December 14, 2006


Hometown Architect: The Complete Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park and River Forest, Illinois. By Patrick F. Cannon. Photography by James Caulfield. Pomegranate. $35.

     Are there ever such things as minutiae in the creations of a world-famous architect?  If you think not – that is, if you think everything a master creates is a masterwork – then you will consider Hometown Architect a (++++) book and a major addition to the many studies of Frank Lloyd Wright.  But people who have merely heard of Wright, and even many who know and admire his work, may find it difficult to understand the extent of the loving attention here paid to work that is between these covers only by accident of geography.  Or not “accident” exactly: Wright began his architectural career in and around Chicago, and this beautifully produced book does a top-notch job of showing and discussing Wright’s buildings in two suburbs west of the city.  But unless you are a serious student of Wright or a committedly enthusiastic resident of Chicagoland, you will likely find the focus of Patrick F. Cannon’s book overly narrow.

     Like all Pomegranate books, this one is quite handsomely designed.  The text is knowing (Cannon is an Oak Park resident and a tour leader at the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust) and easy to follow (Cannon is also a journalist and publicist).  But it is James Caulfield’s photos that give the book its real impact.  Wright’s first design – his own Oak Park home – gives a sense of history and of how far Wright would later move from his roots, since the house is structurally disunited and lacks a clear sense of form (though parts of it certainly look ahead to Wright’s later lines).  The interiors are far more impressive than the exterior, featuring impressive use of glass, stark planes of wood and a clever structure of chains to support both a balcony and glass globes for lighting.  Other homes shown here are special in their own ways.  The Chauncey Williams House, for example, looks British rather than like Wright’s usual designs, with dormer windows and a steeply pitched roof.

     Wright first did architectural work in Oak Park, and Cannon’s chronological arrangement of the book makes it easy and interesting to follow Wright’s developing style (and the occasional byways into which he went while searching for it).  The later houses shown here, such as the J. Kibben Ingalls House (1909), start to show Wright touches that would be replicated many times, such as multiple exposures for rooms to allow maximum interior light (accomplished in this house with a cruciform plan that gives triple exposures to two first-floor and three second-floor rooms).  The latest house here dates to 1913 and features a characteristic shelter for the front entrance and some handsome built-in furniture.  Cannon also includes some information on and photos of Oak Park and River Forest homes that may have been Wright’s but that have over the years been so changed that his involvement is no longer clear.  Hometown Architect will be a handsome and welcome addition to the bookshelf of Wright enthusiasts and heritage-minded residents of Chicago and its suburbs.

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