A 100-year journey from private home to peerless treasure
In 1909, Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to design a home in what was then a lightly settled lakefront area north of Chicago and south of Evanston, IL — an area now known as Rogers Park. Three years after it was built, a man named Otto Bach purchased the house from its original owners, the Steffens family. Otto’s brother, Emil, admired the house — so much, in fact, that he commissioned his own Wright home to be designed and built nearby. The Emil Bach House was completed in 1915.
The earliest photo of the house is taken prior to the 1919 construction of the Newman-designed mansion on the lot to the north. The house was situated on the north lot line, which provided the maximum distance and privacy for the Bach family from the existing home to the south.
Working in the brickyard with his four brothers, Emil Bach had breathing problems, which, according to his grandson, Owen, he treated by walking down his back porch to swim in the lake every day. At the time of construction, there were no structures between the house and the lake.
The Farcroft Apartments, built in 1928, tower over the Bach House and completely block the view of the lake from the terrace to the northeast. H.L. Hollister’s mansion on Bryan (later Jarvis St) was demolished around the same time and two four-story courtyard apartment buildings completed the screen of the lake to the southeast.
Originally, a chimney enclosure was constructed in order to balance the step design of the house. Had the house been built according to the original design, the enclosure would have had the same orientation as the interior chimney mass. During the design presentation, Wright changed the interior chimney mass orientation to run east-west, perpendicular to the exterior chimney enclosure. By the time Emil Bach sold the house in 1934, the roof chimney enclosure had deteriorated to such a degree that it was removed and never rebuilt.
The house remained substantially unchanged through the next 20 years. Photographs taken in the mid-1940s by Gilman Lane show that the only significant exterior changes that were made to the structure were the enclosure of the porch off the south-facing bedroom and an addition of a shed off the rear service entrance.
James F. Blinder bought the Bach House in June of 1959 and decided to undertake a full-scale “restoration” of the residence. The Historic American Building Survey (HABS) study of the house done in the spring of 1966 documents some of the exterior changes made by Blinder — analysis of historic photographs gives us more.
- Removal of the cypress wood trellis around the ground level planter at the front of the house.
- Replacement of the ramp from street level to the north service entrance door with concrete stairs.
- Replacement of the concrete caps on the service entry wall and east entry garden retaining wall.
- Replacement of over 60% of existing exterior cypress trim with redwood.
- Enclosing and winterizing the first-floor porch, removing French doors between porch and entry way.
- Enclosing and adding roof to second floor sun terrace and changing window between terrace and maids room to a door.
- Removal of bedroom balcony French doors and replacement with jalousie windows.
- Removal of all 2nd floor leaded glass windows and replacement by single pane or jalousie windows.
- Removal and sale/donation of all six original art glass windows.
- Elimination of the planting beds under living room windows and reducing the size of the south and west planting beds, covering all courtyard ground area with concrete.
- Demolition and replacement of the upper half (wood and brick) design detail of the privacy wall in the courtyard.
The interior of the house has also undergone substantial changes through the years. Wright originally designed all the kitchen cabinetry, a massive dining table with chairs and tabourettes, bay window bench with flowerbox, hearth bench (with storage under the seat and book shelves facing the entryway), a built-in desk and bookshelves in the north bedroom, built-in clothes press and dressing table in the south bedroom, built-in closet in the maid’s room, built-in linen cupboard in the 2nd floor landing and a built-in dresser in the west bedroom. From correspondence between Wright and Emil Bach, mention is also made of two easy chairs, light fixtures, curtains, rugs and single beds upstairs. No photographs, drawings or detailed descriptions exist for these elements, so they are lost forever.
By the 1966 HABS study, the only built-in elements remaining were the bay window bench, clothes press and linen cupboard. Additionally, the partition wall and swinging door between the kitchen and dining room area had also been demolished. The study did not detail changes made to the basement of the house, so it is not possible to know when the coal room, heater room and storage room partitions were removed and when the door to the fruit cellar was moved and the rear storage room underneath the porch was excavated.