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Charnley-Persky House

2010 March 16
by Caroline Nye Stevens

1365 N. Astor St.

photo borrowed from the National Register

Walking down Astor Street in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood is like walking through an architectural museum – one house after another telling a different and critical story about architecture and design. And it is the Charnley House that is the most prized architectural artifact of them all.

Built in 1892, Frank Lloyd Wright declared it to be the first modern house in America. The truth behind this statement is difficult to determine with so many different ideas of what constitutes modernity. Whether or not this is the first modern house, there is no disputing that it is modern. Its complete lack of historicism, deliberate emphasis on the horizontal, and attention to interior detailing all point to the home’s modernity.

It may have been a bit self-serving that Frank Lloyd Wright made such a grand declaration about the Charnley House, seeing that he was one of its architects. The major controversy surrounding the home is whether Wright or his boss and mentor, Louis Sullivan, had more of a role in its design. Both architects looked to nature for inspiration, which is evident throughout the home from its delicate carvings to its earth tone colors. The heavy exterior facade and rounded interior arches are reminiscent of Sullivan’s work on the Auditorium Building, while its horizontality and much of the detailing is reminiscent of Wright’s work in his later buildings. Despite Wright’s assertion that the design was his own, there is enough overlap in their styles that any sense of ownership is blurred. It’s important to note that Wright always credited Sullivan as being a major influence on his design philosophy. So therefore whatever elements of the home we attribute to Wright, perhaps we should also in part attribute to Sullivan. Ultimately though, does it really matter? What is most important about the Charnley Home is that it is one of only a couple surviving buildings where we see collaboration between Wright and Sullivan – collaboration being the key word.


Originally called the James Charnley House (named for the original owner), today it shares its name with philanthropist Seymour Persky who donated the necessary funds for the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) to purchase the house and turn it into their national headquarters. The SAH is  a wonderful resource for anyone interested in the field of architectural history. Becoming a member of the SAH provides you with access to such things as their scholarly multimedia journal, inside knowledge of professional opportunities, and study tours. Check out their website here. And they have written a much more in-depth history of the Charnley-Persky House which can be found here. Last, but certainly not least, this is a house you can tour!

3 Responses
  1. March 17, 2010

    Great blog post.

    From my understanding, Sullivan always handed off residential work off to his head draftsmen; Frank Lloyd Wright.

  2. April 17, 2010

    Sullivan only handed off residential work to fill in minor details; otherwise the main design was his own. Even though they were extremely wealthy, the Charnley family were quiet and not very social, having very few friends. Sullivan was a close personal friend of the family. They had vacation homes (that Sullivan designed) next door to each other in Mississippi. I think this shows that Sullivan would have been deeply involved with the design. The tour of the Charnley house emphasizes the involvement of Sullivan. Also, let’s not forget that Wright’s own home in Oak Park as well as his bootlegs from that period were not at all groundbreaking, therefore he could not have been the main designer of the Charnley house.

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