TWO RESIDENCES BY THREE MODERN ARCHITECTURAL MASTERS AT RISK OF BEING LOST
Losing the work of one significant architect is bad, but losing the work of three at once is a disaster. When we were first alerted to the fact that the John S. Van Bergen-designed James B. Irving House in Wilmette, IL was in real danger of being demolished, we were appalled that such a beautiful Prairie School building would be torn-down for absolutely no good reason.
During the following 24 hours after learning this news, I had no idea that the possibility of losing a stellar Van Bergen house would suddenly snowball into the possibility of also losing another building on the very same property with ties to two of Modern architecture's greatest masters: Frank Lloyd Wright and Rudolph Schindler.
(above two images copyright Mark Hertzberg)
It was thanks to the attention of John S. Van Bergen expert, Marty Hackl, PrairieMod was alerted to the danger of losing the James B. Irving House, designed by noted Prairie School architect and Frank Lloyd Wright associate, John S. Van Bergen.
(interior images via redfin.com)
Little did I know that there was a much closer Wright connection to this particular property than Van Bergen's association and the main residence's striking similarities to Wright's Isabel Roberts House of River Forest, IL.
During the course of researching this property, I came across interesting rumors that the tiny building towards the back of the lot (1320 Isabella Street) was attributed to none other than Frank Lloyd Wright—with the known plans that existed bearing the signature of his draftsman at the time, Rudolph Schindler.
(image copyright Mark Hertzberg)
Having a significant Van Bergen home in danger was bad enough, but throw in the potential loss of a Wright/Schindler building and you have a preservation catastrophe on your hands. But how to prove it? Luckily I had some leads.
First, if you want to know if a building is by Frank Lloyd Wright and can be officially called such, you must reach out to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives at Taliesin West. The Scottsdale, Arizona-based archive of Wright's work is the largest collection of work of any single artist in the world. If anyone would know if this unassuming little building was "Wright," they would.
Second, I had heard that there were potentially some drawings of this little building that attributed it to Wright in the Rudolph Schindler Collection at the University of California at Santa Barbara Archives. So, armed with that information, I placed a call to the University Archives to see what I could find out. The reason these drawings would be present in the Schindler Collection was because Rudolph Schindler was in the employ of Frank Lloyd Wright as a draftsman from 1918 up until Schindler started his own California practice in 1922.
Luckily, I was able to get a hold of a sympathetic and very helpful archivist named Melinda Ganarda who listend to my story. She was able to search her digital index and find that they did indeed have three prints located in off-site storage associated with client "James B. Iriving" at 1320 Isabella Street in Wilmette, IL — the exact address of the little building in question. Her voice quickened with excitement as she asked me whether I wanted her to retrieve them and see if they contained more information. Of course, I said "yes!"
As I waited to hear back from Melinda, I received a promising email from Oskar Munoz at the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives: As it turns out, they did have three blue prints in their files for a "Temporary Residence" project for a James B. Irving at 1320 Isabella St. in Wilmette dated 1920. Therefore, according to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, this could be considered a Wright building (with strong help by Schindler). Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer had even included it in the second volume of the Frank Lloyd Wright Complete Works published by Taschen (page 70). This was indeed exciting news.
(Image scanned by Patrick Mahoney from Frank Lloyd Wright Complete Works Vol. 2/copyright Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)
Not long after receiving this important email, Melinda heroically located the Irving House-related items in the U of C at SB Schindler files and called me back to excitedly inform me that all three drawings were from April 2, 1920, showed a small, "temporary residence" designed for a James B. Irving of Wilmette and, most importantly, had Frank Lloyd Wright listed as the architect of record with Rudolph Schindler's signature also present. She was having the plan and elevations scanned and emailed to me to post on PrairieMod and use in the effort to help save the buildings. here are the images Melinda sent:
(Images copyright the Architecture & Design Collection of the University of California at Santa Barbara)
Armed with the building's official recognition by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the three drawings from the U of C at SB Archive supporting the Wright/Schindler provenance, it seems that the unassuming little building at 1320 Isabella Street in Wilmette, IL might just have the architectural pedigree to help save both it and the beautiful John S. Van Bergen-designed main house nearby.
As exciting as this architectural detective project has proved to be, there is still much more work to be done before we can rest on our laurels. These archival prints are very promising, but they still needed to be compared to the structure that stands to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that we're definitely dealing with the same building. Even if the extant building has been altered over the years, if enough of the design and original historic fabric remains, it would be a boon in the effort to save all the buildings at the site.
The day this feature was posted, I received an update email from restoration architect and Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy representative, John G. Thorpe:
"Janet Halstead, Ron Scherubel (current and past exec directors of the FLWBC), landscape architect Carol Yetken, and I drove to Wilmette today to take photos and confirmed that the built cottage does indeed match the Wright/Schindler drawings. It now has a one-room addition on the southeast and the north niche on the alley has been enclosed. Current siding is painted paneling, probably furred over or replacing the original stucco. There is only one door and no walk out to the street."
Here are some photos taken from the excursion and a mark-up of the 1920 plan showing the additions:
(Above two photos copyright Ron Scherubel)
(Above four photos copyright Mark Hertzberg)
(Plan mark-up by John G. Thorpe showing additions added after 1920 and currently present on 1320 Isabella Street)
This was absolutely fantastic news and the validation we needed to help prove that this little Wright/Schindler cottage was actually built, still stands, and now needs to be saved along with its beautiful Van Bergen-designed neighbor.
Unfortunately, there's still no guarantee the houses can be saved. If you peruse the Wilmette Historic Preservation Commission's "significant architecture" section of their website, the front of the Van Bergen house at 1318 Isabella is listed as "significant" in the 1990's survey, but there is no mention of the little cottage in the back. Furthermore, The danger facing these structures was underscored after I received the following info via email by Lisa Roberts, Assistant Director of Community Development for the Village of Wilmette, Illinois:
"There are currently no protections in place to prevent any of the structures from being demolished. Local landmarks require the approval of the Historic Preservation Commission for various permits, but neither property contains a locally landmarked structure."
In a following email, responding to my questions as to whether the Wilmette Historic Preservation Commission plans to place the house on its agenda to review or if they had reached out to the prospective buyer to discuss local landmark designation and the property tax assessment freeze program, Lisa states:
"The preservation commission’s role is largely educational, except of course for the review of new landmarks and building permits for existing landmarks, and even then, they are encouraged to work with applicants. While the staff might be willing to reach out to the owner (which I understand is a bank acting for an estate), the commission is not encouraged to take an activist position. They might discuss it informally at a meeting, but it is unlikely to be an official agenda item, so that the commission is not seen as acting or attempting to act outside of their role. I believe Village Board approval is required for the designation of a local landmark and there is very little chance that the Village Board will approve a landmark designation without the owner’s consent, let alone over their objection, should they object."
This is the sobering truth of how often local preservation committees are either powerless or just plain ambivalent in stopping the senseless destruction of our collective cultural heritage by developers concerned only with making a profit by any means possible.
Thankfully, readers of this blog know the power that even a few concerned individuals can have. If you care about preserving important architecture and not letting greed and indifference win the day, then I would strongly encourage you to make your voice heard by contacting any (or all) of the people and organizations listed below. Let them know that losing important buildings by some of our nation's most important architects will not stand! pm
:: Contact any (or all) of the following Wilmette Village Board of Trustees to voice your concern:
Christopher S. Canning
:: Email the Wilmette Historic Preservation Commission at email@example.com
:: Contact the editors of the local newspapers that cover Wilmette so that they hear your concern:
Managing Editor of Wilmette Life
847-486-6850 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org
North Suburbs Community Producer for Trib Local
708-400-5144 or email at email@example.com
:: Contact Landmarks Illinois and let them know the James B. Irving residences should be saved
:: Contact The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy to help stop the destruction of these buildings
Special thanks to Marty Hackl, Patrick Mahoney, Mark Hertzberg, Ron Scherubel, John G. Thorpe, The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, and the University of California at Santa Barbara Archives for information, photos and support. Opening photo credit: Ron Scherubel.
Eric O'Malley is a co-founder and contributor to PrairieMod. He lives with his wife in the Little Red House, a Mid-Century Modern ranch in suburban Chicago. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.