Monday, February 23, 2015

Charnley - Persky House
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Charnley - Persky House (1892) Adler & Sullivan, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In 1890 a wealthy Chicago lumberman named James Charnley purchased a vacant lot on the southeast corner of Astor and Schiller Streets. In 1892 Charnley sold the eastern half of the lot which fronted Schiller to James B. Waller, and kept the corner for himself. Then he asked his friend architect Louis Sullivan to design a house for his remaining piece of land. Sullivan had recently completed a winter cottage for Charnley in Ocean Springs, Mississippi on property Sullivan had sold to the lumber merchant, which it just so happened was located next door to Sullivan's own winter retreat.

  [Charnley - Persky House, 1365 N. Astor Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Charnley was no stranger to the area. He built one of the first houses erected along the Lake Shore Drive in a developing neighborhood soon to be called the Gold Coast. Sullivan's house however looked very different than the Eastlake Stick-style house Burnham & Root had designed for the Charnley's in 1883. Actually, the house didn't look like any house, anywhere. At 25 feet wide and approximately 80 feet long, the rectangular, virtually unadorned cube was definitely not in keeping with the style, or size, of neighboring houses like H.H. Richardson's heavy massing and rusticated stonework of the mansion he designed for the Franklin MacVeagh's. And certainly nothing like next-door-neighbor Potter Palmer's crenelated castle. Sullivan was heavily invested in promoting an architectural style born and bred in America which did not lean so heavily on, or simply copy from, the classical orders of antiquity, and the house he designed was a testament to those beliefs.

[Charnley - Persky House, National Historic Landmark, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Not long after the house was completed the Charnleys began spending more and more time in South Carolina and ended-up renting their unique dwelling to other wealthy Chicagoans. After the death of James Charnley in 1905, his widow Helen held on to the house until 1911 when she sold the three-bedroom, Roman-brick-box to Marion Stephens. He was ready to move-on just seven years later when James Waller stepped-in and purchased the property. Waller had built a 6-story multi-unit apartment building on the land he had purchased from Charnley back in 1892, and was looking to maximize his investment. If he tore down his Binderton Apartments as well as the Charnley house, the lot would be big enough to build the kind of luxury, multi-story apartment tower that were just starting to crop-up in the formerly, exclusively, single-family dwelling neighborhood. Instead the Waller family moved into the Charnley, and in 1927 added an additional 10 feet to the southern end of Sullivan's cube because they needed more bedrooms. After nearly 55 years of Waller residency, the house was sold in the early 1970s, but not before an explosive and controversial chapter in the house's history began to unfold.

   [Charnley- Persky House, Gold Coast National Historic District, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

When the Charnley house was being worked on in the drafting rooms of Adler & Sullivan, the firm was as busy as a beehive. Sullivan's right-hand, a young architect named Frank Lloyd Wright, was hard at work in an office which joined with Sullivan's in the architect's Auditorium Building tower. In the early 1930s, Wright took credit for the design of the Charnley house, and things haven't been the same ever since. That he was the lead draftsman on the project is undisputed, but just how much of the design was led by Sullivan through the hand of his protégé, and the protégé's alone, has been the subject of much debate.
In 1986 when the house became the property of the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Foundation, architect Bruce Graham was a senior partner at the firm. When SOM undertook a multi-million renovation of the house, which included removing the 1927 addition, Graham formed his own opinion of Wright's authorship which he shared with the Art Institute of Chicago in a 1997 oral interview. As a result of the restoration, "... we found out a lot about the Charnley House. I was convinced in this process that the house was the design not of Frank Lloyd Wright but of Louis Sullivan. He took credit for Charnley House. He didn't do Charnley House, that's Sullivan.... I am certain that it's Sullivan's work. Details like the fireplace and the staircase are strictly Sullivan's and the living room has some detailing and paneling around the top that is just not Frank Lloyd Wright.... There is no question that the overall design of the house is Sullivan's.... Did you ever see some of the night jobs [Wright] used to do, out in the west suburbs? They were terrible. He was snob, a mean old man."
Today the house is loving cared for by the Society of Architectural Historians. In 1994 Chicago developer Seymour Persky purchased Sullivan, or Wright's, design and gifted the Charnley house to the Society to use as their headquarters.

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