The Dana House
An early Frank Lloyd Wright house is up for sale
March 6, 1981
The Springfield house that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Susan Lawrence Dana came up for sale in 1981. Happily for lovers of architecture, an antiques lover then sat in the governor’s office, and eventually the property was purchased and thus saved by the State of Illinois. I also wrote about the house here, here, here, and here.
Everybody in Springfield knows the place, although they can't agree on what to call it. Some call it the Dana House. Others call it the Bannerstone House, or the Lawrence House, or the Dana-Thomas House. Its style is equally confusing; it has been compared to everything from Japanese pagodas to Spanish villas.
"It" is the house built at Fourth and Lawrence in 1904, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, paid for by celebrated socialite Susan Lawrence Dana, entered on the National Register of historic places in 1976. At once extravagant, eccentric, and elegant, the house has served as the offices of Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, since Thomas bought it in 1944. In January, the Thomas firm announced that the Dana House is up for sale.
Though it has stood in Springfield for seventy-seven years, very few people in the capital know the house well. It has almost never been opened to public tours. Whereas there are Wright students abroad who know it well enough to (as one Springfield man put it) "sit down and draw it for you," Springfield knows only what it has learned through surreptitious peeks into doorways.
Lacking evidence to the contrary, most people probably assume its interior to be basically an out-sized ranch house. They couldn't be more wrong. At least fifteen floor levels. A two-story vaulted dining room capable of seating forty. Original friezes. A gallery with an altar-like stage. A bowling lane. Even the furniture and fixtures, no less than the rooms, were designed by Wright. It is in many ways not a house but a stage set.
Its significance as an example of the master's early work is acknowledged. When it was open for a one-day tour some years ago, people drove all the way from Chicago to see it. Though details are lacking, there are reports that early inquiries about the sale of the house have come from across the country.
All of which makes even the suggestion of its loss disturbing. Local preservationists reacted to news of its impending sale as if they'd been told that a dear relative has cancer; a cure may be possible, they told themselves, but it wouldn't be wise to get one's hopes up, just in case. The list of notable Springfield houses that have succumbed to parking lot pavers, condo converters, and quick-fix apartment renters is pretty long. The Cullom and Logan-Hay mansions are two that come to mind—lesser properties than this one to be sure, but then the gifted die of disease just like everybody else.
There is encouragement in the fact that the house has survived ruin once before. When Thomas bought it in 1944, it had stood empty for sixteen years. When its owner had died in 1942 her estate was sold to pay her debts, and according to an account published by Thomas in 1970, "Had the property not been sold . . . the house would have been razed and lost to the architecture of our time."
The house was substantially intact, inside and out. There was some damage, of course. Originally the mortar between the exterior bricks had been "raked," or deeply inset, which created running shadows that accentuated the horizontal lines of the house. But Springfield's air was filthy with coal smoke. Dilute sulfuric acid that washed out of the sky with each rain had eaten away the original mortar, and workmen could not duplicate the effect.
Charles C. Thomas took pains (and pride) in maintaining the house. But he died some years ago, and since then his meticulous example has not always been followed. An aluminum chain-link fence was installed to deter the curious, for example. The fence appalled many locals, not because they thought a fence was unjustified but because this particular one was so vulgar. A more grievous sin against Wright's conception was committed more recently, when the jade-colored ceramic friezes that ringed the upper level of the exterior were ripped down and thrown away and replaced with white plaster. Even a chain-link fence can't protect a house when the vandals are on the inside.
Naturally the setting of the house has changed too. A three-story apartment building now crowds the house on the north. The state complex has expanded until it now is only three blocks away. Lawrence Avenue is a major arterial street. The YMCA, the bumptious kid up the block, is rumored to be considering tearing down fine residential buildings across Fourth Street from the house and use the space for parking lot expansion—a move which would detract not only from the value of the Dana House but from the value of the neighborhood and the Y's reputation as well.
Springfield preservationists share a common nightmare. In their dreams, they can see the house being sold to one of those landlords who figure so prominently in the dreams of paneling salesmen. Like the well-known local physician-landlord who bought the city's best surviving example of French Revival house design and converted it into apartments by (among other things) building a new stairway that runs diagonally across a ground floor window. Being torn down for parking is in some ways only the second worst fate that could befall the Dana House; the worst would be for it to be outfitted with a mansard roof with shake shingles and shag carpeting and re-emerge as "The Danafield Apts."
What are the alternatives to that gruesome end? It seems doubtful that even in the age of Reaganomics anyone in Springfield could afford to use it as a private home. Condominium conversion is a possibility, except that it would be difficult to get anyone in Springfield who could afford a condo to move into the 62703 Zip Code area; besides, it would do disastrous damage to the interior. Professional offices are perhaps the most congenial option, but there are others. A Wright house in Wisconsin has been converted into a conference center, and one in Kankakee has been reborn as a restaurant. There are reports of inquiries from corporations and foundations too. (The Broadwell's Building on Springfield's square, recall, was bought and refurbished by two Chicagoans.) If worse came to worst, the owners could always sell it to the State of Illinois; I hear the Department of Administrative Services may be in the market for a place convenient to the capitol where Gov. Thompson's new cabinet might warehouse hairspray.
If such an angel doesn't appear, however, what then? One possibility that surfaces in conversations with Springfield partisans is a not-for-profit association formed expressly to buy and maintain the property as a community trust. It is a common ruse; in Springfield, similar groups own the home of poet Vachel Lindsay and the fine old Lincoln-era Edwards Place.
There would seem to be plenty of support for such a group. When SSU professor Mark Heyman gave a series of lectures on Wright last year, the auditorium was packed. Enthusiasm for this particular Wright work has cropped up in the damnedest places. On February 18, the board of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce voted to have a committee confer with the Thomas firm to (quoting the State Journal-Register) "ensure the house will not be sold to a commercial interest." Oh, irony! A chamber of commerce worrying about commercial interests! It is almost worth putting the Dana House at risk to hear these worthies admit that the only enemy of fine architecture in this town more pernicious than its businesspeople is termites.
If we are lucky, such a community rescue effort will not be necessary. It is too early to say. One quickly learns to distrust optimism when it comes to preservation. But the Dana House has managed to survive nearly eight decades, the death and bankruptcy of its builders, bad air, and its conversion into offices. Barring earthquakes and state government, perhaps it will survive again. ●