Bed And Breakfast On The Prairie
In recent years, many travelers have enjoyed having a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house to themselves – if only for a night or weekend – by staying in one of several properties open to the public. Newest among these, is Muirhead Farmhouse, a bed and breakfast located in Hampshire, Illinois, approximately 50 miles northwest of Chicago.
Completed in 1953, the house is a rare example of a Wright design for a working farm. As a Wright property open to the public, it is singular because it is remains in the Muirhead family, and is operated by Robert C. Muirhead, son of the original owners; his daughter, Sarah (Muirhead) Petersdorf; and her husband, Mike.
The Muirhead family was among the first settlers in Kane County, and has owned the 550-acre farmstead since the 1860s. In 1948, when Robert B. and Elizabeth Muirhead and their five children outgrew the original farmhouse, they decided to build a new home. “My grandparents were always interested in architecture and subscribed to several architectural magazines,” said Sarah Petersdorf in a February 28 interview. That fall, after talking to architects in nearby Elgin, they traveled to Taliesin in
Spring Green, Wisconsin for an open house. “They were looking for ideas,” she explained. When asked if they would like to speak to Wright they said yes, but were stunned nevertheless when the architect appeared five minutes later. At the end of their meeting, Wright asked the couple to put the specifics of their request in writing. He accepted the commission a short time later. Wright visited the site once. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, a young Robert C. Muirhead (who was six feet four inches tall) was in the company of the world-famous architect when “a short fellow in a red car arrived and walked around the farm.” Based on his promenade, Wright selected a site for the new house in the middle of the apple orchard next to the existing farmhouse, said Petersdorf.
Wright designed an in-line Usonian for the family, but there was some “give and take” before the plan was finalized, Petersdorf said. The major point of contention was a proposed 110-foot-long open pergola connecting the kitchen and dining wing to the living room and bedroom wing of the residence. Wright’s intent was to segregate the private part of the house from the communal dining area, where the farmhands would take their meals, but the Muirheads preferred a protected passage over a wind-blown, snowy connection to their kitchen. The compromise was a 55-foot-long enclosed gallery with built-ins on one side and glass on the other. As built, the house is 176 feet long and comprises 3,200 square feet of living space. For decades, the family kept pigs and cows and grew corn and soybeans on the land.
Eventually the property passed into the hands of grandson Charles and his family. In 2002, when Charles passed away, Petersdorf and her father wondered what to do with the house. Over the years, time and deferred maintenance had taken its toll, and the farmhouse had become waterlogged, dilapidated and in need of extensive work. At the same time, developers were eyeing the land for houses, and commercial interests were calling. At one point, the surrounding land was being considered as a landfill site. In 2003, following the sale of the farmland to the Kane County Forest Preserve, Petersdorf and her father committed to the restoration of the Wright-designed building. “My grandparents went through a lot to have the house built. We didn’t want to turn it over to someone else,” she explained. “We wanted to continue the family tradition and keep it in the family as long as we could.”
Fortunately, her grandparents kept careful records, including correspondence, blueprints and receipts that detailed the construction of the house and original building materials, which were concrete, cypress and Chicago common brick. Restoration efforts began in 2003 and included, among other things, the installation of a new roof, parapet repair, extensive brick and concrete work and “a whole lot of sanding.” Now the 800 acres immediately surrounding the house (the Muirhead land and additional purchased acreage) are being transformed into prairie, woodlands and park areas by the county. To ensure protection of the farmhouse in the future, the owners are securing county and National Register designations.
The Muirhead family has a long history, documented in a series of guest books dating back to the 1950s, of welcoming visitors to their home. Today, the tradition continues with hospitality that includes a guided tour of the historic farmhouse and a hearty country breakfast Above all, Petersdorf hopes guests will enjoy the prairie sunsets, walking trails, and the nuanced “experience of seeing the house at all times of the day.” Despite her familiarity with the property, Petersdorf admits she “still discovers new things about the house all the time.” For this reason, Wright enthusiasts, in particular, are welcome guests at Muirhead. “We always learn something new from them,” she said.
For more information about Muirhead Farmhouse Bed and Breakfast, to inquire about the availability of the house for small meetings and dinner parties, and to make reservations visit www.muirheadfarmhouse.com or call Sarah (Muirhead) or Mike Petersdorf at 847.464.5224.
This article first appeared in the Frank Lloyd Wright
Building Conservancy’s BULLETIN, Volume 17, Issue 2.
Wright-designed houses available for rental include:
John D. Haynes House, Fort Wayne, IN
Alpines Meadow Ranch, The Como Summer Inn,
Darby, MT – www.alpinemeadowsranch.com
Louis Penfield House, Willoughby Hills, OH
Inn at Price Tower, Bartlesville, OK
Elizabeth and Donald Duncan House, Acme, PA
Seth Peterson Cottage, Lake Delton, WI
Bernard Schwartz House, Two Rivers, WI
For more information on the above rentals, as well as other Wright-designed houses that are open for public tours, please visit the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy’s website, www.savewright.org. Click on “Wright Links” on the left side of the home page.
Header Image: Living room of Muirhead Farmhouse. The gallery, left, leads
to the kitchen. Photo courtesy of Patrick J. Mahoney, AIA.
*Images from the collections of The Henry Ford.
– Jane King Hession