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A More Complicated Experience

Furnishing Springfield's Dana-Thomas House

Chicago Times

March-April 1990

This lengthy original about the mania for collecting Wright objects was divvied into three chunks for publication, each titled separately, and fit into an lavish layout with wonderful photos and drawings of the man’s work that, I regret, I cannot reproduce here. The other two parts of the text are here and here.

I first addressed the topic in a this major feature for Illinois Times in 1987.


Finished in 1904, Springfield's Dana-Thomas house was designed for an eccentric widow, Susan Lawrence Dana, who used it as a setting for elaborate entertainments. An early house, it is one of Frank Lloyd Wright's less subtle Prairie designs, in many respects because it reflects the client as much as its architect. It remains a site of looming importance, nonetheless, because its trove of furniture and art glass has, alone among the early houses, survived virtually intact.


In 1943, the Dana-Thomas house and its contents were offered at an estate auction; assessed at a mere $5,000, the furnishings were disdained by the locals, and only a few pieces were sold. Eventually they and the house were bought by the publishing firm Charles C Thomas, which sold it to the state of Illinois in 1981—with Governor James R. Thompson lobbying in favor of the purchase—for the soon-to-be-low price of $1 million. The state's budget for the full restoration of the house included no money for the purchase of its wayward furniture; that job was left to the private, not-for-profit Dana-Thomas House Foundation.


Remarkably, most of the house's furnishings (including 250 pieces of art glass, murals, and 204 light fixtures) were still in it when it passed into public ownership. Among the missing pieces was a hammered copper urn probably made by Chicago sheet-metal artisan James A. Miller, which will be among the items from the Domino's Pizza Collection that will be on display at the Chicago Historical Society this spring. Millionaire Wright collector Tom Monaghan acquired the piece in 1985, before the state had undertaken its restoration in earnest. Consistent with collecting guidelines later adopted by the curators of the Domino's Collection, Monaghan has promised to make the urn available to the Dana-Thomas house, possibly on loan, when the house reopens after its recent restoration.


In December 1987, a small cabinet and an exquisite single-pedestal table lamp from the house were put up for sale at Christie's, the Park Avenue auction house. Christie's put the reserve price of the two pieces at $240,000, but actual bids at Wright sales were then coming in at two, even three times the reserve prices. Monaghan would explain later that he knew the lamp and the cabinet were worth at least $900,000, because that's how much he was willing to pay for them.


The foundation hurriedly passed the hat for donations with which it might join the bidding at Christie's; the hat came back with barely enough in it for the cab ride from the airport to Christie's Park Avenue salon. Then Governor Thompson got on the telephone. After just two days, Thompson had gathered $435,000 in donations from the likes of Nelson Peltz (chairman of the company that owns National Can), Lester Crown, Jay Pritzger, and others.


Eventually, Thompson got donations and pledges worth more than $1 million. But as auction day approached there were worries that even a million wouldn't be enough. Rumors were about that the Japanese might enter the bidding, hoping to acquire work by a master who had been inspired as much by Tokyo as by Topeka. Before the auction, concerned lest it be accused of restraining trade, the foundation issued a press release carefully worded to let the Wright world know that the foundation hoped to acquire objects for the restoration of the house, while avoiding the appearance of discouraging competing bids.


"I certainly planned to buy [the cabinet and lamp]," Monaghan said later. But on auction day, he did not bid; as the New York Times put it, it was "Alphonse and Gaston all the way" between the pizza king and the governor. Thompson, bidding personally on behalf of the Dana-Thomas House Foundation, picked up the coveted lamp and cabinet at the bargain price of $190,000. Scott Elliott of Kelmscott Gallery was there, and later described the reaction of the crowd to the price as a "dumbfounded silence."


The foundation soon learned that such bargains are hard to come by. In June 1988, a double-pedestal lamp that once shone in the Robie house was sold at Christie's to a New Yorker for $704,000. Its mate from the Dana-Thomas house was withdrawn by the consignor, however, presumably to avoid an encore of the Tom-and-Jim show. The lamp was offered instead through a private treaty sale, for the same price as the Robie house version. Dana-Thomas curatorial staff denounced the price publicly as "outrageous," but the foundation agreed to pay it anyway, in installments.


More recently, the mate to the single-pedestal lamp sold in December 1987 was put up for sale. Alas, the nest egg gathered by Governor Thompson had been spent; the foundation even had to float a small loan in order to pay the last installment on the $704,000 it already owed Christie's. When the second single-pedestal lamp went under the hammer in New York in June 1989, the foundation did not even bid, and the treasure was lost to a New York art dealer for $330,000. Similarly, the owners of two sets of chairs and three tables from the house are amenable to a sale, but the money is not there.

The reopened house thus will include a vacant space here and there that may disappoint purists, but for most people a tour of even a nearly furnished Wright Prairie house will be a revelation. Most preserved Prairie houses are rather bare; the restored Dana-Thomas house promises to be a more crowded and complicated experience, and the difference may change the way we think about Wright.


The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency hopes to reopen the Dana-Thomas house this fall after a three-year restoration. The house will probably be open seven days a week, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day, beginning in September. Admission will be free. The house is located at Fourth and Lawrence in downtown Springfield. ●

The other parts of this article are here and here.




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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