Chicago Gardens: The Early History

Five Legacy Gardens

from Chicago Gardens: The Early History

by Cathy Jean Maloney

Very few, if any, early Chicago area gardens remain in their original design. Plants die and are replaced, styles change, and properties themselves are divided. Even fewer properties are open to the public. Those that are described below contain bits and pieces of heritage landscapes, both residential and public.

Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Garden
951 Chicago Avenue
Oak Park, Illinois
Web site

How did the master of prairie-school architecture landscape his own home? Frank Lloyd Wright, whose architecture used natural forms and blended with the environment, built his own home and studio in Oak Park around a ginkgo tree. Early photos show Wright enjoying the prairie vistas from his front porch. Today, virtually the entire surrounding prairie has been developed, but the Wright home landscaping has been redesigned to include native and simple plantings that he might have espoused.

Frank Lloyd Wright garden
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in 2008. (Chicago Gardens includes a photograph of Frank Lloyd Wright on the terrace of his home from ca. 1900.)
In 1889, Wright bought a plot of land at Chicago and Forest avenues in Oak Park. He was a young man of twenty-one, about to be married. The site had previously been owned by John Blair, an early landscape gardener. Blair was famous as a prominent landscaper in Chicago and had planted a nursery around his own home. A number of trees and shrubs had been planted there for propagation and resale. The existing greenery attracted Wright to the spot: “In regard to Oak Park,” Wright said in an early address to the Fellowship Club of Oak Park, “a certain profusion of foliage characterized the village. I remember well that I came to Oak Park to live for no other reason than that, and the remarkable character of the foliage on the old Blair lot.”

In the 1890s, Oak Park was experiencing a growth boom. Oak Park developers and city fathers like H. W. Austin tried to improve the flat prairie views through extensive plantings. Wright thought many of these landscaping efforts were unnatural and did not blend into their surroundings. We get a clue for Wright’s preference toward natural landscaping in his comments about Oak Park greenery: “Speaking of Oak Park’s feeling for nature,” he lectured to the Fellowship Club,” I presume we might say that Oak Park … likes the country but prefers it as the lady thought she would the noble savage, more dressed.” Wright continued his tongue-in-cheek comments on the formality of Oak Park landscaping:

Disorderly natures may sing the charm of the rugged oak, the spreading chestnut, or the waving elm; to Oak Parkers, all such, with their willful untidy ways, are eyesores. The Lombardy poplar grows where it is planted, and as it is planted. It has no improper, rugged ideas of its own. It does not want to wave or spread itself. It just grows straight and upright as a proper Oak Park tree should grow, and so let us root out all other trees and replace them with Lombardy poplars. Let us talk no more nonsense about untrammeled nature. In Oak Park, nature has got to behave herself and not set a bad example to the children.

Discussing the prevailing taste in rose planting, Wright further chided the “sober citizen who hates fuss,” who ties his roses to sticks and plants them in straight rows so that they behave themselves. Perhaps, he continued, his neighbors should fence around their grass plots and put china dogs smack dab in the middle. “A china dog never digs holes in the lawn, nor scatters the flower beds. He too will stay where you put him … It is truly a tidy little land—is Oak Park.”

Early photos of the Wright home and studio show a heavily wooded lot. Blair’s house, which still exists, was behind Wright’s house and was occupied by Wright’s mother. Maginel Wright Barney, Wright’s sister, recalls their shared yard in her book, Valley of the God-Almighty Joneses: “There were great oaks in the yard with trunks wrapped in woodbine; there was a beautiful tulip tree, as well; its fancy flowers smelled like cinnamon … We had every variety of lilac snowball and spirea. And in the spring, flowers sprang up along the fence: violets, white and blue, wild ginger, and lilies of the valley. Mother made a garden that was our joy.”

The original house that Wright designed and built in the shingle style includes wide verandas that brought the outdoors right to his front door. His trademark planting urns at the entryway provided built-in greenery. The garden walls of his home were covered with ivy. Wright built a passageway around an existing willow tree when he added his studio in 1898. The tree was half inside and half outside the house. Although the willow did not survive, the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation has recreated the built-in tree with a honey locust. The south side of the home was used as a utility/service area. Chicken coops lined the south driveway, and a shed for the children’s ponies was maintained at the back. Delivery men had access to the kitchen along this driveway, and brought coal and ice.

Landscape Integrity

When Wright first purchased his lot, Forest Avenue had just been paved, and his was one of the first homes built. The surrounding area, especially north of Chicago Avenue, was prairie and farmland. It is much easier to see how his home blended into the prairie then, than in the decidedly urban Oak Park of today. Nonetheless, the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation has made a significant effort to restore the property to how it may have looked when Wright was there. The house itself has been restored to the year 1909—the last year Wright lived in Oak Park. Restoration of the gardens has been an ongoing effort since the early 1980s.

Using historic photos and consulting landscape architects specializing in prairie gardening, the team developed a plan for the grounds. The front (west) yard has been restored as closely as possible to what might have existed then. Other gardens (e.g. the Book Shop Garden in the courtyard behind the studio, and plantings on the south) are interpretations of general planting trends of the era, to allow for the building’s new use as a public museum. Plants are chosen to resemble those in pictures—for example, to replicate the trailing plants in Wright’s signature built-in urns, heliotrope, green and black sweet potato vine, red fountain grass, and bacopa are planted.

Some of the original plantings remain. The ginkgo tree, the centerpiece of the east courtyard garden, predates even Wright. Wright remembered this tree in a letter to the Oak Leaves newspaper in 1940: “It was planted by an old Scotch gardener, a Mr. Blair, who laid out Humboldt Park. It was growing before we got there. When I built the house the ginkgo was young and slender, about four inches in diameter.” A hawthorn tree thought to have been planted by Wright during a 1911 remodeling survives in the front yard. In the restoration project, other shrubs and trees were planted based on historic photos or written descriptions. A small white pine tree was planted near the entrance, based on early pictures. Snowball bushes, viburnum, and lilacs, while not necessarily native, were planted as indicative of the area.

The lot has not been subdivided or changed in size since Wright lived there; walkways and paths are essentially the same, with minor changes to the driveway and bookstore area to accommodate the public. Since this was Wright’s place of business as well as his home, public use of the grounds was expected (although not nearly as heavily trafficked as today). The sense of nature Wright may have felt while sitting on his front porch most definitely changed with the proliferation of nearby apartments and housing. Yet the organic architecture of his home, thanks to meticulous restoration, continues to reach into the garden beyond.


Book details:

Cathy Jean Maloney
Chicago Gardens: The Early History
©2008 464 pages, 11 color plates, 166 halftones, 7×10
Cloth $35.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-50234-2 (ISBN-10: 0-226-50234-1)
Co-published with Center for American Places

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Chicago Gardens: The Early History.

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