This is uncomfortable for me to admit, but here goes. When I was a kid I was so enamored with Frank Lloyd Wright that I would wear a cape around the house as I built Prairie-style homes using wooden blocks, Legos and my sisters’ books.
The cape, which I still own, was from my first Halloween costume – Superman. I’ve since been Batman-tized.
I must admit that I’m not particularly a fan of Wright the person, Wright the builder (I’ve been to Fallingwater) or Wright the furniture designer. Then why the heck did I wear that cape for so many years?
I am a fan of how Wright turned architecture on its side to produce a style that was adapted to the Midwestern landscape. His low-slung Prairie houses look as if they grew, like corn, from the flats and rolling hills of the country’s midsection.
My introduction to Wright was not through books or school or even popular culture. It was through osmosis and E. Fay Jones, who was one of Wright’s apprentices and an enormous influence on the 20th-century architecture of Northwest Arkansas.
Like Wright, Jones designed structures that were in harmony with the landscape. And the city of Fort Smith where I grew up is chock full of homes that Jones designed or heavily influenced – he was the dean of the architecture school at the University of Arkansas.
His buildings use native materials and are so well adapted to the landscape that you almost don’t notice them at first. You might see only a brown roof that is hiding on the side of a hill. You have to get right up on the house to understand it. Oftentimes, a Jones house is a private treat for the residents alone. Though the house might look like it was built into a hill, it offers astonishing vistas for its owners.
For me, it was Jones that sparked my interest in buildings and design. Through him, I learned about Wright. Then, after learning all I could about Wright, I put away the cape and retreated back to Jones.
I can remember the moment this happened. My sister Ashley was married in Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Ark., which is Jones’s most famous structure. It’s a huge building of glass and wood inside a forest. When you are inside the chapel you feel as if you are simultaneously both inside and outside. It’s a weird and beautiful feeling that I have never had anyplace else.
As my first-born daughter spread rose petals down the aisle before the processional, I can remember looking up into the beams of the chapel, which were shrouded in darkness like the limbs of the tallest trees of the forest. It was both disorienting and exhilarating. And no, I had not been drinking.
This weekend I’m up in Oak Park, Ill., and as the sun started to set on Friday I happened to be near Wright’s home and studio on Chicago Avenue. For the most part, I think that this structure is one of the least impressive Wright buildings in Chicago. It looks like two buildings lumped together – a Shingle-style house Wright built while working for Louis Sullivan plus a rambling structure behind it that looks like a largish Prairie-style addition.
However, from the front, the Shingle-style section of the house was catching the failing light just right on Friday. And I could almost picture the guy at the front door with a cape and cane in hand.
— Christopher Schwarz