Nineteenth Century Club connection to Loving Frank
Nancy Horan, Author
Book Review by: Carolyn O. Poplett (Club Member since 1960)
Mamah Cheney was a member of The Nineteenth Century Club. She might well have heard Frank Lloyd Wright lecture on "The Ethics of Design," hearing him say, "The measure of man's culture is the measure of his appreciation, nothing more. ... Ornamentation is a burlesque of the beautiful as pitiful as it is expensive."
Later member and community activist May Estelle Cook, would decry some of the “ornamentation” in local wealthy community homes as “Lovely in some ways, but eye scratching.” Could she have meant to support Frank Lloyd Wright? It's doubtful.
Later he would return to the new Nineteenth Century Woman's clubhouse at 178 Forest Avenue after its opening in 1928. His lecture that day was "Organic Architecture." But he interrupted himself to ask, "Why did you put up this building?' The ladies of the club, sat back in their seats smiling, "for the old detractor was home." This he did even though he was a guest of his mother, one of the Club's founders and as other prominent local architects' wives sat in the audience. Some members have later wondered about the dynamics of why he hadn’t participated in the building’s plan.
Before the Clubhouse was built, the Scoville Institute was the true community center, housing a gym, meeting rooms and the for then well stocked library. The institute building was deemed to be one of the most beautiful buildings in Cook County, matching the architecture of the First Congregational Church immediately west. Meetings of The Nineteenth Century Club were often held there, and this would be where Mrs. Cheney heard Mr. Wright's lecture on “The Ethics of Design.”
Mamah Cheney was uncertain about what she wanted to accomplish. Having children was her most urgent ambition. At age 30 she married her ardent suitor, Edward Cheney, who afforded her a house by Frank Lloyd Wright and a nanny for their children.
She joined The Nineteenth Century Club, where she started asking interesting and timely questions, quoting Charlotte Perkins Gilman and other tantalizing speakers of the day. She seemed impressed that these local women weren't turned off by her ideas and questions. Surely this was a place where she wanted to be.
Women who could defy husbands, mothers, churches and community tradition were exceptional. They were afraid to form such a club and were afraid to be out even in daytime unescorted. Could they get away with this and prove that their studies and ideas weren't simply "intellectual fancywork"? This philosophy corroborated her need for banding together with ladies of The Nineteenth Century Club.
They believed no one was free if everybody wasn't free. Off they went to assert leadership in places where they could find places for their ideas. For many years the social work of protecting families and children was their bailiwick. Men looked after public works. Plank walks were replaced by slate in large parts of the community. (There are still some slate sidewalks in town under the protective order of the village). Except for Hephzibah Home, all local social agencies were started by these women and still to this day Club members furnish leadership and often hard work to these agencies.
But I digress, the new book, Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, set during this era, is wonderful and even though as Oak Parkers we know its terrible end, still it enlightens us and entertains us mightily.
Feelings in Oak Park and River Forest were unbelievably high against the liaison of Mamah Cheney and Frank Lloyd Wright. Mrs. Helen Payne from River Forest told me, "When my mother and I rode the streetcar past the Home & Studio, my mother said, "Put your hand over your face on that side of the street. I won't have you looking at that man's house."
The drama ends badly for the women in this tale. Anna Lloyd Wright (Club founder); her daughter-in-law, Catherine Wright (member) for whom Frank Lloyd Wright had carved out an apartment for her and their children in the landmark famous Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio. Mamah Cheney (also a member), in 1914 lost her life and her children also died.
Poor Edward was left to mourn alone. The community was horrified. Work that had started to become very plentiful, dried up for a time. (Tour leaders of Oak Park can point to projects designed by local prairie school architects , who were forced to not display these state-of-the-art designs. Traditional design ruled the day.)
Frank Lloyd Wright kept his career going, displaying his irascible nature to the end. Ill in Japan, he called for his mother to come nurse him. She did even though she was quite elderly. Imagine two voyages to Japan across rolling seas to minister to Frank Lloyd Wright!
The Nineteenth Century Club carries on to this day, dispensing education, friendship, scholarship and benevolence. It remains as a civil landmark where we all can look to find our place in society.
The community is richer for its presence and for this exciting novel.
- Carolyn Poplett, September 30, 2009
Past President (1974-76)