Oak Park, Illinois
We drove into Chicago again for Joan’s last Chicago rebellion item - the Frank Lloyd Wright houses at Oak Park. Try as I could to come up with a train schedule from here in Indiana all the way across the big metropolitan area, nothing was going to work very well. Google said we were looking at a minimum 3 hour trip using public transportation. That was going to make for a very long day. So I ended up fueling up the car and we drove the entire 60 miles using the freeway system most of the way. As someone told us earlier in our trip, Chicago only has two seasons, winter and construction, so the highways were a mess with lots of orange barrels and signs. Our car GPS doesn’t know much about construction, and Google maps sometimes knows it, but not always.
So after a little more than an hour of sometime stop-and-go traffic, we finally made it to Oak Park. I’m assuming Oak Park is a separate city because the cop cars are marked with the town name, but even if it is a separate entity, it is still a suburb of Chicago. Finding
street parking took a few minutes, but wasn’t too bad. In fact we were just a couple of blocks from the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, the official starting point for tours of his homes in Oak Park. We started at the museum store and ticket office and bought tickets for the guided tour of his home and studio, which were right there, and the audio-guided tour of eight additional homes (outside only) around the neighborhood. Unlike the Science Museum, timing and prices are a bit more human-scaled. Our hour-long tour of the home and studio was to start in 30 minutes, so we perused the store and museum while we waited.
The tour was full - more than a dozen people, and the guide was very soft-spoken, so it was tough to hear him over the street noise at times. But if you paid attention and read lips, we learned quite a bit about the man, his family, and his work. The home at Oak Park was really the launching pad for his entire career. He got married there, fathered six children, and launched his Prairie-Style architecture, right from that corner home and the studio he built
on to it. He lived and worked there more than twenty years. During that time, he remodeled and added on to his home several times and it was through those reworkings of his own home (during the late 1800s and early 1900s) that his style developed.
I bought a book on the elements of his architecture principles and got part way through it last night. He believed that homes should reflect the environment they are built in and become ‘organic’ with their natural surroundings. Hence his homes, reflecting what prairies looked like, emphasized horizontal lines, instead of vertical. And he does that with courses of bricks, and eaves that hang large over the edges of the homes. His internal spaces were open and ‘flowing’, usually centered around a large mason, stone, or brick hearth. Multi-sided fireplaces, shared by many rooms, were a central part of his work. He was fascinated with geometrical forms, so you’ll see lots of cubes, spheres, cones, and triangles in his design work. And, his doorways are almost always hidden so that you don’t instantly enter a home by opening a door, but rather progressively enter, by easing into different spaces on the way into
I have been fascinated by Wright since I first studied him in an college art class. His work is rightfully labeled ‘timeless’. As you look at some of these pictures of his work, realize that all of these houses were designed and built over a century ago. However, to me, they look like they could have been built yesterday. I would love to be able to afford one of his homes and wonder what he would have done with today’s off-grid technologies.
After the guided tour, we were hungry and googled for nearby restaurants. A little gun-shy from the Science Museum experience, I didn’t want to end up walking too far and messing up our day. At least our second tour was self-guided, so we could do it anytime we wanted. There, just a half-mile away was a Lou Malnati’s restaurant. Now, don’t know if you remember, but Malnati’s was where the deep-dish pizza part of the culinary walking tour took place and ever since that eating experience, Joan wanted to go back and have a full meal. We tried to locate one after our Pullman tour, but the one Google guided us to was only
a takeout place and that just made Joan even more pissed.
But this time, it was a real restaurant, and so we went there, got a sidewalk table, and settled in with a really good cocktail and ordered a deep-dish sausage and pepperoni pizza. They make each one special, so it took over half-an-hour to get our food. But that was OK. We nursed our drinks and people-watched the urban scene.
Now it has been decades since I lived in New York, but people-watching is one of the things I really enjoyed about the city. And Joan, of course, new to urban life, was finding the whole thing just a bit surreal. So we were enjoying the show. Waiting for the food was just fine. And that brings us to the most entertaining story of the day, which we witnessed from our sidewalk table at Malnati’s - I’m calling it the Car Keys Caper.
Being the lecherous old man that I am, I do tend to notice young women. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, or a bad thing, but it is certainly A Thing, and so I just have to admit that happens and
move on. So I’m watching the street traffic and I see the old-model, sort of purplish Ford Taurus, pull up to the curb across the street. The driver is an attractive young woman with bleach blond hair that probably came out of a bottle. She has an Eastern European look, sort of like our First Lady, with perfectly creamy complexion. OK, yes I noticed.
Anyway, she takes a few moments to park the car, even adjusting its position a couple of times. And then, with a look of satisfaction, she puts it in park and then appears to be gathering her purse from the front seat. Finally, after a couple of minutes, she gets out of the car, and shuts the door. For a minute she just stands there. She is wearing tight jeans and a loose fitting top. Frankly, she could be an aspiring model. New York had a lot of that kind of woman and I assume Chicago does too. After a few minutes, she turns and there is the kind of look of horror on her face. I can see that she is trying to open the door again, but it isn’t opening - it is
clearly locked. Then she walks around the car and, from the sidewalk, she tries the other door. That one isn’t opening either.
It appears that the poor woman cannot get back into her car, and the look on her face shows that she is starting to panic. She looks up and down the street as the furrow in her eyebrow grows deeper. After a few minutes, she starts looking at the people around her, sort of pleading for help. Then, as a truck drives by blocking the view, she disappears for a moment, only to return. This time she has a young man with her who, somehow, just happens to have a coat hanger that he is now straightening into a rod with a hook, Then you can see him stuffing the hook end into the window frame. But he isn’t having much luck at all. At this point, I’d like to offer help, but I couldn’t have done anything differently myself, so there is nothing gained by me getting involved.
The poor blonde is now really starting to panic. She takes the phone out of her purse and starts making frantic gestures while talking. In fact, she
is now crying while talking on the phone and dabs at her eyes with Kleenex from the purse. The guy with the coat hanger tries both doors, almost getting hit on the driver’s side once, but returns to the sidewalk. You can see him shaking his head with the coat hanger in his hands. He definitely does not know this woman, but clearly can’t help her. I think, embarrassed, and without any other ideas, he shrugs his shoulders and walks away.
She is now fairly agitated but keeps staring down the street and sort of jumps up and down. After about ten or fifteen minutes of this show, she finally sort of grins and starts to relax. Just as that happens, a fire truck arrives with its lights flashing to stop traffic behind it. It stops next to the locked car, but far enough back that I can still see everything going on. Out of the truck hop three of Oak Park’s finest firemen. Young men - well, certainly younger than me - they look at the woman and grin. This is one damsel they have no problem rescuing.
And sure enough - one of the men pulls
out a strange looking device, slides it down the side of the window and in a matter of seconds, the door is popped open. The woman now has a total look of relief on her face. She gives each of the firemen a hug, and they are obviously very happy to receive it. Then the firemen get back in their truck, turn off the flashing lights, and leave. The woman collects her stuff, defiantly throws her keys in her purse, and moves on down the street to do the shopping she had started an hour ago.
While watching all of this, the manager of the restaurant, attracted by the fire engine, comes up and asks what was going on. I explain that she had locked her keys in the car. And I asked him if this is a regular service of Oak Park’s finest. He replied that they certainly wouldn’t have done that if he had made that call. He looked at me and winked, like I was supposed to know what he meant. I think I did. I don’t think firemen would have done that for me either...
So that was our lunch time show. We ate
half of our pizza, boxed the rest for a later meal, and then walked back to the museum store. The neighborhood audio tour stops in front of eight more homes, seven of which were designed by FLW. It is rather remarkable that he was able to get contracts to design so many homes so near to his house. The tour helps establish how critical the Oak Park years were to Wright’s development as an architect. Joan and I each had our separate favorites, but every single one of these buildings were terrific.
Ride home was even worse than the ride out there, taking us well over two hours to go sixty miles. Chicago rush hour traffic is as bad as you can imagine. But the Chicago street scene - the houses and the people - is a lot of fun! Pizza’s not bad either
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