An architect fulfills his dream at the expense of his client and Frank Lloyd Wright was no stranger to this liberty. He was known for his lavish designs that would surely surpass the proposed budget.

The story of the Dana Thomas House began with its client, Mrs. Susan Lawrence Dana. She was very much a woman of her time; actively involved in politics, culture, and a leading philanthropic figure. After the death of her husband and father, Dana had inherited the family fortune and was determined to refurbish the house as a memorial to her family and as a center for culture and society.

 

Dana Thomas House by Frank Lloyd Wright: A Prairie School Style House - Sheet1
Front View ©historicplacesphotography.com
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View ©Mark David Major
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Susan Lawrence Dana © Doug Carr

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After thorough research, around the year 1902, Dana commissioned F.L Wright to remodel Lawrence’s Italianate mansion and blessed him with a limitless budget. This project was very different from Wright’s usual projects as it started with an existing house. Wright designed the house in a Prairie School Style and elaborately worked it out in detail. Evidently why this project was more than a remodel and why it is recognized to date.

Usually, Frank hid the entry to his homes with a wall but for the Dana Thomas house, the entry was imposed with grand welcoming archways and had butterfly glass designs. This suited the purpose of the house and made it stand-out from the monotonous rows in Springfield, Illinois. At the entrance was a sculpture by Richard Bock. The statue is named “Flower in the Crannied Wall” and is based on a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. 

 

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Richard Bock’s Sculpture ©www.oldhouses.com/images/lst/000/97/XL_flower-in-the-crannied-wall.jpg

The Dana Thomas House is two-storied and Frank constructed 16 levels that were incorporated to emphasize spaces like the dining room, the party room, and the master bedroom. He was a dramatic designer, the main rooms were framed at the entrance, like creating a stage on which space’s functions are portrayed. The bathrooms were bigger than the standards of those times and probably had the first walk-in showers.

The concept of the house was the butterfly and sumac plants found in the Prairie. Frank introduced these elements very beautifully in the interiors of each room. Out of the six fireplaces, one originally belonged to the Lawrence House. It is found in the parlor, still in its Victorian style, and has butterfly prints on it which are believed to be very dear to Mrs. Susan Dana. 

Frank had designed all the furniture, a total of 105 pieces. Most of the tables, the dining table, and coffee tables had wings that could be opened when needed. All the major furniture was built-in and Frank installed cantilevered benches.

This was the first house in Springfield that was designed for electricity and though the lighting seems dull now, during a period of kerosene lamps, the Dana Thomas house was one of the brightest. The lamps, which were also Frank’s work, had the butterfly concept and prairie style. There were smaller lamps in each room that provided faint light that Frank called ‘Fireflies’. 

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Chandelier ©www.oldhouses.com/images/lst/000/97/XL_prairie-style-chandelier.jpg

The house has a long hallway that seems to trail its whole length, 35 rooms, and covers an area of 12,600 square feet. All of the artifacts, furniture, and glass windows of the original Dana-Thomas House was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Materials used were roman bricks, stained concrete, plaster frieze, and copper fascia on the exterior and wood (oak) elements on the inside.

Steel beams covered by wood ran in the reception hall, Wright placed them to create a sense of no gravity. He also contrasted each space by theming some dark and light, of lower levels and higher levels. 

An interesting space is the inglenook, an intimate area near a very public area, that Frank created at the fireplace near the dining room. Frank placed an amber-tinted glass over the fireplace, that even if no fire is lit, light originating from there looks like it’s from a fire. The centrally located fireplace because he saw it as the heart of the house. 

The dining room was quite stimulating. Wright allowed the users to relive an outdoor dining experience, a sense of eating under a tree. This was accomplished with indirect lighting and skylights at both ends of the room. 

Another fascinating room and the first of the kind were the ‘man-cave’ Frank created to entertain Dana’s male guests. It had a private bowling alley and a billiards board. It also accommodated Mrs. Dana’s walk-in safe, also designed by Frank.

In the Dana Thomas House, Wright installed two, barrel roofs, one in the dining area and one in the party room. The party room also had a balcony for musicians and print tables to showcase artwork instead of hanging them onto the walls.

 

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Party Room

©prairieschoolarchitecture.tumblr.com/post/75211923496/frank-lloyd-wright-susan-lawrence-dana-house

The master bedroom is on the eastern elevation to catch the morning sun, it has a cathedral vaulted ceiling. It has a built-in dressing table, bureau and wardrobes, and a wall of glass with sumac prints that replicated dragonflies. Other spaces included a gallery, conservatory, two porches, and a courtyard. The house was enclosed by high brick walls.

 

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Master Bedroom ©dana-thomas.org/

 

After three years, in the year 1904, the remodelling was done. Over the years the owners were transferred and eventually in 1981, the state of Illinois purchased the house and restored it to a historic site.

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First Floor plan ©i.pinimg.com/
Dana Thomas House by Frank Lloyd Wright: A Prairie School Style House - Sheet10
Second Floor plan ©i.pinimg.com/

The Dana-Thomas house was a project of many firsts for Wright. He used the opportunity to experiment with many techniques some of which he would use again in his future project and few we can see only in this historic site. All of Frank Lloyd’s works define ‘the role of an architect is to create a space’ and this project was a testament.

Abigail R. Kurian
Author

While keeping to her roots, Abigail likes to venture unconventional paths. Exploring a designer's journey of concept making excites her anyday. While pursuing architecture she invests time in photography and music. She believes when designing, sustainability is a prerequisite along with adapting aesthetics.

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