Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A New Era in Home Design - The Dana-Thomas House

My husband and I toured the Dana-Thomas Home in Springfield, Mo, while on our Route 66 tour this summer. Ever since my college days in the 1960s where home design was part of my studies, I’ve been a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. While working on my masters in the 1980s I was fortunate enough to tour one of his tract homes on display at the Dallas Museum of Art.

If you’re familiar with Mr. Wright’s style, you know that his belief is everything in a home should be functional and the outdoors becomes part of the living space. He also designed every home to accommodate a baby grand piano. His tract homes aren’t that large, but indeed, there sat the piano. The furniture inside his homes is stationary, closets are wall cabinets, and hallways are lined with windows with either book shelves or storage below and on the opposing wall. I loved seeing this model home, but to me, none of the furniture appeared that comfortable. I didn’t see a stuffed sofa or recliner one.

Susan Lawrence Dana grew up with elite society in Springfield, IL, near the state capital. Her life revolved around social activities such as parties, club activities, and charity fund-raisers. She married Edwin Dana in 1883. The couple’s marriage, though happy, was touched with sadness. Susan bore two children who died in infancy. In 1900, Edwin died in a mining accident. A year later her father died leaving her as executor of his estate.

Susan lived with her mother in the family Italianate style Victorian home at Fourth St. and Lawrence Av. Her mother agreed to have the family home remodeled. Susan approached Frank Lloyd Wright to undertake the project. It was completed in 1904. Susan’s mother died in 1905 and in 1913 she remarried—a young Danish baritone concert artist who died unexpectedly a year later. A third marriage ended in divorce.

The Dana house is one of the largest and most elaborate of Wright’s “Prairie” designs. Today it is open for public tours. The home design depicts low, horizontal roofs, wide overhanging eaves, ribbon art glass windows, 250 art glass doors, windows and light panels, and original sculpture designed by Mr. Wright. On the four dining room walls are the only surviving George Niedecken murals.

To the right is one of the sumac windows and a lamp typical of all of the lamps in the home.

Wright designed all of the furniture in the home, also the sculptures, and the art class in the windows and doors. He controlled every detail. Both Mrs. Dana and Mr. Wright loved Japanese art. This influence is evident both inside and outside the home. The majority of the furniture didn’t appear comfortable to me and the rooms were dark. I can’t imagine having to navigate the many levels at night with only gas lights or the small electric bulbs of the day.

Interestingly, there is no covered area for guests to arrive and be protected from the elements. For functions, a designer awning that reached from the arched entryway to the street was erected. The foyer is small which led to Wright’s “expandable spaces,” a concept used throughout the home and his other designs. Guests were greeted and directed either up or down a floor. The master bedroom has built-in twin beds with privacy curtains and a sitting area with a lot of light, one of the brighter areas in the home.

Though I love the “Prairie” style home, the Dana-Thomas house is, in my mind a contradiction to what a socialite in 1904 would build. When I think about life of the elite in the 1900s, my mind conjures up images of Victorian homes, Edwardian designs, or Romanesque villas—elaborate designs with broad sweeping porches and covered drives for guests like the ones to the right. Not the “Prairie” home Frank Lloyd Wright made popular and became famous for. However, those designs were not the current fashion and Mrs. Dana was a modern, free-thinking woman, one to set her own style. It reflected her flamboyant personality.

Social activities in the Dana home revolved around benefit concerts for charitable causes, gatherings for governors, state politicians, members of local society and guest from all over the world. In the 1920s and 30s, she formed the Lawrence Center for Constructive Thought and held meetings with metaphysical and mystical religious groups.

The costume to the left is something like what women of the day would have worn. Their hats were large and elaborate.

When the cousins who’d lived with Susan for years died in 1928, she moved to more modest quarters. She became a recluse. In 1942 she was declared incompetent by the courts and admitted to a local hospital. Her significant fortune gone, her home and effects were auctioned in 1943 and her home sold in 1944. Charles C. Thomas, a medical publisher, purchased the house and owned it from 1944-1981. They maintained the homes original furnishings and design. In 1981 it sold for one million dollars and became a historic site under the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

I love the "Prairie" style of the Dana-Thomas House. It would be a wonderful place to visit and stay a week, possibly even a month, but I don't think I would want to live there. The craftsman style similar to the "Prairie" home would be a better fit for me. Or, one of Mr. Wright's tract homes. Regardless, the Dana-Thomas Home is a tribute to both the architect and the woman with the insight to build something different. If you're ever in Springfield, don't miss taking a tour.



Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Linda,
Very interesting blog. I love historical homes. Talk about being unlucky in love. Just goes to show money can't buy happiness.



Linda LaRoque said...

I do too, Margaret. And you're so right about the money and happiness. Even though she was older at the time of her 3rd marriage, she still had hopes for a baby.

Cate Masters said...

Great post! I'd love to visit a Wright home. I'm remiss in not catching up with one of my favorite authors, TC Boyle, who wrote The Women, about Wright's love affairs. He actually lives in a Wright house. Just goes to show you, one art inspires another. :)
Susan Lawrence Dana's story is so amazing. I think the women of earlier eras must've been made of stronger stuff. The women of today certainly could never have borne such tragedies.
Thanks for sharing.

Linda LaRoque said...

Hi Cate. I've not read TC Boyle's book about Wright. I'll look for it. I agree. Women were stronger back then.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Wonderful article. I like prairie style architecture, but prefer my style furnishings. LOL Frank Lloyd Wright was a genius, there's no doubt. I'd love to see the Dana-Thomas home. Thanks for the mini-tour.