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Six degrees of Kevin Bacon

Among the several projects I’m unlikely to finish in this life, I come back to one of them now and then—mostly then. You might know it involves Frank Lloyd Wright.

During the Oak Park years—the period ending effectively in 1909 with his departure for Europe with the wife of a client—Wright maintained downtown office space in Steinway Hall, a narrow mid-block building at 64 East Van Buren between Michigan Avenue and Wabash until it was demolished about 1970. Designed by Dwight Perkins, one of the Progressive gang that gathered there, Steinway has become almost legendary as the home of The Sixteen, a never-quite-complete list that included Wright, Perkins, and several other young turks raising the hackles of Chicago’s architectural establishment. Wright and his office staff did most of their work in the Oak Park studio, but once a week he maintained office hours to consult clients more conveniently downtown. The Steinway story is more nuanced than this, but it will have to wait another day.

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Around the corner and a half block south on Michigan Avenue, the Fine Arts Building was another creative cluster of artist’s studios, book shops and galleries, of special interest to Wrightophiles because he designed three interiors in that building. Consider these and the constellation of other tenants:

  • In 1907 Wright designed a bookstore for Francis Fisher Browne on the building’s seventh floor.
  • Two years later in 1909 his scheme for the Thurber Art Galleries occupied the entire fifth floor of the Fine Arts Building Annex.
  • And then in 1914 he completed the trilogy with the Mori Oriental Art Studios of the Fine Arts’ eighth floor.

Any trace of these three interior schemes has long since disappeared. And they might be dismissed as projects incidental to Wright’s emerging career, were it not for the building’s other tenants.

  • The Caxton Club, a gathering of bibliophiles, had club rooms on the tenth floor. Wright was a member.
  • Also on the Caxton membership roll was Ralph Fletcher Seymour, who had a studio on an upper floor. Seymour’s Alderbrink Press published Wright’s 1912 The Japanese Print but even more interesting was his authorized 1911 edition of Ellen Key’s The Morality of Woman, translated by Mamah Bouton Borthwick, Wright’s mistress who was murdered at Taliesin with her two children just three years later.
  • Elsewhere in the building were the editorial offices of two literary magazines, The Dial and The Little Review, each influential in what has been called “The Chicago Literary Renaissance”.
  • During 1911-1914 Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine was published by Ralph Fletcher Seymour.
  • And from about 1912 Maurice Browne (not related to Francis Fisher Browne) helped shape the Little Theatre Movement and produced Ibsen and other innovative plays on the premises.

There is more, but I hope that’s enough for now.

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All of this brings me to a 1910 Seymour etching titled “Willows”. I own several books published by Seymour and a couple of his etchings as well. One of the books—Voices of the Dunes—includes a poem by Louis Sullivan that I don’t think has been reprinted elsewhere. But the Community Collection in Agincourt has a “Willows” print as well and, not only is it signed (as a print should be), it also sports an inscription by Seymour “To Mr & Mrs Clark. Feb 21, ’10”. Have I ever needed more than that to set the wheels in motion?

Clearly Mr and Mrs Clark must have been Agincourt residents. But how did they know Seymour?


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