By Laura Stassi Jeffrey
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 3, 2009
The man who came to be known as America's greatest writer was born and raised here, while a few blocks away, the man who came to be known as America's greatest architect was designing many of his now-iconic structures. The place? Oak Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb with flat, wide, tree-lined streets and beautiful abodes, including the Queen Anne-style home where Ernest Hemingway spent his first years, and the Prairie-style home and studio where Frank Lloyd Wright launched his career.
Last spring, when I was making plans to meet my family in Oak Park (officially, it's a village) for a bridal shower, I initially hoped to escape to Chicago. After all, Oak Park is only about 10 miles west of the Windy City, and public transit trains regularly run back and forth from the Loop to the village. But time constraints forced me to spend all my time in Oak Park, a situation that proved to be fortuitous indeed. The weather cooperated beautifully as I stole some time to walk around and enjoy the village's vibrancy.
As the wife of an architect, I knew something about Wright's Oak Park roots. As a writer, I ashamedly had no clue that the Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning writer was born and raised in Oak Park. Paris, Cuba and Key West, Fla.: Those are the places I had associated with Hemingway. Yet there on Oak Park Avenue stood the six-bedroom Victorian where baby Ernest was born in July 1899 in a second-floor bedroom, the second of six children of Clarence "Ed" Hemingway, a doctor, and Grace Hemingway, a music teacher.
The house on Oak Park Avenue was owned by Hemingway's maternal grandfather; after he died, 6-year-old Ernest and his family moved to a house a few blocks away on North Kenilworth Avenue. While the latter is closed to the public, the Oak Park Avenue residence is open for visitors interested in more than a walk-by. The wrap-around porch and round tower alone gave me a serious case of house envy. A nearby museum inside the Oak Park Arts Center offers further insight into the writer's life. Artifacts on display include a letter from the nurse who broke Hemingway's heart, thereby helping to inspire his novel "A Farewell to Arms."
Hemingway's birth home is only a short stroll to architect Frank Lloyd Wright's studio and home on Chicago Avenue. It was there that Wright developed what became known as the Prairie style of architecture, one characterized by open, light-filled interior spaces; low, hip roofs and deep overhangs; and lack of ornamentation. (Never mind that the roofs might leak. The abodes have incredible curb appeal.)
Wright built his home in 1889 and added the studio nine years later. He designed more than 100 structures while living and working in Oak Park, including residences in an area now designated as a national historic district. Twenty-four of the structures there were designed by Wright himself; 41 were by disciples of Wright, including George Maher's 30-room, 1897 mansion known as Pleasant Home.
Wright also designed the 1909 Unity Temple in his Oak Park studio. The concrete structure, located downtown on Lake Street, was the architect's first solo public commission and reportedly, one of his favorite buildings. I can understand why; the structure is imposing yet elegant.
Wright offered to build the congregation a new temple after the original, wooden structure was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1905. He created a Cubist-themed building that broke all the rules of church architecture (there is no steeple, for example). Today, tours of the temple are offered for a fee, but curious visitors can get inside for free by attending one of the Unitarian Universalist church's two Sunday morning services.
Wright lived with his first wife and their six children in the Oak Park home until 1909. Then, he closed the studio and ran off to Europe with his mistress, an Oak Park neighbor and client who left behind her own spouse and children. She later died in an arson-related fire at Wright's famed Taliesin in Wisconsin, but that's another story. (The architect's colorful personal history included many other mistresses and two other wives.)
Hemingway also ditched village life for Europe and beyond. He left Oak Park after graduating from high school in 1917. Except for a brief return after World War I, Hemingway never looked back, reportedly referring to Oak Park as a town of "wide lawns and narrow minds."
As for me, I returned to Oak Park just a month later to attend my nephew's wedding. On this second visit, I harbored no secret desire to steal away to the big city. Chicago is still my kind of town, but Oak Park is right up there on my list of favorite places.