Party Time at Rheuna Lawrence’s House

December 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Rheuna Lawrence's Home circa 1902

Rheuna Lawrence’s Home circa 1902

The week between Christmas and New Year’s was the high point of the social season in 19th century Springfield.  Open house receptions at the homes of the socially prominent were held the entire week culminating with a reception at the governor’s mansion on New Year’s Day.  In 1893, Susan was living in debt in Chicago with her first husband Edwin Dana (see Chapter 2 of Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House). Yet she came to Springfield to be co-hostess with her mother during the last week of the year. The following account of that reception from the December 30, 1893, issue of The Illinois State Journal  not only gives us a glimpse of the Springfield 19th century social scene but also provides a picture of the elegance of the Italianate house built by Rheuna (Susan’s father) and “remodeled” by Frank Lloyd Wright.  

 Perhaps the largest and most notable afternoon reception of the season was that given by Mrs. R.D. Lawrence, assisted by her daughter, Mrs. Edwin W. Dana.  The receiving hours, from 2 to 4 and from 4 to 6, were such that the rooms were at no time overcrowded, despite the fact that a very large number called during the afternoon.

The handsomely adorned rooms and the costumes, rich in texture and color, made a very effective picture.  The floral setting was elaborate and in excellent taste.  The south dining room was ornate with red shadings offset with graceful festoons of evergreen and a large Christmas bell of immortelles pendent from the chandelier.  The north dining room was done in green, while holly in abundance enforced the Christmas thought.  American Beauty roses, lent their fragrance and beauty throughout the house.  Music by an orchestra made a happy complement to the other appointments.

Mrs. Lawrence was attired in pearl gray silk and brocade, point lace; diamond ornaments. Mrs. Dana was in white satin with red velvet relief; pearls.

Gingerbread replica by Mary Hudgins, 2012

Gingerbread replica by Mary Hudgins, 2012

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Torii Gates

December 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Harmony” by Steve Higgs

A torii gate is a  Japanese structure which traditionally stands at the entry of a Shinto shrine.   I found the significance of the torii gate described in several ways:  It divides our world and the spirit world, the sacred and the profane, the hallowed and the secular, or the spiritual and the mundane.  All descriptions indicate that the torii marks the entrance of a sacred place.

 The designs vary, but most torii gates have two vertical posts, a horizontal lintel at the top (sometimes curved upward), and a beam below the lintel intersecting the posts .  Frank Lloyd Wright created a stylized torii gate for the east window in the gallery of the Lawrence/Dana-Thomas House. His variation has thick vertical posts with a thin lintel and intersecting beam positioned closely parallel at the top of the structure.  The simple form is embellished with free-hanging Wright-designed leaded glass panels. The result is a stunning unique piece of art.

torii window

I believe that Wright created another variation of a torii gate for the house in the design of  the porches on the east side of the house.  In each of them the upward curve of the line of the roof combined with the two brick posts bears a strong resemblance to the traditional torii gate that has become a symbol of Japan.

torii porch

It’s clear to me that Frank Lloyd Wright’s torii gates were his way of saying that entering the Lawrence/Dana-Thomas House is a spiritual experience, an escape from the mundane.  I couldn’t agree more. What’s even more remarkable is that 110 years later visitors to the house still express wonder and awe as they explore his masterpiece.

In this holiday season, I have a special wish for all my family, friends, and loyal readers. May you all find your torii gate.  It may be a worship service, a family get-together, a gathering of friends, or quiet time alone. Whatever your torii is, I hope that it will take each of you out of your everyday world and into an enriching and peaceful diversion that will sustain you into the new year. 

Party Time in the House

December 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Following a tradition of over 100 years, the Dana-Thomas House Foundation hosted its annual holiday party last week. Almost 300 volunteers and Foundation members enjoyed the fully decorated house lit only by the decorative lights and the Wright-designed sconces and lamps. The evening is always magical, and I try not to miss it each year.

Newspaper accounts reveal that holiday parties at the Lawrence House were equally splendid.  A reporter from the Illinois State Journal described the red, green, and white motif Susan chose when she hosted the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) on the afternoon or December 26, 1908. A comparison of the two parties reveals that while some things change, much remains the same. Susan’s decorations are described in this way:

 The decorations were elaborate and beautiful in every detail, being entirely suggestive of the holiday season.  Christmas greens, the holly wreaths and the red Christmas bells were used effectively throughout the spacious home.  In the living room the windows were decorated with California peppers and holly wreaths were hung in all of the windows.  The quaint large fireplace in the hall was completely surrounded with holly.  To enhance the beauty of this, the balcony just opposite was hung with the folds of the American flag together with wreaths of laurel and mistletoe.  The fountain was beautifully adorned with red and white carnations.

While the center of the dining room table this year sparkles with golden electric lights, Susan chose candelabra for her afternoon party and a Christmas tree as a centerpiece:

Christmas 2012 Dining Room Table

Christmas 2012 Dining Room Table


The event, which was styled a Virginia Colonial Christmas, was carried out with beautiful effect.  In the center of the large table was a Christmas tree elaborately trimmed with tinseled ornaments and colonial bells.  Beautiful mats of lace were laid on the tables and silken candelabra gave forth a subdued light.

This year we were treated to the dulcimer music of Mike Anderson from the musician’s gallery above the reception area and the voices of the Rochester High School Madrigal Singers from the musician’s gallery in the dining room. Susan provided musical entertainment appropriate to the historic interests of the members of the DAR: 

An enjoyable feature of the afternoon was the playing of plantation melodies by three [black] men, two of whom were slaves in Missouri.  The instruments used were a banjo, guitar and violin, which were furnished by Mrs. Dana.

Susan’s reputation as a holiday hostess was memorialized by V.Y. Dallman, then retired editor of the Illinois State Register, in this excerpt from his tribute to her which was published at her death:

Vivid in my memory are the scenes at Christmas time in the beautiful Lawrence home which was completed in 1902.  Mrs. Lawrence, then known as Mrs. Susan Lawrence-Dana, rejoiced in providing numberless gorgeous gifts for her friends and presenting them beneath an elaborately decorated Christmas tree. As a hostess, Mrs. Lawrence was the symbol of continuing charm and gracious hospitality.  Her dinners were the ultimate in epicurean delight; her receptions complete in every fascinating detail.  There was a running fountain, birds singing, lights of delicate shade and all appointments blending in a colorful symphony of social delight.

A Christmas Tree Story

December 8, 2012 § 2 Comments

Christmas tree 2012

2012 Christmas Tree

Holiday decorations fill the house, and they are spectacular this year.  As it was in Susan’s day, the floor-to-ceiling tree in the gallery is the star attraction. 

Susan started the tree tradition the first Christmas season that she was in her new home.  I describe the celebration in Chapter 7 of Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House:

Nine days of gala events introduced the Lawrence House to the Springfield community at the end of December, 1904.  The centerpiece of all the parties was the towering Christmas tree with 150 incandescent lights in the gallery.

The December 20, 1904, issue of The Springfield News revealed a riddle that Susan posed for her guests to enhance the drama.     

[The tree’s] height and size and the completeness of its decorations are a matter of wonderment to all, so much so, that a gift is offered to anyone who will guess correctly how it was gotten into the house and set up.

Decision makers decided that the floor-to-ceiling tree tradition would continue when the State of Illinois opened the house for tours.  Employees of the State dragged a live tree through the porch, up steps, and around corners into the gallery for the first years of state ownership.  Then they dragged it out by the same route. As a result, we found needles embedded in the carpet in July.

One day an elderly lady on a tour said to the interpreter, “There’s the Christmas tree window.”  When she was questioned, the woman explained that she lived in the neighborhood as a child. Each year before Christmas, neighborhood children flocked to watch as a very large tree was passed through a casement hinged window at the end of the private sidewalk on the south side of the house. From the window, the tree was lifted over the east balcony of the gallery and placed in the center of the room. Susan’s riddle was solved.

After that, State employees saved energy and the carpet by using the “Christmas tree” window until the Dana-Thomas House Foundation bought an artificial tree. Even artificial trees wear out, and the floor-to-ceiling tree standing in the center of the gallery this year is newly purchased by the Foundation.  As the 1904 reporter said, “Its height and size and the completeness of its decorations [continue to be] a matter of wonderment to all.”

The Christmas Tree Window

The Christmas Tree Window

Another Neighborhood Visit

December 1, 2012 § 2 Comments

From Sangamon Valley Collection, Lincoln Library, Springfield's Public Library

From Sangamon Valley Collection, Lincoln Library, Springfield’s Public Library

I was reminded once more of the contrast between Susan’s life and mine when I discovered this undated photo of curious onlookers as they watched firemen fight a fire on the 800 block of South Fourth. Even though I described the block extensively last week in  “A Visit to the Neighborhood” , I couldn’t resist adding this photo to the record of what used to be.

According to the 1902 Springfield City Directory, the house that is on fire belonged to Mrs. E. A. Wallace the year that Susan commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to remodel her father’s house.  Claire Wallace, a teacher at McClernand School, lived with her mother in the home.  The house closest to the camera belonged to G. A. Lochman, a jeweler and optician.  John Rippon lived on the other side of the Wallace home.  Rippon was the owner of Excelsior Machine Works.  He had earlier  built a home at 1317 North Third Street which he sold in 1900.  The North Third Street house has been restored and is currently a bed and breakfast.  The fourth house in the picture is the Bartel home pictured in “A Visit to the Neighborhood.”  

Trying to emulate the concept of then and now done so well on the website  Springfield Rewind, I took the picture below.  Power lines have replaced lamp posts, and a few details of the houses have survived including the columns on the Rippon house.  I didn’t notice the empty recycle bin in the picture until I got home.  I’m glad it’s there because it adds another dimension to the contrast in life styles between Susan and me. 

4th street today

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