The only thing worse than figuring out what to get a family member for his or her birthday is figuring out what you should do with your family to celebrate your own birthday. With a sister who only eats hot dogs and grilled cheese, and a dad who'd rather get a tooth extracted than mosey through a museum, I was at a loss about how to celebrate the big 2-5 with my suburban-dwelling family.
That is, until I remembered a suburb I've been meaning to hit up forever—namely, Oak Park, home to the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. When my family hesitated at the suggestion that we spend the day strolling the Wright-glutted streets of Oak Park, I finally pulled a little birthday-brat action and signed us up for both the outdoor walking tour, led by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and the inside tour of Wright’s home and studio, led by the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust.
The morning of the tours, I hopped in my car and drove 20 minutes to Oak Park (the house and studio are also a 15-minute walk from the Oak Park Green line stop). As I stood on the side of a sleepy street, I took inventory of everything I knew about Wright: An Oak Park native, he had invented the prairie-style of low, earth-hugging dwellings. He also designed the Robie House in Hyde Park, which I lived next to for a year while attending the University of Chicago. Pretty paltry knowledge of one of the greatest talents to come out of the Midwest, huh?
"I've been told this is sort of like architecture aerobics," the CAF guide told our group of mostly tourists as my family and I began the outdoor tour. While the pace may have produced a few beads of sweat on the foreheads of a few, for the most part, the tour was a mellow walk around the blocks surrounding Wright's home and studio.
It was as if walking through a three-dimensional timeline. Wright designed these houses on the sly while he worked under Louis Sullivan, who forbade outside "bootleg" projects. I noticed the pitched roofs and skinny chimneys of the Victorian-style, before Wright had developed his own voice. And there, just four blocks and half a dozen houses away, sat a spot-on study in the prairie-style, with art glass windows, a hidden, circuitous entrance and long, horizontal bricks that trick the eye into thinking the house is low and deep.
I pitied the few families we saw wearing self-guided audio tour equipment; the ones that didn't look befuddled looked, honestly, bored. Our in-the-flesh guide was great at answering questions, and, though a bit tight-lipped with the anecdotes, she brought along photos of other Wright houses to show continuity, as well as clippings about houses recently on the market. By the time the tour ended, I was panting to enter one of Wright's masterpieces.
My family was first through the door when the home tour began. While the neighborhood tour was an architectural overview, the house tour reveled in the details. The home was Wright's private residence and workplace from 1889 to 1909, the first 20 years of his career. He lived there with his wife, Catherine Tobin, and their six children, and he used the space as a bit of an architectural laboratory, trying out different concepts as he went along. (Catherine once noted that she wished he'd constructed more built-in furniture, so that she wouldn't always find the house rearranged.) By the 1970s, the house had been divided into apartments, until the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust swooped in to lovingly—and painstakingly—restore it.
Our guide, an expert on Wright's home and the restoration, gave real dimension to his stories. He told us how the master bedroom's murals of Native American women had been painted over multiple times. They would have been lost completely, except the room had been an apartment kitchen, and the grease from cooking left a thin layer on the walls, making it possible to strip away the paint without destroying the original artwork.
We spent 20 minutes inside Wright's studio, which would've been worthy of a one-hour tour on its own, gawking and asking questions. The man's interiors proved as breathtaking as his exteriors are unique.
Though half of the tour scattered when we wandered back into sunlight, a few of us stuck around to ask follow-up questions about Catherine's life after Wright had left her for another woman. Ever patient, our tour guide dished dirt on Wright's post-Oak Park life and then gently steered us toward the bookstore.
Blissed out on architecture, I hadn't realized that my family seemed as content to linger as I was. I didn't even mind when my younger sister suggested hot dogs for my birthday lunch.
Guidebook rating: Any architecture fan should make the tours a must-do. While they're an effortless hour each, the tours are best enjoyed in tandem, so you can check out the level of conceptual detail Wright applied to both the interiors and exteriors.
Stats: Both tours are scheduled daily, and cost $12 each or $20 for a combination ticket purchased at the onsite bookstore. Because tickets sell out quickly, it's recommended that you purchase them early, especially during the summer and fall. For more information and the tour schedule visit www.wrightplus.org and www.architecture.org.