Frank Lloyd Wright’s Emil Bach House was designed in 1915 for the president of a brick company. It’s a crisp marker on upper Sheridan Road and once owned commanding sightlines until a midcentury construction boom robbed it of lake views. The home’s compact two-story plan with Prairie appropriations from Wright’s more sprawling commissions foreshadowed his stripped-down Usonian models of the 1940s and 50s.
In late 2011 new owner Tawani Enterprises, an investment venture of Col. Jennifer Pritzker, hired Harboe Architects to help bring longstanding restoration efforts to the finish line. “Col. Pritzker is a dedicated preservationist and developer,” says Tawani Chief of Staff Mary Parthe, “Historic preservation is a way to combine the study of history with tangible investments.”
“The previous owner [Jane Feerer] went pretty far with interior restoration—kitchen, bathrooms, built-ins—but it’s hard to go all the way when you live in the space,” says Harboe principal Gunny Harboe.
Harboe is no stranger to historic restoration and the handling of cherished Wright designs. In fact, one of his first jobs out of grad school was to redesign the Wright room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When he landed in Chicago a short time later, more Wright projects lined up for Harboe including work on the Rookery lobby rehab in 1988-89 with McClier Corporation and more recent adventures in master planning gradual restorations of the Unity Temple, Robie House, and Taliesin West.
Architect and developer took on the Bach House’s exterior, where yellowish stucco had been patched and painted over and over. Sections of yellow brick also had to be repaired or replaced, and, according to Harboe “it can be very difficult to find exact matches for brick.” As luck would have it, there weren’t any major snags with this process or for the potentially tricky replacement of deteriorated concrete detailing. One of the signature features of this property is its meandering walkway and lack of a front entrance. “Wright wanted visitors to see the home from multiple angles on their approach,” says Boyd. This makes sense when one sees just how complex the façade articulation is, sharpened by cantilevered roof shading the bedrooms, inset balconies, and redwood and cypress trim.
“It was a dark period for Frank Lloyd Wright, between the passing of his wife in the Taliesin fire and time spent abroad,” says house co-manager Bruce Boyd. The home’s guarded stance in an urban environment is thought to reflect that.
The clock was also set to 1915 for landscaping, with rolling flowerbeds, windowsill planters, and open yard, except that the property added a side lot some 50 years ago when a neighboring structure came down. Oh, and the previous owner built a pool house beside the green-roofed garage that Tawani has artfully adapted as a teahouse.
Belying the Bach House’ regal grounds, primed for event use, is the compactness of its living spaces. It’s very vertical for a Wright, try as it may to obscure with horizontal stone and brick lines. As with many of the architect’s homes first floor living spaces encircle a central fireplace and inglenook, or adjoining gathering space. A long low table performs double duty as a dining space and lounging area. The elegant rebuilt kitchen took liberties with marble counters, but still fits into the era. At the back of the home, Harboe undid some 50-year-old damage by returning a sewing room to a three-season sunroom.
The house was gutted once or twice before, and most of the built-in furnishings are now replicas. Interior design architecture firm Morgante Wilson used drawings and photographs to faithfully rebuild these pieces. Other furnishings are modern adaptations of Wright designs.
Upstairs are two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a day room. The bedrooms and day room are brightened by rows of large windows, with two art glass panes at each end. The art glass is replicated from originals that live at the Art Institute.
Under Tawani’s direction and with the combined efforts of Harboe, Morgante Wilson, and managers Wayde Cartwright and Boyd—both also co-owners of the neighboring Lang House Bed-and-Breakfast—finishes, and furnishings were matched as closely as possible to Wright’s original schematics. “Ms. Bach took to calling the interior paint job ‘sunrise yellow’,” notes Boyd. “And the name caught with Wright.” Unstained walnut, a known favorite of the Bachs, accents the entire house. Such tales or mementos linking to the original home made it doubly important to put care into accurate reproduction. “As the architect, you know that your interpretation will be what people study and experience,” says Harboe.
The Emil Bach House opens in the first week of May to vacation and event bookings, with an introductory whole-house day or night rate of $750. Trained docents will give tours on Wednesdays through the summer. It’s the only Wright home in the Chicago area to offer regular guest lodging. “There are so many house museums and it’s hard to make it as one,” says Harboe. “This place is great, but it’s no Robie House.”