When news broke on Thursday, December 15, 2022, that the 1898 George Smith House in Oak Park, Illinois, had been listed for sale, Conservancy executive director Barbara Gordon immediately reached out to listing agent, Catherine Cannon, and the house was then included on our Wright on the Market. Within days of it being listed, Barbara, Conservancy preservation programs manager John Waters and Architectural Advisory Committee member Patrick Mahoney, AIA, met with the realtor and family to tour the house and discuss its future. While familiar with the simple, bold exterior forms of the house, the Conservancy team found inside spaces and details that equaled the expectations raised by the exterior.
The small entry vestibule and stair hall lead to the living room, where large, west-facing, diamond-paned windows allow light to fill the room. The adjacent dining room has an airy east-facing bay. These two rooms are spacious and inviting. Their detailing, from the extensive moldings around openings, windows and the fireplace, to the diamond-paned windows, are fine examples of the strong Arts and Crafts influence in Wright’s early work.
These spaces call out for restoration!
Beyond the dining room are the pantry, kitchen and store room, which give access to the stair to the full basement. The second and third floors contain the bedrooms. In these secondary spaces, it is certain details, as much as the layout of the spaces, that catch the eye. In particular, while the progression of the stairway from first to third floor gives a spatial richness to the relatively small house, the rails, spindles and other components accentuate the complexity of the stair’s design.
Under many coats of paint and layers of wallpaper, most of the original features of the house appear to remain. John Waters created a digital model to give some idea of what the house may have looked like when first built. Interestingly, there are no known drawings for the house in the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, and recent published plans of the house are not accurate in their detail. A small version of the plan can be found on page 66 of Robert C. Spencer’s “The work of Frank Lloyd Wright,” in The Architectural Review (republished by Prairie School Press). The plan is identified only as one of three “germ plans for a block of low cost housing for C. E. Roberts, Esq.” None of the drawings for C.E. Roberts projects that are currently posted on Artstor are for the Smith house, though several from the 1890s have similar features, such as two-sloped roofs and diamond-paned windows.
John was able to develop the plans and model shown here using the several hundred photos he and Pat Mahoney took as well as the room dimensions Pat recorded.
Along with its Arts and Crafts character, the house brings to mind other early shingled Wright designs. These include not only Wright’s own house (1889) on Forest Avenue in Oak Park, but the Bagley House (1894) in Hinsdale and the Foster House (1900) in West Pullman. Each house’s original shingle-covered exterior facade and roof would have accentuated the consistent overall exterior surfaces with their naturally finished wood cladding. Another early house with similar features is the Hills House (1900) in Oak Park, with its roofs that combine low and steep slopes.
Below are a selection of photos of the house currently, followed by diagrammatic renderings of what the corresponding locations could look like if restored.
Bringing the house back to its original condition will reveal a design that has long been obscured. The house is a contributing property in the Ridgeland-Oak Park Historic District. This designation protects the house exterior from inappropriate alterations that can be seen from public streets: Home Avenue (the front) and Washington Street (portions of the rear).
- Here is a link to a brochure that provides basic information on the review process for buildings within an Oak Park historic district. For more information, contact the Village of Oak Park.
- Significant restoration work may make the property eligible for a property tax assessment freeze administered by the State of Illinois.
Posted December 29, 2022