One of the terminal masterpieces of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Chicago-centered Prairie Period, the 1907 Coonley House is also one of just three multiple-building Prairie complexes built by the famed architect, the other two being the Dana Thomas (1902) and Darwin Martin (1904) complexes. Originally composed of ten acres on the banks of the Des Plaines in Riverside, a near disastrous development deal in the early 1950s saved the principal structures while adding six new homes to several acres of open land. The entire estate was to be demolished and 16 new homes built if not for a chance intervention from a pair of Chicago artists.
The complex faced another challenge in the late 1990s when its structures were condemned due to disrepair. Around that time, in 2000, Dean and Ella Mae Eastman bought the attached Living Room and Servant’s wings and began years of restoration, eventually roping in the coach house and stables. In 2010 they brought their centerpiece to market with an asking price of $2.89 million. Sixty-one hundred square feet had become too big for the retired couple. There were no takers then or on a second attempt in 2012, so they made good on their plan to move into the smaller coach house (4,000 square feet) and found a tenant for the larger space. With renewed confidence in the market, the Eastmans are re-listing this week at $2.1 million (Catherine Simon-Vobornik of Baird & Warner has the listing). There’s no hope of recouping their hefty expenditures at this price, but, says Dean, “the house has become more of a burden than a pleasure. It’s time to find a new steward.”
Neither was money the driving force for Avery and Queene Ferry Coonley. “They never argued about money at all and gave Wright an almost unlimited budget,” says Dean. Buffalo’s Darwin Martin house was the only other project where Wright was able to design free of financial constraints. The outcome is dazzling. There is such vivid and purposeful detail, from the pagoda-like living room’s fern and river mural and abstracted fern art glass to the ceiling’s intricate millwork and skylights. The 400-some-odd art glass windows comprise three walls in many rooms thanks to the estate’s sprawled, zigzagging wings. Where windows didn’t work, Wright deployed multiple glazes and sand textured walls of subtle difference to invoke nearby forest, river, and earth.
The truly amazing thing is that much of the original architectural detailing was erased, masked, crumbled, or decayed before the Eastmans arrived on the scene. Dean, an engineer with an number of home restorations behind him, learned color theory in order to analyze and match exact hues to what he found in paint samples and old photos; he repaired exterior trim and the 900-foot-long stucco frieze of lightscreened art glass patterns that wrapped the main home’s outer walls; and he hired furniture makers who could replicate or simulate a greatest hits of Wright-designed furniture and found harmonious arrangements for it all. These expensive pieces are negotiable in a sale. Dean studied up and took complete control of the restoration to limit the errors that come with passing information to contractors and subcontractors. In the end, he even authored a book on the project.
In the course of configuring rooms and matching colors from imperfect documentation, Dean was forced to rely on hunches at times. “I learned to think like Wright.” The best example of this is Dean’s symmetrical three-table dining room with a six-top at the center and two offset four-tops on each end against windowsill. “I figured one banquet table with 14 or 16 chairs wouldn’t have been Wright’s solution for so wide a room,” he adds. Turns out he was right. A year after commissioning these near-replica Robie House tables paired with elegant angle-backed chairs he got a hold of a Wright blueprint sketched years after construction during a span in Europe that had the architect reflecting on his best work. It depicts three dining room tables with size and position to match Eastman’s guesswork.
This is not the huge self-contained estate once powered by its own steam plant, but it is still otherworldly. In place of a live-in staff of 15 are sets of owners that must collaborate to keep the surviving work singing, because in 2015 the public claims a stake in Wright’s legacy. On May 16, the Coonley House will be a stop on the annual Wright house walk for the first time.