A More Complicated Experience
Furnishing Springfield's Dana-Thomas House
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. ●