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the frank lloyd wright collection at the oak park public library

william jerousek
adult services department
oak park public library
oak park, illinois

When Frank Lloyd Wright came to Oak Park, Illinois, in 1889 to build a first home for himself and his new bride Catherine, he was twenty-two years old and just beginning a career as an architect that would span another seventy years and bring him international recognition.

Wright was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin, the son of William Carey Wright, an itinerant preacher and music instructor, and Anna Lloyd-Jones Wright, a woman who was as determined and self-reliant as her husband was undependable. According to Wright his mother had decided, even before his birth, that he would be an architect. In 1886, at the age of nineteen, Wright entered the University of Wisconsin as an engineering student. In that same year William Wright left his family and never returned. After less than two years of university training, Wright left for Chicago where he took a job first with architect Lyman Silsbee and then with the famous Louis Sullivan. It was here that he met and married Catherine Tobin.


The house that he built in suburban Oak Park was quite different from other houses in the village, and using it as a testing ground for his ideas, Wright remodeled it almost continuously. The house and the land it was built on were paid for with salary advances from his employer Louis Sullivan, whom Wright called "Der Liebe Meister" (my dear master) and looked upon, as a surrogate father. As children began to arrive and expenses mounted Wright began to moonlight on his own projects in violation of his agreement with Sullivan. When the disloyalty was discovered, their relationship ended in bitterness.

Wright then added a studio to his house and started his own practice. One of the smallest but most interesting items in the library's collection is one of the printed announcements for this venture. As his later studios, Taliesen in Wisconsin and Taliesen West in Arizona, Wright brought apprentices, known as Taliesen Fellows, to study and work with him. On a similar but less formal basis, he gathered apprentices and artists to his Oak Park studio.

By 1909, when he left for Europe with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of an Oak Park client, Wright had completed over one hundred fifty commissions and had pioneered a peculiarly American style of domestic architecture known as the Prairie style. Wright went to Europe because a Berlin publisher named Ernst Wasmuth wanted to publish a portfolio of his drawings. He returned to Oak Park a year later, but only to divide his home and studio into several apartments so that his wife and children, who continued to live there, would have an income. Then he moved to Wisconsin with Mrs. Cheney where he began the next phase of his career.

Wright left behind in Oak Park his home, his studio, his wife and six children, and the greatest concentration of Wright designed buildings in the world. Grant Manson, the author of Frank Lloyd Wright to 1910, calls this period his "first golden age."


It is particularly appropriate then that the Oak Park Public Library maintain a special collection of materials on Frank Lloyd Wright, as it does for former Oak Parkers Ernest Hemingway and Edgar Rice Burroughs. The collection includes over two-hundred books by and about Frank Lloyd Wright, plus periodicals, photographs, sound recordings, drawings, prints, letters, newspaper clippings, and films.

Historically the most important material in the library's Wright collection is a copy of Ausgefuhrte Bauten und Entwurfe, the portfolio that brought Wright to Germany in 1909. It was this publication that established Wright's reputation in Europe, and to a lesser extent in the United States. The portfolio consists of one hundred plates based on Wright's original drawings for seventy of his early projects. The library's copy was autographed by Wright to his son John. Because this copy differs slightly in size, paperstock, printing quality, and binding from other original Wasmuth portfolios, one expert believes that it may have been a special "proof" copy prepared for Wright himself. The fact that he gave this copy to his son supports this idea. The library also owns a copy of Buildings, Plans and Designs, the American edition of the portfolio, published by Horizon Press in 1963 and other versions printed in book form.

Although most of Wright's commissions during his Oak Park years were for single family dwellings, his most famous building was a church, Unity Temple, which he designed while he was a member of Oak Park's Unitarian congregation. The library, which stands across the street from Unity Temple, has a single file box from the church's archives. This particular box is on indefinite loan to the library because it contains records and correspondence from the construction period. The viewpoints of all the groups involved in the project; the congregation's building committee, the builder, the tradesmen, and Wright himself, may be found in these documents. According to David Sokol, an art historian who is preparing a book based on these records, they are significant because they document construction delays, cost overruns, and threatened law suits that Wright characteristically dismissed as minor difficulties.

During the winters of 1896 and 1897 Frank Lloyd Wright and William Herman Winslow, one of Wright's earliest clients, collaborated on a book. Wright designed it and Winslow printed it by hand in a room over his stable. The inspiration for the book, the title, and the text came from a poem, The House Beautiful, by William Channing Gannett, a Unitarian minister. Each page of the book has a passage from the poem surrounded by an elaborate decorative design. These designs from Wright have more in common with Louis Sullivan's designs for terra cotta and wrought iron than they do with Wright's later designs for windows and wallpaper. In the tradition of the Arts and Crafts movement, the book is a much an object of beauty for its own sake as it is a carrier of the printed word. Ninety copies were printed; the library owns copy forty-seven.

Photographs are an important part of any architecture collection because they can document how buildings look before they were modified or demolished. Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings are the subject of two major photograph collections at the Oak Park library.

The first of these is the Gilman Lane collection. Gilman Lane was not an architectural historian.He was an industrial arts teacher at the Oak Park-River Forest High School between 1923 and 1957. He was also an amateur photographer of Wright buildings in Oak Park, throughout the Midwest, and around the country. He went as far away as Japan to photograph Wright's Imperial Hotel. In all there are over seven hundred photographs of more than one hundred fifty buildings in the Lane collection.

The second photograph collection is the Grant Manson collection. In the research for his book on Frank Lloyd Wright, Mr. Manson took over three hundred fifty interior and exterior photographs of Wright buildings. Mr. Manson also donated his correspondence and his notes for the book. The correspondence is interesting because it includes letters from publishers and fellow scholars and from Wright associates and family members who sometimes wished to challenge some of the details in the book.

Another resource in the Wright collection is an eighteen volume set of loose-leaf binders containing primarily newspaper and magazine articles on individual Wright buildings. The volumes are arranged alphabetically by state with separate volumes for Illinois, Oak Park, Unity Temple, Wright's home and studio, Taliesen, Taliesen West, Wright's family, and the 1969 Wright Festival in Oak Park. These volumes represent many years' work by former library staff member Florence Moyer. Even after retiring from full-time work, and despite deafness and failing eyesight, Miss Moyer continued to clip articles and send letters to Wright building owners until at age ninety a hip fracture forced her to stop. Miss Moyer's letters brought replies that often contained articles from publications around the country and, occasionally, personal snapshots of the owners' homes. The contents of these binders are valuable because they supplement information available from other sources. The photographs in particular are valuable because of the unique view they offer of Wright homes. More like family album photographs than architectural photographs, they serve to remind us that Wright's houses were designed for real people.


While the library has long collected materials on Frank Lloyd Wright, several developments have increased the importance and use of the collection in recent years.

Historic preservation, which celebrates American architecture in all its diversity, has become a national movement. In Oak Park it has fostered a greater appreciation for Prairie style architecture by Wright and his contemporaries as well as for the Victorian styles in the village.

Interest in Frank Lloyd Wright has been growing intheUnited States and in Europe and Japan. Books and exhibits of his work have been appearing with greater frequency. In 1982 the reconstructed living room of the Francis Little house was installed as a permanent exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum.

Unity Temple was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1971. The Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation was formed and Wright's home and studio were purchased in 1973 to serve as an architectural museum. The foundation, which uses volunteers to conduct tours for over 30,000 visitors annually, is in the midst of restoring the home and studio to their 1909 condition. The Frank Lloyd Wright-Prairie School Historic District, which includes most of the Prairie style houses in Oak Park, was created in December 1973.

The library's Frank Lloyd Wright collection serves the specialized needs of architectural historians, Wright building owners, and Home and Studio Foundation volunteers, and the more basic needs of high school and college students.

Anyone may use the materials in the Frank Lloyd Wright collection, but the materials do not circulate and may not be sent on interlibrary loan. The library does however own circulating copies of many of the titles. Most materials are available anytime the library is open. Some of the rarer and more valuable materials can be viewed by appointment only. Inquiries should be directed to the adult services department of the library.


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