Wednesday, February 18, 2015

William V. O'Brien House
 by: chicago designslinger

 [William V. O'Brien House (1894) Flanders & Zimmerman, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

At a time when a lot of upper-middle class housing was heavy with stone work and   classical details, architects Flanders & Zimmerman took a different approach in 1894 for client Martin O'Brien. The house almost feels like it might have come from the hands of an emerging Prairie School stylist, an early Frank Lloyd Wright perhaps from around the time he was working on the Charnley House with Louis Sullivan. The house was an unusual departure for the team who built office buildings and apartment flats that looked typical for the era. They never returned to this mode of design, which makes the structure all the more unique.

  [William V. O'Brien House, 426 W. Arlington Place, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Known as the William V. O'Brien house, the large, single family home was actually commissioned by Martin O'Brien, William's father. The elder O'Brien was a very prominent Chicago art dealer who had opened a frame and engraving emporium in 1855. O'Brien's frame shop went from emporium to art gallery in 1875 when he opened a new establishment next door to the old one on Wabash Avenue. When he asked Flanders & Zimmerman to design this Arlington Place house, O'Brien's Art Gallery was selling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of art every year, and was considered one of the top sales galleries in the country for easy-on-the-eye pastoral settings and portraiture.

  [William V. O'Brien House, Arlington Roslyn Place Historic District, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

William started working with his father when he was 20 years old and continued on in the business after his father's death. Although Martin is recorded as having built the house, the William V. O'Brien's filled the society pages with all sorts of soirees and events listed as happening on Arlington Place, including the theft of $1,600 worth of Mary O'Brien's jewelry in 1902. The gallery sold what would be considered safe, conservative art, which apparently was also a reflection of the owner's personal taste as indicated by a comment William made in 1940. There was a storm of protest over the content and worthiness of the artwork created under Franklin Roosevelt's Depression-era WPA project and William O'Brien was one of the more outspoken critics. He was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as having "said that the WPA art movement is 'cock-eyed, full of tripe. The Communist element is strong in the project, most of it stinks.' "
By 1941 apparently a lot of people thought that the art the O'Brien Galleries represented stank as well. It wasn't keeping pace with the changing tastes of art world swirling around it and sales had been on the decline for over 15 years. The O'Brien's had moved from their Lincoln Park area home by the time William closed-up shop, and in the early 1920s new owners made a substantial change to Flanders & Zimmerman's design.  Originally the two front archways contained a window on the left and an opening on the right fronted by granite stairs which led onto a porch and the front door. The steps were removed, the architect's original window was pulled from the left side, and both openings were filled-in with the windows we see today.

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