Travel Story Chicago, New York and beyond: On the trail of Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece Fallingwater.
Picture: Amanda Hearn

From Fallingwater in rural Pennsylvania to the suburbs of Chicago and New York's Guggenheim: in search of some of the best-known works of America's greatest architect. 

The elevated commuter train from the Loop area in downtown Chicago heads out in a straight line due west. On one side the posh suburbs and on the other (wrong) side of the tracks the tenements and slums of the poor.

I’m heading for leafy Oak Park to begin a journey in search of Frank Lloyd Wright, the greatest American architect of all. Or as he would have put it, the greatest architect ever in the world.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s life was so extraordinary that if written as a novel it would be dismissed as too far-fetched.

A gifted child, and a brilliant youth, he had a meteoric rise in Chicago society at the turn of the 19th century, before a scandal almost ruined him. Then the bizarre murder of his partner and her children, and the burning of his house by a crazed servant, led to him becoming almost a cult leader from bolthole compounds in rural Wisconsin and outback Arizona. With his new wife, a Russian ballet dancer, he went into a midlife wilderness when he became briefly unfashionable.

Then came a final creative resurgence and immense fame in his later years. 

Hugely talented, with an ego and ambition to match, he was a one-off who has come to represent the archetype of the great American architect. And spawned a whole industry of books, gifts and tours.

I’m on a short visit to Chicago, so can only cram in a couple of Wright sites before heading off to his masterpiece, Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, then on to his final work, the Guggenheim in New York.

Wright, whose 150th anniversary is this year, was incredibly prolific. It would take years to see all his work, scattered across the US.

There are dozens of his buildings in and around Chicago but I’m starting at his own house and studio in genteel Oak Park.

A short walk from the station, through streets of crackerbox houses with US flags on the porch, brings us to a pretty shingled and gabled house. Built early in his career in 1890, and now a museum, it is a mini-biography of his architectural progress, as he added to and altered it over time.

The stand-out is the large, dome-ceilinged children’s playroom. An ingenious and joyous fantasy made real, it says something about a man who gives over the largest room in his house to his kids.

There are other Wright houses in the neighbourhood, including the stunning Heurtley House, designed in 1902 in his Prairie Style. So an hour’s walk is well worth it, with surprises such as Ernest Hemingway’s childhood home just around the corner.

Fallingwater can safely claim the title of most famous house of the 20th century. An audacious scheme with stepped levels and balconies seemingly defying gravity over a waterfall, the house grabbed attention even before it was built in 1935.

 One story has Wright taking the original engineer’s report, stating the plan was unbuildable, and burying it in the first foundation concrete pour.

As familiar as it is, there is nothing to match seeing the original.

You have to really want to get here, because it is not easy. Hiring a car at the closest airport, Pittsburgh, is the best option as public transport is not recommended to negotiate the hour-and-a-half drive to Fallingwater, in rural Pennsylvania.

Bear in mind you must book in advance, that they have age restrictions, and it is not really accessible to people with physical disabilities.

So after all that, it is surprising that the carpark is crammed on this wet Tuesday. Having been a museum since 1965, it is still an extremely popular destination. However, the crowd control has been honed to a fine art and you are not aware of the hordes of other people who are somewhere on this large site.

Approached through the verdant garden, the first sight is breathtaking. A knowledgeable docent takes us through the house, which still contains original furniture, paintings and fixtures.

Like a highly sophisticated cave, with stone floors and walls, it is totally integrated into its environment and evokes the kind of emotional response which only a very few pieces of architecture can. The complex plan and Wright’s innovations make it a fascinating tour, finishing back in the rhododendron-packed garden.

But wait, here’s more ...

Just down the road is yet another Wright house open to inspect, which you will have booked at the FLW website.

Kentuck Knob was built a little later than Fallingwater but has the added charm that it is still lived in (occasionally) by its owner, British property tycoon Peter Palumbo, who has filled it with a fascinating personal art and furniture collection.

Nestling in its hillside location, this house also has its share of surprising and intriguing details, plus a magnificent view of forest and farmland.

Then it is on to New York and the final stop in this mini-trek of Wrightian milestones.

The Guggenheim is an essential part of the fabric of the city. Its prime position on Central Park, just down from the Metropolitan Museum, makes it a highly visible, iconic landmark.

Which makes it surprising that it is Wright’s only building in the Big Apple. The museum opened in 1959, six months after his death at the ripe old age of 90. Still astounding today, even in this era of ever larger, crazy-looking “statement” buildings, it is now beautifully renovated, saved from the slightly tatty state it was in some years ago and with a new wing to actually show the art collection. 

Displaying the art was not really a priority for Frank Lloyd Wright when the gallery was designed. He considered his building a far more resonating work of art than any of the stuff hanging inside.

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