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 Beacon Hill, and I promise you it IS by George Willis and from the same period, c. 1915, even though we haven’t found documentary evidence.
There are a number of other Prairie Style houses that could be from Willis’ time under Ayres or immediately afterwards – here are a few candidates:
By 1919 George Willis has departed from Modernist Prairie style for the revival styles that would dominate the 1920s, as seen in the house below 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.
MAY 2020 UPDATE: A couple of Willis’ postwar works:
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.
Prince Charles of England, who famously got involved in the world of architecture and urbanism nearly 30 years ago with a notorious speech to architects deriding modernism, has released last month in Architectural Review a list of ten principles for urban planning and design. Those of us in the heritage preservation world have generally been fond of Albion’s heir and his advocacy of the virtues of tradition in architecture, although most of us become uncomfortable pitting tradition against modernism, fearing both the superficiality of style and a reduction of our cause into a formalist debate. Continue Reading
Historic Preservation (Heritage Conservation) has done it again. Oak Park became one of the United States’ top ten neighborhoods, according to the American Planning Association, and it did it the old fashioned way: it saved its historic buildings.
The Frank Lloyd Wright and Prairie School of Architecture Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and made subject to local landmark controls in 1994 (notice the distinction, Kenilworth???) is the best place to live in Illinois, according to the planners. As the article notes, Wright and the other Prairie architects wowed them a hundred years ago and they still are. Must be some good architecture, no?
Field memorial, Daniel Chester French, Graceland Cemetery, Chicago
The latest issue of Forum Journal (from the National Trust for Historic Preservation – you can join here.) has an article questioning the 50-year rule. The National Register of Historic Places was created in 1966 and shortly thereafter the Park Service promulgated policies for listing properties on the National Register. Eight categories of properties have to jump some more hurdles to become landmarks: birthplaces, gravesites, cemeteries, memorials, relocated buildings, reconstructed buildings, houses of worship, and buildings less than 50 years old.
Now, first it should be noted that I can name properties in each of those categories that ARE on the National Register of Historic Places, but they had to prove extra significance. Continue Reading
The big news this week was an effort to preserve Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bradley House in Kankakee, one of the epochal early Wright Prairie Houses. Blair Kamin did a bangup job of covering the issue in the Tribune here. A local Wright in Kankakee group is trying to raise money to buy the house and make it a house museum and education center. The bottom line is the $1.9 million price and the more immediate concern of an additional $100,000 for the down payment beyond the $70,000 already raised. I can recall when the house was law offices and Kamin’s article notes that the owners for the last 5 years, the Halls, have been ideal, keeping it together and restoring it. With 100 art-glass windows, the house could be worth almost as much in pieces as it is put together. The real challenge is not simply the purchase price, but the ongoing operations, since house museums rarely generate more than a quarter of operating costs from admissions. The Bradley House either needs an angel to subsidize the purchase and an endowment, or it needs more angels like the Halls who will care for it as the treasure it is. Continue Reading
Landmarks Illinois has made another splash with its annual Chicagoland Watch List thanks to the high profile Rose House and pavilion in Highland Park, a modernist treat by James Speyer that EVERYONE knows as Cam’s house from the 1980s film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I knew that when I toured the house about 15 years ago. Modernist steel and glass boxes set into one of the suburb’s trademark wooded ravines, the gem is threatened by possible subdivision despite landmark status and a $2.3 million price tag.
You should go to Landmarks Illinois’ website (www.landmarks.org) to see the whole list, which includes a two-lane rural road in McHenry County, the South Side Masonic Temple, and an entire neighborhood’s worth of urbane and sustainable terra cotta and brick treasures at the intersection of Halsted Fullerton and Lincoln: Continue Reading