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How to View a Wright House

Heinz041606_285by Kevin Nance - reprinted with permission from the Chicago Sun Times
photograph: Thomas Heinz, author of the Frank Lloyd Wright Field Guide (photo by Jim Frost / Sun-Times)

In the late 1960s,Thomas A. Heinz, then a student at the University of Illinois, received a book with pictures of Frank Lloyd Wright's 100 or so buildings in the Chicago area. Intrigued by the photographs, Heinz drove up to Oak Park, where he was struck by how different -- often radically different -- the Wright houses looked in real life.

"The two-dimensional photograph can't begin to suggest what he put into the house for the observer," says Heinz, now an architect, author and photographer based in Mettawa. "The typical Wright house is meant to be walked by, driven by, lived in, not just seen from a single perspective-and that's where I think Wright's buildings are so different from everyone else's, and why photographs are often so deceptive. The photographer will take full advantage to bring you the best of the building, using wide-angle lenses, narrow cropping and so on, which alters your perception of it. Seeing it in person, you get so much more of th e colors, textures and context of the building."

For example, photographs of Heinz's favorite Wright building -- the Robie House on the University of Chicago campus -- tend to make it look as if it were situated on a two- or three-acre lot, when in fact it's what Heinz calls "plunked down" on a corner and almost crowded by other structures. On the other hand, the same photographs don't convey the sheer majesty of the house's textured copper gutters, its massive brick piers and heavy limestone planters. (article continued below)

Heinz decided that the best way to view Wright's work was in person, but that was easier said than done. His trip to Oak Park turned out to be the first stop on a 30-year odyssey in which he visited every single one of Wright's extant buildings around the world, including eight structures not included in most guidebooks because their existence had gone virtually unnoticed.

The result of Heinz's travels is his comprehensive and useful Frank Lloyd Wright Field Guide (Northwestern University Press, 528 pages, $39.95), which combines his previously published guides with new entries covering the eastern United States. Featuring maps, GPS coordinates, color photographs (most taken by Heinz) and brief texts focusing on how Wright collaborated with his clients, the book is intended as a tool for architectural tourists, especially the estimated three million "Wright pilgrims" who travel from across the globe to see master's buildings in the flesh every year.

"The idea of the book is to get people to see the buildings for themselves and make their own assessment," Heinz says. "The No. 1 reason to do the book was to make it easy and economical for people to actually do it."

To that end, the book's most user-friendly feature is a ratings system that says nothing about the relative quality of particular buildings; instead, it indicates how much of a given building is visible from publicly accessible vantage points. If an entire house can be easily seen by the average visitor, it gets five stars; if it's obscured by trees or situated at the far end of a private driveway, it gets one star.

"The idea is to let you know how much effort you should put into getting to see it," Heinz says. "If you're planning a trip, and there's a one-star house that's 50 miles out of the way, don't go, because you probably won't see anything if you get there."

On the other hand, Heinz devotes extra space to the great masterpieces of the Wright oeuvre - the Robie House, Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa., the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wis., the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. In each case, he says, the viewer who makes the trek to the actual sites tends to find qualities in the buildings that photographs can't possibly show.

"Not every Frank Lloyd Wright home was a home run, but he hit more home runs than anybody else," Heinz says. "The Robie House just sings to me, because all of its components hit a kind of note in a composition that feels like someone singing -- Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole. In the case of Fallingwater and Johnson Wax, Wright got incredibly wealthy people to put their money on the line and hope they got something wonderful. Mr. [Edgar] Kaufmann [the client for Fallingwater] certainly got more than he ever paid for, because Wright took the machine-age modernism being done in Europe and humanized it with nature and natural materials. And Mr. Johnson said it was the best money he ever spent in terms of publicity."

Unfortunately, about 25 percent of Wright's buildings have now been torn down, but Heinz is doing his part to further the Wright legacy. He was the architect for the Metropolitan Museum's Frank Lloyd Wright Room, and is now executing Wright's design for a house on Petre Island near Mahopac, N.Y.; Heinz is also producing a video documentary on the project, which is set for completion this summer.

Of course, Heinz is well aware of the sometimes frustrating situation of modern-day owners of Wright homes, who must cope with the touring hordes. He lived in one of Wright's most beautiful creations, the Heurtley House in Oak Park, for nearly four years in the late 1970s.

"We had to keep the doors locked," Heinz recalls. "At one point, we found these Germans upstairs and they wouldn't leave, because they couldn't understand how the house could be privately owned. They thought this was like Colonial Williamsburg, a national treasure. In a sense, they were right."

Kevin Nance is the Sun-Times' art and architecture critic.

note: this article was reprinted with permission of the author; is is copyright 2006 Kevin Nance and the Chicago Sun-Times.