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.


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§ 4 Responses to Wright Meets Japan in Chicago

  • Gail Kotter says:

    Thanks for sharing. If I’m ever back in the Chicago area, I will definitely put this on my list of things to see at the Art Institute.

  • Great post! Thanks for sharing. It was wonderful meeting you on the Road Scholar program. I enjoyed a visit to the Dana-Thomas house a few years ago. Here’s an article you might find interesting: Julia Meech-Pekarik, “Frank Lloyd Wright and Japanese Prints,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 40, No. 2. (Autumn, 1982), pp. 48-56.

    • susanandme says:

      Thanks, Lucas. Since Frank Lloyd Wright tried to settle a debt with Susan by giving her Japanese prints (as he did with other clients), I probably would find some interesting additions to her story in that article.

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