Exploring the history of a 100-year-old house is interesting. Exploring the history of a 105-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright structure leaves “interesting” in the rearview mirror. To begin, Avery Coonley and Queene Ferry-Coonley were both heirs to fortunes, but it was Mrs. Coonley who purchased the 10-acre parcel in Riverside, Illinois, and engaged Wright as architect. Mr. Coonley was said to have been interested in a Georgian-Colonial house. That the estate is called the Avery Coonley House, instead of the Queene Coonley House, reflects the woman’s subordinate role of the era.
The house is actually an estate comprising several buildings totaling over 9,000 square feet. Flashing forward for a second, it’s important to understand that in 1952 the property was in the crosshairs of developer Arnold Skow who wanted to demolish the property and put up 14 ranch homes. A deal was reached to split the main residence in half with a firewall and sell off the gardener’s cottage, stable and playhouse as separate residences. Compared to Wright’s brilliance, the resulting ranch homes have all the majesty of a Taco Bell next to Versailles (one is currently for sale).
Two of Wright’s original compound are currently on the market.
Back in 1906, Mrs. Coonley wanted to enroll her daughter in a kindergarten program but was told that at three years old, she was too young. Kindergartens were relatively new in that era and Mrs. Coonley had studied what were known as progressive education ideals. Being turned down by Riverside, she began her own school in 1906 in an existing building on her estate, offering free admission to local children. It grew, and in 1911, as the Coonley residence was being completed, Mrs. Coonley commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build what’s known as the Coonley Playhouse.
The Playhouse served as the main school until 1921, by which time the school had added grades and outgrew the space. Handily, Mrs. Coonley has purchased 11 acres in a nearby town to begin a Kindergarten at the same time the Playhouse was being built. That school was added on to absorb Playhouse students and further expand the grades served (today serving K-8th grade).
The other reason for the flurry of activity was the death of Mr. Coonley. After the couple moved to Washington D.C. in 1916, he died in 1920 and Mrs. Coonley sold the Riverside estate. She remained an education champion until her death in 1958. The Avery Coonley School remains an academic star with students requiring at least 120 score on an IQ test. But at approximately $25,000 per year, tuition is far from free.
The Playhouse Is For Sale
The Playhouse was long ago converted into a private residence containing two bedrooms and two bathrooms spread across 3,503 square feet. It was listed for the first time in almost 40 years by Michael McCurry of Coldwell Banker for $800,000. Its school roots actually make this home luxurious for entertaining.
The living room is an elongated space with smaller rooms along the edges. It’s ringed with a clearstory of Frank Lloyd Wright reproduction windows. That’s another thing about the 1950s, Frank Lloyd Wright homes were plundered of their riches with stained glass sold for huge sums to various museums and private collectors. The Playhouse has a few original windows, but the bulk of its windows are long gone. The current owners spent a mint reproducing the long-gone treasure.
The windows have become one of Wright’s most enduring designs today adorning everything from coffee mugs to cufflinks. The pattern is known as balloons and confetti and was Wright’s first departure from purely straight-line geometric patterns. What I always thought were odd (OK, tacky) additions to Wright’s windows, the American flag was the architect’s nod to the civics education students would receive.
Even though this was a school, Wright included a signature hearth to physically and philosophically warm the building. The undated photo above shows the space furnished in Wright designs.
Today, the space remains largely the same. The curtains that could be drawn in front of the fireplace are gone and a set of doors on the right also appear to have been removed to connect what was likely a classroom to the main living area.
A close-up of the hearth reveals Wright’s signature Roman brick. These long and slim bricks, which personally add an elegance to brick, are the stuff of special orders in today’s brick world.
Here we see the room off the main living room now contains an office space and may have been the school’s library or a classroom. I can see how the folding wall seen at the far end of the picture would have given this space privacy from the main room.
Coonley Estate – Main House
I hear you thinking, “The Playhouse is wonderful, but too small.” Well, you’ll recall I mentioned that the main home had been split in the 1950s? Coincidentally, the larger portion of the main house is also for sale. This part of the main residence is 6,000 square feet with five bedrooms and five bathrooms on an acre lot. It’s listed with Catherine Simon-Vobornik with Baird & Warner Oak Park/River Forest for $1.299 million.
From the back you can see the original lily pond leading to the patio and ground floor children’s playroom. The upper floor contains the main living areas.
The windowed end of this room is the main picture of this column. This is the opposite end of the room. Like the Playhouse, there is a large fireplace hearth, this one flanked by restored murals. The ornately raised ceiling is bordered by cut panels hiding lights behind rice paper. To see more of this home, there’s a short five-minute video.
The Coonley House illustrates the problem of owning the unusual – finding a buyer. The home overconfidently entered the market in 2010 for $2.89 million, today it’s asking $1.299 million – that’s $217 per square foot for a renovated Frank Lloyd Wright home. Put in perspective, the owners purchased the forlorn home in 2010 for $975,000 before spending more than that on the renovation. At $1.299 million, it’s a loss.
Arm chairing it, I’d say that while it’s on an acre, the surrounding 1950s ranches probably don’t help much with area appeal (even though Riverside is a swish suburb designed by Frederick Law Olmstead). I also think people would pay $20 all day to visit the home on an architecture tour, but find the prospect of living in a home like this daunting. Wright is so style-specific that a buyer would likely need to abandon most of their furnishings for the proper style (no 1980s Patrick Nagle artwork).
That said, I challenge you to look at today’s million-dollar homes and tell me you’d rather live in one of those bland cookie-cutters instead of a home like this.
Remember: When I’m not stirring up trouble in Dallas, Texas or Honolulu, Hawaii for Candysdirt.com and SecondShelters.com, I’m off scouting interesting locations for a second home. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards. If you’re a Realtor with second home clients who’d like me to feature their journey, shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.