Even with all of the attractions contained within Chicago's city limits, it's easy to wonder what else lies beyond the bright lights, big city. Occasionally, as shocking as it is, my curiosity turns to the suburbs. There's got to be more to it than gigantic shopping malls and fast food restaurants, right?
My wanderlust recently led me to Oak Park, most noted for being the home of Frank Lloyd Wright and the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway, located a short drive from the city via 290 West. With its old buildings and tree-lined streets, it's all-but-impossible to miss its charming, small-town vibe.
But aimless wandering under leafy trees was not the day's focus: The plan was to take a tour of Wright's home and studio, positioned just off of Harlem Avenue, which he occupied during the late 1890s and early 1900s. Wright began his career here, developing his "prairie home" style: heavy on the use of interior light and open spaces. Beyond his residence, Oak Park also contains the largest collection of Wright-designed homes, a worthwhile trip in and of itself.
Going into the tour, my knowledge of Wright could be summed up in five words: he was a famous architect. That's really all the basis you need, thanks to The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust's thorough tours. It holds several in the Oak Park area, including a tour of his home and studio, a tour of the Robie house (a Wright-designed home that's a noted building in the history of American architecture) and a walking tour of the aforementioned cluster of homes designed by Wright.
All Wright tours begin at the Gingko Tree Bookshop, located in Wright's former home on Chicago Avenue. The walking tours fill up early, so it's best to buy your tickets beforehand or arrive before mid-afternoon, the time at which I made the mistake of arriving, only to find the walking tours were full for the next two time slots (no huge surprise, as the tours bring in an international audience).
Once you are on your way, get ready to get informed: The home tour reveals a lot about Wright's early design approach, offering insights into his development as one of the most famous American architects. You can see up close some of his earliest influences, from the German building blocks given to him as a child (he later said they had a major influence on his work) to his collection of Japanese woodblock prints.
Wright used his home in Oak Park as a testing space for his future designs, constantly changing certain elements of the home. Many of Wright's quirks are exposed during the tour, like his use of mirrors to make rooms appear larger and his dislike of clutter, going so far as to build a piano into the wall in his children's playroom so it wouldn't take up too much space. Besides the dining room, the library/playroom he designed for his children is the other standout feature of the house. A testament to what a devoted father he was, Wright designed a balcony for this room so he and his wife could sit and watch the plays the children put on.
One interesting tidbit: Wright designed all of the chairs in his studio to be hard and uncomfortable so his clients wouldn't be tempted to hang around the office. You won't want to hang around too long, either, as the surrounding neighborhood boasts 25 structures built by Wright, Prairie and Victorian-style homes with sprawling porches, sloping roofs and art-glass windows.
If you have any interest in architectural design, or have a bit of stare-in-the-window voyeurism in you, this tour is a must-do. Most tours run a little less than an hour, so you are not overwhelmed and still have time to explore the area on your own. If you get hungry between tours, well-known Chicago dining establishments Penny's and Giordano's can be found on the same street as the Wright home.
Though the Wright tour is one of the main attractions in the Oak Park area, the small downtown is worth a stop. Near the 290 entrance off of Harlem Avenue are a number of small shops, furniture stores and art galleries. The city is also home to the Ernest Hemingway museum, located on North Oak Park Avenue, featuring rare photos of Hemingway, his childhood diary, letters, early writings and other memorabilia. On the same street you can also visit the small Victorian home where the author was born in 1899. Field trips were never this fun.
Guidebook rating: For design lovers and those in search of unique Chicago spots, this is one not to miss.
The Stats: By car take 290 West and exit at Harlem Avenue and go right, then make a right on Chicago Avenue to get to Wright's home and studio. By L exit at the Oak Park stop on the Green Line; walk under tracks and go north on Oak Park Avenue to Chicago Avenue. Turn left and walk three blocks to the home and studio. It's a 10-15 minute walk.
During the summer and spring months, it's wise to get there early to make both the home and studio and the historic walking tour. You can also purchase tickets online at Wrightplus.org. Most tours are $9. For more information on the Hemingway tour, visit Ehfop.org.