Delavan Lake was Right for Wright

By Mark Hertzberg | Photography by Mark Hertzberg unless noted

Venerated 20th-century architect Frank Lloyd Wright has a passionate following among design aficionados more than a century after he began his career in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. His influence is still evident in architectural design to this day, and many of his original works have become tourist attractions around the country — from famed Fallingwater in Pennsylvania to Chicago’s Robie House to the immaculately preserved Forest Avenue homes in Oak Park itself. Less well known is Wright’s influence on the Lake Geneva area. But nearby Delavan Lake boasts five Wright-designed homes, all of which are still private residences.

Between 1900 and 1905, five Chicago-area residents commissioned the already established architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design their summer cottages on the south shore of Delavan Lake. Their choice of architect meant these “cottages” — four of them really full-sized homes — boast a coveted architectural legacy. Wright (1867-1959) was an architect from Oak Park whose career and reputation were rising. By the turn of the 20th Century, he had already completed more than 50 projects, including many of the homes in Oak Park. By that time, he was designing lake homes and cottages in several states and in Ontario, as well as his better-known city and suburban homes.

THE FIVE DELAVAN LAKE COTTAGES DESIGNED BY FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT:

  • 1900: 3407 South Shore Drive, designed for Henry H. Wallis. (Wallis, who also had a residence at 3301 South Shore Drive, never lived in his Wright house, selling it to brothers Drs. Heber and William GoodSmith, and it is therefore known as the Wallis-GoodSmith House.)1
  • 1900: 3335 South Shore Drive, designed for Fred B. Jones, the home is named “Penwern.”
  • 1902: 3211 South Shore Drive, designed for Charles and Mary Ross.
  • 1902: 3209 South Shore Drive, designed for the Ross’ daughter and son-in-law Carrie and George Spencer.
  • 1905: 3455 South Shore Drive, designed for Arthur P. Johnson.

THE ARCHITECTURAL REVOLUTION OF FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT

Wright’s architectural vocabulary was evolving when he designed the Delavan Lake cottages. Unlike many other residences he designed throughout his career, these were commissioned as strictly seasonal homes. They are less than a mile apart, but Wright designed each to look different than the others, specifically for these clients on their unique sites. They all have a commanding view of the lake. One of Wright’s hallmark design theories was that a home should blend into the surrounding landscape in an organic way; therefore the cottages were all “organic” in Wright’s vernacular. Wright used native fieldstone boulders in the foundations of two of the cottages and several adjacent outbuildings. Regrettably there is no surviving correspondence between Wright and these clients to illuminate how the designs evolved. (Tunis Moore, a local contractor, was hired to execute Wright’s visions.)

Today, Wright is perhaps most closely associated with what has come to be known as “Prairie Style:” suburban stucco homes, generally light in color. While some of the Delavan Lake homes have Prairie-style design elements, including broad overhanging eaves, they vary from the classic iterations in that they were designed for a rustic setting. The homes were originally sided in wood, with some incorporating stucco on the second floor, and generally featured board-and-batten siding stained dark green to be more appropriate for their country setting. Built long before home air conditioning, all of the cottages except the Wallis-GoodSmith house had open verandas facing the lake (Wallis-GoodSmith’s veranda was apparently enclosed very soon after the GoodSmiths bought it).

There was no central heating, so Wright incorporated fireplaces made of his signature Roman brick. Some of the original gas lighting fixtures still exist.

Wright eschewed Victorian homes with their “boxes” of rooms. The lake cottages, like many of his designs, feature open floor plans in their public spaces. For example, the hallway from the staircase to the second floor bedrooms in the Jones house is a balcony that overlooks both the billiard room and the living room, with its view of the lake.

While the homes were often referred to as “cottages,” only the Spencer house was small enough to be considered a cottage today.

Perhaps these clients wanted the prestige of owning a second home. They were certainly seeking relief from the discomforts of urban summers. Chicago was particularly unbearable in the summers of 1900 and 1901; there were numerous heat-related deaths and newspaper articles listed the names of those killed or “prostrated” by the heat.

THE APPEAL OF DELAVAN LAKE

By 1895, Delavan Lake was already a popular vacation resort boasting at least five resort hotels. The south shore was served by the Milwaukee Road and North Western trains from Chicago to Walworth and Williams Bay. Horse-drawn buses transported vacationers from the train station before automobiles and motorized buses.2

A 1901 Sunday Chicago Tribune story with news and social notes from summer resorts was headlined “Summer Resorts Profit by Warmer Weather.” Delavan Lake was the first resort area listed. Readers learned that Wright’s client, “Fred B. Jones of Chicago is building a $15,000 summer residence on the south shore. When completed it will be the finest on the lake.”3

The weekly Delavan Enterprise and Delavan Republican regularly carried social notes about the summer crowd between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Titled “Delavan Lake Notes,” and “Around Delavan Lake,” they were often printed on the front page.

Brief notices announced when lake residents were in town or traveling elsewhere as evidenced by this notice in the June 6, 1907 Enterprise: “Fred B. Jones has left Chicago for a two months’ European trip, accompanied by his friend, A. Anderson. His south shore home, Penwern, is now occupied by his housekeeper, but the owner will not be here until the middle of the summer.”

The July 12, 1906 Delavan Republican ran a three-part headline noting the lake’s popularity, above the front page social notes:

  • At Beautiful Delavan Lake
  • Many city people here for rest and recreation
  • Hotels and Summer Homes Occupied by Prominent Families and Resorters. New Buildings and General Improvement Indicate Permanence and Contentment

The headline was followed by two bits of news about Jones:

  • E.A. Anderson came out from Chicago in his fast running auto and for several days was a guest of his friend, Mr. F.B. Jones.
  • The fireworks display at the home of F.B. Jones were the finest ever shown on Delavan Lake.

There were such strong ties between Chicago and the south shore of Delavan Lake that news items in the Delavan newspapers often referred to Chicago simply as “the city,”4 and the 1908 annual meeting of the Delavan Lake Yacht Club auxiliary, of which Jones was president, was held in Chicago.5

Many homes have been built, torn down, or replaced on Delavan Lake during the last century. Frank Lloyd Wright’s five cottages have all been altered to varying extents, but they live on as a testament to the work of their legendary architect and his relationship with a man named Henry H. Wallis, his friend and client.

WRIGHT AND WALLIS

The story of how Wright came to influence the architecture on Delavan Lake begins with Oak Park resident Henry H. Wallis. Wallis owned a hardware company. He was married to Minnie Schulz, a native of Delavan, and sold lake property. Wright had already designed 18 homes in Oak Park and neighboring River Forest by 1900, so it is possible that Wright patronized Wallis’ business.

In 1895 Wallis published a small sales brochure for “Wallisia,” largely undeveloped land on the south shore of Delavan Lake. The bottom of many pages read, “H. H. Wallis SELLS Delavan Lake Property.”6

The brochure is illustrated with maps and idyllic photographs. One photo, of a canoe docked along the tree-lined shore, is captioned, “A Quiet Retreat.” Another shows a sailboat race: “A Weekly Event – Delavan Lake Yacht Club.” The back page of the ribbon-bound volume points out that the lake is “about five miles long,” has “six good Hotels, Three Public Steamers, Two Railway Lines, and Bus Lines to each, from each Hotel.” It promises: “Warden-Keeping Fishing always good. “Improvement Association-everything kept in good order. “All provisions daily at your door by Delavan merchants. “Two-and-one-half hours from Chicago to Delavan.”

Wallis had sold 65 properties and 11 lots in the first six months of 1899 when the Delavan Republican noted that, “H.H. Wallis … has been what might be justly termed a hustler for that side of the lake.”7 On May 3, 1900 the newspaper wrote, “H.H. Wallis, who is ever hustling for Delavan Lake, entertained a party Tuesday, who were looking for cottages to rent for the summer.” On July 31, 1902 the Delavan Enterprise reported his 99th sale of lake property.

A glimpse into the relationship between Wright and Wallace is found in the correspondence of Marion Johnson (Livingston) whose cousin Arthur Johnson was the grandson of A.P. Johnson, Wright’s final lake client. In 1946, she wrote to Wright about a possible commission for the architect. Wright wrote her, “I would like to build on the site of the Wallis Cottage for you — let us know more of what you have in mind.” He penned, “I loved Henry [Wallis)” next to his signature.8 (The “Wallis Cottage” likely refers to the home Wallis built at 3301 South Shore Drive, before he worked with Wright).

Marion Johnson grew up in the small Wallis Gatehouse at 3301. Though Wright did not build the original home, it is very possible that he remodeled the gatehouse in 1897. The Wallis boathouse, which Wright designed the same year, was demolished before 1939.

Johnson shed further light on the lake ties between Wallis and Wright in a letter to Thomas Eyerman of Chicago in 1992, “I talked with my cousin, Arthur Johnson the other day & he told us that a number of years ago he contemplated building ‘spec’ houses at Delavan & went to see Wright about it…Wright was most cordial…

“We both agreed that Wright had probably drawn the other things I gave you himself, as he and Henry Wallis were such close friends (like brothers as Mrs. Wallis said) & whenever he sold a lot, Mr. Wright would dash off little mementos for him as they were next door neighbors in Oak Park.”9

Wright’s first suggested design for Wallis featured an arched porte-cochere, like the one he later built for Jones, but that did not come to fruition. The finished Wallis-GoodSmith cottage was the result of the second design Wright showed to Wallis. Today’s open veranda and the rear entry hall were not part of Wright’s original design; they are more recent additions.

Wallis-GoodSmith is the only one of the five cottages stained in what is thought to be its original color. By the time John O’Shea bought the home in 1988, the house was in such poor condition that the eaves were propped up by 2’x4’s. At that time, the board and batten had been covered by asphalt siding, the fireplace brickwork had been covered up and dropped ceilings had been installed.10 O’Shea, who owned the house for a year before buying the Jones estate, hired architect Brian Spencer to restore the house.

PENWERN

Penwern, Jones’ estate, was Wright’s most ambitious undertaking on Delavan Lake.

The largest of the five cottages, Penwern offers 6,552 square feet of interior space, with decks and porches totaling an additional 2,132 square feet. Wright also built a boathouse (1900), stable (1903), and gatehouse (1903) at Penwern (A possible Welsh meaning is “at the head of the alder tree”; one of Wright’s ancestors lived in a home known as Penwern in Wales.) 11

Wright incorporated fieldstone boulders into the foundations of the four buildings and the porch columns of the house. Arches are a signature feature of the estate: there is an arched porte cochere at the entrance to the house, a dramatic arch spanning the central porch facing the lake, and an arch on the front of the boathouse. The central porch is semi-circular, as were the two side porches when the house was originally built.

There is an attached tower across a walkway above the porte cochere. Jones, a bachelor, is thought to have hosted card games for his business associates and friends in the tower. A tin urinal was built into the wall of the game room.

Jones built two additions to the house, probably in 1909. The one on the west side of the house covered some of the living room and dining room windows. The third owner of the Gate Lodge (which borders South Shore Drive) replaced Wright’s attached greenhouse with a carport, built another greenhouse, and put an addition on the north side of the structure. Sue and John Major, who bought Penwern in 1994, and acquired the Gate Lodge in 2001, removed all of these additions. The Majors also restored and rebuilt the front of the stable to Wright’s plans. Perhaps most significantly, in 2002 they commissioned Brian Spencer to use Wright’s plans to rebuild the boathouse which had lain in ruins since an arson fire in 1978. The Majors are proud of their stewardship of Penwern. They are establishing a website to help people learn about the estate: www.penwern.com

THE ROSS HOUSE

The cottage that Wright designed for Charles S. and Mary Ross in 1902 was greatly altered by one of its subsequent owners. Open porches were a distinctive feature of the house as Wright designed it, but they were enclosed when additional rooms were built on the second floor in the front and rear of the house. The new front room was built under what had been a dramatic porch roof. While a lovely house, it bears little resemblance to Wright’s original rustic design.

THE SPENCER COTTAGE

Next door to the Ross’ home, Wright built a small cottage on a narrow lot for the Spencers. Just three families have owned the cottage, including the Spencers who owned it for 61 years. Only two families have owned the cottage since, which has helped to maintain the architectural integrity of the house. The design features a prow-shaped veranda, appropriate for a lake home. At the time it was built, the house had no indoor plumbing, but a half bath was added in the 1920s. Later, the Spencers added a guesthouse, with a bathroom, though this was not designed by Wright. After the guesthouse burned down in an electrical fire in 1982, the current owners, who had purchased the cottage just four months earlier, built a prow-shaped addition on the rear of the house to mirror the design of the veranda, adding a family room on the first floor and a master bedroom and master bath upstairs. (Interestingly, an anecdote asserts that Wright denied authorship of this cottage when he saw vertical, rather than horizontal, board and batten siding on the second floor of the home. However, Wright’s plans show vertical siding.)

THE JOHNSON HOUSE

Designed in 1905, further into Wright’s “Prairie-style” period, the symmetrical A.P. Johnson cottage represented a more transitional style: the house is still sided in board and batten but features more design elements of Prairie Style. The house remained in the Johnson family for 59 years. It has been altered more than any of the cottages, and is now a year-round residence. The open verandas at the ends of the house have been enclosed.

The east porch is now the dining room. The west porch now has stairs to the full basement, built under the house ten years ago. The basement family room faces the lake. Small balconies were built outside the upstairs bedrooms. The home’s exterior is now light-colored synthetic stucco, further enhancing its appearance as a “Prairie-style” home.

OTHER WRIGHT PROJECTS IN THE AREA

  • There is a newly-discovered possible Wright connection to yet another lake home. The two weekly Delavan newspapers reported on October 23, 1902 that Christian (or Chris) Wolf of Chicago had purchased “the Lowell south shore place known as “Tacky Teazie” and hired Wright to remodel the house.12 No plans or other documentation have been found.
  • In 1907 Wright designed a “Cottage for Lake Delavan,” but the client is unknown and no documentation exists as to why the project was not executed.13
  • Boating was an important social event for summer lake residents. In 1902 Wright proposed a long, stucco, Prairie-style club house for the lake. The yacht clubhouse which Wright designed four years later was much smaller. Like the cottages, it featured board and batten siding. Wallis and Jones staked out the land for the structure on the site of today’s DelMar Park. The fireplace closely resembled the one in the living room at Penwern. The clubhouse was demolished after the Delavan Lake Golf Club and Delavan Lake Yacht Club merged in 1916 and commissioned a larger new clubhouse by another architect. There is speculation that a small apartment building at Terrace and Walworth Avenues in downtown Delavan was built with lumber from the demolished Wright yacht club.14
  • Lake Geneva, the nearby summer retreat of the Wrigleys and other Chicago notables, was considered more prestigious than Delavan Lake, but Wright had only one commission there, a motor hotel designed in 1912. Motor hotels were unique at the time, but the Lake Geneva Hotel’s shared bathrooms quickly dated its design. The hotel was demolished in 1970.

Note: The homes that Frank Lloyd Wright designed on Delavan Lake are private residences. Except for the Jones and Wallis gatehouses, the homes are not visible from the road. The privacy of the owners and their property should be respected. Some of the homes are occasionally open during tours by Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin and the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, among others.

The website for Penwern is: www.penwern.com


Mark Hertzberg is the author and photographer of three books about Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in Racine. He is writing a book about Fred B. Jones and Penwern. He serves on the board of Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin, and is an honorary board member of Wright on the Park in Mason City, Iowa. His website is www.wrightinracine. com. He is the retired Director of Photography of The Journal Times in Racine.

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