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The Restoration of the Avery Coonley House


The 1907 Avery Coonley House in Riverside, Illinois and the 1909 Frederick Robie House in Chicago are widely considered the "terminal masterpieces" of Wright's Oak Park period. Following acquisition of the northern portion of the Coonley House in May 2000, the Eastman's restoration goal has been to restore the house and grounds to the period of the Coonley's residence around 1911. The restoration is about 95% complete and, in common with many Wright houses, is never finished. Dean Eastman's abstract described the restoration process and was accompanied with historical and current slides of the public spaces, service wing, and associated grounds. "Before" and "during" slides demonstrated the various elements and processes of the restoration.

Wright enjoyed his patrons: they were enlightened and their resources offered him the freedom to design the Coonley House according to his beliefs and practices, from his "linked" pavilion design through myriad architectural elements and materials. Restoration has included structural stabilization; exterior and interior work including architectural elements, textures and colors; fixtures and furnishings; and hardscape and landscape.

Stabilization projects included roofing repairs and partial re-roofing to eliminate leaks as well as reconstruction of six areas suffering major structural damage with 2" to 6" deflections due to water damage. About 40% of the exterior stucco walls were replaced and all walls were recoated with a sand-textured golden-buff-colored stucco surface matching the original.

All interior walls and ceilings were re-plastered with a sand textured finish matching the original. From a detailed color analysis, a design and color palette of the interior walls and ceilings was determined. A typical public/family room has three layers of semi-transparent glazes, with one set for walls, a second set for lower banded ceiling panels and a third for upper banded ceiling panels. The color scheme of the interior is a springtime palette, not autumnal as is referred to in many books. Extensive brown oak trim was restored throughout with about 40% new trim added to replace missing or incorrect architectural elements as well as to upgrade the service wing design to that of the family spaces. New trim was finished to match the restored century-old satin-finished trim.

Wright designed several unique architectural elements for the Coonley House. The exterior of the upper main floor has a frieze of inset tile and sand textured stucco. The frieze was cleaned and restored, with colors and textures of repaired areas matching the aged original frieze. The living room pavilion is integrated with an interpenetrating terrace, trellis, urns and reflecting pond complex. All elements were restored including recreation of the original shape of the pond. The living room has two George Niedecken murals that together with three walls of windows dematerialize all of the walls. The murals have been accurately recreated by expert muralist Jo Hormuth based both on prints obtained from negatives of the original 1910 Fuhrmann photographs and a color analysis of a newly-found segment of the original murals. The color set is a springtime palette, harmonious with the walls and ceilings.

Other notable architectural elements that have been restored or recreated are the approximately 180 leaded glass doors and windows, of which about 80% are original, and extensive ceiling light screens and electric skylights with oak grills throughout the public spaces. These include two gallery skylights that have large flat weather skylights on the upper roof above them which bring in the daylight as if one is outdoors. The brick fireplaces in the living room, playroom and dining room have cut sandstone mantles, hearths, bases and urns that have also been restored.

Furnishings mainly consist of reproductions of Wright's designs for the Coonley House and other appropriate Prairie houses, as well as modern pieces harmonious with this century-old but modern house. White oak kitchen cabinets were designed based on the original dining room sideboards and kitchen cabinets remaining in the house. Wright never produced detailed drawings of the missing dining room furniture. A modular set of three tables and fourteen tall chairs was designed during the restoration based on elements of the other Coonley furniture. The dining designs are consistent with Wright's Wasmuth plan drawing of the furnished dining room. Other decorative elements in the house include oriental rugs, plants, urns, vases, bowls and sculpture. The extensive built-in bookshelves in the public spaces have been revealed.

The Coonley House benefited from three important designers in addition to Wright. Frederick Law Olmsted in the late 1860's designed the suburban-garden-town of Riverside, and his park along the Des Plaines River borders on the Coonley estate. George Mann Niedecken, the Milwaukee interior designer who often collaborated with Wright, worked on the design of the Coonley furniture and the beautiful living room murals. Finally, in 1912, Jens Jensen began landscaping for the Coonley estate. Most of this landscape has been lost, but, based on Jensen's October 1913 design, Scott Mehaffey of the Morton Arboretum has created a design that has been mostly implemented over the past two years.

Dean and Ella Mae Eastman were presented with a Wright Spirit Award from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in 2004 for the restoration of the Avery Coonley House.


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