Sunday, May 22, 2011

The "Blank Check" Home

Let's say you're an architect. Further, let's say you are given a "blank check" commission to design a home. What would the residence look like?

Such was the opportunity presented to Frank Lloyd Wright in 1902 by Susan Lawrence Dana, a forward-thinking socialite living in Springfield, Illinois. With his first “blank check” commis-sion, Wright designed a home with 12,600 square feet of living space, which included 35 rooms in 3 main levels and 16 varying levels in all.

The home, the 72nd building designed by Wright, was to be more than a mere residence--it was to be a showcase. Upon its completion in 1904, the new edifice immediately became a symbol of artistic and architec-tural excellence. It now stands as the finest example of the creativity and uniqueness characteristic of the Prairie School of Architecture.

We were not able to take a tour of the residence because it is closed for renovation until later this year, but we were fortunate to have met a gentleman who provided us with considerable information about the home as we walked around its exterior.

The view from the courtyard is shown here (above); the thirty-foot reflecting pool is hidden behind the shrubs.

We asked about the greenish color of the pieces along the roof line and also asked about the Oriental-style of the roof. We learned that the green is not a patina on copper but is the color of the plaster used to create the impression of patina and that Wright did design buildings during a period in Japan.

We also learned that former Governor Thompson, who was an admirer of Wright, would come to this residence after the Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency had purchased the home and have his brown bag lunch while looking out one of the main windows.

The Dana-Lawrence House is said to contain the largest collection of site-specific, original Wright art glass and furniture.

The house contains more than 100 pieces of original Wright furniture, 250 examples of art glass doors and windows, and more than 100 art glass light fixtures. We were told that, unlike other Wright-designed homes, each window had a different design in it.

Beyond the essence of an architectural masterpiece of international significance, the house is a brilliant showcase of craftsmanship in glass doors, windows and light fixtures; it is the best preserved and most complete of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early “Prairie” houses.

The glass tiles in this walkway (right) allowed sun to filter into the lower level, which housed a library that includes a fireplace. A few steps below this are the duck pin bowling alley, billiard room, walk-in safe and coatrooms.

The main floor of the Dana-Thomas House, contains the reception hall, dining room, breakfast nook (back extension in the photo below), the Mother’s bedroom, living room, Victorian Parlor, kitchen, conservatory hall, summer porch and just a few steps up, the gallery.

The second floor, or upper level of the Dana-Thomas House contains two musician’s balconies, the master bedroom (upper window in photo), guest rooms and the servant’s quarters. All of the bedrooms have adjoining bathrooms.

Susan Lawrence inherited a fortune from her father's investments in a wide range of enterprises, including banking, stock-raising, coal mining, railroading, lumbering, and real estate, as well as owning a silver mine in Colorado and a gold mine in Oregon.

In 1944, the publisher Charles C. Thomas purchased the Dana house. Because buyers at the auction had considered the furniture too odd and uncomfor-table to purchase, Thomas was able to acquire almost all of the original Wright-designed furniture with the house. Thomas used the house for the offices of his publishing company.

In 1981, the State of Illinois purchased the Dana house and furniture and began the work of preserving and restoring the house to its former elegance. (The information was gathered from

As valuable as a city's Visitor Information Centers is, it is really helpful to have a local guide who can say "Put this (museum, attraction, historic site, or diner) high on your list; put these others on the 'If-we-have-time list'." Without Cousin Dora's consultation, we might have overlooked this historic home.

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