Susan Shipper-Smith and Ted Smith bought what they thought was a move-in ready Frank Lloyd Wright designed house in 1980.
“We thought it was okay,” Shipper-Smith said of the 1912 home, located in Riverside. “They told us everything worked and we believed them and we fell in love with it. So we bought it and piece by piece we figured out it was in desperate need for attention.”
The Smiths were both interested in Frank Lloyd Wright, but liked it especially because of the home’s fantastic communal spaces. The home, 350 Fairbank Road, only has two bedrooms and two bathrooms, but boasts 3,503 square feet of living space.
“It was the two of us,” Shipper-Smith added. “We didn’t need bedrooms upstairs. We wanted to enjoy the public space, it met our needs.”
When the Smiths realized the home needed work—there was a major leak in the living room and the heating didn’t work, just to name a few — they weren’t about to do a gut renovation.
They wanted to “bring it back to its original beauty,” Shipper-Smith said.
The home, which is now listed for sale for $800,000, was not originally a residential home.
Avery Coonley and Queene Ferry Coonley had Wright build them a home in 1908 in Riverside. Then, just three years later, the Coonleys commissioned Wright to construct a schoolhouse nearby, which would serve as a kindergarten for their daughter and other neighborhood children.
“We think it’s quite interesting because it’s pretty modern for 1912,” said Barbara Gordon, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. She noted some of the more modern elements include an assemblage of wall and roof slabs, along with very rectangular openings throughout the interior.
“We think [Wright] is really at this point experimenting with concepts he will use later with mid-century Usonian houses,” Gordon said.
The structure, which is now referred to as The Playhouse, was only a school until 1919, when one of Wright’s associates, William Drummond, transformed it into a residential space. (The school moved to Downers Grove and is still opened today.)
When the Smiths purchased the home, there were many original elements that were either missing or in need of restoration.
“I think what makes the house most famous are the windows,” Gordon said. “Historically those are interesting in his work because it is the first time we see him go that direction. Usually [his windows] were geometric. This was definitely a playhouse.” At the Playhouse, Wright used primary colors and whimsical imagery of balloons and confetti, something he had not really done before.
By the time the Smiths moved in, most of those windows were gone.
“The windows were sold for a lot of money in 1970s,” said Mike McCurry, the home’s broker from Coldwell Banker. Most of them ended up in museums all around the world.
But that didn’t stop the Smiths from bringing them back, in a way. After doing extensive research on the home and on window artisans who could do the work, the Smiths commissioned exact replicas of every window to be installed back in its original place.
“Every window is different and the photographs of the house when it was first open show a lot of the windows, but they are in black and white,” Shipper-Smith said. “I didn’t have full details of each windows from those original photographs.”
So she interviewed people and went to museums to see the originals until finally she was able to get reproductions done from an artisan in Wisconsin that new how to do the exact technique Wright used.
But the windows were just part of their restoration. The couple did projects throughout their ownership as their budget allowed, ranging from stripping the floors to putting in new heating and lighting.
“They took down a lot of wallpaper and different things that the 70s brought it,” McCurry said. “The focal point is definitely the fireplace which is on a stage that was used for performances, hence the word ‘playhouse.’”
Shipper-Smith said that plaster on home’s exterior over the years had cracked and been patched up. New surfaces were put on and water ended up being trapped inside the layers.
“So we stripped everything off down to the basecoat on the whole house and built it back up using [original] samples that were analyzed,” Shipper-Smith said. “We recreated the same materials, which are not materials that are typically used today.”
The building is a local landmark, Gordon said, and the exterior is protected from major changes being done. It is also in the Riverside Historic District and located on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Don’t destroy it,” Shipper-Smith said, regarding potential buyers. “Keep it architecturally significant. Do your homework. The house is over 100 years old, so things need to be done now and then, but structurally and mechanically the house is in good shape.”
Her final piece of advice? “Don’t make it into a modern McMansion.”