The Susan Lawrence Dana House

Frank Lloyd Wright's Important Early Commission

The Susan L. Dana House (Dana-Thomas House) Ⓒ Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

One of earliest and largest private residences ever designed by Wright, the Susan Lawrence Dana House is famously dubbed the “blank check” commission where Wright was allowed unlimited funds and resources to create a Prairie School masterpiece for the influential Mrs. Dana of Springfield, Illinois.

Susan “Susie” Lawrence was a socialite from a wealthy and well-connected family. Upon marrying Edwin Ward Dana in 1883, the couple moved to Minnesota and then to Oregon, following Edwin Dana’s business pursuits. Shortly thereafter, Dana’s life took a turn for the worse; after losing her two children in their infancy, her husband died in a tragic mining accident in 1900 and finally, her loving and supportive father R.D. Lawrence passed away a year later. Now an heiress and a widow, Susan Dana was determined to reclaim her prominent status as an independent woman in the small community of Springfield.

In 1902, Dana approached Wright, who had been garnering positive attention in the art and architectural circles of Chicago with his innovative work and commanding personality. Dana wanted Wright to remodel the existing family home situated at the center of downtown Springfield. Scale-wise, it was the largest commission he had received up to that point.

Drawing of the Dining Room, the Susan L. Dana House by Frank Lloyd Wright

After studying the space and laying out his plans over the next year, Wright decided the original home, an Italianate villa with random additions attached, was to be incorporated into a new house. One of the highlights of this complete overhaul project was the new dining room. With a twenty-foot high vaulted ceiling, a long dining table and seating for up to forty people, the dining room was certainly suited for large gatherings and entertainment that Dana planned to have. This room also featured various natural motifs commonly found in the prairie such as sumac, golden rod, purple aster, maple leaves, and butterflies. The floral motifs decorated the walls and windows while the butterflies were manifested in the form of hanging light fixtures, creating a visual illusion of butterflies flying among flowers.

Dining Room, the Susan L. Dana House, c. 1990 Ⓒ Donald Hoffmann

Dana led a successful social life at the residence until the late 1920s before she became reclusive and moved out from the main house. Charles C. Thomas and his wife became the new owners/caretakers of the house in 1944, until his passing in 1969 and hers in 1975. The house was subsequently purchased by the state of Illinois and was designated a state historic site, with complete restoration work being done in the late 1980s. During this time, most of the furniture remaining at the house was refinished. The present lot comes from this important commission and has remained in a private collection (and thence by descent) for more than half a century, retaining its original finish.

A good plan is the beginning and the end, because every good plan is organic.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright

During his seventy year career as an architect, Frank Lloyd Wright created more than 1,100 designs, half of which were realized and a large portion of which came about later in his life. Wright was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin in 1867. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in 1885 to study civil engineering, completing only two years of the program. After working for Joseph Silsbee on the construction of the Unity Chapel in Oak Park, Illinois Wright decided to pursue a career in architecture and he moved to Chicago where he began an apprenticeship at the famed architectural firm Adler and Sullivan, working directly with Louis Sullivan until 1893.

After parting ways, Wright moved to Oak Park. Working from his home studio, he developed a system of design developed from grid units and rooted in an appreciation of natural materials that would come to be known as the Prairie School of Architecture and would change the landscape of American design forever. Wright devoted himself to teaching and writing during the 1920s and 1930s. 1935 marked the beginning of an immense surge of creativity and productivity as he began work on his most celebrated residential design, Fallingwater. In the 1940s and 1950s Wright focused on his Usonian designs that reflected his belief in democratic architecture, offering middle-class residential options. In 1943, Wright took on his most demanding commission, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The museum, which would open its doors six months after his death in 1959, would be called his most significant work.

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