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On the trail of Frank Lloyd Wright in Illinois and Wisconsin

Taliesin, the 800-acre estate near Spring Green, Wis., features the home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, plus a school for architectural students. UNESCO added the attraction to its list of World Heritage sites in July. (Taliesin Preservation)
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Frank Lloyd Wright died 60 years ago in April yet he still feels present, as if his ghost were consulting architects from the afterlife. The open floor plan concept, use of steel and concrete in nonutilitarian buildings and walls of windows that pull nature close are ubiquitous design elements today — you’re welcome, says Wright from the grave. In July, UNESCO recognized his contribution to modern architecture by adding eight of his buildings to its list of World Heritage sites. Half are in the Midwest, for obvious reasons. The architect spent most of his 70-year career in the Chicago area and Wisconsin, his birthplace. (He died in Arizona, where he wintered.) The Prairie State boasts the highest number of his structures, followed by the Badger State. Combined, the pair claim about 25 sites that are open to the public. Dozens more remain in private hands but can be viewed from the sidewalk or during special open house events, such as the Wright Plus Housewalk in Oak Park, Ill., which the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust holds in May.

To shepherd travelers on their pilgrimages, the Illinois and Wisconsin tourism offices unveiled self-guided trails that connect the Wright dots. (In Wisconsin, hit all nine and earn a collectible mug.) However, between the tours, gift shops and driving distances, you will need significant vacation time to visit all 22 attractions. For an abbreviated road trip, I reached out to John H. Waters at the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in Chicago. The preservation programs manager and architect helped me craft an itinerary that followed Wright's professional arc from his earliest projects (a windmill for his aunts) to his latest (his home at Taliesin), from Prairie style to Usonian. "His architecture is endlessly fascinating," Waters told me before I set off on my journey. "You keep on learning more about his work the more you delve into it." To be sure, after a dozen Wright creations over six days, I could spot a low-pitched roof and cantilevered ledge from a street away.

Frederick C. Robie House (1910)

Where: Chicago’s Hyde Park

Why it’s important: The private residence is Wright’s last grand Prairie-style house. In the late 1940s, the home was almost demolished. Wright, who often quipped that his favorite building was his next one, traveled to Chicago from his home in Wisconsin to rally for the Robie cause.

Tour overview: During the 50-minute tour, guests explore the ground level, which includes the foyer, grown-up playroom and billiard room; the second-story living and dining “vessel,” with its 24 leaded-glass casement doors and hand-loomed rugs with geometric patterns; and the upstairs bedrooms, which display several original chairs. Take note of the hooks in Lora Robie’s closet: The house’s construction predates the use of hangers, which Meyer May, a Michigan department store founder and Wright client, popularized. See if you can spot the three types of light fixtures containing Wright’s logo of a square inscribed with a circle and a cross.

Fascinating fact: According to legend, when the Chicago Theological Seminary turned the residence into a dorm for couples, graduating students absconded with the wall sconces. Only one of the original 35 remains in the house. Hey, alums, if you’re reading this: Please return the sconces to their Wrightful place.

Gift shop find: Canvas tote bag with the same diamond-shape design as the light screens in the living room.

Extra attraction: Stroll over to the Heller House, which is also in Hyde Park, and dream big: The 16-room mansion, built in 1897, is on the market for a cool $2.2 million.

Info: The $20 tours are held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Thursday through Monday;

World-Class Heritage, Here in the U.S.

Emil Bach House (1915)

Where: Chicago’s Rogers Park

Why it’s important: The brick house represents Wright in transition, between his Prairie and Usonian periods. It is also the only Wright residence in Chicago that you can rent for the night.

Tour overview: Spend the hour poking around the house commissioned by Emil Bach, whose brother owned Wright’s Steffens House a few blocks away. (Sibling rivalry, perchance?) Though the furnishings are not original, the built-in pieces were re-created from Wright’s designs.

Fascinating fact: When subsequent owners ripped out the plaster to put in wallboard, a teenage neighbor asked if he could take a chunk of the material. Fast forward to 2012: Gunny Harboe was restoring the house and seeking the original paint color. The neighbor produced the answer: sunshine yellow. That kid, by the way, was Tim Samuelson, who grew up to become Chicago’s official cultural historian.

Gift shop find: No gift shop at the moment, but grab a free postcard of the Bach House from a stack in the living room.

Extra attraction: Travel about 10 miles south to the Rookery Building, which Burnham and Root designed in 1888. In 1905, Wright was hired to modernize the Victorian lobby. The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust runs a store on the ground floor. Pick up champagne flutes and a scarf/tie clip adorned with the lobby’s rosette detail or buy a set of Bach wine glasses to toast your Wright sleepover.

Info: Tours are available Tuesday and Wednesday, May through September, for $12; rental costs $480 a night;

Frank Lloyd Wright Home (1889) and Studio (1898)

Where: Oak Park, Ill.

Why it’s important: The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, which owns and operates the home and studio, describes the site as “the birthplace of Wright’s vision for a new American architecture.” In addition to designing his residence, he worked on more than 150 projects in his studio, including the Robie House and Unity Temple, both UNESCO sites.

Tour overview: Over 60 minutes, interpreters (the trust’s name for guides) lead guests through the shingle-style home he shared with his wife and their six children, plus the studio he built after parting ways with his employer, Adler & Sullivan. You can see early signs of his signature style, such as the large windows that create the sensation of sitting in a treehouse, the room within the room and the “pathway of discovery,” the mazelike route to the front door. “This was his laboratory,” said Melissa Elsmo, an interpreter. “You are truly in the motherland of Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Fascinating facts: In the playroom, Wright built the piano into the wall by removing a leg and securing the instrument with an iron strap hook. You can glimpse his mad genius setup from the stairs. “Don’t hit your head on the piano,” warned Melissa as the group descended.

Gift shop finds: Silk ties decorated with the lotus pattern from the dining room windows, and dog leashes and collars showcasing the skylight design from his studio.

Extra attraction: Take a self-guided walking tour of Oak Park, which claims the world’s largest collection of Wright buildings. Among the highlights: Unity Temple, his concrete masterpiece from 1905 to 1908; the bootleg houses, which he built clandestinely while still employed by Adler & Sullivan; the Frank Thomas House, one of his first Prairie-style homes; and the Laura Gale House, a precursor to Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.

Info: Daily tours cost $18;

Laurent House (1952)

Where: Rockford, Ill.

Why it’s important: It is the only home Wright built for a client with a disability.

Tour overview: For an hour, docents escort guests through the one-story Usonian-hemicycle home, even peering into the kitchen cabinets to admire the dinnerware Wright created for the Imperial Hotel in Japan. Wright adapted the house and furniture to fit Kenneth Laurent’s needs, down to the height of the doorknobs and light switches. The owner, who had a spinal tumor and became a paraplegic, said the house “helps me to focus on my capabilities, not my disabilities. That is the gift that Wright gave me.” Depending on the guide, you might march up the street to see how the structure is hidden from the road, obscured by nature.

Fascinating facts: Wright installed three Taliesin tree lamps at different angles: 90, 180 and 270 degrees. The architect urged his clients to keep the walls unadorned. So, when the Laurents’ daughter wanted to hang a poster of David Cassidy in her bedroom, she had to stick the dreamboat inside the door of a storage unit.

Gift shop find: The Laurent House Foundation is building a visitor center with a gift shop and parking lot across the street. Until it opens next year, head to the Midway Village and Museum Center for a 3-D bookmark that displays the front and back of the house, a difficult image to capture without a panoramic lens.

Extra attraction: Visit the Pettit Chapel in the adjacent town of Belvidere. Emma Glasner Pettit hired Wright in 1906 to design a memorial for her husband, William Pettit. The chapel is the only building he created for a cemetery setting. Grab a map online or at the front office.

Info: Tours are held Friday, Saturday and Sunday, from April through December, and cost $20;

S.C. Johnson (1939, 1950)

Where: Racine, Wis.

Why it’s important: It is the only corporate headquarters designed by Wright that is still in use today.

Tour overview: S.C. Johnson, which manufactures cleaning supplies and other household products, is an active workplace, so guides keep guests on a tight lanyard during the 90-minute outing. The tour stops at two Wright structures — the Research Tower, which is dormant, and the Administration Building, which is still in operation — plus the Foster + Partners-designed Fortaleza Hall. The community center contains the Lily Pad gift shop and exhibits on Wright and five generations of Johnson family leaders. You have only 15 minutes, so shop and read fast. On weekends, visitors are allowed upstairs to the mezzanine and penthouse levels of the Administrative Building. “Take a meeting” in the 1940s penthouse office of H.F. Johnson Jr., the third generation to run the company.

Fascinating fact: Wright designed three-legged desk chairs, assuming employees would sit with their feet flat on the floor. However, many women would cross their legs, causing their chairs to tip over. When Johnson Jr. asked Wright to add a fourth leg, he refused and suggested Johnson’s staff learn to sit properly. During a meeting, the company president asked Wright to pick up a pencil on the floor. The architect toppled over and Johnson received his fourth chair leg.

Gift shop find: Johnson product loyalists can take home a plush toy of a Scrubbing Bubble or a Raid mosquito. For a Wright-themed object, defy the no-art-on-the-walls order for a decorative wood hanging styled after the circular pattern on the glass dome in the Administration Building.

Extra attractions: Attend a screening of “Carnaúba: A Son’s Memoir,” a documentary about Sam Johnson’s expedition from Racine to Fortaleza, Brazil, the same trip his father took in 1935, or the Academy Award-winning documentary “To Be Alive,” which the company presented at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Tour Wingspread, the Prairie-style home Wright built for Johnson Jr. It is now a conference center but offers tours when the building is unoccupied.

Info: Free tours are available Wednesday to Sunday, May through September, and Thursday to Sunday, October through April;

Burnham Block (1916)

Where: Milwaukee

Why it’s important: The row of houses demonstrates Wright’s first attempt at building affordable housing. Owners could pick among 30 or 40 standardized models, ranging from 805 square feet to a five-bedroom with maids’ quarters.

Tour overview: Six of the 20 American System-Built Homes reside on this city block once surrounded by celery fields. Over 45 minutes, docents take visitors inside Model B1, which measures 805 square feet, and Two Flat, Model C, which is under renovation. On the tour, learn how Wright employed such money- and space-saving strategies as using less expensive gum wood and installing 33 windows to create the illusion of roominess. Several pieces, including the fireplace grill, cabinetry, shelving, windows, sink and bathtub, are original.

Fascinating fact: Wright considered gutters offensive, so he hid pipes inside the house to drain the roof. You can also see pipes jutting out from the flower planters and sleeping porch.

Gift shop find: Leather journal in Cherokee red, his signature color, with a Burnham Block logo designed by a docent.

Extra attraction: Spend the night in an American System-Built Home on West Burnham Street. VRBO lists the rental for about $210 a night.

Info: Tour dates vary by season and cost $15;

Unitarian Meeting House (1951)

Where: Madison, Wis.

Why it’s important: Wright, a Unitarian, was a member of the Madison congregation that his parents helped establish in 1879. “This was his church,” said John Powell, a guide and church member. “This building is a statement to his religion. He called it his ‘little country church.’ ”

Tour overview: The hour-long tour of the Usonian building starts in the addition, which the congregation built in 2008 to accommodate its more than 1,400 members who could not fit inside Wright’s 200-seat building. At the Meeting House, which is tricked out in scaffolding, guests learn about its structural follies, including a leaking copper roof and sagging trusses. Inside, a hexagonal dome is inscribed with the names of six men Wright admired, including Thoreau, Emerson and his uncle, a Unitarian preacher. The auditorium resembles a ship’s prow and its sides echo the cliff walls of the quarry where congregants collected 1,000 tons of dolomite. The tour wraps up in the Gaebler Living Room, by the bell that the church had to remove because it swayed dangerously in the wind.

Fascinating fact: In the auditorium, an etching of a proverb about coins, bread and flowers is attributed to an “ancient parable.” But Google the phrase and you won’t find an exact match. Powell said Wright possibly quoted the saying without fact-checking himself. His version is now committed to stone.

Gift shop find: A DVD that includes the standing-room-only sermon Wright delivered in 1955, plus other interviews and footage about the construction of the church.

Extra attractions: Check out (from the sidewalk) the Jacobs I House, the first Usonian structure and a UNESCO site. Enjoy a snack at the rooftop cafe of the Monona Terrace, which Wright designed in 1938 but never lived to see completed. The community and convention center also has an impressive gift shop with shelves of Wright items. My pick: Wisconsin-made ceramic bowls and mugs with a drawing of the Madison skyline and Monona Terrace.

Info: Tours are held weekdays, May through September, and Sunday year-round. Cost is $12.50 (online) and $15 (at the door); free on Sundays after morning services; .

Taliesin (1911-1959)

Where: Spring Green, Wis.

Why it’s important: The UNESCO site contains Wright’s home, studio and school, which continues to train architectural students. The multiple structures on the 800-acre estate span his entire career, from the 1890s to the 1950s.

Tour overview: Choose from several tours that last from one to four hours and emphasize different parts of the property. The two-hour Highlights Tour, for instance, offers a comprehensive look at his personal and professional life. Guests visit the two main structures — the Hillside Studio and Theatre, and his home — plus a replica of his earliest work at Taliesin, the Romeo and Juliet Windmill from 1897. (His first two jobs came from his aunts, who ran a school here. The pair sold the property to their nephew for $1.) Visitors can peer into the students’ workroom and check out the dining hall with its light fixtures made of plywood scraps. Wright rebuilt his private living quarters twice — the first time after the 1914 massacre of his mistress, her two children and four workmen; the second time after an electrical fire. (Our guide, Peggy, lowered and softened her voice when recounting the tragedy. A few tourgoers unfamiliar with the story gasped.) He tinkered with the design until the end of his life.

Fascinating fact: In the guest room, Wright positioned a small window near a statue so that during the equinox, a shard of light would illuminate the angel.

Gift shop find: Silver jewelry by Spring Green artist Ali Kauss, who created the pieces exclusively for Taliesin. Her Wright-inspired creations include window silhouette earrings, a window quartet necklace and double petal flower earrings.

Extra attraction: Dine at the Riverview Terrace Cafe, Wright’s only restaurant design still in operation. The Food Artisan Immersion Program, which teaches budding chefs a holistic approach to cooking, runs the lunch spot inside the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center. The seasonal dishes change often, but you can always find cheese on the menu.

Info: Various daily tours starting at $22;

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