Making “An American Home: Frank Lloyd Wright’s B. Harley Bradley House”
Tom Desch | Jun 6, 2018
Filmmaker Tom Desch discusses the making of his documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright’s B. Harley Bradley House.
Frank Lloyd Wright has been the subject of countless books, articles, and documentary films. Even the masterful documentarian Ken Burns produced a two-part film about the great architect. So, what on Earth could I possibly have to add to the conversation about Wright?
Well, I had never given it much thought, until one day in 2010 I came across an article written by Blair Kamin, the architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune. In it, he wrote of the B. Harley Bradley House, an early Prairie Style design by Wright that had been restored and was, at the time, looking for a buyer. What really jumped out at me, however, was the fact that the structure was located in the mid-sized city of Kankakee, Illinois- the place of my birth. I had spent my formative years in the community, but I could not recall ever hearing of this house and I was a kid who once dreamed of being architect. That was until my poor drawing skills and dislike for math go in the way. The more I learned about the house, the more it appeared to have the makings of a compelling historical piece. I learned that this structure is argued by some to be Wright’s first full realization of the Prairie Style, a uniquely American form of home design. Although scholars have not reached a consensus as to what structure can claim the undisputed title of Wright’s first Prairie design, the Bradley House is right there in the running and it undoubtedly belongs to a time when Wright was refining design elements that would bring him national and worldwide acclaim. The Bradley House features a long horizontal elevation, the beginnings of an open floor plan, and of course, a beautiful collection of Wright’s art glass windows. The draw to a storyteller, however, was the home’s dramatic history fraught with preservation battles, fires, suicide, and even murder. This tumultuous timeline eerily mirrored similar tragedies in Wright’s life. So, my crew and I embarked in 2013 to create a half-hour film about the parallel lives of this house and its architect.
Shortly in to production we realized there was another character that witnessed a similar tumultuous history- the community of Kankakee itself. While our initial vision was to link the house with Wright, it became very obvious that the house was inextricably linked to the community in which it resided. The house, in many ways, is a symbol of this working class community- when the community prospered so did the house and when hard times descended on its residents the Bradley House would suffer. So, we expanded the scope of the project to be an hour-long piece and went to work trying to weave together the histories of Wright, the house, and the city. In a way, the film became less about the house and more about those whose lives had led them through its doors.
As we labored away on this ambitious project, we interviewed a wide range of experts regarding the house, the community, and Wright. We were fortunate to count among those Stuart Graff, President & CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, and Ryan Hewson, the Foundation’s Collections & Preservation Project Manager. Recently the Foundation hosted the film at Taliesin West’s Cabaret Theater. It was quite an experience to have the film projected in the same room where Wright would view his John Wayne Westerns. The film is currently making the rounds on PBS stations across the country and is available for rental on Amazon Prime Video.
Preview excerpts from the film, as well as additional content featuring Stuart Graff and Ryan Hewson of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation as they discuss the inspiration and legacy of the Prairie Style:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tom Desch is a Chicago-based documentary filmmaker whose work explores the relationship between people and their environment. His latest work, An American Home: Frank Lloyd Wright’s B. Harley Bradley House, tells the story overlooked piece of American architectural history and its connection to the community around it. The film is currently syndicated on PBS stations throughout the country. In 2016, Desch served as a producer, editor, and writer on Shifting Sands: On the Path to Sustainability. This film explored the collision of industrial development and environmental activism on Lake Michigan’s South Shore. The program was recently credited with inspiring an act of Congress to change the designation of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to a full-fledged National Park. In 2013, he was part of the production team of Everglades of the North: The Story of the Grand Kankakee Marsh, a PBS documentary about the draining one of the largest freshwater marshes in North America. Both Shifting Sands and Everglades of the North were nominated for Chicago/Midwest Emmy Awards. He is currently working on The Field, a documentary about a massive airport proposed for the south suburbs of Chicago. Desch currently lives in Chicago’s Kenwood neighborhood (just around the corner from the Wright-designed Blossom and MacArthur Houses) with his wife Victoria.