Susan and the “Big Blow”

March 30, 2013 § 3 Comments

On this week when Christians and Jews observe major traditional celebrations, I am reminded once again that despite the fact that Susan did not practice conventional religious rites, in one way she personified the core teachings of all faiths. Time and again she came to the aid of the poor, the disenfranchised, and the needy.  I refer to her benevolence in Chapter 9 of Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House, and in my continuing research into her life, I have uncovered even more examples of how she shared her time, money, and compassion. One very dramatic story that surprisingly has not been passed down as part of the Susan lore occurred in August of 1910 in Wallace, Idaho.

In the summer of 1910, a devastating series of forest fires engulfed Idaho, Montana, and Washington.  The inferno culminated on August 20–21 in what is known as the “Big Blowup” (click here for more details).  According to the U.S. Forest Service, 3 million acres of land were consumed, at least 85 people were killed, several small towns were destroyed, and one-third of Wallace, Idaho, was burned.  Visiting some of her mining interests, Susan was in a hotel in Wallace on the night the fire struck the town.  After hastily grabbing some of her possessions, she fled on the last train to Spokane, Washington.  Two days later Susan returned to Wallace where she gave aid to the injured and consoled the survivors.

Stories like this illustrate Susan’s enigmatic personality.   The term wealthy socialite, the usual characterization that is applied to her, does not fit the image of a woman walking through smoke and devastation to aid others.   As the chapter titles in Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House imply, she assumed many roles in her life time.  I discovered yet another Susan persona through this story.  She was a gifted writer.  The letter she wrote to her cousin Florence describing the ordeal in Wallace vividly describes the horror Susan experienced.  It was published in Springfield newspapers, and I will post it in its entirety next week.

Wallace, Idaho, after the “Big Blow”

An Enduring Menu

March 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Pancake-Sausage-1This weekend the Lincoln Memorial Garden, another not-to-be-missed Springfield, Illinois, attraction, will offer its annual Pancake and Sausage Breakfast to the community.  The event is so popular that the breakfast is being served on two consecutive week-ends this year.  To my surprise I discovered that the menu not only appeals to many people, but it is timeless.  Even Susan served it to her guests.

In 1903, the year that Susan, her mother, and her cousin Florence lived in the house across the railroad tracks while her new home was being built, the February 8 issue of the Illinois State Register reported:

Six guests were delightfully entertained yesterday morning at an old-fashioned breakfast at the temporary home of Mrs. Susan Lawrence Dana on Lawrence Avenue.  The chief features of the menu were buckwheat cakes with maple syrup and homemade sausage.  The function was as unique as it was enjoyable.

In an earlier post I wrote about the “odoriferous history” of the frame house which was so much a part of Susan’s life (click here to read that story).  Now I will add the scent of pancakes and sausage to the other odors I imagine when I enter the “white cottage.” 

The Downton Abbey of Springfield, Ilinois

March 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

Last Saturday Mike Jackson, FAIA, led a group of volunteer interpreters on a special tour of the Dana-Thomas House.  Mike’s current title is Chief Architect of the Preservation Services Division of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA).  Early in his career with the IHPA, he was a part of the team that oversaw the renovation of the Dana-Thomas House after the state of Illinois bought it from the Thomas family.  Although I was interpreting the house during that time, I had either forgotten or never knew several of the points of interest that Mike discussed on the tour Saturday.  His first person account of the how and why decisions were made were especially enlightening, and he gave me some new insights that I will add to my interpretation.

One of those insights is very obvious, but I had never thought of it before.  Mike noted that architecturally, we have our own Downton Abbey on Fourth and Lawrence Streets in Springfield.  The Dana-Thomas House is divided into two distinct sections: the elegant floor plan designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Susan and the rooms tacked on the west end of the building where the staff lived and worked.  With the steep narrow stairs from the servant’s bedrooms to the butler’s pantry, the lack of any ornamentation on the windows, and the traditional boxy design of the rooms, the “back” section of the house looks very much like servant quarters in other homes built in that period.  By contrast, the main areas of the house boast open floor plans, subtle steps from one level to another, and striking art glass windows.  Class distinction of that historical period is equally as obvious in the architecture of the Dana-Thomas House as it is in the PBS Downton Abbey drama. 

Downton AbbeyMike is offering a similar tour to the public on Saturday mornings twice a month from April to July.  If you are in the neighborhood, I highly recommend that you make a reservation at 217-782-6776 to join him.

Some Notes on Notes

March 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

William C. Wright

William C. Wright

In an earlier post I discussed the research of music historian David Patterson who has collected the musical compositions of William Cary Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s father.  A CD with several of the senior Wright’s compositions performed by Chicago area musicians was released this week.  I have a copy of the newly minted CD.  The songs are 19th century parlor music (the “pop” music of the day) which sounds quaint to our modern ears, but I found listening to them as I read the liner notes a fascinating experience.   For more information, click here.

Patterson is continuing to investigate the influence of William C. Wright on his son as well as the place of music in the thought and work of the architect.  Certainly the Lawrence/Dana House could be a prime resource for Patterson’s research because Wright’s interest in music is central to the house design.  The three musician’s galleries and the towering “organ pipes” above the Farrand Cecilian roll player (described in an earlier post) dominate the major public spaces of the house. 

According to one scholar, Wright used music in a more subtle way to endorse the sentiments that Alfred Lloyd Tennyson expressed in his poem “Flower in a Crannied Wall.”  Etched on the back of the statue that greets visitors at the entryway of the Lawrence/Dana House, the poem proposes that all the laws and meaning of existence in the universe can be found in a small flower.  A staff with a treble clef and three chords is inscribed beneath the poem.  Narciso G. Meocal contends in his essay “Taliesin, the Gilmore House, and the Flower in the Crannied Wall” that since the chords are written in the traditional “amen” progression, Wright was saying “Thus be it so” (a translation of the Hebrew word “amen”).  Meocal’s theory of the three chords offers a dramatic illustration of the legacy bestowed on Frank Lloyd Wright by his father who was, among other things, a preacher, organist, and his son’s music teacher.

Flower In a Crannied Wall

Flower In a Crannied Wall

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