The city of Chicago has long been considered an American architectural capital. Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps the most well-known American architect, spent the first 20 years of his 70-year career in Chicago, leaving behind five must-see examples showcasing his innovative and boundary-pushing Prairie style of architecture.
After the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, thousands of people were drawn to the city. Some came to help rebuild, while others were lured by the prospect of new business opportunities. Sixteen years after the fire, the population was booming and new developments were springing up everywhere, catching the imagination of a 20-year-old student — from the University of Wisconsin-Madison — who dropped everything and moved to Chicago. That 20-year-old student was Frank Lloyd Wright who would come to be known as ‘the greatest American architect of all time.‘ Chicago would be his proving ground, the place where he cut his teeth in the world of architectural design and developed the Prairie School architecture, which is unique to the Midwest.
During his time in Chicago, Frank Lloyd Wright worked on numerous projects under the instruction of architecture greats Joseph Silsbee, Dankmar Adler, and Louis Sullivan. Many of the homes Wright worked on still stand, but the following five structures are can’t-miss examples of Wright’s vision and organic architecture philosophy that aimed to blend buildings with their surrounding landscapes.
One of Wright’s first projects in the Chicago area was his own home. With a $5,000 loan from his employer Louis Sullivan, Wright bought a lot on the corner of Chicago and Forest Avenues in suburban Oak Park in 1889, where he built a Shingle style home for himself and his new bride. He remodeled the home several times, adding on the studio in 1898. That studio is where he would develop Prairie School architecture, a style designed to resemble the flat landscape of the prairie so prevalent in the Midwest. The home, with its dark brick and shingle accents, is situated in what is now known as the Frank Lloyd Wright-Prairie School of Architecture Historic District in Oak Park along with 27 other Wright-designed structures. Visitors can take a guided tour of the home and studio or a walking tour of the neighborhood.
Now a Chicago landmark, The Rookery, built in 1886, once housed Wright’s offices when he began his own architecture practice. In 1905, he was commissioned to redesign the building’s light court, which was originally intended by the building’s architects, John Root and Daniel Burnham, to be the focal point of the building and provide light to all of the interior offices. It was largely considered the most lavish lobby in Chicago at the time. Wright redesigned the light court in his Prairie style, and The Rookery was the only project Wright completed in downtown Chicago. Most notably, Wright introduced marble into the design, which contrasted the mostly steel structure of the building and enhanced the sense of opulence. Today, the building sits squarely in Chicago’s financial district and has one of the most recognized exteriors and interiors of any building. It houses mostly private offices, but public tours of the light court are available through the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust.
This must-see structure in Oak Park is the only surviving public building from Wright’s Prairie period. Completed in 1908, the Unity Temple was seen as revolutionary for its use of exposed, reinforced concrete, which was not a material typically used in the construction of houses of worship. The structure is actually two buildings connected by a central entry foyer; Unity Temple was designed as a worship space, while Unity House was designed as a fellowship space. The interior was designed with nature in mind. Green, yellow, and brown stained glass filters natural light into the sanctuary and seating was placed at varied levels so no one would ever sit more than 40 feet from the pulpit. To this day, the Unity Temple remains home to the Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation. Though it is currently closed to the public for renovations, it is still worth a visit to look at the exterior of the structure, which marks a big leap forward in the evolution of Wright’s style.
Nestled in the University of Chicago campus in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, the Frederick C. Robie House is widely considered the greatest example of Prairie School style in the country. The home overwhelmingly features horizontal lines, from the cantilevered roof eaves to the brickwork designed to give the impression of continuous color. Wright designed each detail of the home, including the landscaping and interior furnishings, as he believed that a home’s exterior could not be separated from its interior. Though the structure was almost torn down in 1957, Wright successfully led a campaign to save it. The building is currently owned by the University of Chicago and offers interior tours when the school is not using parts of the building.
Situated one block from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, the Emil Bach House represents the late phases of Wright’s Prairie style. The home was one of a series of cubic homes and features an overhanging slab roof. It is the last of its kind in Chicago and was intended as a country home when it was built with a sprawling yard and stunning views of the lake. The home features a Japanese Tea House and Gardens, indicative of the turn Wright would take towards a Japanese aesthetic shortly after the completion of the Bach house in 1915. Due to the changing landscape of Chicago, the Bach House is no longer considered a country home but is instead a hidden gem tucked in between several high-rise condominium buildings. The Bach house is open for guided tours during a portion of the year, but the real highlight is that the home is open for vacation rentals and private events. Whether you spend a night in the home or just walk around its grounds, the Bach House is a must-see when you are in the North Shore.
Martha Holloway is a southern transplant learning her way around Chicago. By day she is the nonfiction editor of TriQuarterly literary journal, and by night she is pursuing her MFA in creative writing from Northwestern University. When she isn’t working, you can find her trying a new coffeehouse, walking along the lakefront path, or playing with her Corgi.