Having toured the Ennis and Hollyhock houses in Los Angeles and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, I finally crossed an item off my bucket list when I toured some works by Frank Lloyd Wright in Illinois. It was around Christmastime, and the winter in northern Illinois was unseasonably kind, so I was able to embark on the audio walking tour in Oak Park.
The reasonably priced tour comes with an audio electronic device similar to an iPod, which was explained in a tutorial, a map in brochure and a set of headphones. They were all sufficient, though the device didn’t always work as intended and the headphones are one size fits all, so constant adjustments were necessary. The autonomy of walking through Oak Park’s wide, tree-lined neighborhoods is worth the hassle and the package includes a guided tour of Wright’s 1889-1898 home at 951 Chicago Avenue. Here, he raised six children with his first wife and added a studio, where he created a new American architecture, the Prairie style, and designed 125 structures, including such famous buildings as the Robie House, the Larkin Building and Unity Temple. The restored site is presented as it appeared in 1909, the last year that Wright lived in the home and worked in the studio. The house and studio are simple, clearly and thoughtfully planned and everything I’d always imagined they would be. My favorite parts of the home and studio tour were the children’s playroom and the studio workspace, best described as a place designed for man at his best. Standing at the drafting tables is an exalted experience. The whole experience stirs the senses and makes you want to get to work and create.
From there, the audio walking tour, which does require coordination and syncing the pedestrian with the technology, cycles to ten Wright houses and the Unity Temple, which remains an active religious facility that offers a separate tour for a fee. Individually, each is striking in its own way, and I’ve included a snapshot here as a sample. The audio provides a strictly architecture-oriented lesson, not an historical or biographical narration, and I found myself wanting to know more about how the commission was developed and for whom and how Wright regarded each finished work. The tour loops along Forest Avenue to Austin Gardens and up Kenilworth Avenue back to Wright’s home and studio past several other interesting houses designed by various architects. Overall, this is the largest concentration of Wright-designed structures in existence. All the houses are privately owned and occupied by residents and visible from Oak Park’s public sidewalks.