Re-Wright

When a young Oak Park couple finally bought the Frank Lloyd Wright house they had long admired, they teamed up with top-of-the-line talent to make a good house great

Carollina Song and Alec Harris were on an architectural tour in Oak Park about ten years ago when they first saw the interior of the Frank Lloyd Wright house they would >>>>

later buy. “I thought it was the most perfect house because of the way it combined a unified aesthetic with a floor plan that’s livable,” Song says. “There are floor plans Wright executed that are phenomenal architecturally but that I would find a little harder to live with, certainly in a family with children.”

Song and Harris have been married for 12 years. She is a stay-at-home mother, and he is the president of GIA Publications, a family-run music publishing company. The couple started out in a condo in a 1930s six-flat in Lake View, but they were both drawn to old houses and eventually bought a Prairie-style home in Oak Park designed by the architect Robert Spencer. Still, the Wright house remained their ideal. In the fall of 2004, Harris called the owners to ask if they would sell. They declined but put the house on the market the following spring, and in a bidding war Song and Harris finally prevailed. “It was a very intense time,” Harris says. “But everything worked out, and we were really thankful.”

So were their children, Lindy, now six, and Gabriel, eight. “I think their favorite things about living in a Frank Lloyd Wright house,” their mother explains, “are (a) putting a lemonade stand out in front because they get the tourists and (b) building a snow fort in the wintertime because they can throw snowballs at them.”

Built in 1906, the two-story brick-and-stucco house with concrete lintels and sills has low eaves, a gabled roof, and a large porch. Most Wright houses from that period have art-glass windows; here the windows have wood muntins, a design, Harris explains, that is Japanese in feeling and might have been inspired by Wright’s trip to Asia the year before. Scholars contend that the style of the house reflects the influences of two of Wright’s apprentices, Walter Burley Griffin and Barry Byrne.

Song and Harris are the fifth owners of the house. In a study for the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, Pamela C. Reynolds reported that the house was built on the site of a former cottage for Peter A. Beachy, a financial manager, and his wife, Emma Susan, an heiress. The house was converted into a duplex in 1951, Harris says, and some of the alterations left from that time and later were inconsistent with Song’s vision of the house at its best. A windowless rear staircase that had been added rose awkwardly into a room above, and the secondary hallway had been eliminated to accommodate closets. The kitchen, butler’s pantry, and bathrooms also needed to be updated.

To improve the house, Song and Harris worked with the Chicago architect John Vinci, a noted modernist and preservationist, who had restored and renovated Howard Van Doren Shaw’s residence on North Lake Shore Drive, an apartment now owned by Harris’s parents. The Oak Park–based contractor for the project, the Von Dreele– Freerksen Construction Company, has a long history with Wright houses.

“It was a great collaboration between the architect, the contractor, and hopefully us,” Song says. “Hopefully we didn’t drive anybody too crazy. We had clear ideas of what we wanted to do. And we have always known that the issue with this house is how to be respectful stewards in a way that allows us to live comfortably and easily as a family.”

After a year of planning and ten months of construction, the house is light, cohesive, and fluid. “We’ve seen it evolve from a house with a few handsome rooms and a lot of problems to a house that functions beautifully now,” Vinci says. “My job was to reinstate some of its organic aspects-the corridor circulation from back stair to front stair-and that has made it a much better house to live in.”

The two most formal spaces-the living room and dining room-were in good condition when Song and Harris bought the house. For the living room, they acquired a pair of Prairie-style sofas from the previous owners and from Michael FitzSimmons and the John Toomey Gallery two Arts and Crafts chairs.

The furnishings in the dining room are rare and stunningly placed, as if for a grand but cozy gathering. “To our knowledge, at least in private Oak Park houses, there isn’t any original freestanding Wright furniture left other than what is in this dining room,” Harris says of signature pieces that were acquired from the previous owners through an agreement with the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. Under the established terms, the furniture will stay with the house even if the owners change. Among the prizes are a long rectangular table, two small square tables, eight short slat-backed chairs, and eight tall ones (the last are the only reproductions).

The previous owners of the house told Song and Harris that they had found one of the small tables in the basement covered with paint cans; the large table had been painted green with white stripes and used for Ping-Pong.

From a drawing and photographs, Von Dreele–Freerksen was able to reproduce the dining room’s two missing art-glass ceiling fixtures, which pivot to hang above different table configurations. “That’s part of the organic nature of this house,” Vinci explains. It’s also an example of Wright’s ingenious sense of design, Harris says, demonstrating that wood bars slide out of each end of the rectangular table to hold leaves.

One of Harris’s favorite spaces is the large porch off the dining room-invitingly open and yet protected by a sheltering roof. “Alec would eat out here 365 days a year if I would permit it,” Song says. “He doesn’t mind if we wear gloves at the dinner table.”

Von Dreele–Freerksen found some significant challenges in the main roof and the bays of the house. “The six matching bays had experienced some sagging and settling because it was a pretty radical design in 1906,” says Doug Freerksen, the president of the company. “There was some restructuring that needed to be done. And when you see an opportunity to make something healthier and better, it’s a shame to pass on that opportunity, and in this case we didn’t pass on it. We seized on those opportunities to make the house better than it was-better insulated, stronger, ready to last another century.”

The awkward rear stairway was one of the greatest difficulties confronting Vinci. A second stair does not appear in Wright’s original plans for the house, although fragments of a narrow vertical passageway were discovered in a back exterior corner during the renovation, presumably the second entrance when the house was a duplex. To correct the back stairs that were in place when Song and Harris bought the house, Vinci reconfigured space for a new stairway that rose sensibly to the upstairs hallway, allowing him to reinstate the mirror-image rooms that had been disrupted-those are now the children’s bedrooms. He designed a railing with spindles that are a variation on those in front, lending unity, balance, and an overall sense of refinement to the house.

“I think it was a stroke of genius,” Harris says of the arrangement. “It brings light into the back part of the house, and it makes it seem as architecturally interesting as the front half"-areas that were reconnected when Vinci restored the secondary hallway.

Song and Harris gave some thought to returning to Wright’s original plan and eliminating the rear stairs. “But for safety reasons as much as anything, we weren’t comfortable with that,” Song says. With the stairs off the kitchen, the children’s bedrooms above are within easy reach. Vinci was also opposed to reverting to the original plan. “John’s aesthetic is totally respectful of the past,” Harris says, “but not a slave to it.”

That sensibility was also reflected in Vinci’s renovation of the butler’s pantry and the kitchen. The cabinets in the pantry were original but too worn to be salvaged. Instead, the detailing was reproduced in new cabinets made of curly maple. The countertop, now in soapstone, was slightly widened to accommodate appliances beneath it. “With the modern materials,” Freerksen says, “you can realize Wright’s vision all over again-clean lined, fresh, bright.”

The kitchen had been altered years ago and was gloomy and out of date. “It was an uncreative kind of seventies modern kitchen,” Vinci says, “and Carollina likes to cook. We had discussions on how to create a kitchen that was light and airy with every appliance known to mankind.”

Four tall built-in cabinets with glass fronts-original designs-were saved, and layers of linoleum were removed to reveal the wood floor. “It’s all unmatched cuts, so my suspicion is that it was meant to be covered,” Vinci explains. “But much to our surprise, it had a lot of character.”

Soapstone reappears here on the countertops and the center island, and the cabinets are again in curly maple-upgrades of the materials that Wright would have used, Vinci says, but he points out that the kitchen is no longer a space for domestic help but a family arena. White Italian marble was used for the backsplash and a pastry shelf that is low enough for the children to assist in baking. Globe lights in the style of a Wright design now hang between the windows above the counter.

This is the largest original kitchen that anyone involved in this project has ever seen in a Wright house. The size of the room is a plus for Song and Harris. They even decided to keep the island parallel to the main counter to maximize the floor space and also to maintain the long view from the kitchen through the center of the house to the living room. “The kids like to play here,” Song says. “It’s a nice place for the family to have fun and spread out.”

The house now has great lines-both architecturally and visually-and it works. It is effortless and satisfying to move through the space. Or as John Vinci says: “I think we’ve made a good house into a great house, and I’m very proud of that.”

Song and Harris have also discovered other advantages to the house they longed for and won. “It’s close to the train, to downtown,” Harris says. “The movie theatre is nearby, the library, the public school where the kids go. The kids have lots of friends on the street.”

“To have all that and still live in a setting like this,” Song says, “seems like a gift.”

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