Ask Geoffrey: Francis Apartments by Frank Lloyd Wright | Chicago News
Today we know Frank Lloyd Wright as one of America’s most influential architects, but early in his career he designed projects that you might find it hard to recognize as his, even if you lived in the building.
Geoffrey Baer has the story of one such Wright building that once stood on the south side of Chicago in this week’s Ask Geoffrey.
I grew up in the Francis Apartments in Bronzeville, one of the first projects designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. What can you tell us about the building and its place in Wright’s career?
– Gwendolyn Washington, Hyde Park
When our interviewer Gwendolyn was growing up in the Francis Apartments on 43rd Street and Forrestville Avenue in what is now Bronzeville, she had no idea it was designed by one of the world’s most famous architects. And it’s easy to see why.
It was nothing like the low-slung Prairie Style that Wright is best known for, nor his other famous buildings like Unity Temple in Oak Park or Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.
That’s because the Francis Apartments were designed in 1895, at the start of Wright’s career, when his style was still heavily indebted to his former boss and mentor Louis Sullivan.
We of course know Sullivan for rejecting historic styles and pioneering modern skyscraper aesthetics with his famous adage “form always follows function”.
Instead of gluing Greek columns and Roman arches to his buildings, Sullivan developed a sinuous ornamentation system inspired by organic and natural forms as well as the structure of the building.
You can really see this in play in Wright’s Francis Apartments, especially in the entrance to the building, with its terracotta ornaments crisscrossing the interior courtyard.
It’s in conversation with the building’s doors and other adornments – more on those in a minute.
If you look closely at the interconnected circles and lines, you feel surprisingly close to something Sullivan would have done, for example in his Carson Pirie Scott department store in The Loop and even in Sullivan’s latest order, the Krause Music Store. in Lincoln Square.
Wright’s four-story Francis Apartments was built as housing for middle-income people, with apartments on the upper floors and commercial space along 43rd Street.
Over the years, the Francis Apartments deteriorated and were finally demolished without much fanfare in 1971.
Wright and Sullivan are both titans of modern architecture, but they had a complicated relationship, to say the least.
Wright joined Sullivan’s Adler & Sullivan in 1888 to work as a designer on one of their most famous projects: the Auditorium Building in downtown Chicago.
They would work together for the next five years, until Wright began moonlighting designing homes for his own clients to earn extra money, a violation of his contract with Sullivan.
Sullivan furiously fired him, resulting in a disagreement between the two that lasted until the end of Sullivan’s life, when they finally reconciled.
Wright and Sullivan have collaborated on several influential projects during their professional relationship, including the notable Charnley-Persky House which still stands in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, now home to the Society of Architectural Historians.
Sullivan and Adler were the official architects of the project, but the Society says Wright oversaw many details, likely including the second story balusters, which look like a sort of foreshadowing of his mature style.
As for the Francis Apartments today, well, there isn’t much left.
The site is now home to a series of contemporary townhouses, part of a larger wave of new construction in Bronzeville.
But a few remnants of the building are now housed at the Art Institute, including that original entrance door and an intricate ventilation grill designed by Wright for the building.
If you want to see a rare surviving example of Wright’s early “sullivan” work, go about a mile and a half north to the Roloson row houses on Calumet Avenue near 32nd Street.
Wright did the work of renovating these townhouses in 1894, a year before he designed Francis Apartments and just a year after Sullivan evicted him.
The interiors of the houses were destroyed by fire in 1981, but the original facades remain and are an official Chicago landmark.
Did you know you can dig through our Ask Geoffrey archives? Revisit your favorite episodes, uncover new secrets about the city’s past, and ask Geoffrey your own questions for possible exploration in future episodes. Find it all here.
Have a question for Geoffroy? Ask him.