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Well hello friends and fellow travelers seeking out the treasures designed by America’s greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.
This guide covers the area with the highest density of Wright-designed homes (and a few buildings) in the entire world. As Wright spent the bulk of his early career working in the Chicagoland area, there are 50+ projects that you can either tour, view the exterior, or find their previous location in a very small radius.
In this guide, I’ll share where to find and enjoy the public sites, how to respectfully see the private homes, and the other interesting sites in the area that may not have a Wright connection but are well worth a visit.
I suggest starting in one of Chicago’s western suburbs called Oak Park. Here you’ll find Wright’s own home and studio, as well as nearly a dozen homes that he designed within just two or three blocks. The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, which operates the home & studio along with several other Wright sites, offers several tours of the property and surrounding neighborhoods, as well as tickets to tour the nearby Unity Temple, which is a magnificent church designed by the great master. Don’t forget to add the walking tour so you can learn more about the homes in the blocks around Wright’s own house and how he came to design them.
(In addition, the Trust also operates three Wright properties in Chicago proper, which I’ll highlight later in the “Chicago” section.)
Oak Park is more than just Frank Lloyd Wright though! The birthplace of both Ernest Hemingway and Betty White - two names I never thought I’d link - the small suburb is a fantastic place to explore other cultural stops and enjoy lunch or shopping.
Here’s a few highlights:
Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio: https://flwright.org
Ernest Hemingway Birthplace: https://www.hemingwaybirthplace.com
Pleasant Home (designed by George W. Maher): https://www.pleasanthome.org
If you stay in Oak Park, Downtown Chicago is just a short ride on the Green Line elevated train from the suburbs to the big city.
To visit the Rookery Building, a renovation project that Wright completed in the late 1800’s, take the Blue Line from the station in Oak Park and get off at either the Monroe or Jackson stops downtown. The Rookery is less than two blocks west. You can book a tour of the building through the Trust, or you can simply see the first floor of the building as a guest as you visit one of the shops or eat lunch at the Potbelly Sandwich shop on that level.
Speaking of food, when you leave the Rookery Building you’ll be four and a half blocks away from famed Michigan Avenue! There are so many shops and restaurants that line one side of the avenue, with art museums, parks, and other cultural sites on the other. You’ll find everything from sushi to pizza, Japanese to American to Irish to Caribbean. Wander a block or two north and you’ll find the Art Institute of Chicago and the world famous Millennium Park.
The Trust also manages tours at two other Wright sites that may require a longer trip but are equally worthwhile. If nothing else makes your bucket list, you have to visit the Robie House on the campus of the University of Chicago. One of the 8 Wright sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List (Unity Temple is another), Robie House is possibly Wright’s best and most recognized Prairie-style home. While on campus, you might also wish to visit the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel or even the Smart Museum of Art, which houses some of the furniture from the Robie House, as they collected it some years earlier when parts of the house were being sold off.
While on the South Side, I’d also suggest a visit to the spectacular Museum of Science and Industry. Visitors report spending 3-6 hours exploring the enormous building and enjoying all of the fun hands-on exhibits while marveling at the feats of engineering and industry that are described inside. In recent years, I enjoyed stumbling on both a temporary tiny house exhibit in a side garden and the permanent U-boat exhibit (a Nazi submarine) in the basement. I am pretty certain it’s permanent since they had to remove an entire roof to get the U-boat positioned when they brought it to the museum!
Finally, the quiet tucked-away gem of Wright design in Chicago is the Emil Bach House, tours of which are also operated by the Trust. This seldom-seen house is a mature modification of Wright’s “Fireproof House for $5,000” and is possibly the best example of the plan.
Robie House, Rookery, and Emil Bach Tours: https://flwright.org/tours/chicago
Smart Museum of Art: https://smartmuseum.uchicago.edu
Museum of Science & Industry: https://msichicago.org
If you choose to venture beyond the city, I’d suggest either visiting Rockford for the Laurent House or perhaps Kankakee to tour the expansive B. Harley Bradley House.
If you do travel West to Rockford (which you’d have to do by car as it’s about 90 miles from downtown Chicago) make sure to take a quick detour stop at the Belvidere Cemetery to visit the Pettit Memorial Chapel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. After a short visit, you can continue on to the house Wright designed for Mr. Kenneth Laurent and his wife Phyllis. Mr. Laurent, a disabled WWII veteran confined to a wheelchair, specifically requested a home that would fit his needs and Mr. Wright delivered a design that precedes innovations and requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act by forty years!
Turning South from Chicago, you could also travel about 60 miles to visit what many consider to be Wright’s very first prairie-style home, the B. Harley Bradley House, in Kankakee, Illinois. Along with its sister property, the privately-owned Warren Hickox House (not available for tours), the Bradley House sits on a fantastic plot of land at the end of a quiet residential street and enjoys beautiful views along the wide river that cuts through the city.
All three of these sites (Pettit, Laurent, Bradley) are staffed by amazing local people who care about their communities and their Frank Lloyd Wright structures. Like so many of the projects that are far away from the concentrations of Wright designs, these three work hard to tell a story and support the continued restoration of their buildings. I think of them like pioneers on far-flung settlements doing the work to preserve Wright’s legacy while many of their volunteer base have never even seen another Frank Lloyd Wright design.
Pettit Chapel at Belvidere Cemetery: https://belviderecemetery.com/our-chapel/
The Laurent House: https://www.laurenthouse.com
The B. Harley Bradley House: https://wright1900.org
No matter where you go in Chicago or beyond, you’ll be amazed by the concentration of Wright’s work in the city/suburbs and the amount of early designs he was able to accomplish during his two decades practicing in the Chicagoland area.
For more information about his work in the area and to find out which places you can simply “drive by,” I’d suggest picking up a copy of Dr. William Storrer’s “The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright” which lists all of his work and locations by the geographical areas.
Of course, I do NOT ever recommend walking up to a private residence and ringing the doorbell or shouting to people behind windows or in their yards. Use common sense about how to interact with people who love their homes and understand that you love them too but also want privacy and respect from others. Trespassing is still trespassing, even when done in the name of architecture!
That being said, I’ve struck up many fun conversations with homeowners who were weeding their lawn or getting their mail, although I never started them. Most FLW homeowners understand the excitement of seeing a Frank Lloyd Wright home, but unless someone specifically invites you in, please never, ever ask if you can come inside. That puts the owner in a difficult position having to tell you they don’t want guests or their house isn’t clean right now.
In the end, enjoy what you can see from the outside, get as much as you can from the tours at public sites, and don’t forget to see more than just Frank Lloyd Wright architecture on a trip to such a culturally-rich and diverse city!
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