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House of Terra Cotta

Our house is somewhat like a “Chicago Bungalow” format from the 1920’s, though there are various things about it that are unlike other Chicago Bungalows.  For starts, it has one of three “boomtown fronts” found in Oak Park, which disguises a full second floor.  It also has a preponderance of terra cotta briq-a-braq.  We embarked on research.

We found the building permit for our house; it was advertised for issuance on September 5, 1922.  Though it was built as a “show-home” for this then-new housing development, its first owner was Albert Speh, a sculptor for a terra cotta company in Chicago.  Glazed terra cotta was a very popular cladding material at that time. Towards the end of his career, the famed architect Louis Sullivan, whom some argue to be the “Father of the Skyscraper” even had his desk at the American Terra Cotta Company in the Chicago area.  Sullivan’s last major commission, the Krause Music Store on North Lincoln Avenue in Chicago has been noted as being a compendium of many different tile profiles he developed at the American Terra Cotta Company.

In any other town, our house and its pedigree would be big news.  But this is Chicago.  There’s hardly a street corner in this town where a major event in the history of modern, western civilization didn’t happen.

DSC00199The local historical society took interest in our house when one of their members noticed our fireplace, and came across the Albert Speh connection. As a side note, it was found that Mr. Speh’s son, Albert Speh Jr., worked to create some sort of personal database system in joint venture with IBM in the late 1940’s.  Albert Speh Jr.’s name is all over donor plaques at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, he was part of the Class of 1937. A quick web search revealed the Albert J. Speh, Jr. and Claire R. Speh Foundation; a charitable foundation that donated funds to support outreach programs for youth at organizations such as WTTW-TV and the Chicago Public School Board.

lionLast summer, an elderly couple appeared on our doorstep.  The woman claimed that her father bought the house from the Speh family in the 1950’s.  She brought her wedding pictures – with our fireplace as the backdrop – as proof.  She spoke of Albert Speh Sr’s work as an architectural sculptor, confirming that the fireplace, and the lions and ram’s head urns gracing our front entrance as being his works; she also thought that he had done work for Frank Lloyd Wright. 

We haven’t been able to locate any other of Albert Speh Sr’s work.  Based on what we have at the house, it’s quite different stylistically from what appears on Frank Lloyd Wright’s work.  It is known that FLW used another sculptor, Richard Bock, quite often.  We haven’t been able to confirm or deny this claim.  However, at a certain time period during the Frank Lloyd Wright Oak Park Studio, many Oak Parkers worked with FLW; this isn’t entirely unbelievable.

In many other towns, this would be front page news.  But this isn’t just Chicago – this is Oak Park.

Posted in Architecture, History.