architecture. A short walk from Wright's home, the house currently is a private residence and unavailable to the public. But it's still worth a visit to admire the exterior design of its Romanesque arch, slanted roof, large solid bricks and stretching glass cascades. The house is easily distinguishable due to its vibrant colors and organic texture, making it easy to spot on a walk.
Charles A. Purcell House
Adjacent to Oak Park is the village of River Forest, which is home to another Wright home: the Charles A. Purcell House. It's named after the father of the renowned Prairie Style architect William Gray Purcell, who was greatly inspired by Wright and founded the Purcell & Elmslie, an architecture firm focusing on Prairie Style architecture. Designed by the firm, the house has unique windows made to resemble stained glass in churches, a high rising roof and crown molding to highlight its structures. The home is privately owned and not open for interior tours.
What's Nearby: Check out the local scene in River Forest by taking a coffee break at The Blue Max, a cafe overlooking a picturesque park.
Laura Gale House
Another Oak Park residence, the Laura Gale House is noted for its geometrical shapes, a prominent feature of Frank Lloyd Wright's design. Built in 1909, the house reflects the Prairie Style architecture yet is considered one of Wright's more unusual designs due to its shapes. The house later influenced the architect to design the famous Fallingwater home using similar blueprints.
Fun Fact: The house was recently on the market, and the previous owner described the home's layout saying, "With his visual cues, it's so obvious where he wants you to go and how you're supposed to go from A to B."
Peter Beachy House
Previously a Gothic cottage, the Peter Beachy House in Oak Park was remodeled by Wright in 1906, adding Prairie elements to the home. The house is recognized for its vibrant red bricks, gabled roofs and dark wood trim. Windows are framed by zinc and copper, giving the interior of the building a dramatic makeover from its original design. The house was home to Emma Beach, the daughter of a prestigious doctor and real-estate investor in the Chicagoland area who later commissioned Wright to renovate the house.
Frank Thomas House
Considered one of the first designs of Prairie houses by Wright, the Frank Thomas House was reputed to resemble a flower blossoming. Despite its rectangular shapes, Wright explained that the house was designed to "flare outward, opening like a flower to the sky." Identifiable by its geometric prints, arched doorway, and woodwork molding, the house is full of detailed features. Look closer for floral motifs throughout its design and get a sense of Wright's intentional portrayal of nature.
The Hills-Decaro House (also known as the Edward R. Hills House) sits in the heart of the Wright District in Oak Park. Much like the Peter Beachy House, the Hills-Decaro House was remodeled in 1906 by Wright who added dramatic elements of Prairie design. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed a good portion of the house in 1976 but was later reconstructed and restored. The house itself is said to be inspired from Japanese buildings with high peaking Pagoda-style roofs, stretching upward further than any of Wright's other designs.
Nathan G. Moore House
For a Tudor revival mixed with Wright's iconic Prairie touches, you have to see the Nathan G. Moore House. The original home was built in 1895 but was later damaged by a fire in 1922, giving Wright a chance to give it a makeover. Wright added Roman bricks, gabled roofs, and casement windows while maintaining its original Tudor wooden strips. The house is considered one of the proudest designs of the late architect. He was quoted one time as saying, "It was the first time an English, half-timbered house ever saw a porch."
In River Forest, the Winslow House is a controversial and bold design of Wright's. The house was uniquely designed using an outlook of a traditional house with not-so-traditional layouts. One owner so regretted living in such an unusual house that he started taking alternative routes home from work to avoid comments from his neighbors regarding the house. With a low hanging roof and horizontal features, the house is worth visiting to admire it from outside.
The Coonley House in Riverside is one of the largest Prairie Style homes designed by Wright. At 6,000 square feet, the house rests on a 10-acre property with its own reflection pool. Much of the building's exterior reflects Wright's design of low-hanging roofs, artistic glass windows and geometrical shapes. The building is designed as if four houses were attached together, giving it a somewhat odd layout for homeowners to adjust to.
On Saturday, May 20, the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust will host its annual Wright Plus Housewalk fundraising event, allowing guests to get a rare glimpse inside the private homes in the Wright District in Oak Park and nearby River Forest. For a fee, guests hop on a trolley or walk around the area to meet and greet homeowners while going on a tour throughout the houses.