Another Woman in the Wright House

May 26, 2012 § 2 Comments

Kathy Liesman and Susan Lawrence (aka Amy Zepp)

Susan Lawrence moved into her new Frank Lloyd Wright designed Lawrence House sometime in 1904 and moved out in 1928, 24 years later. Kathy Liesman began working at the Dana-Thomas House in April of 1987 and, after 25 years, will retire from her position at the house this Thursday, May 31, 2012. Kathy has been with the house one year longer than Susan lived in it.

Hired as a site technician during the house restoration by the state of Illinois, Kathy’s first responsibility was to work with a team of three other technicians to refinish all the furniture in the house. With the exception of the settee in the gallery, all of the furniture was moved off-site where the team worked for two years. During what was called Phase 3 of the restoration project, responsibilities changed. The group moved the furniture back and performed the myriad other tasks that needed to be completed for the re-opening in 1990. For the next several years the four site technicians cared for the house and yard. Additionally, the site staff included the site manager, an assistant site manager, a volunteer coordinator, and a lead interpreter during this time.

Over the years, the make-up of the staff has shifted. Individuals have retired, died, or moved to other positions. Most of them have not been replaced. In 2005 Kathy became the lead interpreter and volunteer coordinator. With dwindling state budgets, the staff has continued to shrink, and Kathy has assumed more responsibilities. With the title of historic interpreter coordinator, she will retire as one of two permanent staff members. No announcement of her replacement has been made.

As she reflects on her career, Kathy feels that the most exciting time was during the restoration, but her proudest accomplishment has come at the end of her years at the house. She was able to implement a living history program this past year in which costumed volunteers assume the persona of Susan and her friends during public tours. Kathy says, “I have always wanted to bring Susan to life and show that she was more than an empty-headed socialite.” She leaves behind many friends as well as a big hole. Her leadership and institutional memory will not be replaced easily. The staff and volunteers she has nurtured will hold a party in her honor in the yard of the house on her last day of work. We all wish her well and pledge to try to maintain the house and Susan’s legacy as Kathy has for the last 25 years.

Myth Buster II

May 22, 2012 § 1 Comment

As I read the plans for the 2012 Illinois State Fair which are announced almost daily in the newspapers at this time of the year, I am reminded of another “fact” that I used to claim as I took tourists through the house. Many of us told our groups that John Phillip Sousa played in the Lawrence House. From my research for writing Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House, I don’t think it happened.

Some claim that before Elvis Presley, John Phillip Sousa was the most famous musician in the world (click here for a brief summary of his life). Sousa and his band came to Springfield for a week of concerts during the ten day Illinois State Fair in 1906 to much hoopla. In addition to huge portraits of Sousa throughout downtown, the largest electric sign erected in Springfield to that time was placed just west of the entrance to the arsenal announcing the coming of the “March King.” Like all the concerts, the band’s opening night on October 2 was held in the arsenal. Among the 6,000 attendees were Governor Deneen and other state officials. The band played two concerts each night for the next week with a children’s matinee on Saturday. Attendance at the other concerts varied from 8,000 to 9,000 people according to newspaper reports.

The newspapers chronicled all of the social events Sousa attended and special guests at concerts, but I could not find Susan’s name in any of the stories. Then I thought Sousa might have been a guest at the Lawrence House until I read that he and the band manager stayed at the Leland Hotel while the 60 band members and soloists were housed in other hotels or private home. Finally, I came across this brief announcement under “Personal” in the October 2, 1906, Illinois State Journal:

Mrs. Susan Lawrence Dana is visiting in Salt Lake City, Utah, on route from Canada, where she has been spending the summer.

Susan wasn’t even in town during the big event. I could find no other references to Sousa visiting Springfield in newspapers, and I am sure such a celebrity would have been noted if he came at another time. If someone else can find some proof that he visited the Lawrence House, I’d like to hear about it. It was a good story to tell the tourists, and I’d like to tell it again.

Table Talk

May 17, 2012 § 9 Comments

One hundred and four years ago today (May 17, 1908), the Illinois State Journal reported on a party at the Lawrence House:

One of the most unique and charming social events of the spring was the party given yesterday by Mrs. Susan Lawrence Dana of South Fourth street for Miss Harry L. Hampton, formerly of this city, now of Denver, Colo.  The event was given for the friends of Miss Hampton, and about twenty guests were present. The morning was devoted to playing bridge whist in the east room, and at 1 o’clock luncheon was served. 

The decorations were most exquisite throughout the beautiful home.  The appointments of the luncheon table were typical of spring and the long centerpiece which adorned the table was a veritable flower garden. The centerpieces extended down the entire length of the table and were composed of crimson and geraniums massed together with green ferns and leaves.  The spring garden was carried out in detail and the favors were in the form of miniature rakes and garden hose[s].  At each place was a verse and the name-card, the verse being typical of the gardening spirit. The strawberries were set in fern leaves in baskets and the ices were roses placed on rose leaves.  The decorations throughout were typical of spring and gardening time.

In Chapter 9 of Susan Lawrence; The Enigma in the Wright House, I refer to many such occasions from 1905 until 1912. The local newspapers documented party after party at the Lawrence House, and the Frank Lloyd Wright designed table was frequently the center of the festivities. I wonder what the table could tell us about the conversations that transpired at those events. Did the woman gossip? Did they exchange recipes, fashion secrets, or child-rearing tips? Perhaps they complained about their husbands or servants.

I once took a woman through the house who had been a secretary for the  C. C. Thomas Publishing Company when the house served as corporate headquarters in the 1940’s. She recalled that the members of the typing pool all sat at a long table in the dining room while their supervisors walked across the musician’s gallery to keep an eye on the women. She could not tell me for sure if the table they used was Wright designed, but if it was, the conversations the table heard were undoubtedly quite different from those of Susan’s guests. In my imagination I can hear work related conversations as well as grumblings about deadlines and bosses, updates on social lives, and tips on how to make ends meet on a working girl’s salary.

This Saturday night the table will hear twenty-first century conversations for the first time. Since the state of Illinois bought the Dana-Thomas House in the early 1980’s, the table has been untouchable, and food has been served on it only a few times. However, the Dana-Thomas House Foundation is hosting a magnificent fund raiser Saturday night that includes a five course dinner at the Frank Lloyd Wright table. Thirty members of the Foundation (It was first come, first served, and there is a waiting list.) have each paid $300 to enjoy the ambiance that Susan’s guests experienced. Those conversations may include the current presidential election campaign or how the Illinois fiscal crisis is affecting the support of the house by the state. Only 30 people and the table will know what they talk about. Let’s hope the Foundation plans similar events in the future so more of us can talk around that historic table.


Wright Meets Japan in Chicago

May 14, 2012 § 4 Comments

Visitors to the Dana-Thomas House often note that the line of the roof has a Japanese appearance. I usually explain that although Frank Lloyd Wright did not go to Japan until after the house was built, he did spend a lot of time at the 1983 Colombian Exposition. It was in the Japanese village at that World’s Fair that he was introduced to Japanese art and architecture.

I had an opportunity to make that connection even more solid last week. My husband Carl and I participated in the Road Scholar program called “Treasures of the Art Institute of Chicago.” It was a fabulous week. Among the many things I learned were several facts about Japan’s main national pavilion at that world’s fair. When I saw the image of the building, I knew immediately what Frank Lloyd Wright saw. Modeled on Byodo, an 11th century Buddhist temple outside Kyoto, Phoenix Hall (or Ho-o-den) stood out against the beaux-arts buildings that made up the majority of the rest of the structures at the fair. The interior of the building undoubtedly also captured Wight’s eyes and passion.

The building has an interesting post Colombian Exhibition history. After the fair, the Japanese government gave the Phoenix Hall to the city of Chicago. Nothing was done with the structure until 1935 when it was rehabilitated and landscaped in Jackson Park. There it functioned as a Japanese tea house. However, probably influenced by World War II anti-Japan sentiment, purported arsonists destroyed it in two fires in 1945 and 1946. The only four pieces of the building remaining were the four elaborately carved wooden transoms, called ramma, depicting the mythical birds that gave the hall its name. They hung in the center of Phoenix Hall. The four panels were stored by the city under the bleachers of Soldier Field until 1973 when they were rediscovered. The city gave two of the panels to the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and two panels to the Art Institute of Chicago. When UIC gave their two panels to the Art Institute, the museum arranged to have them restored, and since August of last year, they are now splendidly displayed on a soffit in the newly remodeled Japanese gallery at the Art Institute. Visitors like Carl and me can now see at least a portion of the art that inspired Frank Lloyd Wright to admire Japanese art and architecture so deeply.


The FLW Building Conservancy Comes to Town

May 6, 2012 § 2 Comments

My concerns about my ability to lead Frank Lloyd Wright experts through the Dana-Thomas House were totally unfounded. I took two groups from the The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy Spring 2012 Out and About Wright event through the house Saturday, and they were all delightful! Many expressed interest in buying my book, so I liked them even more.

The Conservancy is a lifeline for Frank Lloyd Wright sites that are in danger in some way. Its mission is to facilitate the preservation and maintenance of the remaining structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright through education, advocacy, preservation easements and technical services. Founded in 1989 (just a year before the state of Illinois re-opened the restored Dana-Thomas House), the organization has a remarkable record. It has played a crucial role in saving many houses and in supporting countless other preservation efforts.

Their presence in Springfield this week-end brought to the attention of the local media an issue that is of great concern to those of us who care about the Dana-Thomas House. The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and the Federal Railroad Administration are reviewing the possibility of routing the high speed trains that will be going through Springfield on the tracks just behind the Dana-Thomas House. The problem was summed up in this excerpt from a Friday morning news broadcast on WUIS, Springfield’s public radio station:

The lot on which the Dana-Thomas House sits is less than 40 feet from Springfield’s 3rd Street rail line. Currently 35 trains pass through Springfield each day on three separate tracks across the city. Studies show traffic is expected to more than double by 2020, and an option being considered by the IDOT and the Federal Railroad Administration would see a second track built next to the Dana-Thomas House to accommodate as many as 72 trains each day.[For a full transcript of the broadcast, click here.]

Some contend that the vibration from such traffic could cause damage to the Dana-Thomas House. The release of the report by IDOT which will recommend which rail corridor will accommodate the high speed rail through Springfield is expected at the end of May. That report will be followed by public hearings, and IDOT will issue a Record of Decision in December. It is assuring that we have world renowned preservationists through the Conservancy behind us if we must face yet another challenge to preserve and protect the house. I’ll keep blogging updates.

My Dumpster Diving Day

May 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

Members of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy are touring the Dana-Thomas House tomorrow, and I am taking one of the groups through. I am a bit nervous and have been boning up on facts and history that I may have forgotten. In the process, I found on-line an excellent archived article entitled “Doing the Wright Thing” by Harold Henderson published in the Chicago Reader August 30, 1990, the year of the opening of the renovated house by the state of Illinois. Henderson documents details of the project as well as some political background. I found a few inaccuracies (including the furniture story), but for the most part, the article is a comprehensive record of an important juncture in the history of the house.

Among the facts he shares is a description of how the faux copper color was achieved on the plaster frieze under the eaves. According to Henderson, the job required three coats of linseed oil for waterproofing, one coat of sealer, and four layers of glaze—dark green, silver, gilt bronze, and light green. The glaze was then mottled to achieve the effect we now see ribboning the house.

I had forgotten those details, and reading the article reminded me of my special treasure. I was on the site on one of the days when the workers were affixing the frieze to the house. They were cutting the painted plaster to fit the corners, etc. and throwing the extra pieces in the trash. I saw my chance, selected a small piece of the plaster from the dumpster, and took it home. Other pieces were retrieved by other people and were even sold in the Sumac Shop I believe, but my piece is special to me. It not only symbolizes an historical event but reminds me of my dumpster diving day.

My Piece of History

The Furniture Revisited

May 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’d like to add a theory to my earlier “Myth Buster” post of April 29 which has generated many email and face to face comments. I found a newspaper column excerpt which I suspect may have led to the misunderstanding that evolved into the Springfield-rejected-Wright story. Although the commentator was referring to Susan’s Victorian furniture that was sold at the auction, an earlier researcher may have interpreted the column to mean that the auctioneer was having trouble selling all of Susan’s furniture, including that which Wright designed.

This comes from “Suggested by the Day’s News” by A.L. Bowen in the July 28, 1943, Illinois State Journal:

What style means in dollars and cents has been well illustrated at the sale of Susan Z. Lawrence’s household and personal effects.  Everything offered was perfect in condition, beautiful and well cared for.  Yet, nearly everything was out of style.  The pictures for which she had given hundreds of dollars, framed in the best gold of their day, were sold for a pittance, because they came down from another period.  Birdseye maple dressers, old fashioned but without a scratch and with perfect mirrors, brought $11 and $15.  Furniture of the same workmanship and quality of material in present day styles, not only would be difficult to find but, if found, would command prices in the hundreds. Thus is our attachment to style and our fears of being out of it.

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