June 29, 2013 § 2 Comments
When I was a child we had a fish pond in our back yard that was my mother’s pride. I remember that my brother and I loved throwing feed into the water and watching the fish gobble up our gifts. I also remember my dad grudgingly scooping scum off the surface of the water, retrieving the blossoms, pears, and leaves that fell from the tree above, and trying valiantly to get a few water lilies to bloom. It was a lot of work and a source of conflict in our home.
On the other hand, I vividly remember the good times my brother and I shared watching the fish, playing on the rocks, and wondering how such beautiful flowers could float on water in the rock garden/fish pond in Eagle Point Park in my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. I didn’t know it then, but the park was designed by Alfred Caldwell, a student of Jens Jensen and proponent of prairie architecture. Like his contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright, Caldwell’s designs are found throughout the Chicago area. Most notable is his lily pond in Chicago’s Lincoln Park which is a National Historic Landmark. It has occurred to me that my deep appreciation for the early works of Frank Lloyd Wright stems from the many childhood memories in the beautiful prairie style setting of Eagle Point Park created by Caldwell.
Because of these memories, I especially appreciate the gorgeous lilies in the reflecting pool in the garden at the Dana-Thomas House this year. The pool was filled in during the Thomas Publishing period, but it was rebuilt in the initial renovation by the State of Illinois in the 1980’s. Last summer the University of Illinois Extension Service Sangamon-Menard Master Gardeners and the Land of Lincoln Water Gardening Society teamed up to revitalize the pool (click here for details). With the addition of an aeration system and some beautiful new flowers, this summer the pool is restored to the splendor that Susan and her guests enjoyed—without scum.
June 22, 2013 § Leave a comment
As a part of the Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) program entitled “The Prairie as Inspiration: House Architecture from Pioneers to Frank Lloyd Wright,” Amy Zepp portrayed Susan while I interviewed her this past week. While in Springfield, the Road Scholars studied log cabins, a Greek Revival mansion, a Sears “kit” house, and the Dana-Thomas House in depth.
For the occasion, Amy wore a brown silk day dress which her mother, Jan Zepp, had created. The two women have researched fashions of the turn of the century extensively and recreate as accurately as possible dresses and hats that Susan and her friends may have worn. As the seamstresses of Susan’s day did, they begin with an image of a dress and design the gown and hat to fit Amy exactly. The results are stunning one-of-a-kind ensembles.
We can conclude that Susan also wore unique outfits. The inventory that was conducted in preparation for the auction of her personal property revealed bolts and bolts of fabric stored in the house. Most of the rolls of fabric came from Europe, and several were rotted with age. However, each bolt had only one dress cut out of it thereby assuring that no one in Springfield had a dress like Susan’s dress.
Unfortunately, none of Susan’s clothes survived. I explain in Chapter 19 of Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House:
[Years after the auction] Grace Bice [wife of Earl Bice, executor of Susan’s estate] recalled that a Chicago cousin, presumably Farnett Radcliffe, said that she did not want Susan’s clothes to be sold. She wanted them destroyed. Mrs. Bice assumed that Susan’s elegant gowns were burned.
Although Jan and Amy Zepp are unable to replicate dresses that she actually wore, I am sure that Susan would have been pleased to wear the striking ensembles they create. Amy/Susan was without a doubt the best dressed woman in the room of Road Scholars.
June 15, 2013 § Leave a comment
According to a document written in 2000 by Allyn A. Young, the granddaughter of Rheuna’s niece Georgia Jefferson, Rheuna was supporting his family at a very early age. The 1850 census reveals that Rheuna’s widowed mother Susan Minerva had three of her own children (Rufus, Luetta, and infant John) and a nephew living with her in Clark County, Ohio, that year. Her oldest son, 13 year old Rheuna, was living with a neighbor presumably earning money to support the family. Historian Joseph Wallace wrote in Past and Present of the City of Springfield and Sangamon County Illinois (1904) that Rheuna was earning “fair journeyman’s wages” as a mason at age 14 and migrated to Chicago at age 16 where he continued to practice his trade and to send money to his mother.
Attracted by the city’s burgeoning building industry, 20 year old Rheuna moved to Springfield. Here he accumulated a sizable fortune as an intuitive entrepreneur and astute opportunist. A symbol of that wealth was the 13 room mansion he built for his immediate and extended family. Both his mother and mother-in-law lived their last years in that home. Florence Lawrence, daughter of Rheuna’s brother Rufus, moved into the house when she was 19 years old and stayed with the family the rest of her life.
The most significant example of Rheuna’s role as surrogate father was his generosity toward his “baby” brother John and his family. According to Allyn Young, Rheuna paid for John’s watch maker training at the Illinois Watch Factory in Springfield. When John died at an early age, Rheuna invited his young widow and their six year old daughter Georgia to live in the Springfield home. Eventually Rheuna bought a house in Chicago for Georgia and her mother.
Rheuna Lawrence held many titles in his lifetime. Among them were mayor, school board president, bank president, and commission chair. When I couple all of his kindnesses to his family with the many ways he supported Susan and her first husband Edwin Dana (see Chapters 2 and 3 of Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House), I would add another title: Super Dad. Happy Father’s Day, Rheuna.
June 8, 2013 § 1 Comment
This is the week of one anniversary at the Lawrence/Dana-Thomas House that usually goes unnoticed. Susan and her mother moved into the house 109 years ago. A small headline in the June 12, 1904, Springfield Sunday Journal proclaimed, “Mrs. R. D. Lawrence and Daughter in New Home.” The brief story that followed read:
Mrs. R. D. Lawrence and her daughter, Mrs. Susan Lawrence Dana, have moved into their new residence at Fourth Street and Lawrence Avenue. On account of the style of its architecture this house is probably the most interesting in the city. Mrs. Lawrence and Mrs. Dana will hold a bazar next winter, under the auspices of the King’s Daughters, when the public will have an opportunity to inspect the building.
Adjacent to the news story is the ad by Myers Brothers department store (which many of us still remember) pictured below. Targeting the male readers of the Journal, the ad gives us a glimpse of the well-dressed man’s apparel that summer. He wore “unlined suits made with reinforced shoulders, hand turned collars, moulded chests. [The suits did] not wilt, wrinkle or wither as the inferior makes invariably do.” A gentleman visiting the ladies at Fourth Street and Lawrence Avenue would have completed his ensemble with a “neat appearing and comfortable” panama hat from Puerto Rico or Japan.
I am sure that most of our 2013 male visitors at the Dana-Thomas House would not trade their jeans, shorts, T shirts, or ball caps for the “cool summer suits” and straw hats that the guests of Mary and Susan wore as they visited the new Lawrence House in 1904.