To the Editor:
A century ago, Kenwood was an ultra-elite neighborhood with the cream of Chicago’s wealthiest families living in the most extravagant houses in town. A week ago Monday night’s Kenwood community meeting about the conversion of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Blossom and McArthur houses to bed and breakfast establishments marked the return of Kenwood to its former and rightful glory.
The neighbors proudly and gallantly rejected a billionaire’s offer to carefully restore two of the most important examples of Prairie School interior design in the world. Not for any amount of silver would the community compromise its principles and risk the intrusion of the undesirable lower classes. Packer fans down for the big Bears game might show up and tailgate-party in the street. Deliveries of desired luxury goods might be delayed by taxi cabs idling at the curb. And, of course, there’s always the danger of strangers stealing scarce public parking places. One couldn’t expect one’s family and important friends to stay in a “commercial” establishment like a mere bed and breakfast when they could lodge at a new, second-rate Hyatt a few blocks away. We certainly wouldn’t want the kind of commercialization where families illegally rent rooms to students or professionals illegally see clients in their homes. To the unsophisticated, this may sound like self-indulgent whining from a Republican suburb, but, when you pay big money for a big house, you should get to have things just the way you want them. What a relief that the barbarian invasion has been thwarted. (By the way, the proposed total cost to said billionaire would have been $7 million for a total of ten guest rooms at $300 to $500 per night —well within the price range of the hoi polloi.)
Although the exteriors of the Blossom and MacArthur houses are protected by the Kenwood Landmark District ordinance, unfortunately the interiors are not. The interiors are works of the highest art even if from the outside one looks like another classic revival house and the other like a big, lost barn. In both houses, Frank Lloyd Wright created a revolutionary way of organizing interior space. There are few doors separating rooms but the interlocking domestic areas unfold in a way that provides a sense of warm intimacy. He pulls off this miracle with the use of restrained finishes, the inspired placement of windows and the most remarkable wood moldings and cabinetry you may ever see. Wright hadn’t yet learned how to make his exteriors express his revolutionary interiors, as he did spectacularly at the Robie House 16 years later.
Although both houses are in absolutely terrible shape, the Landmark designation allows us to hope they won’t be torn down. But nothing can prevent new owners from butchering the interiors. Do yourself a favor. Call your favorite real estate broker. Pretend you’re interested in buying them. Your walk-through may be your last chance to see these world-class, local works of art.