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Saved: The James Irving Temporary Residence (1920)


If it were not for fast detective work by designer and PrairieMod blog author Eric O’Malley, this article may have been about the destruction of two architecturally significant structures in Wilmette, Illinois. Instead, through the actions of a network of preservationists and the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, the James Irving Temporary Residence (1920), a small cottage designed in Wright’s studio by Rudolf Schindler, and the adjacent James Irving Residence designed John Van Bergen in 1928, both received reprieves. O’Malley and the Conservancy’s advocacy co-chair John Thorpe led the charge. The cause attracted attention not only from PrairieMod, and local papers but also the Chicago Tribune's Pulitzer-prize winning architecture critic Blair Kamin.It was also featured in local media.

The chain of events began when O’Malley got wind of a possible demolition permit inquiry for a historic house on Chicago’s north shore. The James Irving Residence had been on the market for a year and by late February the double lot was under contract to a developer with the intention of demolishing both the house and the small cottage sitting at the back of the lot.

When its origins became known, the Conservancy focused on saving the small Wright-Schindler cottage, which had been modified but was still recognizable inside and out. Landmarks Illinois took on the challenge of preserving the Van Bergen house, a beautifully realized Prairie School design very reminiscent of Wright’s Isabel Roberts House (1908) in River Forest, Illinois.The two organizations actively coordinated preservation efforts to achieve the best outcome for both of these buildings. The developer was contacted and when informed about the importance of the two structures, he agreed to donate the Wright-Schindler cottage to a new owner who would take on the responsibility of moving it and preserving it but there was a catch—the cottage had to be moved within a narrow time window between his closing on April 30 and start of construction in early May. The Conservancy would have to quickly find a new owner for the cottage. The developer also agreed to market the Van Bergen for four months while he started construction on the cottage lot next door.

The Wright-Schindler cottage has an interesting history that was pieced together by O’Malley from a variety of sources. Blueprints of the James B. Irving Temporary Residence exist in the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, and those blueprints are published in the Frank Lloyd Wright Complete Works Vol. 2 1917-1942 (Taschen, 2010). The blueprints are marked Frank Lloyd Wright Architect April 2, 1920 and signed by Rudolph Schindler. Images of the original drawings and elevations were obtained by O’Malley from the Rudolph Schindler Archives at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Austrian-born Schindler designed for Wright in Chicago/Oak Park from 1916 to 1921. Wright was working on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo during this period and was in Tokyo almost without interruption from 1918 to 1922. A tornado hit Wilmette on March 28, 1920. There is documentation of a letter dated April 6, 1920 from Schindler (in Wright’s Oak Park Studio) to Wright in Tokyo reporting that James Irving came to the Oak Park Studio requesting a Wright house because his house had been destroyed by a tornado. The April 2, 1920 drawings indicate how the Irving Temporary Residence could be converted to a one-car garage, presumably after the larger adjacent house was built, which explains its siting on the alley. The Wilmette Historical Museum confirmed that a building permit for the property was issued in 1919 (likely for the original building that was destroyed by the tornado).

Schindler of course went on to become an architect of national and international reputation, most famous for his modernist designs in and around Los Angeles. At least one architectural historian believes that this may be the only remaining Schindler-designed building in the Chicago area. It seems possible that the Irving family tired of waiting for a Wright design for their permanent house and finally turned to Van Bergen for the larger structure.

A property involving not one but three well-known architects, including two acknowledged masters of modern architecture (Wright and Schindler) is indeed noteworthy. The Conservancy’s efforts, led by its vice president John Thorpe, focused on finding a way to keep the structure connected with its history in Wilmette. Thorpe and Janet Halstead, the Conservancy’s executive director, worked with the staff at the Wilmette Park District who put together a plan to move the cottage and repurpose it as a nature center—a good match given Wright’s approach to architecture and the importance of the nature in his designs. After initial promising signs, a committee of the Park District board passed on this special opportunity and voted not to proceed based on cost and the short time frame.

With this disappointing action the Conservancy turned to others who had earlier expressed interest. The clock was ticking and practicality dictated coordination with the party who had a viable plan and financing, pledged to restore the cottage to its original design and was able to move quickly. The new owner, who plans to
use the cottage as a weekend and summer retreat combined with an overnight stay house, will invite the Conservancy to evaluate the restoration when it is finished sometime in 2013. He will dismantle the cottage and will reconstruct it at its new location north of Chicago. Saving the little Wright-Schindler cottage was only possible thanks to an alert preservationist, a network of experts across the country, the involvement of the Conservancy, a developer who agreed to do the right thing, and another builder anxious to restore and preserve a piece of the Wright legacy.

Although the cottage has been saved, the clock is ticking on the Van Bergen house (1318 Isabella St, Wilmette, Illinois) which is now back on the market for a short time and faces demolition if a new buyer does not emerge soon. Interested parties may contact Landmarks Illinois (www.landmarks.org).


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