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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Winslow House, River Forest, Illinois

Frank Lloyd Wright's Winslow house is now for sale priced at $2.4-million.
Like most of the fine arts, architecture tends to evolve. Details change; lifestyles change; tastes change; materials change;, economic factors change; but all tend to do so gradually. A house from the 1890s would look only a little different from one built in 1900. A house built in 1910 would look only somewhat different than one from twenty years before. A house from the 1920s, though, would only vaguely resemble the house from the 1890s, and so on. This evolution holds true unless there comes along an architect such a Frank Lloyd Wright, who became sick and tired of designing Queen Ann or Tudor houses vaguely reminiscent of medieval castles; and yearns for something radically different. That was the case when the twenty-six-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright landed his first independent commission to design a house for William H. Winslow at 515 Auvergne Place in River Forest, Illinois. River Forest is adjacent to the Oak Park area west of Chicago where Wright and his family lived at the time, and where twenty-four homes designed by the architect still exist.

The 1890s home--The carport was originally a covered passage for mounting into a carriage during inclement weather. The fireplace (all three of them) was the center of family living. Entrances were formal; bathrooms were few and quite meager in size.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Winslow House was radical. Neighbors laughed. The owner gave up riding a bus to work to avoid criticism of his new home; and another client of Wright's insisted his house not look like the Winslow House, lest he too be made fun of. Wright's first Prairie Style House was revolutionary, not evolutionary. Today we find it quite pleasing and appealing, not something we'd likely build today, but relatively attractive. By modern tastes, it's not strange looking at all, a bit unusual perhaps, but quite reasonable in appearance. One has to remember that this was 1894, the latter years of the Victorian era, still a part of the horse and buggy days. Electricity was new to daily life, as were bathrooms, and the rotary dial telephone. Airplanes, refrigerators, hearing aids, thumbtacks and flyswatters had yet to be invented. Women could not vote (but were expected to make their political feelings known to their husbands). They still wore corsets, dresses that covered their ankles, and flowery hats so huge they often confused the birds and the bees. To mentally align oneself with this period in domestic architecture, the Winslow House must be studied from the inside out, by first becoming familiar with the floorplan (above) and how it reflected the upper-middle-class lifestyle of that period. 
The first impression: formal, warm, and richly appointed.
The Winslow House entry foyer opposite the front door.
Today, virtually all homes are designed from the inside out. That was not necessarily the case during the time when Wright first envisioned the prairie style house. The Winslow House began in Wright's mind as two flat cubes with a broad, protective, overhanging, hip roof. Unlike what he'd been designing for his traditionalist Oak Park friends, the emphasis was on the horizontal, not the vertical. The interior space on each level was then carved up into hallways and rooms with incidental nooks and crannies utilized for closets and bathrooms. Rooms were somewhat large by modern standards, and any irregularities as to their arrangement relegated to the rear of the house, which, in the case of the Winslow house, is far more interesting and modern looking than the staid geometry of the front. That's not to say the house is without traditional architectural motifs, particularly the arch and the soaring stairwell seen only from the rear. Curved window seating and bay windows also paid tribute to the past, as did the dark, decorative masonry flavoring the second floor exterior. The Winslow House is very much a transitional design from the 19th to the 20th-centuries. The entryway (above) reflects mostly the past. Elsewhere inside, it's hard to even visualize Victorian fashions in such modern-looking settings.

The absence of Wright-designed furniture in the modern-day dining room causes it to actually suggests earlier times than the photo of the same room from around 1900.
The Winslow House library clean, neat, horizontal, hard-edged masculinity.
In the male-dominated society of the 19th-century, the library (above) was the male bastion of sanity, divorced from the hectic hubbub of family life. It's off to the left from the entryway, while the parlor (living room today) was the bailiwick of the wife and mother (seen below as it is today. The library is done in early 20th-century Mondrian.

The Winslow House living room. Notice how spacious it seems, the d├ęcor reflecting late-20th-century rather than the tastes of the late 19th-century.
Past meets present in the kitchen area. The present wins.
It's likely no room in the Winslow House has changed more than the kitchen (as with most old houses). The kitchen (above) seems to be 21st-century in its pristine whiteness to the point it looks pristinely antiseptic. The pantry, separating the kitchen from the dining room is more authentically 19th-century. A Wright-designed kitchen would be profoundly dated and distressingly impractical today. On the upper level, four bedrooms (one of them is pictured below) seem quite large while the one and a half bathrooms on the upper level appear quite small (as seen in the floorplan). The sitting room would have been a must for the master suite, probably the feminine equivalent to the library downstairs.

A spacious Winslow House second-floor bedroom.
The Winslow House conservatory, home of the lost art of after dinner conversation.
Back downstairs two Winslow House rooms remain, one largely a vestige of the 19th century the other a vibrant hub of comfortable living reflecting the 20th-century. Though a few houses today have "sunrooms," when is the last time you encountered a home with a conservatory (above) just off the dining room. Then and now it would serve as an informal conversation area before and after meals. Just off the dining room, in what would have been, in the days before air-conditioning, a cool, covered terrace has, in recent years, been enclosed with floor-to-ceiling glass to form a recreation or family room, largely replacing the more formal living room in today's lifestyle.

What was once the back porch has now become the fully enclosed, 21st-century family room, once better known as a rumpus room, then the rec room, or the game room.
Wright's Winslow House was the conceptual forerunner to his fully evolved Robie House built between 1908 and 1910 in Hyde Park on Chicago's south side. Today, the Robie house is open to the public in a rather cold, barren state. The contrast between the two Wright homes could not be more stark. It comes down to the fact that the Winslow House has always been a family home, evolving with the times in sync with the needs of its occupants. The Robie House has seen rather tough times over the years, twice coming within hours of the wrecking ball (below). Yes, it's more pristinely the house that Wright built, while the Winslow House, at best, retains simply the "Wright flavor." Yet, given the choice between demolition (as has been the case with all too many of Wright's houses) and the agony of modernization, I'll take the latter, despite the updated kitchens and newly enclosed family rooms.
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