September 18, 2014 § 1 Comment
In a post entitled “Classics in a Classy House” that I wrote in June, 2012, I noted that both Susan and Frank Lloyd Wright followed the popular trend of their day by displaying replicas of classic statuary in their homes. These statues demonstrated that the home owner was cultured and appreciated fine art. In Susan’s case, they undoubtedly were also an indication that she had seen the originals on her trips to Europe.
I just returned from Europe and was fortunate enough to visit the Louvre in Paris for the first time. There I saw “Winged Victory” and “Venus de Milo.” I was overwhelmed. My first thought was that the statues in the Dana-Thomas House cannot begin to convey the scale, majesty, or beauty of either figure. Yet Susan tried to capture her memories and share them with her American friends through the replicas.
Then I did a very twenty-first century thing. I had my friend take a picture of me with “Venus de Milo.” Now that I am home and looking at the photos from the trip, I realize that despite the technology of today, we still can’t convey through images the experience of seeing great masterpieces in person. Nevertheless, like Susan, I am going to try to share my memories with you. I hope that if you have not already done so, you too will get the opportunity to see these original magnificent masterpieces. Meanwhile, enjoy the reflections of the memories of Susan and me.
March 9, 2014 § 11 Comments
In Chapter 18 of Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House I quote an excerpt of a letter that Susan wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife Olgivanna in 1936:
My house here has been on the list of things I have not been able to look after and keep in constant repair. I could not take the necessary steps to look after it. I … have been in the small house on the other side of the railroad when I have been able to stay here.
According to Susan, she had lost most of her fortune because of high medical bills for her cousin Florence, the financial crash of 1929, and her inability to attract renters to her commercial properties in downtown Springfield. The House needed major repairs and a new furnace. Reluctantly Susan moved out of the Lawrence House.
Unfortunately, I am experiencing a crossroad similar to Susan’s. Administrative decisions over the past year at the Dana-Thomas House have made my affiliation with the House intolerable. Regretfully, I have chosen not to lead tours at the House for the foreseeable future.
Since most of my inspiration for this blog stems from my love for and experiences at the House, I will not be posting my thoughts as frequently as in the past. Thanks to all of you who have loyally supported me and the House in this endeavor.
February 27, 2014 § 3 Comments
On one of my visits to Taliesen West while I’ve been here in Scottsdale, I had the opportunity to see several of the shelters in the desert surrounding Taliesen. When Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fellowship began spending the winters in the desert in the 1940’s, the apprentices (students) were required to live in Shepherd’s tents their first year and to design a shelter (or renovate an existing one) as their permanent residence. In the late 1980’s the school became accredited, and the requirement to build a shelter became optional. Today, living in a shelter is still voluntary. Continuing the tradition, over half of the students usually elect to sleep in a shelter and to make improvements on the structure they select.
To my surprise, I found elements of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie houses in these contemporary constructions in the middle of the desert. For example, in several shelters the fireplace was the central core of the house just as it is in the Dana-Thomas House.
and a barrel vaulted ceiling without the ceiling.
Like the rest of Taliesen West, the shelter tour was a dramatic illustration of the strong connections between the old and the new in the on-going Frank Lloyd Wright story. The clever innovations of the young architectural students provided for me a look into the future while their subtle homage to Frank Lloyd Wright’s early works created a thread with the past.
February 2, 2014 § 1 Comment
January and February are usually depressing months around the Dana-Thomas House, but this year is particularly bleak. Traditionally, the large crowds who visit the House to enjoy the holiday decorations in November and December disappear abruptly at the first of the year. The situation is magnified this year by the severe winter weather the Midwest is experiencing. Understandably, tourists are not traveling. Consequently, we have anywhere from three to a dozen guests visiting the House daily. Additionally, many of the volunteer interpreters spend these months in warmer climates, so the camaraderie which we enjoy is limited to a smaller group.
Susan undoubtedly experienced the winter blahs too. Like my fellow interpreters and other women of means in her day, she frequently escaped to warmer climate during the dark months. Among her destinations were California and New Orleans where some of her cousins resided. The most memorable and tragic of her winter getaways occurred shortly after the festive opening of the Lawrence House in December, 1904. I describe the trip in Chapter 8 of Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House:
[On January 26, 1905, Susan and her mother Mary] left Springfield for New York to embark on a cruise to the Caribbean. After stops in Cuba and Nassau, the two women began a tour of the southern United States. They visited Palm Beach and Jacksonville, Florida. There they boarded a train of March 12 to Thomasville, Georgia, where they planned to stop for a few days. While en route, Mary became ill…She died of cardial asthma within 20 minutes after she was stricken.
As I re-read this, I realize what a downer this post turned into. I need to get to a warm climate!
January 19, 2014 § 1 Comment
The Lawrence/Dana-Thomas House offers history lessons in the most unexpected places. For example, the windowless cavernous coat room on the lowest level of the house holds a fascinating illustration of a historic truism.
One hundred thirty six coat hooks are hidden behind oak boards near the ceiling of the room. Conceivably, this is where the coats of 272 guests could be hung during one of Susan’s famous parties. By contrast, when we have parties in the house today, racks holding an infinite number of coat hangers are wheeled into the coat room. This would have been impossible in Susan’s day because the coat hanger as we know it did not exist when Frank Lloyd Wright designed the house in 1902.
Albert J. Parkhouse is generally credited with inventing the wire coat hanger in 1903. He was an employee of Timberlake Wire and Novelty Company in Jackson, Michigan, and John B. Timberlake, the owner of the company, applied for and received the patent for the hanger in 1904. Others were inventing new ways to hang clothes at the same time, and one source says that between 1900 and 1906, over 189 different patents were granted on different versions of “garment-hangers” worldwide. Hooks became out-of-date.
The irony is that Frank Lloyd Wright strove to install in the Lawrence House the most modern elements available in 1902 (for example, indoor plumbing, electricity, a duck pin alley). Unfortunately, he missed the coat hanger concept by just a few years. As anyone who has bought a new phone six months before the next model is released can tell you, there’s always something new on the horizon.
January 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
In an earlier post I described the dilemmas caused by the possibility of high speed trains passing on the Third Street tracks behind the Dana-Thomas House (click here to read). That crisis was averted when the Federal Railroad Administration ruled to route the “super trains” (110 mph) on Springfield’s Tenth Street tracks. Now officials are planning to upgrade the Third Street tracks so that freight and passenger train speeds through Springfield can be raised from the current 25 mph to 40 mph. Once again, damage to the House from train vibrations is a concern.
This isn’t the first time the property was endangered by a fast train. On July 9, 1910, both the Illinois State Journal and the Illinois State Register reported that two “empty” rail cars jumped the tracks at Third and Lawrence and crashed into the brick wall surrounding the Lawrence House. The train was running at a “fair rate of speed,” and the brake beam on the first car broke, derailing them both. The Journal further reported that the boxcars were not really empty because several hoboes spilled out of them and fled the scene immediately.
The startled travelers were undoubtedly riding the rails to Chicago which, according to the Encyclopedia Chicago History, was the Hobo Capital of the World at that time. Those same rails frequently took Susan to Chicago, the transportation hub of the country, where she made connections to other destinations. Continuing the tradition, I boarded an Amtrak train and traveled on those tracks to the Windy City this week-end. The Third Street tracks have a long history of making Chicago journeys easy for all kinds of people. I will be watching with interest as the next chapter of that history unfolds.
December 20, 2013 § 1 Comment
The decorating theme in the Dana-Thomas House Historic Site this holiday season reflects the preference by Frank Lloyd Wright for the use of natural dried materials as decoration in the homes he designed…[Mr. Wright] sought to integrate natural elements in the home by bringing the outdoors inside through the use of large expanses of windows and in the use of exterior building materials within the house. Mr. Wright also used decorative elements derived from nature as design motifs. In the Dana-Thomas House the main design theme is the native prairie sumac plant. He further suggested that his clients use native plants and grasses for additional decoration, varying with the season.
To achieve this homage to Frank Lloyd Wright, spectacular arrangements designed by the members of the Springfield Civic Garden Club are displayed throughout the house. The dried prairie plants and flowers used by the floral designers complement the subtle autumnal colors of the house and, in some cases, mirror the architectural lines. The result is an elegantly muted celebration of the holiday.
On the other hand, according to newspaper accounts Susan chose more vibrant plants and flowers to decorate her home. I describe in an earlier post the holly, California peppers, and red and white carnations she used for the 1908 Christmas season (click here if you missed it). The red and white carnations were also prominent in this description of the first holiday celebration in the house:
The hall and parlor were filled with groups of red and white carnations and maiden hair ferns. The loggia off the hall made a very attractive spot with its palms and ferns…In the dining room red and white were used again as single color tones, all else being of the dark oak shades.
Illinois State Register, December 30, 1904
Perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright did encourage his clients to decorate with dried native plants and grasses as the sign says. If so, this is just one more example of Susan’s independent spirit. She accepted and enjoyed Frank Lloyd Wright’s style to a point, but she made the house he designed into her home on her terms.