Classics in a Classy House

June 29, 2012 § 4 Comments

Once again a woman on one of my tours last week commented on how odd it was that we have so many replicas of classic statuary throughout the Dana-Thomas House. They seem out of sync with the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. I explained as I always do that in Susan’s time, a display of those European classics indicated that the home owner was cultured and appreciated fine art. Frank Lloyd Wright himself followed the trend. A replica of “Winged Victory” is prominent in the dining room of his Wisconsin home in a photo published in the October, 1915, Architectural Record.

The comment of the lady on my tour brought back memories of two incidents involving the replicas in the house. I recall the day I was leading a tour into the gallery. As we passed the copy of “Venus de Milo,” a woman said, “Oh dear. Did someone knock this over and break it?” My first thought was that she was kidding, but when I looked at her face, I knew she was serious. Then I looked at the other members of the group, and they were all trying not to smile but obviously wondering what I was going to say. I don’t remember what I said. I just recall trying to keep a straight face and muttering something about an original classic work. It was not one of my finest hours as an interpreter.

The other anecdote involves the small replica of Michelangelo’s “David” which is not very prominent to tour groups. It is visible only if the visitors look over the ledge on the east side of the gallery. Nevertheless, several years ago someone found the frontal view of “David” offensive. Much to my amusement, the decision makers at that time responded and turned his face to the wall. Guests then only got a rear view. Evidently that was also offensive, so “David” now stands au naturel looking at anyone who finds him.

Obviously our sensibilities have changed since the early 1900’s, and luckily the world of advertising has accommodated those changes. Perhaps I should recommend that we try to replicate the two examples below so the statuary in the Dana-Thomas House is more in sync with the culture of our time. On second thought, let’s stick with the classics in a classy house!


Those Magic Rolls

June 22, 2012 § 1 Comment

Earlier in my life I played an organ every Sunday, and it was an easy task. Now I play only occasionally when I am asked to substitute for a vacationing church organist. I am currently preparing for one of those substitution Sundays. Unfortunately, the ability to coordinate the eyes on the music, the hands on the keyboards, and the feet on the pedals does not come back to me easily. It requires daily practice and enormous patience. Many times this week I have wished that I had a roll like those that were used in the Lawrence House player organ to play a hymn. I’d like to insert the magic roll into the organ and just sit there and enjoy.

Of course, the Lawrence House reed organ was quite different from the pipe organ I am trying to master. For one thing, the pipes in the church organ make sounds; the pipes in the Lawrence House were purely decorative. Dale Rogers, Director of Arts and Music at Springfield ‘s Westminster Presbyterian Church, has done some research on the Lawrence organ. He told me that the instrument was built by a company in Detroit, Michigan, called Ferrand Votey. The mechanism inside the organ was undoubtedly made of pot metal, an inexpensive low-melting point metal that tends to distort, crack, shatter, and pit with age. It is difficult if not impossible to repair. One understands then why the shell of the organ was gutted during the C. C. Thomas Publishing Company years to be converted to a liquor cabinet.

None of this diminishes my vision created in an interview of one of the Lawrence household maids. She said that Flora Lawrence, Susan’s cousin who lived with her, “played” the organ frequently. I envision Flora effortlessly playing one of the rolls still stored today in the Wright-designed cabinet and magically being transported from her humdrum life. Even Frank Lloyd Wright, an accomplished musician, succumbed to the siren sound of the rolls. In his memoir, My Father Who Is On Earth, John Lloyd Wright recalls that his father once brought a player piano home. The senior Wright pushed the new instrument against his concert Steinway, inserted rolls of music by Beethoven, and sat with eyes closed and hands moving over the keyboard. John Lloyd Wright surmised that his father was imagining that he was Beethoven.

Unfortunately, I cannot experience a similar transformation. I must substitute the magic rolls for hard work and wait for my muscle memory to return.

Hollyhocks and Kids

June 16, 2012 § 2 Comments

Anonymous Girl and Hollyhocks (circa 1906)
Photo by Leigh Gross Day

June brings hollyhocks and kids to the Dana-Thomas House.  Susan would be pleased because she shared her home often with children. I cite several anecdotes describing her generosity and hospitality toward children in Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House. For example:

Gertrude (Bartel) Durkin who lived across the street from the Lawrence House recalled that after Gertrude’s mother died, Susan brought the three-year-old Gertrude to her home and allowed her to run up and down the duck pin alley. .. The children were also invited to parties in the living room of the Lawrence House. They played games, ate snacks, and went home with favors Susan had bought on her travels. Charlotte (Ide) Jess [another neighbor] reported that at some parties for children, Susan had the plants in the long corridor that connects the entertainment area with the rest of the house replaced with water and gold fish.

I know that she would be thrilled when children still visit her home. Consequently, when young people are in a tour group I’m leading, I try to make the experience special. I sometimes sense disapproval by some adults in the group, but by engaging the kids, I feel I am honoring Susan’s memory in a special way.

Yesterday I led a group with Liam (age 4) and Evan (age 3) Ridley and their parents from Royal Oak, Michigan.  As I frequently do, I gave each boy a brightly colored laminated geometric shape to search for in the glass in the house. Liam had a square, and Evan had a triangle. Liam took his job seriously and enthusiastically found squares that I hadn’t noticed before. Evan was less interested, so he and his mom left the tour, and he enjoyed running about the courtyard. I think Susan would have approved.

Evan and Liam Ridley and Hollyhocks, 2012

Courtin’ in the Courtyard

June 8, 2012 § 2 Comments

Leigh Gross Day, a professional photographer and one of Susan’s closest friends, created this composite picture of a lovely young woman being wooed over tea by a dapper gentleman in the courtyard of the Lawrence House. The image comes from a book of photos and poems by Mrs. Day entitled Borderland and the Blue Beyond published in 1908. The photo not only gives us a look at the styles of the day, but we can get a glimpse of the multiple plants that adorned the yard at that time. A team of volunteers is attempting to bring back to the Dana-Thomas House the natural beauty that surrounds the couple.

Under the leadership of Susan Helm, 12 to 15 University of Illinois Extension Service Sangamon-Menard Master Gardeners have been researching, planting, and maintaining the long neglected vegetation in the yard this spring. They have planted a butterfly garden, an herb garden (near the kitchen door, of course), and two new trees–a weeping Japanese maple and a sumac tree. As a result of the team’s research into what plants and flowers were grown in gardens 100 years ago, visitors now see hosta, ferns, estilbe, lilies of the valley, and forget-me-nots in various beds around the property. Small plaques identifying plants and trees will be placed throughout the yard.

To achieve this, the Master Gardeners have partnered with multiple individuals and organizations. The Dana-Thomas House Foundation is the primary financial supporter of the project. The staff at the Jens Jensen designed Lincoln Memorial Garden provided plants and technical assistance for the butterfly garden. Guy Sternberg from Starhill Forest Arboretum aided in the selection of the trees.

Gardens are always a work in progress, and this project is no exception. The team plans to improve the soil in the beds and to continue the weeding and maintenance tasks. Future projects include yet another partnership. The Land of Lincoln Water Gardening Society has agreed to fund the repair of the cracks in the reflecting pool and the purchase of heirloom water lilies. The Master Gardener team also envisions re-planting the perimeter beds with flowers and greenery similar to those in the Leigh Gross Day photos. When the replication is complete, the courtyard will be the perfect setting for a 2012 romantic encounter. Tea and rabbit are optional.

Reading and Writing Now and Then

June 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

What a difference 100 years makes! My methods of reading and writing are in total contrast to Susan’s approaches. Susan exchanged letters with friends and family (living and dead); I email and blog. I read and collect e books; Susan read and collected books.

And did she collect! In Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House  I describe the extensive book collection that Earl Bice, administrator of her estate, found when he inventoried Susan’s home in preparation for the auction of her possessions:

In addition to her books on all kinds of religion, the collection of over 2,200 volumes included children’s books, many classics, history books, woman’s studies, and 250 travel books. Many of these were first editions. Like several other things in the house, some books were still in boxes, so it is not clear whether Susan was a reader, collector, or both.

Incidentally, the books were never offered at the auction because Brentano’s, a prestigious Chicago bookstore, purchased all of them. A moving van was required to transport the lot from Springfield to Chicago.

What a luxury to be able to afford 2,200 books and have the library in which to store them! Yet many people in 2012 share my passion for the e book convenience, and this brings me to the point of this post—a blatant commercial. Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House is now available in popular e book formats (ibooks, kindle, nook) for $11.99. However, if you purchase an e copy before June 30, you can receive a 15% discount ($10.19). Just enter the coupon code VH955 prior to checkout.

Of course, the original Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House is always available at the Sumac Shop for those old fashioned souls who like to feel a book in their hands. I know you’ll enjoy it whether you read it Susan’s way or my way.

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