Racine photographer and author, Mark Hertzberg, published his fourth Frank Lloyd Wright book last year. This May, the book on Penwern was awarded silver in the architecture category in the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY).
The five year project was submitted without Hertzberg’s knowledge; so he was pleasantly surprised by the news of his book’s silver IPPY Award.
“I didn’t realize they had entered it in the contest and I was really delighted to learn that it had won the award,” Hertzberg said.
Hertzberg, who was also a 2019 Wright Spirit Award recipient from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, said the Penwern book began as a private printing for the friends and family of the stewards of the Penwern summer estate.
Then the Wisconsin Historical Society press became interested in the project and decided to publish it. Locally, the book is available at the Racine Art Museum.
Much of Wright literature focuses on his year-round urban and suburban home work as well as his work with public buildings, Hertzberg noted that Wright had around 50 commissions for summer homes, boathouses, and related buildings.
While about half of the commissions were built, Hertzberg believes his book on Penwern, a summer estate on Lake Delavan in southern Wisconsin commissioned by Fred Jones, may be the only work surrounding one of Wright’s summer dwelling creations.
Writing the Wright books was a change in direction for Hertzberg, who worked with the Journal Times for 33 years photographing and writing and retired as director of photographer.
“I always defined myself as a photojournalist, but with the books, I also think of myself as an author now,” Hertzberg said. “It was a change in direction and career, but I wrote and photographed for the books.”
While Hertzberg has appreciation for the buildings themselves, in Penwern’s case Hertzberg said he admired the entryway due to its ability to invite a person into the home, Hertzberg said the human experience brings something new when put alongside Wright’s architecture.
Hertzberg said when he was working on his previous work on the Hardy house, David Archer, who grew up in the house from 1947 to 1957, told him about waking up to a busload of Japanese tourists outside of the house.
Karen Johnson Boyd talked to Hertzberg about growing up in Wingsread and having to sneak past her parents’ bedroom if she was trying to sneak out at night.
"I didn't want to just repeat dry history that you could find in other books," Hertzberg said. "I didn't just want to analyze the architecture. I wanted to humanize the buildings and the homes and talk about how people experience them."
On May 18, Hertzberg gave a virtual presentation on Penwern as a part of Virtual Wright Design Series presented by Monona Terrace.
Houzz at a Glance
In 2016, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Sherman Booth House in Glencoe, Illinois, celebrated its centennial, and Sonia Bloch had lived in the house for half that time.
When she and her husband, Ted, viewed the home in 1967, they saw past its state of disrepair to its inherent beauty. They snapped up the house and restored and maintained it for half a century, keeping Wright’s original details in good shape and enjoying the landscape he sited it upon. The home has an interesting history and maintains an influence on the town to this day, 150 years after Wright’s birth.
Houzz at a Glance
Who lived here: Sherman and Elizabeth Booth were the original owners. Sonia and Ted Bloch restored and maintained the house from 1967 until recently. Ted passed away, and the house is on the market for $1.7 million.
Location: Glencoe, Illinois
Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright
Year completed: Stable and caretakers cottage, 1912; house as it stands today, 1916
That’s interesting: Eventually, Wright designed an entire neighborhood on the property, including his first completed bridge. The only other Wright-designed bridge ever built is part of the driveway at Fallingwater.
The height and massing of the home and its roof deck are uncommon for a Wright Prairie-style home, which usually emphasizes the horizontal over the vertical.
Early in his career, Wright designed a number of Prairie-style houses in Glencoe, which has the third-largest collection of Wright-designed structures in the world. Much of the credit for this is due to his lawyer, Sherman Booth, and his wife, Elizabeth.
In 1911, Sherman, who was also a conservationist and founding commissioner of the Glencoe Park District, and Elizabeth, a prominent suffragette instrumental in Illinois granting women the right to vote for president of the United States, tasked the architect with designing the estate. The idea was that the 15 acres surrounding the structures could serve as a nature preserve.
Wright created plans for a large estate house and other structures in 1911, while his friend, iconic landscape architect Jens Jensen, worked on the landscape plans. The stable-garage and a caretakers cottage were completed in 1912. A summer cottage that would serve as housing for the family during construction of the large house was completed in 1913. It has since been moved to another site in town.
A Change in Plans
That large house is another story in itself. Alas, it was never built. In Wright’s office’s renderings, you can see that the site planning is almost as dramatic as Fallingwater’s and that there are architectural moves echoing Taliesin.
Financial setbacks for the Booths caused them to scale back on their dreams for the property. In 1915, they had the land subdivided into a neighborhood, Ravine Bluffs. Wright designed additional houses for the neighborhood that were much more modest than the Booths’ home, as well as sculptural street markers, a train station and a bridge that crosses the neighborhood’s namesake ravine. Five of these homes were built. Meanwhile, Jensen designed the landscape for the subdivision.
The Booths’ belt-tightening resulted in new plans for the house as well. They scrapped the design for the large home that emphasized long horizontal lines perched right up next to and over the ravine. Instead, Wright created a home that related to the ravine via the vertical. He connected the existing caretakers cottage and the stable-garage with a tall central core in the middle to serve as their home. The main core is three stories, and the porch that leads out to the roof deck is the fourth story. The roof deck’s purpose: to look out over the trees to the ravine.
Ready for Its Next Custodians
Since its completion more than a century ago, the home has had only three owners: the Booth family, Northwestern University, and Sonia and Ted Bloch, who bought it in 1967. According to Sonia, the house had been intended for use as a conference center for Northwestern, but the university wound up putting it on the market. “It was completely vacant when we saw it. It had ragged carpets, and none of the light fixtures worked,” she says. “To some people, it was ugly, but to me, it was gorgeous.” The Blochs got to work restoring the house to its original glory.
The house has a theme of rectangular forms, which are repeated on the windows, in the millwork and on the light fixtures Wright designed especially for the home.
A Restoration Odyssey
“We were very fortunate that my husband was in the lumber business at the time,” Sonia says. “He was able to track down hard-to-find wood species to match the rest of the house where we needed it.” One example is this front hallway flooring; Ted searched until he found the same species of oak in narrow pieces at an obscure lumber supplier in Michigan. “We were fortunate to have contacts to really do it right,” she says.
Making the home livable again was a labor of love. During the restoration, the Blochs honored Wright’s original design down to every last detail, including the lantern-like light fixtures throughout the house. Even though the restored fixtures don’t leave much room for artwork on the walls and were difficult to bring back to life, they are among Sonia’s favorite things about the house. “These lanterns are very elegant and give off the most beautiful light,” she says.
Here is a first-floor plan so that you can keep track of how the rooms flow together as we go through the house.
There is a natural flow through the spaces; the library area is open to this great room (marked “living room” on the plan), which also looks out toward the porch and the property beyond.
Though the Booths wound up subdividing the bulk of their 15 acres, their home’s site remained private, surrounded by trees. Wright designed floor-to-ceiling windows to provide views out to the garden and woods.
The porch is 15 by 20 feet and almost all windows. “The floor-to-ceiling windows on the porch were not something you’d see often in 1915, and they are amazing,” Sonia says.
Related: Chicago-Style Picture Windows
Eaves around the exterior control the natural light. “The eaves keep out the bright winter light. The house always has lovely soft light, and we never needed drapes except in the bedrooms,” she says. “We were completely surrounded by greenery, and the light was the most beautiful at the end of the day.”
Digging Into the Past
Sonia also learned more about the design from one of Sherman and Elizabeth Booth’s sons. At one point, she found out that Sherman Booth Jr. was living close to where she was staying in Florida, so she looked him up and paid him a visit. “Sherman Jr. told me that his mother didn’t want people to see her kitchen when it wasn’t looking absolutely perfect,” she says. “He told me that is why she had Wright place the windows so high, to block the view to inside.”
Feldman was able to rework the kitchen in a way that suited the Blochs while keeping the spirit of the original room alive.
Wright Goes to New Heights
“Style-wise, scholars talk about the height of the house and this roof deck with the fireplace because it was so unusual for Wright,” Sonia says. “Wright’s intention was for the roof deck to be a sculpture garden where you could look out over the ravine, but we just used it as a deck.”
Sonia says Sherman Jr. told her that when his father thought his sons needed to be toughened up, he had them sleep on cots on the roof deck porch when it was cold outside. It sounds as though the senior Booth was a proponent of the fresh-air movement that was going strong back then.
The master bedroom shows us two more Wright-designed lantern fixtures and windows that wrap a corner of the house. The careful attention Wright paid to corners is something Sonia learned from this house that has always stuck with her. “When I go out into the world and see all of the unattractive corners and spaces, it makes me think about how perfect everything here is,” she says.
Because of its verticality, the Booth home is not as suited to aging in place as one-story Prairie-style homes are, so Sonia has put it on the market, giving the next owners a chance to live in a Wright work of art. Let’s hope they will appreciate, love and maintain the home as beautifully as she and Ted did for all those years.
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