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How Prairie School Architecture Influenced Wilmette’s Gillson Park

Offering more than 60 acres of breathtaking lakefront views and an array of thrilling activities on and off of its beaches, Wilmette’s Gillson Park is a local treasure. Located less than two miles from Optima Verdana, future residents will have access to one of the city’s oldest and most beloved stretches of public land. Today, we’re exploring the fascinating history behind Gillson Park. 

Nearly as old as the village itself, Wilmette’s Gillson Park was established in 1908 as Washington Park. The land sitting directly on Lake Michigan was originally used as a depot where clay from the North Shore Channel was placed after excavation. After becoming the first president of the Wilmette Park District that same year, Louis K. Gillson began devising how he could make the most out of Wilmette’s vast greenspace. 

Until 1915, the land existed merely as a plot of blue clay. However, in 1917, under Gillson’s leadership, the Wilmette Park District began its ambitious project to transform the area into a recreational hotspot. Shortly after, the Park Board hired landscape architect and engineer, Benjamin Gage, to elevate the park’s design. 

An architectural drawing of Gillon Park’s 1937 redesign by C.D. Wagstaff and Robert Everly, Courtesy of Wilmette Historical Museum

Following extensive additions contributed by Gage in the 1920s — as well as doubling the park’s size — the Park Board began to search for architects who would help conceive a new, sweeping plan for the greenspace. And, in the mid-1930s, they hired landscape architects C.D. Wagstaff and Robert Everly to lead the project. 

Their sweeping design proposal helped transform the once clay-filled plot into a vibrant landscape with a host of recreational features. Wagstaff and Everly were also heavily inspired by the prominent Prairie School architecture that dominated the area, and specifically by the work of landscape architect, Jens Jensen. 

Construction of the Wallace Bowl in Gillson Park, 1937, Courtesy of the Wilmette Historical Museum

There were numerous prairie-style elements added to the park, including stratified stone walls and steps, a stone council ring, curvilinear roadways and paths, and a host of informal gardens. The architectural team also designed one of the park’s most iconic spaces, the Wallace Bowl, which is a large open-air amphitheater situated in the park. 

Today, the Wilmette Park District is still home to the Prairie-style elements contributed by Wagstaff and Everly and remains a greenspace treasured by all of the village’s residents. To explore more of the park’s history or discover the various recreational activities, visit their website here.

A Guide to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Studios Part 2: Taliesin West

While Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin was the first of his residences and studios, Taliesin West, a monumental exploration of Wright’s unique approach to organic architecture, is arguably Wright’s most intimate creation. 

Following the completion of Taliesin, where Wright lived and worked for nearly 30 years, the famed architect became interested in relocating to a warmer climate. In 1935, he purchased 495 acres of stunning Sonoran Desert below McDowell Mountain just outside of Scottsdale. Taliesin West brought extraordinary life to Arizona’s then-desolate desert, and, after nearly nine decades, the complex continues to advance Wright’s legacy and his iconic designs. 

Similar to Taliesin, Taliesin West drew great inspiration from its brilliant surroundings. While working with a group of apprentices throughout the construction process, Wright took advantage of the unique materials found in the surrounding landscapes. Using a mixture of local rocks, cement and desert sand, Wright and his team created, often by hand, what many describe as “desert masonry” to help structure the campus.

The complex is situated with various unique architectural elements that accentuate its deep-rooted connection to nature. Translucent canvas (now plastic) once covered the roof of many rooms within Taliesin West, creating an illusory linkage to the warm outdoors. Other features include lofty redwood beams accenting the building’s cold structure. 

Throughout Wright’s life, the campus served as both a winter home and a desert studio. While Taliesin West never experienced any misfortunes, unlike its sibling complex Taliesin, the space did experience numerous renovations throughout the period from 1937 to 1959 when Wright lived and worked there. Some of the renovations included the addition of a drafting studio, dining hall,  workshop, three theaters, Wright’s office and living quarters, and the residences for his apprentices and staff. Various decorative walkways, gardens, terraces, and pools acted as both luxuries to the property and connections to each larger structure. 

Taliesin West interior
The Garden Room found inside of Taliesin West, Courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

Today,Taliesin West serves as the headquarters for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and, until 2020, was the winter home for The School of Architecture at Taliesin. The inspiring architecture was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1974, was recognized as a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1982 and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019.

Found just a short drive from the heart of Scottsdale, Taliesin West offers the perfect trip for anyone seeking to explore one of Arizona’s most exciting works of architecture. The complex hosts a variety of events and programs throughout the year and presents visitors with numerous tours that can be discovered on their website here.  

A Guide to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Studios Part 1: Taliesin

Frequently referred to as the father of American modernism through his establishment of the Prairie School of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright gifted the world with many culturally-significant designs, forever leaving his stamp on American architecture. Many of Wright’s designs are widely celebrated and remain standing today, including Taliesin, one of his most iconic works that altered his life and the lives of those around him while serving as his studio.

The archetype of Prairie School architecture was built in 1911 by Wright after he had left Oak Park, Illinois to return to his family’s land in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Derived from Welsh mythology, Taliesin was an ancient poet, whose name means radiant brow. Wright built the exemplary estate in a Wisconsin River valley into the brow of his favorite hill from boyhood, hence its name. 

During the process of designing Taliesin, Wright drew inspiration from the patterns and rhythms of his surroundings. He became inspired by the thought of living among his ancestry and the nature that surrounded him as he embodied the idea of organic architecture within his design. Wright refined visions from his previous Prairie School designs, including a lush courtyard and open floor plan, and used local limestone and sand from the Wisconsin River to invite the outdoors indoors — a radical idea at the time. 

Throughout the estate’s history, it suffered a number of accidents, including two fires that sparked Wright to complete two renovations on Taliesin. The first of which, Taliesin II, was completed in 1915 after arson had destroyed one-third of the house, including Wright’s living quarters. The redesign was nearly identical to the architecture in Taliesin I, excluding its new observation deck and, in an attempt to make the estate completely self-sufficient, Wright’s hydroelectric generator. 

Taliesin, Photographed in 1913 before the first of its two fires, Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society

Following another destructive fire in 1925, Wright was forced once again to pour new life into Taliesin and went to develop the third rendition of the estate, Taliesin III. Through the devastation, Wright remained committed to his passion for thoughtful architecture and brought a breath of fresh air to the bare structure that surrounded him. While living at Taliesin III Wright also designed some of his more renowned work, including Fallingwater, the headquarters for S.C. Johnson and Jacobs I (the Herberg Jacobs House).

Beginning in 1932, Wright established the Taliesin Fellowship and hosted 50 apprentices at Taliesin on an annual basis, giving them the opportunity to work for him for a lengthy period of time and experience his intensive working environment. Today, the estate is in the hands of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, and the fellowship uses the neighboring Hillside School as its home base. The esteemed property was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1976. 

Located just a few hours outside of Chicago, the Taliesen estate is the perfect day trip for anyone who appreciates breathtaking architecture and offers visitors a variety of tours designed for every level of interest, which can be booked on their website here

Women in Architecture: Marion Mahony Griffin

Often unrecognized for her immense contributions to the Prairie School, Marion Mahony Griffin was a leader in the architectural world for many years, paving the way for the countless women who followed her. Today, as part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re exploring the inception of the iconic architect and designer and where her extensive experience led her. 

The Life of Marion Mahony Griffin

A Chicago native, Mahony was born in 1871 to Jeremiah Mahoney, a journalist, and Clara Hamilton, a teacher. After the tragic events of the Great Chicago Fire, in which her family’s house was destroyed, her family relocated to the Chicago suburb of Winnetka where she spent the majority of her childhood. Inspired by how rapidly the landscape around her was changing — and encouraged by her cousin Dwight Perkins, an American architect — Mahony was drawn to the idea of furthering her education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Mahoney graduated from MIT in 1894 and was only the second woman to receive an architecture degree from the school (after the World’s Columbian Exposision’s Women’s building designer, Sophia Hayden). She soon moved back to Chicago where she became the first woman in modern history to sit for, and be granted, an architectural license in the United States, benefiting from the fact that Illinois was the first state in America to allow women to hold licenses.

Ward W. Willits House, Highland Park, Illinois, 1902, One of the numerous intricate watercolor renderings Mahony created for Wright during her employment, Courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation
Ward W. Willits House, Highland Park, Illinois, 1902, One of the numerous intricate watercolor renderings Mahony created for Wright during her employment, Courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

While in Chicago, Mahony spent two years working with her cousin Dwight Perkins at his studio in Steinway Hall (which Perkins also designed), where a diverse crowd of innovative artists and architects from the Prairie School could always be found. Soon after she left her cousin’s firm, she discovered another young Chicago architect also working in the building, Frank Lloyd Wright. Hired as Wright’s first employee, Mahony worked on and off with him for the next 14 years and became a significant contributor to his practice. 

Ward W. Willits House, Highland Park, Illinois, 1902, One of the numerous intricate watercolor renderings Mahony created for Wright during her employment, Courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

J. C. Blythe House, 1913, One of the eight Prairie style homes designed and built in Rock Crest – Rock Glen Historic District, Mason City, Iowa
J. C. Blythe House, 1913, One of the eight Prairie style homes designed and built in Rock Crest – Rock Glen Historic District, Mason City, Iowa

Career and Achievements

While working for Wright, Mohony provided intricate architectural renderings for his designs, becoming an essential participant in his work and leaving her without credit — a recurring theme throughout her career. Today, the renderings are acknowledged as her creations and she is recognized as one of the greatest architectural illustrators. 

Mahony completed numerous independent projects while working for Wright including Evanston’s All Souls Unitarian Church. The intimate church featured an abundance of alluring stained glass in its skylights, windows and numerous other light fixtures. 

Eventually, Mahony left Wright’s studio to work with her husband, Walter Burley Griffin, a fellow architect and leading member of the Prairie School. Together, Griffin and Mahony created their most renowned work, the design of Prairie School residences in Mason City, Iowa, Rock Crest – Rock Glen. The nationally-recognized historic district features eight elaborate Prairie School homes that surround the city’s Willow Creek. 

Melbourne’s Capitol Theatre, Marion Mahony Griffin, 1924
Melbourne’s Capitol Theatre, Marion Mahony Griffin, 1924

In 1914 the couple relocated to Australia, where Mahony’s watercolor renderings of Griffin’s design were chosen as the plan for the country’s new capital, Canberra. In Australia, Mahony’s commission’s increased dramatically. One of her final and most well-known works is Melbourne’s Capitol Theatre. The theatre’s opulent decor and avant-garde ceilings and walls were designed to invoke a crystalline cave, and showed a new side of Mahony’s architectural gifts.

Today, Mahony’s extensive experience and portfolio speak for themselves, and she is finally recognized as a trailblazer for architecture and design, and as an original member of the Prairie School.

John Lloyd Wright and the Story of Lincoln Logs

If John Lloyd Wright’s name sounds familiar, it’s because his father, Frank Lloyd Wright, is an icon in the architecture world. But his son left his legacy with something more playful; John was the original inventor behind Lincoln Logs, a childhood toy many cherish fondly. So how did the son of an architect come to invent one of the most well-known toys in America? Today, we dive into John Lloyd Wright and the story of Lincoln Logs, and an interesting piece of architecture trivia. 

John grew up in Oak Park, Illinois in a home designed by his father, now known as the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio. He was immersed in the world of architecture from a young age, but his childhood was far from perfect. After Frank Lloyd Wright abandoned his wife and children, the two became estranged and their relationship never fully recovered. However, John decided to pave his own way, determined to get out of his father’s shadow. 

In his early years of practice, John worked on the West Coast and the Midwest before agreeing to work with Frank on Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel in Japan. The two were faced with the challenge of building a structure that could withstand the frequent earthquakes of Japan, and their original design used a system of interlocking timber beams to let the hotel to sway but not collapse. Before the hotel was even constructed, father and son once again parted ways, this time over a dispute concerning John’s salary.

Vintage Lincoln Logs print ad

Now out of work, John turned his attention to his passions and hobbies, including toy design and invention. Taking inspiration from the plans of the Imperial Hotel, he perfected the idea for Lincoln Logs in 1916. Using notched pieces of wood for the miniature logs allowed the toys to withstand playtime instead of earthquakes. Wright received a patent in 1920, eventually selling it as Lincoln Logs grew in popularity. 

After his years dedicated to Lincoln Logs, John returned back to the world of architecture, designing a handful of buildings and homes in the Midwest. John’s legacy in the world of toy design is one that has spanned decades, with Lincoln Logs inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1999. More than 100 years after their inception, Lincoln Logs are still a toy well-loved by generations — and potential young architects.

The Legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright

Modernism wouldn’t be the discipline it is today without the greats that defined it. A name well-known throughout the world, Frank Lloyd Wright is heralded as the “greatest American architect of all time” by the American Institute of Architects. His contributions to architecture have touched all of us at Optima and countless others, leaving behind a monumental legacy.

The Life of Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright was born in Richard Center, Wisconsin on June 8, 1867 to a preacher father and teacher mother. His young life was spent travelling for his father’s ministry position, and his parents’ divorce when he was 18 set his family back even further financially. To help out, Wright worked at the same university at which he was studying: University of Wisconsin. Despite his commitment to his family, Wright’s dream of becoming an architect pulled him away from school when he left Madison two years later to move to Chicago.

Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, Illinois
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, Illinois

In Chicago, Wright tried working for two different firms before landing at Adler and Sullivan, where he worked under Modernist master Louis Sullivan for six years. At 22, Wright married Catherine Lee Tobin and entered into a five-year-contract with Sullivan in exchange for the loan money Wright would need to build him and his wife their home in Oak Park, a Chicago suburb. Tempted by the need to provide for his family, Wright took on independent residential commissions even though it violated his contract with Sullivan. When Sullivan found out, the two parted ways and did not repair their relationship until twenty years later. It was this separation, however, that pushed Wright out on his own and allowed him to grow his prolific independent career.

Falling Water, 1964, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Falling Water, 1964, Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Work of Frank Lloyd Wright

After his separation from Sullivan, Wright started his own firm in 1893. Wright’s career spanned an impressive seven decades, a time period over which he developed his distinctive point of view and style. Wright saw architects as the poets of their time — an artistic historian of sorts. He believed in creating structures that lived in harmony with the natural world, a point of view which he called “organic architecture.”

Wright brought American design to the forefront and was the leader of the Prairie School movement, a distinctly American midwestern style. Hallmarks of Prairie School design include low-pitched roofs, overhanging eaves and open floor plans. These expansive residences mirrored the endless landscape of the Midwestern prairies, and employed materials such as wood to further integrate the manmade with its environment. 

Ennis House, 1924, Frank Lloyd Wright — a Textile style/Mayan Revival home
Ennis House, 1924, Frank Lloyd Wright — a Textile style/Mayan Revival home

Later in his career, Wright also worked in the textile style out West, as well as pioneering a new dichotomy with his 60-house Usonian series. The Usonian homes were another way Wright carved out a language that was distinctly American, uninfluenced by any international predecessors. These homes were marked by their flat roofs and cantilevered overhanging — which became the source of the term “carport.” While out West, Wright also established Taliesin West and other structures near the greater Phoenix area, some of which are close to our Optima communities in Arizona. Just as we’re inspired by the desert scape, Wright was similarly enchanted with the surrounding foliage and existing architecture. 

Cedar Rock (Lowell Walter House), 1948, Frank Lloyd Wright — a Usonian house
Cedar Rock (Lowell Walter House), 1948, Frank Lloyd Wright — a Usonian house

With his 70-year career, 500+ completed projects and numerous accolades, this is only the tip of the iceberg in the legacy left behind by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is all these contributions and more that will forever cement Wright as a master of American architecture.

Frank Lloyd Wright Site Virtual Tours

At Optima, we believe that design has the power to inspire awe and wonder — and even to unite us in challenging circumstances. We’re seeing proof of this, as the architectural world makes leaps and bounds to innovate and ensure we can continue sharing our love for exceptional design, even while social distancing. As part of this response, a dozen historic sites designed by Modernist master Frank Lloyd Wright have teamed up to offer a series of weekly virtual tours.

12 Weeks of Frank Lloyd Wright

A collaborative partnership between Frank Lloyd Wright participating sites, with leadership from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, the virtual tour series kicked off on April 2. The idea behind the series is to keep the doors to historic Frank Lloyd Wright sites open, at least virtually, so that architecture lovers can continue to experience beauty and inspiration from home. It deeply resonated with our own values when the foundation stated: “Wright’s works bring people together in harmony with the natural world, reminding us that we are all connected, even when we’re apart.”

The series, which will run until at least July 15, brings a new immersive video experience shared every week on Thursday at 1 PM EST, united by the hashtag #WrightVirtualVisits. Participating sites are publishing videos, each to their own social media platforms, in the hopes of introducing the sites to a wider audience and providing interesting and informal glimpses into the sites’ history and design.

For a full overview of the tour series, and to discover participating sites, visit the event page here

The History of AIA

At Optima, our love for the practice and art of architecture runs deep. As a way to connect with and participate in the greater architecture community, our architects are active members of the American Institute of Architects, widely known as AIA. An extensive resource and network for the architectural profession, the organization has a lengthy history than spans over 160 years. 

In 1857, thirteen architects met in the New York office of Richard Upjohn, a British-American architect famous for his Gothic Revival churches. The architects convened to discuss how to elevate the standing of the profession. With his influential background, Upjohn was a natural leader and the first president of AIA, serving the organization until 1876. Prior to the establishment of AIA, anyone could claim to be an architect due to lack of schools and licensing laws within the United States. AIA set out to elevate the standing of architecture as a profession and work together towards advancement in the industry. By 1876, AIA launched their first official chapter in New York, closely followed by Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston. 

Although founded in New York, AIA moved their headquarters to Washington, DC by 1898. From Daniel Burnham to Frank Lloyd Wright to Mies van der Rohe, the vast number of members within AIA’s lifespan have changed the built landscape of America. Since its founding, AIA has created standards of excellence, advocacy, education and social change, and continues to do so today.

Now, AIA has over 260+ chapters across the globe, with over 94,000 members worldwide. AIA members adhere to a code of ethics and professional conduct to reassure clients, the public and colleagues of their dedication to the highest standards in professional practice. David Hovey Sr. has earned the title of Fellow, FAIA, AIA’s highest membership honor for those that have exhibited exceptional work and contributions to architecture and society. David Hovey Jr.’s work has also been recognized by AIA numerous times, including a National AIA Award, AIA Distinguished Building Award, AIA Honor Awards, AIA Innovation Award, and AIA Divine Detail Awards from AIA Chicago and AIA Phoenix. His prefabricated system has been described by AIA jurors as the future of American housing.

A prestigious membership organization with deep roots and wide-reaching influence, the American Institute of Architects continues to promote the architectural profession, ensuring its successful, longevity and inspiration — and it is something that we are honored to be a part of.

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