Next month Frank Lloyd Wright and Prairie School architecture will be celebrated at the annual Wright Plus housewalk in Oak Park and River Forest. But what makes these two neighboring western suburbs truly special is not just the 31 Wright-designed structures, but the wide variety of historic architecture that can be found here. Many of the houses come with impressive architectural pedigrees, whether it is Oak Park’s most “intact” Victorian designed by local architect Henry G. Fiddelke (who also worked on Ernest Hemingway’s childhood home) or a disputed River Forest residence done by either Wright himself or one of his young draftsmen, Harry Robinson.
If you’re an architecture geek like me, walking around OPRF can be like visiting an outdoor museum. Located just nine miles west of downtown Chicago, it’s a convenient place to live if you want to be close to the city. And though it can be a bit pricey, you can buy into the suburb’s architectural heritage.
Let’s start with the crème de la crème. When I lived near the intersection of Pleasant and Grove I’d always admire the impressive Victorians that sit on all four corners. This home at 139 South Grove Avenue designed by Fiddelke & Ellis is one of them. In our current world of HGTV renovations, it’s pretty shocking to see a home in such original condition with ornate millwork, stained glass windows, pocket doors, built-in furniture like bookcases and sideboards, as well as six fireplaces with hand-carved mantels. Five different types of wood was used throughout the home and none of it has been painted. It’s a miracle! Although the kitchen has been modernized, it still preserves the historical flair of the home. The one-bedroom coach house can be rented out or used for whatever suits your needs, whether as a guest house or office. But the best part is its walkability—not just to stores and restaurants in the Hemingway District but to public transportation.
Located a few doors down from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Winslow House, this 1960 ranch-style design was one of twelve built by architect and developer Martin H. Braun on the former estate of Edward C. Waller. Chicago Tribune advertisements for Braun’s “tomorrow’s houses” lured potential owners with amenities like rumpus rooms and built-in televisions. Some of those original details survive, but this 10-room home has been updated for life in today’s world. Plus it has a yard to die for! You’ll find a surrounding deck, garden ponds, green house, and above ground pool. That might explain the hefty price, but who wouldn’t want a private oasis on an acre lot that backs up to the woods and the Des Plaines River?
Roy J. Hotchkiss was the draftsmen for local architect E.E. Roberts and these two men were responsible for hundreds of buildings in Oak Park, including the town’s art deco masterpiece, the Medical Arts Building. He designed this Craftsman-style Foursquare in 1924. Almost a hundred years later the home is a blend of historic charm on the exterior with modern day decor on the inside. You’ll find plenty of space here with 15 rooms offering different options for further renovation, plus a large coach house out back. And you’re just steps away from a Green Line stop.
This 1914 Prairie-style home comes with controversy. Frank Lloyd Wright famously did “bootleg houses” on the sly, which led to his boss Louis Sullivan firing him. Well, history repeats itself. Architectural historian William Allin Storrer declared an entire block of homes in River Forest to be Frank Lloyd Wright designs, although evidence shows they are “bootlegs” by Wright’s draftsman Harry Robinson. One of these disputed homes is currently for sale. Historically appropriate details include art glass and a roman brick fireplace. There is also a bright sun room for reading and relaxation and contemplation… who *actually* designed this house?
Located in between two Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes on Oak Park’s beautiful Forest Avenue, this understated 1890 Queen Anne was designed by Patton & Fisher, architects responsible for a number of buildings in town, as well as one of Chicago’s most visible architectural landmarks: the vividly red-brick Main Building at the Illinois Institute of Technology, completed three years after this house. While preserving the original woodwork, the home has been tastefully updated inside with new bathrooms and a bright white kitchen that opens up to a spacious family room. Compared to the Victorian on Grove, which seems like a museum, this old home is quite livable for modern tastes.