Even though she lives in Australia, former Chicagoan Victoria Kluth had to own something on Oak Park’s most adorable cul de sac, Elizabeth Court. Her chance came with the listing of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Laura Gale House in 2009. It wasn’t as insane a purchase as it sounds—Kluth expected she’d return to Chicago after a contract gig expired, but two years became five years and now 15. So, after managing to steadily reinvest in the house with the little time she had in it, Kluth is reluctantly putting it back on the market for $1.1 million.
The Laura Gale House was an architectural first for Wright: his first use of cantilevering in a private residence, creating dramatic overhangs sheltering a pair of stacked front balconies, a hidden doorway, and accentuating the home’s linear slabs. It’s been said that there’s no Fallingwater without the Laura Gale House. Wright cooked up the scheme for that 1939 masterpiece last minute, in a matter of hours, and called on the Gale’s basic form and cantilevering.
Built for the widow of real estate developer Thomas Gale in 1909, this was the third Wright design commissioned by the Gale family. Standing a block away on Chicago Avenue, the Thomas Gale House was a “bootleg” from 1892 when an irrepressible young Wright started taking clients outside of his employer Louis Sullivan; the neighboring Walter Gale House was his first legitimate independent commission a year later.
In part because of the care of architects that have owned the Laura Gale House over the years, it's in pretty good condition (there’s a little deferred exterior maintenance and the floors could use refurbishing) and retains a remarkable number of original finishes and built-ins. Paint colors are also historically accurate. The windows and all but one window lever are original, as are the light fixtures, hardwood floors, radiators, and standing cabinetry creating a firmer delineation between living and dining rooms. The previous owner worked within the floor plan to remodel the kitchen (per landmark protection, you can’t move walls or significantly alter the interior structure), and to partially finish the basement as an office space with a bathroom. You could easily stick a sixth bedroom down there, and it would be larger than all of the proper bedrooms.
That’s the incongruity of this house in a nutshell: It’s a family house by size and bedroom count, but most families today will find the rooms and layout a little awkward. When moving through the house, Wright calls the shots. “With his visual cues, it’s so obvious where he wants you to go and how you’re supposed to get from A to B,” says Kluth, on a call from Melbourne. Adds listing agent Jeanette Madock of Weichert Realtors: “You have to be willing to live in this like a work of art.”
Though Laura Gale had money, her house was among Wright’s smaller works and he did not design furniture for it. That task was left to Kluth. “I inherited a masterpiece and had the luxury of bringing back reproductions to complete the living space.” She began by scouting for Wright furniture from other houses that might complement the Gale House. For the dining room set she replicated the Dana-Thomas table with a slight variation in the high backs of the chairs, and she discovered a rambling, angular couch from L.A.’s Hollyhock House to use alongside the grand hearth in the living room. “The next thing I’d do is commission moveable square block stools from Wright’s Wisconsin home,” says Kluth. The next buyer should take notes.
Price Points: The asking price, fairly high for 2,800 square feet and the absence of a garage, is meant to recoup Kluth's $975,000 purchase price and ensure a serious steward steps forward. That’s the calculus anyway, and it may help that the home is embedded in the Wright Historic District while secreted away from the thongs of tourists. A lush backyard and patio is the payoff for an irregular lot with no space for a garage. Kluth is willing to sit on the house as long as it takes to sell without budging on price, doing another stint with a house sitter if need be. “I’ll be devastated when it sells.”