Frank Lloyd Wright: The Edgewater Connection


Frank Lloyd Wright: the Edgewater Connection
By LeRoy Blommaert
For the article as it appeared in our newsletter with photos and sketches, click here
Far and away, Frank Lloyd Wright is the most studied and written-about architect of all time. Over one hundred books have been written about him and his work, to say nothing of hundreds more of articles, and more are written each year. One of the books is solely a catalog of his works. To date, none of the studies has identified a single Edgewater building designed by him—unfortunately for us in Edgewater.
And yet there is definitely an Edgewater connection, one very early in Wright’s career. For approximately a year, from early in 1887 (probably February) though early 1888 (probably March), with the exception of a few weeks when he worked for another architect, Wright worked for Joseph Lyman Silsbee, who was Edgewater developer J. L. Cochran’s first architect. Cochran would go on to employ many other architects, including George W. Maher, who also worked for Silsbee about the same time as Wright did. However, Silsbee was his first architect and his designs set the tone for the fledgling development.
The time Wright worked for Silsbee (roughly 1887) was the second year of Cochran’s Edgewater development. The depot, Guild Hall, and first ten houses had been designed and built in 1886. At least ten additional homes, all by Silsbee, were designed in 1887, and construction begun on them during 1887 and early 1888. Wright in the first edition of his autobiography [1932], mentions Cochran’s Edgewater venture: “Silsbee was doing Edgewater at the time, the latest attempt at a “high-class” subdivision and doing it entirely for J.L. Cochran, a real estate genius in his line.” It is reasonable to assume the young Wright was involved with at least some aspect of the design and construction of at least some of these homes (though we don’t know what aspect and how extensive his involvement). It is also reasonable to assume that he came out to Edgewater on at least one occasion .
But there is more than mere assumption: There are the two published sketches. The March 1888 issue of Inland Architect and News Record displays a sketch of a house for J.L. Cochran by J.L. Silsbee, architect. [See figure 1]. The July 1888 issue of the same publication displays a sketch of another house for Cochran by Silsbee. [See figure 2]. Both sketches show “Frank L. Wright del.” [delineator]. What is significant in terms of Wright’s career is that these two sketches by him are the first sketches of houses outside of his native Wisconsin to appear in a publication. [There were two sketches by him to appear earlier in publications, but both were for chapels.]
Cochran used both these sketches in his newspaper display ads. The first (which we shall call the tower house) appeared in a March 25, 1888 Chicago Tribune ad. It was used at least six additional times in the Tribune in 1888. It was also used in a March 29, 1891, Tribune ad, and then again in a October 13, 1900, Tribune ad. The second sketch appeared only twice in a Chicago Tribune ad: on April 12, 1891 and then again on October 11, 1891. The sketches may have appeared in other Chicago newspapers as well, but they have not been reviewed.
There is considerable mystery about these sketches. While the first sketch was definitely done before March 1888, since it was first published in March 1888, it is almost certain that Wright drew both sketches while he was employed by Silsbee, and thus before March 1888. Other aspects are more problematic. Did he make the sketches for houses that were built, and if so were the sketches done before construction or after construction.? According to a number of those who have studied his career, Wright often made sketches from photographs taken of completed buildings. If he did the sketches after the houses were constructed, then that narrows the number of houses in the pool. If the houses were constructed, then where were they?
In the case of the tower house [figure 1], the sketch includes a plan of the first floor. See enlargement [figure 3]. This plan, which is a footprint of the house, provides an additional tool, for it better enables one to attempt to find the house among completed homes on the 1894 Sanborn fire map. The house in the sketch has a number of distinctive features: the front entrance on the left, no wide porch running across most of the front, a round bay on the right side, and a stone first floor and a frame second. A review of the footprints on the 1894 map eliminates almost all of the houses. Only three have a round bay on the right side. Two of the three are in the original subdivision but other aspects of the footprint of these two houses would tend to eliminate them from consideration. The only footprint that matches the sketch in all respects was located in what became North Edgewater, specifically at what was 1132 Kenmore (later changed to 2918, and then again to 6139 Kenmore in re-numberings). See figure 4. A permit was issued for this house to J.L. Cochran October 8, 1890, and the house was sold via a warrantee deed to Richard L. Dewall, in October 1892. Like all the Silsbee houses in Edgewater, it no longer stands. The date of the permit was well past the time of Wright’s employment with Silsbee, so Wright couldn’t have made the sketch from a photograph of the house as constructed.
Locating the other house is more difficult since no plan accompanied the sketch. However, architect and Silsbee expert Christopher Payne developed a partial one from the sketch. Unfortunately, none of the houses on the 1894 map matches this footprint. It may well be that the house was designed and never built, or that just a sketch was made and no further action was taken to design the house, or that changes were made in the design.
Still another mysterious aspect of the sketches is Wright’s involvement in the design. Was he merely copying from another sketch done by someone else in Silsbee’s shop, perhaps even Silsbee himself, or was he assigned to create a design, which Silsbee liked and used. We will never know for sure.
What is of special interest about the two sketches for us in Edgewater is that with one exception, they were the only professionally-drawn sketches that Cochran used in his display ads. All the others were by comparison rather crude. Another one of the mysteries is why Cochran never used more professional sketches in his ads, and still another is if one of the Wright sketches was never built, why did he use it at all. Related to this is why he published the tower sketch in his 1888 ads when the house was not built until 1890 or 1891? A third mystery is why Silsbee didn’t offer Cochran sketches that he himself did rather than sketches done by a young draftsman in his employ. This is especially confusing in light of Wright’s autographical writings in which he admired Silsbee’s ability to sketch so easily and beautifully.
While most of those who have written about Wright’s early career believe Wright left Silsbee’s employ for Adler and Sullivan before July 1888 when the second sketch appeared in the Inland Architect and News Record and may have left in March 1888 when the sketch for the tower house appeared in the same publication, it is seems reasonable to conclude that it was Silsbee and not Wright who was responsible for their publication in the Inland Architect and News Record. The captions as well as the sketches show the architect as Silsbee. But perhaps not, as Wright was successful in having his sketches published earlier in the magazine. Still it is a mystery why Silsbee did not offer Cochran sketches that he himself did and for houses that were more substantial than these. And there were several houses that had been built that were more substantial.