Sunday, March 1, 2015

Laura R. Gale House
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Laura R. Gale House (1909) Frank Lloyd Wright, architect /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In 1891 Oak Park lawyer and real estate investor Thomas Gale asked Frank Lloyd Wright if the architect would design a house for Gale and his wife Laura. Gale owned a parcel of property on Chicago Avenue half a block away from Wright's own home at the corner of Chicago and Forest Avenues. At the time Wright was still working for, and under an exclusive contract with one of Chicago's powerhouse architectural firms Adler & Sullivan, and took the job as a freelance commission, not as the architect of record at the time, but for the extra cash. Gale also asked Wright to design a house next door that would be sold on spec, and a bond was established between the architect and his clients that would last until Laura Gale's death 52 years later.

  [Laura R. Gale House, 6 Elizabeth Court, Oak Park, IL. /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Thomas Gale was born in Oak Park in 1866, which made him just a year older than Wright. The Gales were a well established Oak Park family. Tom's father E.O. Gale had come to Illinois with his parents in 1837 at the age of five, and the family settled in the vast empty prairie located far west of the town of Chicago. As a young man Edwin O. Gale opened a drug store and began buying-up pieces of land in the area that would eventually become the town of Oak Park. He deeded one of those purchases, the Chicago Avenue property, to Thomas in 1891.

  [Laura R. Gale House, National Register of Historic Places /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In 1897 Tom and Laura Gale commissioned Wright to design summer cottage for their property in Whitehall, Michigan, and in 1905 the name Gale and the name Wright became intertwined in a very circuitous fashion. That was the year Wright was asked to be the architect of Oak Park's new Unity Church building after the old church had burned to the ground. E.O. Gale was a prominent member of the congregation and offered-up a piece of property that he owned kitty-corner from his large Lake Street house for the new Unity Temple building. Wright pushed the limits on this one, no house of worship looked quite like it, and none ever would again. In 1907 while the concrete walls of the Unity Temple structure were still being poured, Thomas Gale began talking to Wright about building himself a new house. It just so happened that along with the groundbreaking Unity Temple design Wright was also experimenting with new ideas about home design. That April the architect published a set of drawings in the Ladies Home Journal titled "A Fireproof House for $5,000." The Fireproof house veered from Wright's long, horizontal, hip-roofed plan - it was an almost equally sided square with a flat roof - and became the working model for a new Gale house.

  [Laura R. Gale House, Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie School of Architecture National Historic District, Oak Park /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Then, on May 23, 1907 Thomas Gale died suddenly at the age of 41 after having been recently diagnosed with cancer. After allowing herself to adjust to life without her husband and with two small children to raise, in 1909 Laura Gale told Wright she was ready to go ahead with the new house on a piece of property that Thomas had bought just before his death, about 100 feet east of Forest Avenue. The lot was tiny, already had a house sitting on it, and near a curve in the narrow lane called Elizabeth Court. Wright's ground floor plan of the Fireproof design was nearly identical to the new Gale project, but Laura's new dwelling came with a larger more expanded living room, and a larger second floor. But what made the house a stand-out were the balconies. Wright had been pushing the boundaries of cantilevered roof overhangs for a number of years, but with the Gale house he suspended the living spaces out into thin air. He'd been working on trying to move the outside in while pushing the inside out from the very beginning of his career, and with the Gale house he finally maneuvered that boundary into a radically new design. Of course for any follower of Wright the similarities between Laura Gale's house and Edgar Kaufman's Fallingwater, which was constructed 25 years later, are obvious.
Laura Robeson Gale lived in her cantilevered cottage until her death in 1943. Wright never forgot her belief in him, especially after his scandalous behavior in the fall of 1909 when he left his wife, children, and Oak Park and began a new life with married Mamah Cheney. Thomas and Laura Gale's 85-year-old daughter Sally remained in her parents home until 1962. The home was then purchased by architect Howard Rosenwinkel who undertook a restoration of the house that continued into the mid-70s and again in the mid-1980s. A structure that famed architectural critic Henry Russell Hitchcock called, " a small masterpiece."

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