Walter Burley Griffin’s Prairie-style homes in Beverly. Photo by Alan Barney

In a pleasant environ south and slightly west of downtown Chicago, the Getaway Guys explored a cluster of private residences designed by Walter Burley Griffin (1876-1937) between 1909-1914. Born in Maywood, Ill., Griffin graduated from the University of Illinois in 1899 and worked with several early proponents of the “Prairie Style,” including Dwight Perkins (1899 to1901) and Frank Lloyd Wright (1901 to 1906) with whom he is probably most closely identified in his early work.

Griffin’s collaboration with Wright ended acrimoniously in 1906 and shortly thereafter he established his own practice in Chicago. An important first commission was the Harry V. Peters residence at 4731 North Knox Avenue in Chicago.

A real estate developer, Peters may have been instrumental in the construction of the now famous Beverly houses of which there are 13 and form the core of the Walter Burley Griffin corridor of this unprepossessing enclave.

The Peters residence incorporated an “L” shaped floor plan which allowed for open space and an economy of construction, making it suitable for the residential needs of a growing middle class.

Distinctive and easily identified, the Beverly-Griffin residences are not elite residences built for an exclusive clientele. They appear to be comfortable abodes that blend in nicely with their neighbors. Remarkably, they are well preserved
and seem to be a point of pride for their owners.

Many of the Beverly homes are on 104th Place between Wood and Prospect streets. There are others on adjacent blocks and some slightly grander examples at 1540 West 102nd Place and 10561 South Longwood Drive. All have been designated landmarks by the City of Chicago.

 Griffin married Marion Lucy Mahony in 1911, an architecture graduate of M.I.T. Mahony also had been an associate of Wright in Oak Park and is credited with producing some of the most stunning graphic renderings of Wright’s designs. Along with Griffin, she had a keen interest in landscape design as an integral part of architecture.

In 1912 Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony were awarded the commission of a lifetime, to design and construct Australia’s new capital in Canberra. The commission included not only the buildings, but the overall plan for the city itself with its many parks and lakes.

Their former employer was probably green with envy.

Designs commissioned by democratic governments may be one of the biggest headaches of the architecture profession. Griffin and Mahony found out the hard way, and their Canberra project was likely  disappointing and demoralizing.

Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754-1825) possibly had an easier time with his vision for Washington, D.C., because the site was a malarial swamp that may have repelled  politicians and meddlesome bureaucrats. Baron Haussmann (1809-1891) tore through medieval Paris with seeming abandon to create the City of Light, with Napoleon III’s encouragement and financial support. Albert Speer (1905-1981), with Adolph Hitler’s support and enthusiasm, re-envisioned Berlin without any apparent interference. Who would dare?

No such luck for the Griffin-Mahony team in Canberra. Nine years after accepting this commission, they washed their hands of it. Little of their innovative, comprehensive design was built. Still, for the remaining 16 years of his life, Griffin remained very active (particularly in India), and never returned professionally to the United States.

His pre-Australia American legacy can be found in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and in the Chicago area. There are Griffin residences still standing in Elmhurst, Kenilworth, Wilmette, Winnetka and in Evanston at the corner of Church Street and Ashland Avenue. However the greatest concentration of his Illinois work is in Beverly. For further pictorial evidence of this iconic, midwest American architect, visit the www.prairiestyles.com website.

Editor’s Note: The authors maintain
a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.