Oak Park: Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision lives

Consider the distinguishing features: open floor plans, lots of natural light, strong geometric patterns and constant reminders of nature, as seen through the panes of windows and indigenous building materials.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright died 50 years ago, at age 92, but his mark on this world still feels inventive and modern. Less than one-half of his 1,141 building designs were constructed, and no city contains more of them than Oak Park, Ill., a western Chicago suburb.

Wright lived here 20 years, 1889-1909, and you can tour the house and studio that helped define him and his work. This structure – his first as a homeowner and architect – was where six children were raised.

“Not the best home that he built, but the most interesting” is how tour guide Vivian Tedford describes it. Where else can the average person see the architectural concepts that bubbled within, before Wright decided how to identify his priorities and style?

The structure radiates rebellion against the grand, fussy and commonplace Victorian homes of the era. Wright was irritated that America had no architectural style of its own, relying instead on British Tudors, French chateaus and other European designs.

An exterior of natural brick and trim that resembles tree bark still stands out against the neighborhood’s brightly painted Gothic and Queen Anne houses. Inside are built-in sofas to conserve floor space, conversation areas around fireplaces, textured glass in windows and geometric stenciling on walls.

Curtains, not doors, separate most rooms. Earth-toned canvas, not flowery paper patterns, covers walls. Soon others in Oak Park wanted Wright homes for themselves.

But when Wright and a mistress left Oak Park for Germany 100 years ago, the indiscretion didn’t sit well with the community and celebrity turned to notoriety. His home eventually became a boarding house, greatly in need of repairs when purchased for restoration in the 1970s.

For more about the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, 951 Chicago Ave., Oak Park: www.gowright.org, 708-848-1976. Ticket cost is $15-25, depending upon the type of tour taken.

Rent a headset for a self-guided neighborhood tour or buy a map of the other Wright structures. Most are privately owned and not open for tours, except during the annual Wright Plus Housewalk, which hits capacity fast; tickets for the May 15, 2010, event go on sale Oct. 1 at www.gowright.org.

Also: Guided tours occur daily at Unity Temple, a National Historic Landmark and community gathering space designed by Wright. To feel the full effect of the space, attend a concert or Unitarian worship service. The building turns 100 in September; restoration is ongoing. For more: www.utrf.org, 708-383-8873.

Consider taking a Chicago Metra train (www.metrarail.com) into Oak Park; the departure point is Elburn, a burgeoning community that sprawls out to fields of corn and wheat in northwestern Illinois. Overnight parking is only $1.25 on weekdays, free on weekends. One-way train fare was $5.65 for the one-hour ride.

About 10 miles north of the train station, swing off of Hwy. 47, where acreage remains untouched by McMansions and Supercenters. “Flatlander landscape and ordinary farms,” I thought, which made this little side trip even more of a marvel.

Set back from the road, partly hidden by thick trees and a railroad trestle, is the only known farmhouse that Wright designed and saw built. Muirhead Farmhouse opened as a bed and breakfast in 2006.

Innkeepers are Mike and Sarah (Muirhead) Petersdorf; her grandparents commissioned this Wright project in 1948. “It has been fun to put this house back together,” Mike says, referring to structural deterioration, and designs for furnishings that were not built until recently. He is a woodworker hobbyist.

Remarkable features include floor-to-ceiling cabinetry in the kitchen, which has a 12-foot ceiling. A long and narrow hallway separates the former winter workshop (now home office) from living quarters. A wall of windows blends nature with structure in the dining and living rooms.

“This wasn’t in our life plan,” Mike admits. The couple relocated from the Twin Cities, their home of 20 years, after the death of Sarah’s 38-year-old brother, who farmed and lived on the Muirhead property.

The U.S. Forest Preserve owns much of the land around the farmhouse; a seven-mile trail for biking, hiking and horseback riding opens in 2010.

Overnight guests can study farmhouse construction photos and letters between Wright and the Muirhead family. Some guest head to Oak Park or Chicago for the day.

For more about Muirhead Farmhouse, 42W814 Rohrsen Rd., Hampshire, Ill., consult www.muirheadfarmhouse.com or 847-464-5224. The room rate of $155 per night includes breakfast. Tours and small-group tours with dinner also can be booked.

The farmhouse will be open for public tours from 1-5 p.m. May 16. Tickets are $15 before May 10, $20 on the day of the event, and proceeds go to Central Music Boosters, which supports performing arts programs in nearby schools.

Also worth visiting: Robie House, 5757 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, which defined Wright’s Prairie style and signified a revolution in American architecture. Tours of the building, which turns 100 in 2010, are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday to Sunday. Purchase tickets in advance at www.gowright.org or 800-514-3849.

Robie House, on the University of Chicago campus, is accessible via the city’s Red Line elevated train.