Chi Lives: faking Mr. Wright | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Chi Lives: faking Mr. Wright 

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Picture yourself in an Oak Park living room, a living room remarkable for its numerous oak window seats and leaded glass windows. The focal point of the room is a fireplace set in an inglenook, with seats on either side of the hearth for a private place to chat. The fireplace is built of long, dark Roman bricks to accentuate the unbroken horizontal lines its owner, a legendary architect, loved. In the oaken panel above the mantel are carved the words "Life Is Truth" and three lines that are a Druid symbol representing the inverted rays of the sun. The intense little man with the flowing white hair standing before you explains, "It's the symbol of my mother's family, the Lloyd-Joneses, and it signifies 'Truth Against the World.' If that isn't enough trouble for one family!"

Thus speaks Frank Lloyd Wright, alive, well, and living in Oak Park.

It's not the real Wright, mind you, but a reasonable facsimile in the form of disciple Lyman Shepard, a fidgety, white-haired sexagenerian who bears a definite resemblance to the famed architect. Wright lived and worked here from 1889 to 1909, originating the Prairie School style of architecture with its earth-hugging lines. And the short, skinny Shepard--who sometimes seems to identify with Wright offstage as well as on--is as well acquainted with the details of the architect's life as he is with those of his own.

Shepard and his wife Anna became interested in Wright's work back in 1969; it quickly developed into a near-obsession, and by 1972 he was in charge of the Chicago Architecture Foundation's Sunday Frank Lloyd Wright tours in Oak Park. When Wright's home and studio at Chicago and Foster avenues went on the market that year, he was a part of the group that worked to buy it and open it to the public. "In those days, people came eagerly just to see the building," he recalls. "It was in terrible, just awful shape. The roof leaked, and it had been used as a boarding house."

Shepard has served in various capacities for the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation, and he's a fixture at the annual house walks and other fund-raisers. He even lives up the street from the Home and Studio shrine on Forest Avenue, albeit in a small and undistinguished stucco box that's a far cry from Wright's designs. The Shepards have, however, furnished it with Oriental objets d'art reminiscent of the taste of the master, and bits and pieces of Wrightiana--books, art glass, drawings, and, on the side table by the front door, the Shepards' tour guide name tags for various architectural outfits--are everywhere in the living room, providing a constant reminder of the dominant interest of the occupants.

It was a year after restoration of the historic building to its 1909 appearance (completed this year) was begun in 1974 that Lyman Shepard began his "impression," as he calls it, of Wright--warts and all. Shepard is definitely a devotee, but he has a distinct streak of irreverence, if not of lese-majeste. At first, he did it in a strictly humorous vein, solely for the hilarity of Wright aficionados at parties and his fellow tour guides at the Home and Studio. Word spread about his presentations, and he began speaking to service clubs, school groups, church organizations, and other collections of people in need of entertainment. The onetime joke presentations got to be a very serious business indeed. In 1984, Shepard took early retirement from his job as a stockbroker to devote himself full-time to his second career. A year later, for example, he gave 25 performances at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry for its "150 Years of Chicago Architecture" exhibit. Currently, he's booked through May 1988.

Shepard's meticulously researched shows--he offers five different variations on the theme--combine slides with an informed narration that doesn't pull any punches about Wright's soap-opera-like love life (which did not always coincide with his marriages), and explains what the master was trying to accomplish with his designs--all those flat roofs and interior gutters, for instance. He dresses the part, in a woolen cape, porkpie hat, high-collared shirt, and flowing tie; his wire-rimmed glasses strike the only modern note.

Says Shepard/Wright in his show of Oak Park's Nathan Moore House, a large, ornate, ersatz Elizabethan structure that looks like a Tudor cottage with a glandular problem, "I designed and built a house that I disliked intensely--but it was what the man wanted. I did it for the money."

Later on, Wright could dictate to his clients while raking in huge fees; he'd even design the furniture, and be quite put out if an owner had the effrontery to move it around. If a failure to be assertive was not among his problems, neither was a minuscule ego. Notes Shepard/Wright cheerfully, "The Winslow House [in River Forest] is worthy of a genius like me."

The shows have taken Shepard, who candidly admits to being a frustrated actor, to 25 states to date--he's scheduled to fly to New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, and Kentucky in the next six months--and he's frequently on hand for special occasions at Wright houses, including the Dana House in Springfield (where his appearances are an annual event) and, recently, at Pennsylvania's "Fallingwater," which William Allen Storrer's The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright calls "perhaps the best-known private home for someone not of royal blood in the history of the world," a house that seems to grow out of a waterfall and is Wright's single most spectacular work.

"I try to recreate Frank Lloyd Wright the person--his flair, his passion, and his incredible energy," says Shepard, who never seems to sit still himself. "I bring out the gifts that he had, the problems he faced, the dilemmas he tried to overcome, and the impact of his longevity. Wright lived to be 92 years old, after all--he died in 1959--and he was a working architect for 72 of them.

"Wright was an American original who fought to create a new, American architectural style which would be functional and free--an organic architecture without Victorian boxiness, an architecture that would let the space flow. I want people to get an understanding of his life and work--and to be entertained at the same time."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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