Following Frank: The Emil Bach House
It’s easy to be swept up in Frank Lloyd Wright’s grand designs, especially when you first discover his work. Once you begin to dig deeper, though, you begin to appreciate the finer aspects of each site, especially his home designs. There are many details that, once you see them in a Wright house, seem conspicuously absent from modern living spaces. Sometimes, you need to takes a step away from the FLW signature sites to really notice these things. Wright’s Emil Bach house provides just such an opportunity.
Once you learn the story of the Emil Bach house, you instantly begin to imagine it as it was in 1915. Located north of downtown in Rogers Park, the house is a very short distance from the Lake Michigan shoreline. This isn’t immediately apparent, however, because many larger buildings have grown up around the house since its construction, almost completely blocking any view of the azure blue water from the property. At the time it was built, it would have had a clear view to the beach and beyond.
It would be easy to drive past the house, if you weren’t paying attention. The larger buildings on either side, combined with the large tree in the front yard, help to obscure the modest-sized structure until you are almost directly in front of it. While this situation is not optimal (and certainly not what Wright and the original owner intended), it does make the property feel a bit like a time capsule, just barely holding back the encroachment of the modern world.
Like with all Wright houses, it is perfectly tailored to its lot. The use of space makes both house and property seem much larger than they actually are. The leftward offset of the house (as when viewed from the street) leaves a wide section of the yard open. Had the house been centered on the property, it would feel much less open. The offset also allows Wright to guide you into the house, leading you in along one of two routes.
Wright’s design also takes full advantage of the lot’s gentle front-to-back rise in elevation with the incorporation of terracing and a stepped approach to the entry. The house itself even steps up the bank, the front facade extending well below the level of the first floor. This design allows for low planter boxes, which are mirrored on the second story. Anyone familiar with Wright’s Prairie designs will know that this is a common feature of those houses.
The Emil Bach house is obviously of the Prairie style. The cross shape of the floor plan instantly gives that away. One of the things I most love about this house in the horizontal banding that extends around the entire structure, minimizing its vertical appearance. The banding is also used to add dimension to the structure. On inside corners, the banding forms boxes that create pergola-like elements. Looking at photos of the house from different times of day, these additions create interesting patterns on the side of the house, as the sun moves across the sky. Whether that effect was intended, in this instance, is hard to say. It is certainly an aspect that Wright incorporated into other designs, though.
There are two ways to enter the house, both carefully crafted by the designer. After walking up the steps along the left side, there is a brick extension from the house that creates a gate. After stepping through this small passage, you have completed a cycle of “compression and release,” as the small space opens into the back yard. I can only imagine how dramatic this experience must have been when Lake Michigan was still visible from this vantage point. Here, there is an entry to the house, however, it is not the main door. Instead there is a porch that allows back entry, more or less, directly into the kitchen...a fancy service entrance.
The main entrance is actually located on the other side of the house. Guest would enter through a gate, roughly in the middle of the property, and continue up a path toward the right side of the house. Steps take a circuitous route, up and around the terraced landscape, where you are greeted by a brick and wood wall that steers you toward the entry door, tucked into the back corner of the house. The wall itself is beautiful, continuing the square geometric motif of the house exterior. To my eye, it certainly appeared to have an Eastern influence.
As on the other side of the house, you are funneled along your route and made to feel that you have truly “arrived.” After stepping through the house door, you are “compressed” into a small foyer, before being “released” into the open floor plan of the downstairs. The brickwork continues into the core of the house and is complemented with plaster and simple hardwood trim and built-ins. Just as on the exterior, the trim forms a band that wraps around the entirety of the downstairs.
The interior of the Emil Bach house is a testament to Wright’s uncanny knack for space design. Although less than 2000 square feet, the house feels much larger. Downstairs, this is, at least in part, due to the open floor plan. Upstairs, though, no space is wasted as Wright carves out a bathroom, servant’s quarters and three nicely-sized bedrooms, each with built-in storage, large windows, and even a personal balcony. Despite splitting the second story into so many rooms, it doesn’t feel awkward or confined.
When not serving as a tourist attraction, the house becomes a vacation and event rental, allowing Frank Lloyd Wright fans a chance to briefly experience what it is like to live in one of his creations. This mean that the kitchen has been modernized, as have other household amenities. Modern art adorns many of the rooms in the house, some of which I liked and thought complemented the space. By far, though, my favorite feature of the house was the large built-in table that extends across the west side of the fireplace to create a dining table on the kitchen side and a desk with storage on the other.
With some qualifications, I might say that the Emil Bach house is my favorite of Wright’s pre-Usonian residential commissions. I've long been a fan of the Prairie style, as it combines some of my favorite elements of Arts & Crafts with open, modern floor plans and architectural design. Emil Bach is a near-perfect encapsulation of that aesthetic. It is part futuristic spaceship and part cozy country home. It also offers small hints at Usonian designs of the future, such as the wooden panels at the base of the stairway and banding to emphasize the horizontal dimension.
Much like Fallingwater, it is clear that Wright wanted to encourage residents and guest outdoors, as much as possible. There are ample opportunities for the occupants to step out into nature. I can only imagine what it must have been like in 1915. Even without a view of the lake, though, it is still a beautiful house and property. I think often of my brief visit to Rogers Park and the Emil Bach house.