Ask about an architectural tour in Chicago and you will inevitably hear three magic words: Frank Lloyd Wright. The Prairie School visionary revolutionized home design and is widely recognized as one of the most prominent architects of the 20th century. Hailing from Oak Park, a suburb just outside the city, Frank Lloyd Wright wanted his homes to parallel the horizontal nature of the prairies while, simultaneously, downtown Chicago was developing into a mountain range of skyscrapers.
Only one of Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings is in downtown Chicago and it's a beauty: the Rookery. Today, this 11-story office building stands in the shadows of nearby Chicago Board of Trade Building, but when it was built in the late-1800s it was one of the largest office buildings in the city.
In order to attract tenants it needed an elegant lobby, and architects Burnham and Root planned the structure with a grand light court covered in glass. Wright's firm leased space in the Rookery 1898-1899, and in 1905 Wright received a commission to remodel the lobby. He covered up the outdated ironwork with white marble, adorned with a Persian-inspired gold motif that beautifully reflects the sunlight that pours in from above.
If you take the 30-minute tour of the lobby with the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, remember that Frank Lloyd Wright completed few commercial commissions in Chicago like this remodel, and the form of the lobby really comes from Burnham and Root. Once a week their volunteer docents offer a 45-minute tour that includes a visit to the Burnham Library, which is the restored space of Burnham and Root's offices. In this very space, Daniel Burnham planned the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.
Any time I take guests on
private tours with my company, Chicago
Detours, to the Robie House in Hyde Park, they are shocked when I tell them
the date it was built: 1909. Wright was a visionary, and like many
forward-thinking artists and creators, he was a little ahead of his time.
You have to trek outside downtown Chicago to fully experience Frank Lloyd Wright architecture because he was primarily a residential architect, and the suburbs were an entirely new concept back then. For the quintessential Prairie Style home experience, you have to go to Hyde Park, right near the University of Chicago campus. It's easy to take express bus 2 or 6 to Hyde Park from downtown, or try the Metra.
Robie House has heavy horizontal lines and Wright's often-used hipped roof, which further creates a harmony with the natural landscape. As you peruse the wide open interior spaces or gaze out the colored art glass windows, consider that this building reigns so significant to Chicago's architectural history because it is one of the first architectural expressions of the new American lifestyle that developed suburbanization around the turn of the century. Tours are 45-90 minutes, depending on if you come for the tour of additional "Private Spaces."
To gain insights into the life and process of Frank Lloyd Wright in addition to his architectural works, a trek out to Oak Park is a requirement! Many people opt to drive, or if you take the CTA Green Line to the last stop (Harlem); it's less than a mile walk. In this suburb just across the Chicago border, you can tour his Home and Studio, as well as explore the exteriors of other residential commissions in the neighborhood, which is designated the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District. In addition to "oooing" and "ahing" at the grand homes you wished were yours, you'll gain greater perspective on the philosophies that motivated the designs for these spared-down, elegant residences.
You can also visit the Unity Temple Church on self-guided tours. For this building design, considered one of Wright's most significant, the architect forged into modernism with his efficient approach to creating community spaces.
If you absolutely want to absorb everything Wright, try the "Wright Around Chicago Bus Tour." Offered only on Wednesdays, June 12 to August 28, this bus tour will whip you around Chicago to see everything mentioned here - and then some. Also the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust has a variety of fun and educational special events and tours, from guided walking tours of the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District to jazz at the Robie House.
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