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AMERICAN ALBUM

Town's Wright turn angers homeowners : A neighborhood of architectural landmarks attracts thousands of tourists each year. Some residents have yanked the welcome mat.

September 12, 1996|JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OAK PARK, Ill. — Frank Lloyd Wright built a shingle house in 1889 for himself, his wife and what would be a brood of six children. As the century turned, he designed six more houses along the adjacent three blocks of Forest Avenue, experiments that would flower into the famous Prairie School of architecture.

Now Wright is deified as a genius, the subject of museum retrospectives, innumerable books, at least one opera and, coming in 1998, a television documentary by Ken Burns, who brought us "Baseball" and "The Civil War."

The master's home and adjacent studio here is itself a museum and historic site, attracting 77,000 tourists last year--up dramatically from 2,500 when it opened in 1974 and 26,500 in 1980. While they're at it, many visitors decide to explore the nearby concentration of Wright's early work.

The neighborhood, however, is unhappy about this turn of events. The Forest denizens are debating whether their street is meant to be a suburban pastorale, a commercial enterprise, a monument or some uncomfortable pastiche.

They have fought off entrepreneurs' dreams of Forest Avenue horse-and-buggy rides and a Wrighterville trolley. Still, many residents contend that their peace already is disturbed, and they blame the decision of their suburban government to work at attracting travelers who visit downtown Chicago, nine miles to the east. Three years ago, the Village of Oak Park opened an official tourist bureau on Forest Avenue.

This summer, Bill Dugal won a five-year campaign for the right to charge $10 a head for weekend tours of his Wright, a satire on Tudors that fuses a half-timbered top with a Prairie-style bottom. It stands just a block from the Home and Studio, as it's known around here.

In response, 10 neighbors posted window signs with the international circle-and-slash symbol for "forbidden" around the word "tourism." "Restore our neighborhood" was printed underneath.

"Why should we ruin the residential character of this street?" asked Karen Brammer, who lives in a stucco Wright with the architect's hallmark entry arch, banded windows and horizontal lines.

Brammer, her husband and their five pajamaed children were opening gifts in their second-floor living room last Christmas when they noticed an ardent Wright fan on the porch snapping photographs of the domestic scene through the stained glass.

Her family expected a certain loss of privacy upon moving in eight years ago. Indeed, the sellers warned that a tourist once came inside during a party, grabbed a plate and lined up at the buffet.

But, the neighbors grouse, the scale and frequency of the intrusions have grown exponentially.

The occasional diesel bus belches fumes down the avenue. Clusters of Wrightophiles listen to guides from the Home and from the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Others, clutching $2.50 guide maps or wearing earphones attached to a recorded lecture ($6), wander along by themselves.

"We used to get only architecture students or history buffs," said Marie Casteneda, a Home and Studio tour assistant. "Now we're getting people who just have heard this is the thing to do."

Such tourists, said Village Board of Trustees member John Troelstrup, spent $3.1 million in Oak Park last year, an amount that is steadily growing.

He has scant patience for the mutiny on Forest Avenue. "I think they're rather shortsighted and petulant," he said.

The pilgrims to Wright's shrines seem taken aback. "It rather gives one an unwanted feeling," said Mary Alice Bruntrager, a St. Louis grandmother.

Even Miriam Zlotolow, who lives in a Beverly Hills manse once owned by Bing Crosby, can't muster much sympathy. The maps to the stars' homes bring plenty of gawkers and "it doesn't bother me much at home," she said.

But there's a difference, noted her husband, Adolfo. Beverly Hills estates are generally walled off and gated, with long entry drives.

Here, there is nothing to compare, save a few low iron fences and the 4-foot arbor vitae hedge planted by Irene DeCaro to separate her Wright from the paying guests next door at the Dugals.

The residents cling to their progressive dinner each February and the block party every summer. They want to garden and to let their children ride bikes on the sidewalk. "We work; we're only home on weekends," DeCaro said, "and we want to enjoy our yards and homes."

While conceding that property values have risen, echoing the rush of Wright interest, residents point out that sales are slow, which they attribute to the tourist traffic.

They worry that sellers may turn to investors who would open up yet more museums--or maybe even defect themselves; Troelstrup says two of the sign-posters have tour applications pending.

In the battle's latest twist, an anonymous letter to the dissidents threatened action if the signs weren't taken down. On Labor Day, handbills invited tourists to a free "change of heart" barbecue, giving a Forest Avenue address. It was a hoax.

At that point, Cindy Grotefeld admitted tiring of the fight. "Maybe," she said, "we should all just open fudge shops downstairs."

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