Wright stuff part of Delavan Heritage Fest

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Margaret Plevak | August 12, 2014

Even Delavan residents may be surprised to know that the city has one of the largest concentrations of Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the country, according to organizers of Delavan's Heritage Fest. A number of them ring the shore of Delavan Lake.

During Delavan's Heritage Fest, running from Aug. 14-17, tours of the city's architectural treasures, like Wright homes, are part of the events.   

Because those lakeshore homes—many built in the early part of the 20th century—are only visible from the water, one of the fest's events will be a one-hour boat tour from Lake Lawn Resort to get a glimpse of five of them. Those on boards will learn more about the houses and other interesting stories about the area.

The tour boat will pass before each of the homes, including one that's shaped like a boat, said Dick Gifford, concierge at Lake Lawn Resort.

Wright and his designs have always drawn fans locally, Gifford said, noting that a past “Wright and Like” tour in Delavan of both Wright homes and those styled in a similar vein, drew 500 visitors.

What makes Wright so popular?

"I think he's recognized very legitimately as one of the true geniuses," said John Major who, with his wife, Sue, live in one of the homes on the lake tour--on the estate called Penwern.

Major credited his wife with spearheading the purchase of Penwern 20 years ago when it was on the brink of being torn down, and bringing the house back to its former glory.

"She's turned it into quite a jewel," he said.

Major said living in a Wright home is like "living in a museum. It never ceases to be a pleasure."

Among the home's many features he particularly admires is the tower, once used as a playroom for their now-grown children and currently used as his wife's office.

"I thought who in the hell would build a tower on a house in 1902?" Major said. "It was built because the original owner wanted a place to play cards and smoke cigars, but his mother didn't like cigar smoke." The tower turned into his refuge.

What Major also admires is Wright's amazing foresight. "I can sit on the porch and look out at the lake and surrounding homes. If that porch were one foot higher or one foot lower, the view of the shoreline would be blocked. How he managed to do that back in 1902 is incredible."

For the last seven years, Gifford has lived in Penwern's gatehouse, a four-bedroom home also designed by Wright. Each evening, he comes home to a beautiful view.

“It's great,” he said. “You drive in under an overpass, there's an old water tower on the other side and you see the stables, which are now used to hold cars. The main house overlooks the lake, and on the edge of the lake is a 50-foot boathouse. There's a rounded deck in front of the house that offers the greatest view of the lake of any place on the lake. These are commanding views.

“We sit in our back deck at night and get a glimpse of the house and these magnificent trees. Of all the places we've ever lived, this is the one with the most spectacular view.”

Gifford also rented another Wright-designed house in the area during the late 1960s. The home, which had originally been stained to blend in with the wooded property, had been painted white with green trim by one of its previous owners.  Although the colors were typical of many of the lakeside cottages in the area, they greatly aggrieved Wright, said Gifford, who'd heard a story of the architect's arrival one day to see the home he'd designed.

“He came to this house after it had been built, driving up in a horse and buggy,” Gifford said. “He drove into the yard, saw the white paint, turned around and drove out. He never came back again.”

Gifford said his own guests never feel that way.

“People come over and say, 'Why would you ever leave here?'” he said. “First of all, there's a feeling about a Frank Lloyd Wright house. We've got the same feeling at both of the homes of his we've lived in. People love to come because it's just so special. The Prairie style is so appealing. People love to see just what he does with wood and the openness of the house. They would tell us, 'We've had more fun in this house than any other.'”

Gifford loves everything about his Wright-styled residence, but conceded the homes do need maintenance. The engineering might not be up to the architecture when it comes to the homes' large overhangs, which can start to sag if not cared for, he noted.

“But the people who have owned them and kept them up have gems,” he said.

The boat tours run Aug. 15, 16 and 17 at 11 a.m., and a pre-registration fee of $10--which is half the normal cost of this trip--is required. Passengers need to meet before 11 a.m. on the day of their trip at the Lake Lawn Lakeside Hut. There are only 18 seats available for each tour, so it is first come, first served. To register or for more information, call 262-728-7950.

Other tours during Delavan Heritage Fest include a self-guided walking tour of the city's downtown, a trolley tour of historic sites, biking around the city gardens, a tour of the Wisconsin State School for the Deaf, and a tour of Spring Grove Cemetery, home to a number of Civil War veterans.

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