Recovering the Furniture
Bringing the Dana-Thomas House
furnishings back home
December 10, 1987
A major (4,000 word) report on the attempt by the State of Illinois and friends of the Frank Lloyd Wright Dana-Thomas House in Springfield to recover some of the furnishings of that house that had been lost to the auctioneers in years past. This piece touches on issues and personalities I discussed some time later in Chicago Times here, here, and here, but the focus of this piece is the furniture of this state-owned house in particular and thus is the more Illinois story.
It seems an awfully big fuss over a few bits of furniture. On December 12, the gavel will fall in the posh rooms of Christie's on Park Avenue ("The museum where the art is for sale"), and the auctioneer will ask for bids on items numbered 104-109. The six items trace their aesthetic provenance to the mind if not the hand of Frank Lloyd Wright and their physical provenance to the Springfield house of Susan Lawrence Dana, which Wright designed in 1903. Bidders will choose among what Christie's catalog calls "a fine and important" table lamp of leaded grass and bronze, an oak spindle side chair, and an "important" oak music stand, as well as three smallish architectural renderings of the house. There will be many rich people there, a reporter or two, an anxious site manager for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which bought what is now known as the Dana-Thomas House in 1981, members of the foundation which helps maintain it, and probably at least one governor. Some of these people will be bidding; others say they will
Where the Dana-Thomas House belongs on the artistic roster of Wright's Prairie-style houses is debatable. But the official description of the eighty-two-year-old house as "the best preserved and most complete" of the master's early works is not disputed. The sound condition of the building itself was remarkable enough. More remarkable still was the survival nearly intact of the house's original furnishings-lamps, chairs, leaded window glass, tables—which were also designed by Wright.
The value as well as the charm of the Dana-Thomas House lies in the comprehensiveness of these architectural details. "He among all other architects thought that the interior should be designed by the architect," explains Mark Hey-man, the Sangamon State University professor who spent four and a-half years as an apprentice to Wright in the 1950s. Wright did not exactly design the decor for his houses. Rather, a Wright house was decor and vice versa, and the result was an integratedness which makes the experience of even the lesser Wright houses so encompassing.
Genius which is expressed in such portable forms poses particular temptations to the collector. Wright's accoutrements are art objects in themselves, and have come to be craved as such in the nearly thirty years since his death. There is a booming trade in Wright pieces of all kinds among both private collectors and public museums. Most of this trade of late has passed through the premises of Chrisie's.
The December 12 sale, for instance, sees twenty-six Wright pieces (mostly from the Prairie period) go under the gavel in addition to the Dana-Thomas items. Installed originally in seven Wright houses built at the turn of the century in and near Chicago, Kankakee, Buffalo, and Peoria, the items range from wall sconces to oak day-beds, windows to chairs, console tables to architectural renderings.
However much it improves their marketability, removing original furniture and fixtures from their intended context, Wrightians believe, strips them of meaning. While such objects are physically intact their "essence" (the sort of word which gets used a lot in talk about Wright) is drained. Donald Hoffman is a Springfield boy who outgrew his boyhood in every sense to become the arts and architecture critic for the respected Kansas City Star. In September Hoffman spoke to a symposium on Wright and the marketplace held at Chicago's Art Institute to commemorate the installation in May of its display of architectural fragments along its refurbished grand staircase. "Any art lives by virtue of its integrity," Hoffman said. "Architecture...is essentially environmental, specific to a place, and meant to stay put." Removing and displaying individual artifacts from their original settings trivializes them, Hoffman continued. (It should be noted that the original settings of most of the pieces on display at the Art Institute have been demolished.) In the process Wright's pieces become "almost equivalent to the very knicknacks he was trying to eliminate from architecture."
Alas, acquisitiveness has little to do with art or integrity as a rule, especially when it comes to the higher class of knicknack. The minimum estimated value of the thirty-two Wright pieces being sold at Christie's this month is $626,000. Such prices reflect more than appreciation, and something like inflation. In 1982 for example the then-owner of the Willits House in Highland Park—Wright's first Prairie-style house and one of the most fully realized—fixed a broken basement window and sold it to a North Shore gallery for $10,000; a few months later it had been resold and was being offered in New York for $38,000. More recently a single dining chair from that house fetched $198,000 at auction; a Wright dining table and six chairs from another of his early Chicago houses was later sold to the same buyer for a reported $1,600,000.
The pizza vendor
It makes a certain sense that the man willing to pay a million, six for a place to sit down and eat would be Thomas Monaghan, founder of the Domino's Pizza chain. In two years Monaghan has made himself into the preeminent collector of Wright stuff. His museum, now a-building in Ann Arbor, Michigan, will be crowded from opening day by some 300 Wright pieces. Monaghan's collection so far includes a whole master bedroom from one house and twenty-nine windows and is believed to exceed in size even the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute.
Monaghan's aggressive acquisitions has made him a villain to one-half of the Wright purists in the country and a bad joke to the other half. Hoffman of Kansas City dismisses his hoard as "that pizza collection." Indeed, Monaghan seems to be planning his museum complex the way one plans a pizza: pile lots of different ingredients together and hope that good taste is the result. The complex will display not only Wright objects but Monaghan's antique cars and memorabilia of the Detroit Tigers, an antique ball club which he also owns.
Monaghan makes an unconvincing villain, however. The current issue of Progressive Architecture magazine caught this ambiguity in a headline which reads, "Robin Hood or robber baron?" As a newcomer to the collecting business, Monaghan apparently is still educable. "His collection policy has changed in the last couple of years," explains Donald Hallmark, site manager of the Dana-Thomas House for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. "He's become more aware of the preservation movement."
Monaghan and his staff are assisting in the preparation of a traveling exhibit, "Frank Lloyd Wright: In the Realm of Ideas," which will tour the U.S. beginning in 1989 under the prestigious flag of the Smithsonian Institution. "A section of that exhibit will be devoted to the importance of saving such objects," Hallmarks says, "either in public collections or in their original houses." "Don't do as I do," will be the exhibit's lesson in short, "do what I say."
Among Monaghan's prizes is a hammered copper urn which once stood in Dana-Thomas House. There were two in the house originally, according to period photographs, one in the reception hall and another on a ledge in the gallery overlooking the library. They appeared separately at auction in 1984 and 1985 in New York; Monaghan bought one, and the other is believed to have ended up in the hands of a collector from Great Britain.
The robber barons
The propriety, indeed the morality, of selling off items from a publicly-owned house undergoing restoration is murky enough to trouble even Christie's. According to Hallmark, Christie's alerted the Dana-Thomas House staff to the impending sale of the pieces being offered this month. The auctioneers said that prices were expected to be "significant"—a term which may be translated as, "You won't be able to afford them"—and offered access to the pieces prior to the sale for photography and measuring, a privilege ordinarily not extended to private house owners or collectors.
Christie's critics would say that the house can afford to be magnanimous. In fact, considering the building controversy over the role of the auction house in stimulating the traffic in architectural artifacts, Christie's can't afford not to appear magnanimous. Wright specialists have complained that fastidious collectors who refuse to buy direct from owners of Wright houses resort to a face-saving charade in which the owners offer their pieces through Christie's instead. It would be incorrect to describe the auction house as a fence in such transactions—the material presumably is not stolen, and it is hardly a crime in the U.S. to peddle poor taste.
Wright houses are enormously expensive to maintain, and more than a few owners have been forced to put them up for sale simply because they could no [text missing]. For instance, the owner of the Willits House in Highland Park defaulted on his mortgage in 1983. These days such signs of financial distress attract auction agents, brokers, and museum buyers like sharks attracted by the vibrations of an injured fish. The unhappy fact is that Wright houses are worth more today dismembered than they are whole, a fact which distressed owners are doubtless reminded of. Hallmark treads carefully when he says of Christie's, "Let's say that they are overly involved in attempting to get objects from homes."
Consider the Dana-Thomas House. The state paid $1 million for the house and contents in 1981. Criticized at the time, the purchase may be the best investment (in terms of paper appreciation anyway) the state has ever stumbled into. In 1983, the 110 windows of the Willits House were ajudged to be worth $1 million alone, and today would probably command half again that much; the Dana-Thomas House has more than 200 windows. Assuming prices would not drop because of the sudden glut of supply, the windows alone would be worth two to three times what the state paid for the whole house if they were sold separately.
Wilbert Hasbrouck is the Chicago-based architect in charge of the $1.4 million restoration of the Dana-Thomas House now underway. "We're talking about having to spend as much as a half-million to get back a few little pieces," Hasbrouck says of the impending auction in New York, "when we have more than a hundred pieces already in the house generally of the same or superior quality. Of course, the pieces already in the house have no value in a sense, because they are never going to be sold. But these prices are a little bit frightening."
Museums, of course, are collectors too. Hoffman is not the only critic to suggest an unwholesome alliance between the big museums and the auction houses. The value of a designer's work is enhanced when it is given the imprimatur of one of the great museums, and by inflating the market value of objects made under his supervision such shows bring more such objects onto the market.
Museums such as the Met have defended their acquisition of pieces from Wright houses scheduled for demolition. Better such remnants be in a museum, available for study and viewing by the public, they argue, than be lost to both in a private collection. But what about fragments from buildings that are still standing? The Robie House, for example, still stands in Chicago's Hyde Park, under the distracted protection of the University of Chicago. But its dining table and chairs at the moment stand in the Musee' d'Orsay in Paris as part of an exhibit titled, "Chicago 1877-1922: Birth of a Metropolis," which was curated in part by the Art Institute.
To Wright purists—and there is no architectural partisan purer than a Wright purist, or less shy about proclaiming it—the only fitting museum for the display of Wright artifacts is the house each was designed to occupy. In his talk at the Art Institute Hoffman asked, "Could anything be more dismal than the Coonley Playhouse windows [taken from a 1908 Wright building in Riverside, Illinois] installed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art?" More recently, Hoffman expanded on the topic. "There isn't really any protection for architecture in this country," says Hoffman. U.S. law is eloquent in its support of citizens who wish to do whatever profit however they can from the use (including sale) of private property.
The problem thus is an ethical, not a legal one. And in most cases appealing to the conscience of most collectors is akin to prayer. But prayers are sometimes answered, or seem to be. A week before the auction it was revealed in The New York Times and confirmed by the principals involved that Monaghan might be prepared to play the white knight to the Dana-Thomas Foundation's damsel in distress. "Mr. Monaghan called us," Hallmark recalls. "He explained that he was aware of the restoration going on at the house. He said, basically, 'I'm not going to bid against you.' " With the biggest stakes player out of the bidding, the chances that the Foundation might be able to afford the top bid on at least one of the items presumably improve. But Monaghan reportedly also said that if the Foundation did not bid, he would. "He says he's going to buy them," Hallmark reports. Even better, "He said he would consider lending us any item which belongs in the building as long as the Dana-Thomas House is maintained as a public institution."
Extended loans of artifacts are commonplace arrangements between private collectors and public institutions. The collector enjoys the satisfaction (and publicity) of a public-spirited gesture while leaving security worries and dusting chores to the institution; the institution enjoys the use of the object without having to come up with the cash from straitened budgets to buy it. There have been conversations about the possibility of Monaghan making an extended loan of his Dana-Thomas House urn when it completes its tour with the Smithsonian exhibit; similar arrangements may someday be worked out between the Springfield house and the Met, when and if (as its present owner reportedly has promised) the second Dana-Thomas urn is donated to that museum.
Is this not then the perfect public-private partnership? Not quite, at least in the eyes of many curators. What is given can be taken back, for one thing just as what is owned privately can be sold privately. Like house owners, collectors sometimes confront financial pressures to sell off their holdings; as one worried Wrightian put it to Progressive Architecture about Monaghan, what if the pizza market crashes?
The money moochers
The task of coming up with the ready money to bid with at Christie's fell to the Dana-Thomas House Foundation. There is no money from the State of Illinois budget available for such purchases. The bidding which will be done on behalf of the Dana-Thomas House on the twelfth (if any) will be done by the Foundation, not the Historical Preservation Agency.
The Foundation quickly established a special fund when the Dana-Thomas pieces came on the market, to be filled by donations. Mass mailings have been made in solicitation, and the Foundation has tacked notices on such trees as the Wall Street Journal.
But the most effective money-raising device has been a telephone with a wealthy Wright lover on one end and a persuasive governor on the other. As of December 10, the Foundation's kitty bulged with $370,000, most of it collected as a result of Governor Thompson's personal solicitations.
Indeed, if his schedule permits, the governor hopes to be at Christie's to bid on the Foundation's behalf. Mr. Thompson loves auctions (perhaps because they remind him of General Assembly sessions). As for his taste in antique furnishings, let us say merely that there are termites who love old wood less than does Illinois ' chief executive.
The goal of the Foundation's fund-raising efforts is $500,000, but the actual number of dollars matters less than what they buy. "We would like to be successful in getting at least one item back to the house," explains the Foundation's Margaret Van Meter. "We just want a chance." Van Meter adds that they are hoping for a miracle. "We have not issued a call from the Foundation nationwide asking collectors not to bid," says Hallmark, 'but frankly that is what we hope will happen."
Whatever happens on the auction of December 12, the Foundation will continue to seek donations. It is assumed that others of the Dana-Thomas artifacts not yet in the house will also surface on the auction block. Of the December 12 sale, Hallmark says, "we will go if we have enough money. If not, we are not despairing, because we know these other items will go on sale eventually."
The "private collector"
The fact that there were any Dana-Thomas House artifacts available to auction came as a surprise to a public which has understood that the house and contents were essentially intact (except for some carpets and draperies) when the state bought it for them in 1981. No other Wright house boasted a collection so intact, credit for which must go to the careful stewardship of the Charles C Thomas Publishing Co., which owned and occupied the house from its purchase at an estate sale in 1943 until its sale to the state in 1981.
While comprehensive, the collection was not complete. At the time of the sale it had been assumed that the purchase would include all the Dana-Thomas House pieces extant; incredibly, state authorities did not inventory the house's contents until after its purchase. The original contents of the house have since been surveyed using period photographs and other documents; roughly 90 percent of those contents are now thought to have been present when the state took possession. "There are a few important pieces that we know are missing," says Hallmark. "There are at least a handful—from two to six perhaps—more Frank Lloyd Wright chairs, although we have not been able to document them." Hallmark also lists a desk which was "very likely" of Wright's design and a few small items designed by Wright for the library at the Lawrence School in Springfield and which were later moved to the house.
And of course the six items on sale at Christie's. Although Foundation and House officials have been careful to not publicly divulge the name of the "private collector" listed in the auction catalog as the source of the items, it is an open secret around Springfield that he is Payne Thomas, heir to its previous owner, Charles C Thomas.
The decision to sell such objects is understandable in light of the prices they command, the more so when one considers how often the motive is need rather than greed. It should be pointed out that even the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation archivist and heir to Wright's designs, made a controversial decision in 1985 to put up 100 Wright drawings for sale at auction, using the proceeds to maintain the master's late complex at Taliesin West in Arizona
and upgrade the storage and organization of the remaining Wright archive.
The urge to buy such treasures, however, is less justifiable in the opinion of many critics. Collectors have been the despair of archaeologists, architects, and historians for centuries. The removal of a Wright table lamp from its architectural context has tragic precedent in the removal of funary objects from Egyptian tombs by robbers who found eager buyers in collectors, and the wholesale export in the last century to European museums of Mediterranean ancient sculpture.
Donald Hoffman is hardly the only critic who finds such collecting repugnant. (Indeed, the sumptuous pages of the Christie's catalog represent a form of genteel pornography.) He calls it "self-aggrandizement by getting possession of somebody else's work," a kind of creativity by proxy. "It's particularly unfortunate in the case of the Dana-Thomas House because the detail of the house is so thorough and so important to the experience of the house as a whole," he adds.
Authentic or accurate?
There are more than two sides to this story, of course. "I have mixed emotions about selling architectural artifacts," confesses Wilbert Hasbrouck. "I suppose I'm guilty of it. I have a substantial collection of Frank Lloyd Wright furniture in my home and office which I began about twenty-five years ago, when some of this stuff was literally being thrown away."
Collecting under such circumstances could be called salvage, of course. But what about pieces which are not threatened with destruction, merely dislocation? Speaking of the items being offered by Christie's Hasbrouck says, "If we can get the furniture back, I think that's wonderful. Take that little liquor cabinet. It's a unique piece that filled a particular spot in the house. It should be returned."
Interestingly, Hasbrouck puts a higher value on the three drawings which are on the block, including the final presentation drawing of the house done in pencil, ink, and wash estimated to be worth $70,000-$90,000. "The drawings are extremely important," he says, "because they can't really be reproduced. Architecture is realized through the medium of drawing, and these are superb examples."
The distinction is crucial. "Wright was no craftsman," Hasbrouch explains. "He didn't make these pieces. When we buy one of his pieces, we're really buying the design, not the wood." Hasbrouck offers a hypothetical test of the definition: Say Wright designed a chair in 1900, and commissioned a craftsman to make it. Say that craftsman made a second chair the next year, using the same plan and materials. Say that he made one such chair every year for each of the next fifty years. "At what point do those chairs cease to be 'original'?"
Virtue is seldom so easily reproducible. "Maybe that's the ultimate solution," Hasbrouck says. "Make reproductions of the same quality and character, and perhaps the market for originals will go away." The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, the architect's artistic heir, has licensed a handful of manufacturers to make and sell authorized versions of Wright designs in the form of fabrics, furniture, even (from Tiffany & Co.) salt and pepper shakers. Thomas Monaghan reportedly gives his permission to homeowners to measure pieces for reproduction subject to a condition which seems to confirm Hasbrouck's estimation of the potential impact of quality copies on the market value of Wright originals: Homeowners reportedly must agree to reproduce only the number of items which were in their houses originally and not one copy more.
And the Dana-Thomas House? Hasbrouck says, "If we can't get those pieces back, I have no objection as the restoration architect to reproducing them." Manager and designer seem to disagree on this key point. Hallmark candidly admits about the missing pieces, "We can probably get by without them. But we would enhance our reputation if we were able to show 95 to 98 percent of the original furnishings and not have to resort to reproductions."
The choice of originals over copies in the Springfield house depends on whether one seeks to reproduce an artifact or an aura, whether one wants visitors to experience the way the house looked, or to experience that mystical communion with objects which actually were used, whether in the end one wants to restore Frank Lloyd Wright's house or Susan Lawrence Dana's.
A successful outing by the Dana-Thomas Foundation's agents or, barring that, the intervention of an angel like Thomas Monaghan will settle the immediate fate of the six disputed objects being sold. As to the wider controversies about the buying and selling of architectural details as collectible objects, there seems little hope for remedy beyond the good will of the people and institutions involved. And that is always in short supply, even on Park Avenue at Christmastime. □