Restored Balch House must-see on Wright Housewalk
The Oscr B. Balch house (1911, Frank Lloyd Wright) in Oak Park. | James Caulfield~Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust.
Frank Lloyd Wright Housewalk at a glance
The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust’s 38th annual Wright Plus Housewalk offers the opportunity to tour the interiors of eight architecturally significant early-20th century homes (three designed by Wright and five by contemporaries) and three public buildings on June 2 in Oak Park.
How much does it cost? $85 for Wright Trust members; $100 for non-members.
Are tickets still available? At press time, limited tickets were available. Call (877) 848-3559 or visit gowright.,org. Tickets are also on sale in the museum shop of the Wright Home and Studio, 951 Chicago Ave.
How are the tours conducted? Ticket holders may tour all the sites in the order they choose from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Note: Unity Temple closes at 4 p.m.)
Where does the tour begin? Pick up your tour program from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the orientation center, 508 N. Kenilworth Ave.
What about transportation? All tour sites are within 1 mile of the Wright Home and Studio. Participants may walk or board daylong shuttle buses beginning at 8:15 a.m.
How long does it last? The Wright Plus Housewalk opens at 9 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m.
What about eats? Light breakfast fare, snacks and beverages are available in the concessions tent throughout the day in the Home and Studio courtyard. A limited number of $13 box lunches will be available for purchase at the Housewalk.
Updated: July 3, 2012 12:52PM
The Oscar B. Balch house is immediately recognizable in its Oak Park neighborhood as a Frank Lloyd Wright design, with its stucco exterior, its flat roof and its long, low, strong horizontal lines.
Wright’s presence is equally obvious in the interior of the home, especially in the main room on the ground floor, a 65-foot-long rectangular chamber with room divisions suggested only by art-glass windows, built-in bookcases, a large brick fireplace and two long, rectangular art-glass light fixtures in the ceiling.
With its carefully selected Arts and Crafts-era furnishings (some antiques, some reproductions) and fixtures, the room appears today much as it might have looked in 1912 when the Balch family moved in.
The effect of stepping into the house — as more than 2,000 people will do June 2 when it becomes one of the stops on the 38th annual Wright Plus Housewalk — is something like entering a museum devoted to the great designer. So, you might imagine that Frank Lloyd Wright is always uppermost in the minds of its current occupants.
But you’d be wrong.
“I hardly ever think about this being a Wright house,” said owner Tim Pearson, who purchased the home with his wife in 1999. “I’m proud of it when people come in and see it for the first time, but I never think about it myself. This is just my house. It’s where I live.”
Pearson, a CPA who has worked most of his career in the construction industry (and recently launched his own restoration construction company), has had a lifelong interest in home design. His parents built his childhood home in Kankakee from scratch, his older brother became an architect and he has now bought and restored five vintage homes — four from the early 20th-century Arts and Crafts era.
Pearson said he never thought twice about owning a Wright home — he’s more of an E. E. Roberts man, when it comes to architects of that era — but the Balch house happened to be on the market after he and his wife decided to move to Oak Park to raise their son. Both fell in love with the house at first sight, thanks largely to the allure of the spacious master bedroom on the second floor, with its wall-to-wall windows on three sides providing an airy view of the neighborhood (including Ernest Hemingway’s childhood home across the street).
After installing his family, Pearson committed himself to restoring the house, which Wright designed in 1911, around the time he was designing his Taliesin home and studio in Wisconsin. Oak Park boasts more Wright homes than any other place in the world, but the Balch house was the second-to-last home he designed there after outraging the community by running off to Europe with the wife of a prominent client.
“I did what I call the hundred-year fix,” said Pearson, who described the condition of the house when he bought it as “somewhat tired; every faucet leaked, the walls were painted with whitewash, the woodwork was sticky and there was a lot of deferred maintenance work to be done.”
In addition to restoring the paint to its original color (determined by taking core samples of the walls in every room) and replacing elements such as the sconce light fixtures Wright typically used in his homes of that period, Pearson did a major restoration of the exterior. He restored the stucco and wood trim on the outside of the house, rebuilt the front terrace walls and floor and reinforced the foundation to address moisture damage. That last project involved jacking up the house two inches, a step that also allowed him to restore the home’s horizontal lines as close as possible to true level.
In 2004, with the blessing of the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, Pearson hired a restoration architect to design a three-room addition to the home, including an enlarged kitchen, a spacious family room and a mud room. That made it easier to achieve his goal of having the rest of the house look much as it would have a century ago (computers and a big-screen TV having previously struck a discordant note).
“It took us awhile to work up the courage to do that,” Pearson said.
But he finally decided that Wright himself would be the first to upgrade a design to match modern standards — half of the Wright homes in Oak Park being remodelings, not his original design. He also believes he has extended the life of the house by ensuring it will not become obsolete.
“We’ve put a lot of effort and money into this,” said Pearson, adding that much of the cost was covered by donating the two Wright-designed art-glass light fixtures on the ground floor (each appraised at something like 95 percent of what he originally paid for the home) to the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy and deducting that from his taxes as a charitable donation — with the understanding that the fixtures will stay in their original setting.
“We wanted to do it right. We view ourselves as stewards. While it’s our home, it’s also a work of art and it should be around forever to be appreciated. That’s why we open up for this event.”
Another reason is that Pearson is a great admirer of the Wright Preservation Trust, which now owns the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, administers operations and directs restoration efforts at Wright’s Robie House in Hyde Park, recently opened offices in Wright’s Rookery Building in Chicago. It also provides tours and educational programs at all three locations. The Annual Wright Plus Housewalk is the group’s major fundraising effort.
This year’s Housewalk offers rare interior tours of eight private Oak Park homes (three designed by Wright and five by significant contemporaries) plus tours of the Wright Home and Studio, Robie House, Unity Temple and The Rookery.
In addition to the Balch House, Housewalk features:
the Wright-designed William G. Fricke House (1901, a rare three-story Prairie design)
Wright’s William E. Martin House (1903, highlighted by a water garden and original murals)
the George Sharp House (1873, architect unknown)
the John T. Price House (1904, E.E. Roberts)
the Vernon Skiff House (1909, Nimmons & Fellows)
the Charles Schwerin House (1908, E.E. Roberts)
the Dr. Howard L. Simmons House (1898, E.E. Roberts).