The state is a poor host at the Dana-Thomas House
The State of Illinois acquired an architectural masterwork when it bought Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana-Thomas House for cheap.
Sadly, in recent years the property has been managed as if it was a Department of Transportation garage. Understaffed and ill-maintained, it offers hopeful visitors an indifferent experience.
I admit that I get cranky when I get cold. I had donned my new argyles for a day-after-Christmas tour of the newly renovated Dana-Thomas House. My choice of socks was sartorially correct but a disaster in terms of comfort. Because of the crush of curious visitors, the house was limiting visitors to what had been called half-hour holiday tours, by which I assumed they meant rushed and superficial. Visitors who dropped by just after the start of one tour, as we did, thus faced a wait of as much as 29 minutes before the next one got underway.
A minor inconvenience, usually. Unfortunately the waiting area set aside in the backyard carriage house was woefully under-heated. We took refuge with our fellow sufferers in the adjoining gift "shoppe," which was a little warmer, possibly because of friction heat generated as credit cards were pulled in and out of wallets. Indeed, a more cynical man might have concluded that the Arctic temperatures in the waiting room were deliberate, a vile trick to drive customers into closer proximity with the merchandise.
The new management of the house may have stinted on their guests' creature comforts, but no effort was spared to cater to our need for external validation of our visit. I could not see clearly—my eyeglasses kept fogging up—but I recognized Dana-Thomas House golf shirts and Dana-Thomas House refrigerator magnets as well as the usual mugs and posters and T-shirts and prints and guidebooks, all bearing the handsome sumac tree motif adopted by the Office of Historic Preservation as a logo. I would have shelled out $50 for a Dana-Thomas House space heater, but none was available—a rare failure to anticipate a market.
Being obliged to wait in a space in which waiting was made so unpleasant left me hot enough under the collar, but my anger alas did not reach as far as my toes. Having made a tour of the knick-knacks I killed time reflecting unflatteringly on the priorities of our public servants. The late Gov. Thompson, I recalled, had raised nearly half a million bucks to buy a single table lamp for the house; I wondered why he couldn't have twisted a Pritzker arm or two harder enough to get the twenty bucks it would taken to weatherstrip the carriage house doors.
My eye strayed to the schedule for docents on a desk. Restoring and running the Dana-Thomas House has required the services of dozens of volunteers, who raise money (chiefly for furniture acquisitions), guide tours, and run the book shop. Had it been necessary to staff such an ambitious enterprise solely from the ranks of Springfield's architecture buffs the Dana‑Thomas House would still be a shuttered ruin. Their ranks have been swelled, happily, by recruits from Springfield's social elite.
This would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Upper‑crust Springfield has always embraced the city's more creative personalities retroactively. Looking at the reproduction of one of Wright's pedestal lamps that one may purchase through the gift shop, I reflected that if Springfield had been alert to the genius of Wright in 1943 there wouldn't be nearly so much of the Dana-Thomas House to explain, since its furniture and fittings would have been snapped up for a song at Dana's estate auction that year instead of being disdained as so much junk.
Today, the house is a sort of playpen for many under‑employed women of the upper middle class. The ideal Dana-Thomas House volunteer possesses an expensively educated mind that hasn't enough to occupy it. Susan Lawrence, who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build the house at the turn of the century, was just such a woman. Like so many eager house volunteers, she was a society matron with social ties to the state's Republican powerful who energetically devoted herself to Art and amateur causes. To them, the house is a monument not only to Wright's genius—indeed, to hear some of the docents' versions, it isn't even that—but to the pleasures of inherited wealth, a reminder that whatever culture graces Springfield's dingy streets is the gift of the city's Susan Lawrence Danas.
Nothing betrays the sense of kinship, the almost familial affection that many of the house volunteers feel toward its long-deceased proprietress like their habit of referring to her by her first name. The rest of the world may think of the wondrous pile at Fourth and Lawrence as a Wright work but the locals know it as "Susan's house." To unregenerate feminists, such familiarity is presumptuous, even condescending in its confirmation of a double standard; it is impossible to imagine a docent at Wright's home and studio in Oak Park referring to the architect as "Frank."
Reputations as well as walls have been reconstructed at the Dana Thomas House. The evidence suggests that its famous hostess was a bit of a loony. Much is made today of her courage in commissioning such an eccentric house, but she was no more prescient about architecture than she was about astrology or spiritualism. Her choice of Wright was unconventional but radical only by Springfield's constipated standards; he had by then already built some 60 houses, mostly for Midwestern businessmen; it is possible that Dana first came across his work in a copy of that dangerous rag, Ladies Home Journal.
Historian Richard S. Taylor has argued eloquently that Dana was a protofeminist. I accept his description of her life as a woman as ambivalent and painful, but there is nothing to suggest that she ever envisioned liberation for any but her own social class. As for her many posthumous defenders, I would say only that Springfield has always had a hard time distinguishing between the principled person and the crank.
I mused grumpily that it ought to be possible to celebrate Wright's artistic achievement at the Dana-Thomas House without celebrating the values of the woman who paid for it. But as I shuffled into line as my tour group gathered at last, it occurred to me that some of Susan Dana's values deserve to be honored after all. Accomplished hostess that she was, she never would have asked her guests to stand in an unheated vestibule for half an hour without offering them at least a hot chocolate. ●