“Spring Cleaning” at the Lawrence/Dana House

January 25, 2013 § 2 Comments

Window in Susan's Bedroom

Window in Susan’s Bedroom

The Dana-Thomas House was closed to visitors last week so that staff and volunteers could remove and store the holiday decorations and clean the house thoroughly.  For this “spring cleaning,” they dusted every wooden surface, cleaned art glass, and vacuumed the carpets.  The week was probably much like the spring cleaning that was customary in households in Susan’s day.

At least once a year homes were cleaned from top to bottom.  Evidently Susan personally was involved in the process at least one year and found it exhausting.  In a letter dated December 22, 1918, to Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother Anna she describes a particularly trying time in her life:

My cousin Miss Lawrence…was taken very sick last Christmas night.  For five weeks I nursed her…and she gradually recovered…then had a relapse.  For six weeks I went over the same road night and day.  By that time I was worn out, then count the house cleaning, and I got down for ten days, but I as usual recuperated quickly.

One problem that the modern cleaners did not have was the soot from the wood burning stoves and the grime from the passing train engines that must have clung to walls and furniture in Susan’s home.  They did, however, share the challenge of cleaning the Wright-designed art glass throughout the house.  The team last week sprayed Windex on soft cloths and gently wiped the dust away on the larger surfaces.  They then sprayed Windex on Q Tips which they used to remove the dust from the corners of the designs.  We have no way of knowing how Susan and her staff cleaned the glass, but perhaps they followed the advice of this 19th century “Heloise” in an article entitled “Spring Cleaning” in the May, 1872, issue of The Manufacturer and Builder:

In washing windows, a narrow-bladed wooden knife, sharply pointed, will take out the dust that hardens in the corners of the sash…We find weak black tea with some alcohol the best liquid to wash the glasses.  For a few days before the cleansing takes place, save all the tea grounds; then when needed, boil them in a tin pail with two quarts of water and use the liquid on the windows.  It takes off all dust and fly specks.

When I read the words “narrow-bladed wooden knife, sharply pointed,” I shuttered and marveled once again at how fortunate we are to have so many original Wright designs still intact in the house.  It occurred to me that even a well-intentioned spring cleaning could have had a disastrous outcome at some point over the years.  I am certain that the members of last week’s cleaning team were very conscious of that legacy.  I for one thank them for taking the responsibility of sprucing up the house one more time.

The Lawrence Library Story Revised

January 18, 2013 § 2 Comments

Lawrence School

Lawrence School

When it comes to oral history, memory cannot always be trusted.  That truth was dramatically brought home to me this week when I discovered that I can’t trust my own memory.  I wrote last week’s post entitled “Lawrence Library” relying solely on what I recalled. Since the publication of that post, new information has come to my attention, and the story is much more complicated than I remembered.

An article written by retired Dana-Thomas House Site Manager Dr. Donald Hallmark and originally published in the April, 1992, issue of Historic Illinois fills in many details and corrects my recollections.  According to Hallmark, the Wright-designed library in the Lawrence School was closed in the 1930’s and remodeled to accommodate more classroom space in the building.  The furniture was evidently returned to Susan then.  Since she lived in the cottage across the railroad tracks during the 1930’s, she probably just added the library tables and chairs to the rest of the furniture she stored in the Lawrence House.

 After numerous alterations, the Lawrence School Library no longer looked like the original Wright-designed room. However, in the late 1980’s a committee of Springfield citizens (including Mark Heyman) began to raise funds  and to research for  historically accurate information so they could restore the room to its original condition.  The Taliesin Fellowship was consulted for drawings and technical assistance.  The result of their work was the re-creation of the room and its furnishings with some modern accommodations. The “new” Lawrence Library which is still in use today was dedicated in November, 1992.

I try very hard to fact check all my research before I publish.  From now on I’ll also fact check me.


The Lawrence Library

January 11, 2013 § 4 Comments

A guest on one of my tours recently commented on the short-backed chairs found throughout the house.  He noted as others have that they are quite a contrast to the high-backed chairs in the dining room.  I then re-told the story that I relate in Chapter 5 of Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House:

Lawrence Library circa 1906

Lawrence Library circa 1906

At their February, 1903, meeting the School Board voted to name the new elementary school that was being built on Springfield’s sparsely populated south side the “Lawrence School” in honor of [Susan’s father] Rheuna [who was president of the Board at his death]. Susie commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright… to design a library for the new school.  She also funded the library’s Wright-designed furniture, and she purchased books for the library.

Lawrence School still welcomes teachers and students.  However, in 1977 it was remodeled to become an adult/alternative education center.  The library was kept intact, and Mark Heyman, a former Taliesin apprentice who was living in Springfield at the time, spearheaded a drive to purchase reproductions of the library furniture.  The original chairs and tables were taken to the Dana-Thomas House for display throughout the house, and the reproductions are still used today in the school library.

Lawrence Library 2013

Lawrence Library 2013

It occurred to me that despite the fact that I frequently encourage others to visit the library, I had never done so myself.  Consequently, I made a trip to Lawrence School this week with camera in hand. Although the building looks much the same as it did in Susan’s day, she would be bewildered by some of the dramatic changes. The school is surrounded by an asphalt parking lot, and since the 1999 shooting at Columbine, all students, staff, and visitors are greeted by a uniformed guard.  However, when I entered the library, I stepped back in time.  The preserved room is a small gem.  Rheuna’s picture remains on the wall where it originally hung.  The stacks are filled with books, and the short-backed chairs fit snuggly under the tables.  The gates into the stacks have been removed, the reproduction lamps have been replaced by sturdier ones, and a computer sits on the librarian’s desk.  Nevertheless, the room feels like a bridge between Susan’s world and ours.  The words of the Illinois State Register reporter on April 14, 1906, still ring true: “[It is] the most beautiful and artistic school library in the city.”

2012 in review

January 4, 2013 § 9 Comments

When I started  in April writing this blog as a follow-up to Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House , I had no idea that it would grow as it has.  Thanks to all of you who helped create the startling statistics that the WordPress.com staff compiled in their 2012 annual report for susanandme.  According to the report, approximately 2800 people from 48 countries viewed this site in the last eight months.

Here’s an excerpt from the report:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,800 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

I look forward to 2013 when I plan to continue to share my thoughts and research about Susan and the Lawrence/Dana-Thomas House, Frank Lloyd Wright’s crown jewel.

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