Route 66 amusements: the Wright stuff on exhibit at Chicago Cultural Center’s Open House

If you know Route 66 in suburban Chicago, then you know that right across the Des Plaines River from the landmark Hofmann Tower in Lyons is Frank Lloyd Wright‘s Avery Coonley House, a National Historic Landmark and one of the three coolest houses that Wright ever designed (the other two being, of course, the Robie House in Chicago’s Hyde Park and Fallingwater on Bear Run near Mill Run, PA).  This weekend’s Open House at the Chicago Cultural Center, a few blocks north of the Art Institute and the spot where Route 66 began, will feature an exibit of Wright’s work from the 1890s when he was a young man working in downtown Chicago and still signing his name as Frank L. Wright.  The exhibit is called Wright Before the “Lloyd” and features photos and drawings of his early work.  the exhibit is free and will be up through the middle of March; you can find more information about it here.

The Chicago Cultural Center was originally the central library of the Chicago Public Library, designed by Shepley, Rutal & Coolidge.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Chicago Cultural Center was originally the central library of the Chicago Public Library, designed by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge of Boston.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Wright began that decade working for Adler & Sullivan, learning his trade from the famed Louis Sullivan and acoustical genius Dankmar Adler and doing some moonlighting on his own (which wasn’t allowed in his contract with the firm) in order to support his young family.  It seems young Frank was always short of cash.  Of course, Sullivan fired him in 1893 when he found out that Wright was working on his own.  After a while, Wright got an office in the loft of the Steinway Hall building at 64 E. Van Buren St., half a block south of Jackson Boulevard where Route 66 would run.  He was joined there by a few acolytes as he and they developed the Prairie School style.  Among those in the office were Marion Mahony and her husband-to-be Walter Burley Griffin.  Marion’s cousin, Dwight H. Perkins, had designed Steinway Hall for the Steinway & Sons piano company as a showroom building.  Perkins himself had an office there in the loft (Marion had been apprenticed to him first), as did another architect, Myron Hunt; eventually, other architects who joined them there became part of the Prairie School.  When Wright opened his studio in Oak Park in 1898, Griffin and Mahony joined him there.

Steinway Hall, by the way, became home to the Chicago Musical College in 1925.  The music school remained there until 1954, when it merged with Roosevelt University‘s School of Music; at that point, all the music school’s operations were moved to the Adler & Sullivan designed Auditorium Building.

We’ll be writing about Wright, his buildings in Riverside (several on the Coonley estate, plus the F.F. Tomek House) and the town itself, which is an entire Historic District of its own listed on the NRHP, later on this spring.  Winter is not the time for a leisurely stroll to look at those buildings.  But it is a very good time to see exhibits like this one at the Cultural Center.  If you find yourself downtown with an hour to spare, don’t miss it.  And if you stop by today (Friday the 21st), you can get a free tour of the building, too.

Your armchair tour guide,


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