Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
– Leonardo da Vinci
The year was 1894, and a young, upstart architect had just completed his first independent commission — a private residence the likes of which had never been seen in the quiet town of River Forest, Illinois. Elegant and stately, Winslow House projected solidity: grand proportions, minimal ornamentation, and the low-slung hipped roof that would soon define Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie House architectural style.
Many were shocked by the radical departure from tradition. Rumours still persist that for months after his home was completed, William Winslow avoided travelling on the morning or evening railway express where he was often subjected to scathing comments from outraged neighbours.
Yet today, almost 120 years later, the Winslow residence has become one of Wright’s most honoured achievements and a legacy building that changed the course of architectural design. It’s also described as one of Wright’s most elusive buildings. It’s had only five owners and has not been open for public viewing since 1979, when it was included in a Wright Home Walk, seven years after it was enrolled on the National Register of Historic Places.
At first glance, Winslow House still projects a sense of organic modernity — the façade’s perfectly-proportioned, strong horizontal orientation takes cues from traditional Japanese architecture and hints at the fundamental tranquility that permeates every detail, every nuance of the home’s design. The ground level is elongated, orange Roman brick framed in white with geometric inlays of white limestone. Broad eaves create ever-changing shadows that dance through the building’s upper band of dark plaster ornamentation. To the left, the porte cochère that was de rigueur in the days of horse-drawn carriages cascades gracefully off the side of the structure.
To enter this home is to be enveloped in exquisite detail. Directly ahead of the foyer, a small, raised recess for staying warm by the fire and known as an “inglenook” is framed by seven arches that draw inspiration from the rounded style first perfected in Roman times. Softly geometric vine-and-leaf embellishments, first seen carved into the front door, reappear on the upper section of these arches — a subtle homage, many believe, to Louis Sullivan, Wright’s mentor and the architect who first envisioned the skyscraper format. Below, delicate support columns begin showcasing Wright’s preference for the beauty of clean, simplistic lines — as if his personal sense of style is unfolding from top to bottom.
In 1894, the sheer width of the open entry foyer was an engineering marvel. Only meticulous engineering precision allowed such an unprecedented expanse of visually unsupported interior space. It was a style that became one of Wright’s signatures, a style that would ultimately lead to his masterpiece, Fallingwater House.
Wright’s attention to the complex art of subtlety is often visible only when viewed from certain angles. Railings on the stairs to the upper floor are cut on diagonals creating an illusion of fluid motion when viewed from below. When viewed from above, each tread’s inlaid pattern resembles a different animal — one like a zebra, another with tiger stripes, yet another with leopard spots.
One of the most popular and impressive features of the home is a semi-circular seating area with a sweeping bank of windows located at one end of the dining room. Guests can gaze at the surrounding natural beauty or marvel at the intricate leaded glass pattern – a pattern designed by Wright himself – that surrounds the viewing panes which were, in themselves, a departure from convention.
Despite the early controversy surrounding Winslow House, there’s no question Wright succeeded in creating a home that would go down in history. Winslow House remains a timeless study of how intricate ornamentation can become a swath of texture and how classical proportions, whether Japanese-inspired or Western, retain a contemporary dynamic that remains eternally satisfying.
Epilogue: In early January 2014, Winslow House was put up for sale for the first time in almost 55 years. “I’ve lived here since I was four,” says current owner Peter Walker, whose parents bought the home in 1957. “Our families have built such wonderful memories, but it’s time for new owners. It won’t be difficult to let go when the right owners appear.”
photos by Jim Tschetter, IC360 Images