Pride Of The Prairie

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After dinner Frank Lloyd Wright would sometimes raise a wineglass, watch the yellow candlelight refracted through the red liquid and crystal, and, quoting the Chinese philosopher Lao-tze, remark that the reality of the vessel lay in the void within, “the place of greatest peace.” Wright was perhaps America’s last great architect to conceive of his work as a search for truth. And for Wright, truth was found not in the physical form of a building but in what it contained. “Space,” he wrote, “the continual becoming: invisible fountain from which all rhythms flow and to which they must pass. Beyond time or infinity.”

Wright’s career had been launched in the last years of the nineteenth century with commissions for houses from Chicago’s newly wealthy businessmen and entrepreneurs. In 1902 the architect received his largest commission to date when Susan Lawrence Dana hired him to build a house in Springfield, Illinois. His patron was a young, somewhat eccentric, and very wealthy widow, the heiress to a fortune in mining and railroads, and she gave Wright a virtually unrestricted budget. The final cost ran to sixty thousand dollars, and each of the thirty-five rooms bore its own distinct character.

 

Wright developed an extraordinary variety of art-glass designs for the 250 doors, windows, and indirect-lighting panels, and he used different motifs for the wooden moldings in each of the house’s sixteen major spaces. His client’s passion for music required that musician’s balconies sprout from the soaring walls of the large public areas. Her influence ranged further: the present site manager, Donald Hallmark, has written that it was perhaps due to his client “that the house would both subscribe to Wright’s interior principle of spatial flow and openness, yet have more than 225 brass curtain rods and sets of draperies.…”

 
 
 

A widow twice more and increasingly troubled both in mind and by financial concerns, Susan Dana moved to a smaller house in 1928 and died in 1946. The state of HIi- nois purchased the Dana-Thomas House from its second owner, the Thomas Publishing Company, in 1981 and closed it for renovation in mid-1987. Although worn by time and inattention, Wright’s first major commission had survived amazingly intact, containing more original glass and other decorative elements than any other of his early works. At Susan Dana’s first gala party, on Christmas Day 1904, her guests marveled at the thoroughly decisive way in which the house cast off the muffled layers of Victorianism. Since its reopening in September 1990, there have again been crowds at the door, there to rediscover the richest and most complex early example of one of America’s greatest architects.

As with all his work, Wright meant the Dana-Thomas House to stand not only as a shelter but as a monument in America’s social landscape. Built during America’s great transition from an agrarian to an urban and industrial nation (the 1920 census reported a majority of Americans for the first time were living in “urban places"), the Dana House may be said to reveal the attitudes of those Americans who were rejecting not only the classical formulas that had guided the nation’s architecture but the social structure as well. Much of this intellectual ferment of the day found its earliest and most vibrant expression in the Midwest, carried from Chicago into Illinois’s smaller communities, where remnants of the frontier still survived.

Frank Lloyd Wright never chose to admit that he was influenced by the ideology of the day or by the creations of other architects. His architecture, he claimed, sprang solely from genius. Never hampered by modesty, Wright declared, “Not only do I fully intend to be the greatest architect who has yet lived, but the greatest who will ever live.” Battered by personal scandals, bankruptcy, and divorces, he forged an image of himself as an artist whose brilliance was accessible only to his adoring patrons. No fact, however extraordinary or insignificant (even the year of his birth), failed to be improved on by Wright as he turned his life into myth.

 
 
Wright never chose to admit the influence of other architects or styles.

In an effort to pin down the sources of Wright’s inspiration, some architectural historians have pointed to his exposure to models of Japanese and pre-Columbian architecture at the 1893 Chicago world’s fair; to writings of the great Gothicists Viollet-le-Duc and John Ruskin; even to the building blocks designed by the German educational theorist Friedrich Froebel that Wright played with as a child. Certainly Louis Sullivan, with whom Wright worked at the Chicago architectural firm of Adler and Sullivan, played a role in his development, and although he grew beyond it, he was very much a part of the Arts and Crafts movement at the century’s turn. But the most consistent theme in Wright’s architecture remains his sweeping rejection of precedent, especially that of the then-popular Beaux Arts classicism. Wright’s life and work were always a quest for the new. The dead hand of the past was his constant enemy.