While Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy came in large part from his progressive private residences, a farmhouse may just be the perfect platform to unite different chapters of his career. The Muirhead Farmhouse in Plato Center, Illinois, designed in 1951 and recently added to the National Register of Historic Places, offer a perfect example of why the architect's work may be right at home on the farm: the everyman aspect of this type of structure speaks to the ideals he championed with his Usonian designs, while the long, low horizontal structure plays of the prairie landscape that served as one of his biggest natural influences.
"It was the only farmhouse built and designed while Wright was alive," says owner Mike Petersdorf.
The story of the home starts at Taliesin in 1948, where Robert and Elizabeth traveled to Wright’s home and studio while researching potential replacements for their old clapboard farmhouse from the 1860s. Impressed by Wright’s work, they commissioned blueprints for a five-bedroom, 3,200-square-foot home, which Robert would build himself, functioning as a general contractor. Wright came to site the property, according to Petersdorf, but that would be his only visit.
Wright adapted his typical layout to adapt to the needs of a farming family, designing a long, horizontal structure with living quarters on one side and a workshop on the other. Unlike other Usonian designs, the living room was separate from the dining room, to provide privacy for the family, since farmhands often joined the family around the dinner table.
According to Old House Online, which profiled the renovation, Wright suggested a long, open-air walkway to connect both sections, and when Elizabeth Muirhead pointed out the impracticality of such a scheme, he ripped up his plans, then laid the two pieces of paper on top of each other, shortening the span.
The Muirheads lived in the home until 1984, when it was sold to their grandson Charles, who lived there until the death in 2001. At that point, the building was in dire need of an update and repairs, and Charles’s sister Sarah and husband Petersdorf stepped in, moving from Minnesota and undertaking a substantial renovation and restoration project. The multi-year restoration included repairs on the flat roof, which had been leaking for decades, and a facade facelift, using a cache of vintage bricks Robert Muirhead had buried on his property shortly after the original construction was complete. For seven years the couple operated a bed & breakfast on the property, renting out the master suite, but hosting became to much work while raising their two boys.
The property recently came back into the news when a local electric utility, ComEd, initially planned to run electric lines through the property, as part of its $200 million Grand Prairie Parkway project. The Muirhead family successfully petitioned to have ComEd re-route its wires, but the battle reinforced the importance of the structure, and pushed the owners to apply for the designation.
The home will be open for tours on May 1 at 1 and 5 p.m. to benefit the local high school performing arts program, with tickets running $25 per person. It's also still available for private tours.