I come by my admiration of the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright honestly but also a bit by coincidence. Of course, as a son of Wisconsin and interested in art and architecture I knew who he was…but the flickering fire was lit by an art history professor at the University of Wisconsin – Waukesha who was completely smitten…and then moving on to the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee where a number of his buildings are there to stare at from the street!! And post college, I spent two years living in Oak Park IL which is a treasure trove of his buildings from nearly all periods in his development and essentially a living museum.
So it should come as no surprise that I belong to a number of Wright oriented Facebook groups or that I have visited a number of his notable buildings in my travels. But I had never heard of Penwern, originally built as a summer estate nearly in my backyard on Lake Delavan in Wisconsin. Well, until, a Facebook friend announced that he was publishing a book: PENWERN/A Visual Study. So I immediately contacted photographer/author Peter Yankala and ordered my own copy of the book…and that’s what I want to talk about here!
<editor’s note: all photographs used here are copyright 2023 by Peter Yankala and don’t do those in the book justice since I downloaded them from the internet>
This is an exquisite book ideal both for the Wright scholar and the merely curious. It’s main strength lies in Yankala’s expertise as a photographer and we are blessed in the fact that he was allowed extended access to a still private estate. The book is saturated with remarkable color photographs showing all four buildings on the site in great detail…including in all seasons and all times of day. And Penwern is noteworthy because it was designed by FLLW at a pivotal point in his development as an architect.
Frank Lloyd Wright designed the buildings for Fred B. Jones at the inception of the 20th Century as a summer estate on Lake Delavan as a retreat from the summer heat of Chicago. Jones was a wealthy manufacturer who supplied materials for the growing railroad industry. He and a number of his wealthy friends secured properties on the lake and built adjoining estates. I won’t delve into the details but another strength here is Yankala’s weaving of the history of the period into the history of the site and the history of an architect. He can tell the story far better than I!
As you see from the various photographs scattered through this post, Wright, true to form, utilized the site to best advantage for his architecture. And he used local materials to keep the buildings grounded to their environment…and in relation to one another…and to nature through texture and particularly light. Yankala brings this out in great detail in easily understood prose and of course illustrated in stunning photography. And every native Midwesterner will surely sense the comfort and grandeur and sense of place Penwern exudes from the extended use of field stone in foundations, supports, and decoration. Well done to Wright’s genius and Yankala’s as well!
There is a lot more to the story than I’ve let on. And again Yankala tells it in just the right amount of detail. But there is a bit of tragedy as the boathouse burned at one time and it was decades later before it was restored. And that leads us into the happy ending as preservationists Susan and John Major took on the role of stewards of Penwern and have restored it to its original design and sense of place. And it is through their kindness that Yankala had the opportunity to tell their story as part of Penwern and bring us up to date over a hundred years later.
As I stated earlier, the book is filled to overflowing with full color photographs of the houses and grounds and details that provides the reader with a great sense of place and being. And the text provides history both old and recent in clear and concise language in a very logical order. And the design of the book aids the reader…it can be read front to back with a great deal of enjoyment as I did on a recent winter weekend. But the photographs are placed within the text so that discussion matches vision and one can refer back easily to the story by just identifying the photograph! Bravo.
And for the curious: Penwern was the name selected by Wright, comes from the Welsh, and means “head of the field”.
Do you want to know what I knowPeter Yankala via his father!
For those of you interested in acquiring your own copy of Penwern/A Visual Study, you may contact Peter Yankala at firstname.lastname@example.org. TEXT 847-321-5244 LAND 847-381-1282 @penwernavisualstudy