By: Tom Desch, Director
Frank Lloyd Wright has been the subject of countless books, articles, and documentary films. Even the masterful documentarian Ken Burns produced a two-part production about the great architect. So what on Earth could I possibly have to add to the conversation about Frank Lloyd Wright?
Well, I had never given it much thought, until one day in 2010 when I came across an article written by Blair Kamin, the architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune. In it, he wrote of the B. Harley Bradley House, an early Prairie Style design by Wright that had been restored and was, at the time, looking for a buyer. What really jumped out at me, however, was the fact that the structure was located in the mid-sized city of Kankakee, Illinois – the place of my birth.
I had spent my formative years in the community, but I could not recall ever hearing of this house, and I was a kid who, at one time, dreamed of being architect (that was until my poor drawing skills and dislike for math got in the way.) The more I learned about the house, the more it appeared to have the makings of a compelling historical piece.
I learned that this structure is argued to be Wright’s first full realization of the Prairie School, a uniquely American style of design. Although scholars have not reached a consensus as to what structure can claim the title of Wright’s first Prairie design, the Bradley House is right there in the running, and it undoubtedly belongs to a time when Wright was refining design elements that would bring him national and worldwide acclaim.
The Bradley House features a long horizontal elevation, the beginnings of an open floor plan, and of course, a beautiful collection of Wright’s art glass windows. The draw to a storyteller, however, was the home’s dramatic history – fraught with preservation battles, fires, suicide, and even murder. This tumultuous timeline eerily mirrored similar tragedies in Wright’s life, so my crew and I embarked in 2013 to create a half-hour film about the parallel lives of this house and its architect.
Shortly after production started, we realized there was another character that witnessed a similar tumultuous history – the community of Kankakee itself. While our initial vision was to link the house with Wright, it became obvious that the house was inextricably linked to the community in which it resided. As a result, we expanded the scope of the project to be an hour-long piece, and went to work trying to weave together the histories of these three subjects.
The parallels between all three were surprising striking. The Bradley family, for whom the house was built, gained prominence as the manufacturers of farm implements, most famously a plow that succeeded in turning over prairie soil that was famously difficulty to plow. So to some degree, the Bradley family was responsible for eradicating the very prairie landscape that inspired Wright’s home designs. Around the turn of the 20th century, the Bradley Manufacturing Company was one of the largest employers in the Kankakee area. In fact, the factory was located in a village called Bradley and the town still bears the name today.
The Bradley’s were linked to success of the community, and they apparently felt it necessary to build a home to reflect their status. To do so, they commissioned a young architect who designed a cutting-edge house. Author and Architect Thomas Heinz has suggested that when the house was completed it would have been like looking at a “George Jetson House” as it was so far ahead of its time. The neighbors would have never seen anything like it. This groundbreaking house reflected the success of the family that lived in it, the community around it, and the architect that designed it. All three seemed to be on the rise in the early 20th century.
However, in the years to come, all three would face struggles. The Bradley family would eventually lose the house, and it would ultimately fall into disrepair. Wright’s life was so turbulent that I cannot do it justice in a few words. Finally, the community of Kankakee would suffer a fate similar to many midwestern towns as it lost its manufacturing base in the early 1980s.
Luckily, all three would also overcome their struggles. The house was saved thanks to the work of several owners, and a recent restoration conducted by architect Gaines Hall and his wife Sharon have the property looking almost as it did when it was first constructed.
Wright rebounded from his tremendous hardships to design some of the most iconic buildings in the world, and educate a new generation of architects. Kankakee has gone from a community that once had the highest unemployment rate in the entire nation, to one that is among the leaders in job creation in Illinois and the home of a burgeoning arts scene.
It was difficult task to convey that story on screen. The story had to be a balancing act. We wanted to include local history that those in the community would find interesting, but not so much as to bog down a general audience. Dealing with a subject as well -known as Wright also presented challenges. A great many people know his life story, so we didn’t want to include every detail, but we had to include enough that those unfamiliar with Wright could still follow the story.
On the production side, the project was absolutely blessed to have a great crew and support from so many people – from it’s beginning in 2013 until we completed the picture in 2017. The entire time, Justin Hayward, a St. Louis area native, worked as the director of photography and willingly hiked up hills in Wisconsin, and braved aggressive geese on the Kankakee River to get whatever shot was needed. Others donated their time or their film equipment or their finances. The film truly was a community effort.
In addition to its airing on HEC-TV, the film has screened at Frank Lloyd Wright sites including the SC Johnson Wax corporate campus, Taliesin West, and a few blocks from Wright’s Home and Studio in Oak Park, Illinois, as well as in Kankakee at the historic Paramount Theater. DVDs can be obtained through Lakeshore Public Television, and the film will be available for rent through Amazon Prime in July.