His younger contemporaries Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier got there first, but Frank Lloyd Wright, the most influential American architect in history, finally made the UNESCO World Heritage List. As a Board Member of the Frank Lloyd Wright .Building Conservancy, I am very pleased that the long-awaiting recognition came today in Baku, Azerbaijan. A total of eight works were included, including Unity Temple in Oak Park and Robie House in Chicago.
The inscription of Wright’s work took almost 20 years, twice as long as the effort that saw the San Antonio Missions inscribed four years ago. Two buildings originally proposed, the Price Tower in Bartlesville, OK and the Marin County Courthouse in California were dropped as the nomination was extensively revised.
The selected sites do reflect Wright’s genius, from his pre-World War I Prairie period that gave us the incomparable Unity Temple and Robie House, through his California textile block houses (represented by the Hollyhock or Barnsdale House) and his mid-century Usonian style that began with the Jacobs I house in Madison Wisconsin.
The inscription also includes both of Wright’s sprawling “schools” – Taliesin in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona, where his apprentices learned for over 20 years.
And of course, Wright’s famous “comeback” building, Fallingwater, is included, where he ditched the idea that he was a 19th century architect and cemented his reputation with a building that not only balances above a waterfall and integrates with the landscape, but becomes a landscape. Wright loved nature and his gift was not simple integrating buildings with nature, but allowing buildings to be inspired by nature, designed by nature, so that they elevated and improved the landscapes they occupied.
Wright’s early apprentice Barry Byrne said Wright only needed to sketch plans and elevations, because he could think in three dimensions. When Ken Burns did that documentary on Wright, even his needling adversary Philip Johnson admitted that Wright could imagine space in a way few mortals can.
The recognition is long overdue, but well deserved. For decades I have said that Unity Temple is one of the best buildings in the world. I lived less than a block from it for a dozen years and my children grew up with it. There is no question in my mind that it belongs in the company of the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat.
Shortly after moving to San Antonio in 2016, I encountered this house just a couple blocks from my apartment. Immediately I was struck by the appearance of a full-on Wrightian Prairie House in the heart of San Antonio.
I posted it on Instagram and was immediately informed that this was the Lawrence T. Wright (no relation) house by George Willis. After a day or two I realized Willis’ name had appeared in my book The Architecture of Barry Byrne: Bringing the Prairie School to Europe. Willis had been a draftsman nearly four years when Byrne arrived in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park Studio in 1902.
Willis practiced a few years in California with Myron Hunt and a few more in Dallas before relocating to San Antonio in 1911. Willis is probably best known for his 1928 Milam Building, known as the first fully air-conditioned office building in America. By this time he had adopted the streamlined revival styles of the 1920s, decorating the upper levels of the building’s 21 stories with Spanish Revival terra-cotta.
Willis arrived in San Antonio as a Wrightian, and his houses show the influence up until 1919 or so. Many are attributed to Atlee Ayres, in whose office Willis worked until 1916. Here are a few of the ones we have found:
A couple of years ago I stumbled across this one in Alta Vista, and I promise you it IS by George Willis and from the same period, c. 1915, even though we haven’t found documentary evidence.
By 1919 George Willis has departed from Modernist Prairie style for the revival styles that would dominate the 1920s, as seen in this house on West Woodlawn in Beacon Hill. A recent article in the Express-News claims that this is the first Spanish Colonial house in San Antonio, and one of the first built with air conditioning.
Willis was a major San Antonio figure by this time, collaborating with Atlee Ayres and Emmett Jackson on such major projects as the Municipal Auditorium and 1926 addition to the Bexar County Courthouse.
Willis worked on the Sunken Garden Theater WPA Project in 1937 with Harvey Smith and Charles Boelhauwe. He continued practicing in San Antonio until his death in 1960 and has left a significant architectural legacy throughout the city.
Minneapolis just eliminated single-family zoning, and Oregon is considering the same for its cities. The goal is to increase affordable housing and redress a century of racial bias undergirded by said zoning. Planners are excited by this trend and see more of it on the horizon.
San Antonio just reformed its zoning code to include R-1 and R-2 zones, because our old zoning allowed high density pretty much everywhere. The new R-1 and R-2 zoning will help low-density core neighborhoods and historic districts by encouraging appropriate infill. So, with all of the current City Hall concern with affordable housing, why are we doing the opposite of what Minneapolis did?
The contrast with Minneapolis is actually not as dramatic as it seems. Not only is San Antonio more affordable in general, it is not landlocked like Minneapolis. Plus the zoning in Minneapolis was actually, really “single family.” In contrast, even our new R-1 and R-2 districts could see 2-3 units on a lot. King William, the oldest historic district in Texas, is full of accessory units and always has been. In fact, one of our highest priced houses was once seven apartments:
At the San Antonio Conservation Society we meet regularly with neighborhood representatives, and in a recent meeting we learned the difference between density and intensity. We tend to think only of the former, but look at the little two-story apartment building below. It has been in the heart of the King William district for decades and is incredibly dense – something like 126 units per acre. But it is not intense. It fits in.
Now look at the development below, which is less dense, but more intense.
After the meeting, I shared a project from Oak Park, Illinois about a dozen years ago. Two historic houses built in 1875 and 1908, the latter actually a two-flat. The owners proposed ten units over parking massed up front toward the sidewalk. Super intense.
Since it was in a historic district, the demolition was not allowed, and today the two houses look the same as they did before. Better, actually.
So did preservation mean gentrification? Nope. Turns out you are looking at seven units. You just can’t see them unless you get right up to the buildings and look into the back. What preservation meant was that density was increased without increasing intensity.
In fact, Oak Park’s Long Range Historic Preservation plan way back in 1994 encouraged accessory units and coach houses as a way to maintain the historic character of the area. Preservation is about improving development, not opposing it.
There was some more interesting news out of Chicago this week when the city landmarked the Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen, with the specific intent of preserving its vernacular architecture and its culture. They are crafting a historic district with the specific goal of preventing gentrification.
Got it? Yes, you heard that right.
Chicago combined landmark designation with a five-year Affordable Requirement Ordinance (ARO) and an arrangement with Chicago Community Land Trust to reduce property taxes. Crucially, the effort is focused not just on architecture but also the distinctive culture of Pilsen.
This is something we have been working on in San Antonio for a few years , notably with the City’s Living Heritage Symposia that the Conservation Society has supported. Cultural heritage conservation is the leading edge of our field, and it is exciting to see how various communities are developing new tools to achieve it.
It is also nice to see an end to the 35-year old myth (shibboleth, perhaps) about preservation and gentrification. I was asked the question by news reporters when I came to San Antonio in 2016 and I said what I always have said – gentrification and its definable cohort – displacement – is a much bigger phenomenon than historic districts.
Let me be clear – when preservation emerged as a form of zoning in the 1920s, it was used to exclude minorities and preserve wealth, just like single-family zoning.
But that was no longer true by the 1980s, when preservation had been inflected by the 1960s community planning movement, permanently altering its character. Someone wrote a dissertation about this 🙂
Yes, there were historic districts that gentrified. There were also historic districts like Wicker Park in Chicago that slowed gentrification while nearby unregulated areas saw values double or triple in a year’s time.
This week San Antonio extended its housing incentive program, to the cheers of some and jeers of others. There are different opinions about whether the tools work or not. San Antonio is shrinking the target area and adding an affordable housing fund following concerns that the incentives were being used for more upscale projects.
As someone has commented regarding the Pilsen plan, there are always unintended consequences of incentive programs, whether financial or regulatory. IDZ zoning was intended to provide affordable housing in inner-city areas and after a decade became a default for developers trying to avoid various regulatory requirements.
Real estate development always follows public subsidy – from roads and sewers and trails to zoning and funding incentives. The Pilsen experiment includes industrial job goals. It also includes a recreational trail and policies designed to allow the trail to improve the community without increasing values too much. The obvious parallel here in San Antonio is the RiverWalk, especially the Museum Reach, which together with the Pearl has spurred a flurry of development.
The Mission Reach has potential for the South Side, and another piece of that puzzle was added this week with the Mission Historic District Design Guidelines. Like the Pilsen landmarking, these will help conserve an architectural vernacular particular to a place and a people.
These various efforts demonstrative how much the preservation/heritage conservation field has evolved a lot in the last 35 years. Zoning has certainly changed significantly in the last century. Most importantly, the goals have shifted in the wake of urban revitalization. Time will tell whether these various programs work toward the new goals of affordability and amenity or have unintended consequences.
I have had the good fortune to serve on the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy Board for the last three years, and this has availed me of several opportunities to tour this great architect’s work.
The living room in Robie House, Chicago, shot by my daughter Felicity.
Everyone in every borough goes to the Met, right?
I was going to write a blog about the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, now that I have been on hand to witness its demise on two waterfronts, one saltwater, one freshwater. I spoke to fierce advocates, including a friend who was on the committee that selected the Chicago site south of Soldier Field. I wondered why advocates had not developed a clear vision of what the museum was supposed to be, and I wondered whether lakefront museums designed for international tourists ever really serve the local population. Continue Reading
Nothing to see here, move along, please.
In my last blog, I took the new leaders of historic Oak Park to task for forgetting why the Village is an attractive place and proposing the demolition of three nice old buildings (one of which definitely rates as a landmark) on Madison Street. The proposed demolition is part of a road-bending plan that completely redeveloped several blocks. Continue Reading
Oak Park Avenue in the 1970s
Well I have been back in Oak Park for over half a year now, and it just got listed as the coolest suburb in the Chicago area, in large part for its incredible historic architecture (over two dozen buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright – more than ANYWHERE, and tons more by other Prairie architects) and a rising restaurant and nightlife scene.
Full disclosure: Four years ago, I was the Historic Preservation consultant for the Julia C. Lathrop Homes in Chicago, a very important 1937 federal housing project. This past Thursday the Chicago Plan Commission approved the current plan for the project, which I ceased to work on when I left Chicago in July 2012. I took the opportunity to compare the plan to my April 2011 Preliminary Report and to the project at the time I left.