Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Nature Influences Design

Few knew that Don was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer in 1993. Given 6 months to 3 years to live, this terminal sentence instead seemed to refuel Don's passion for life. And, his passion to live in turn was driven by his love of design as well as his love to “problem solve.”

While we have concentrated on some of Don’s earlier designs, his designs in later years found Don returning to his roots. Going solo, again, in 1992, Don set up a studio in his Barrington home, invested in computers for Auto Cad, and retained and tutored a series of apprentices, many of whom lived in the “coach” house next door. One of these apprentices, Ryan Thewes, has developed a unique style all his own and will be gracing us with an article about Don.

But, I digress. One of Don’s greatest engineering challenges was to develop an entranceway to the Cancer Treatment Center of America in Zion, Illinois. CTCA’s President wanted an entranceway that was grand, but inviting, and which departed from tradition. He received such a design.

CTCA says of their entranceway, “This three-and-a-half story. . .entrance more than tripled the space available for those entering the hospital. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Don Erickson, the improved lobby houses amenities common to fine hotels.”

Constructed in 2003, the steel structure, which makes up the frame of the entranceway, is graced by glass. Couched inside the reception area, CTCA patients can experience the warmth of the sun, or watch snowflakes fall silently, or sit sheltered from a driving rain outside while inside they are surrounded by an interior landscape of trees, flowers and tropical plants, the healing balm of nature and repose.

For building watchers, the building is located at: 2520 Elisha Avenue, Zion, Illinois

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The House that Jack Built

and that Don designed can be further discovered by selecting the link, "Award Winning Round House," under the section entitled "Articles about the Architect." Here you can listen to a podcast taped by PrarieMod in which Jack Mayes talks about the Round House.

The Round House was published in "House and Home" magazine. Quoting an AIA archivist whom I communicated with in 2007,

"The AIA cosponsored the Homes for Better Living Awards with House & Home magazine for many years. Life magazine was also a cosponsor in the earliest years. The awards were divided into categories, for custom homes or development homes. The awards were announced in House & Home. Attached is a copy of the announcement of your father’s winning house from the July 1958 issue of House & Home."

Quoting the article about The Round House, an AIA judge said, "This house is extremley well handled. It works with shapes not easy to build because our building shapes are fundamentally rectangular. But if Frank Lloyd Wright had never been born, we would all look at this house and say that this fellow is really going to get someplace. The danger and difficulty of the design is that too often the student gets lost trying to do it like the master."

But, Don developed a tradition of his own, with strong influences from his "second father," Mr. Wright.

Like the Gustafson home, The Round House went the way of the wrecking ball. . .prime real estate is both a blessing and a curse. . .

Photos by Jim Herrlin, Barrington, Illinois

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Landmarks in Illinois

Three of Don’s lesser known buildings are recorded in the database created and maintained by the Illinois Landmark Society. (See Illinois Landmark Link under "Articles about the Architect." Search for architect, Don Erickson.)

All three buildings "reside" in Des Plaines, Illinois. One of the readers of this blog has chronicled some of the buildings that Don Erickson designed and built in Des Plaines; Des Plaines was home to EMMCO stairs and to Don’s architectural studio for many years.

This discovery of buildings recorded by the Illinois Landmark Society, and a recent discussion with Don's chief draftsperson, Richard Erickson, lead me to thinking about the Decorel Building. Designed as a factory for Mr. Scheyer in 1959, the building which was later featured in a 1966 article published by the Chicago Tribune and entitled, “Plant’s Dullness Vanishes.”

Don used Huewhite Glass procured from the American Saint-Gobain Corporation in a “crisp composition of uncluttered planes of brick, wood and glass.” See Saint-Gobain's trade advertisement in the photos attached.

The Decorel building was also featured on the cover of a trade magazine which centered around glass and its use in buildings; a hunt for the original publication has so far proven unsuccessful.

Decorel won a Citation of Merit award from the American Institute of Architects, Chicago Chapter and Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry in 1965. See "Plant's Dullness Vanishes," Chicago Tribune, Feb. 27, 1966.

The building is now owned by U.S. Music Corporation who retained Don to remodel Decorel. It seems fitting that some of the best acoustic and electric guitars are being crafted there...

For "building watchers," Decorel is located at: 444 W. Cortland Street, Mundelein, Illinois.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Things Spiral and Things Round

When I first saw a cross-section of a Nautilus shell, I was amazed by the delicacy of the design – something created or something that evolved – and the brilliance of the system of internal chambers that allowed the creature to raise or to lower itself in the sea.

I was too young to realize that Don must have experienced this same sense of wonderment upon his first glimpse of a Nautilus shell. I can only image that his first viewing of such a creature was through a visit to the Shedd Aquarium, or perhaps, there was a collection of shells maintained by Don’s science teacher at Proviso High School, or earlier, at John Mills Elementary School.

Regardless, this fascination with spirals was something that probably originated when Don was young. Certainly, his father, a master craftsperson, for whom design came through the genes, was fascinated with spirals. Gunnar became known for his free-standing spiral wood staircases, one of a few master stairbuilders in the U.S. I remember how large sections of wood, that, having been soaked in water, were later influenced by Gunnar and his vises and glue from their natural straight lines into curved structures. (It is strange, how in retrospect, one sees things so clearly. . .)

Facing me is an unbuilt design, a present from my father in 2005, of the “snail house,” or, as one of his friends called it, the “escargot house.” During one Easter visit, my father drew this thumb nail sketch (over a doodle of mine) and explained his concept of the house, which I will share with you today. But, this house did not originate with this sketch. The concept probably originated when Don was helping his father bend wood into spiral structures. Certainly, spirals and things round were a common theme throughout Don’s life.

Drawn by shaky hands affected by years of chemotherapy and cancer. . .

I digress . . . The snail house was a concept that Don first presented to Mr. Wright in 1948, and then, again to a client in the mid-1950’s. (The client was adventurous, not so his wife.) While Don was never able to find a client to build the snail house (and Don’s own house is a long expanse of rectangles and squares), the spiral concept cropped up in many designs . . . Birdcage apartments . . . the Round House designed for Jack Mayes. . .even to the spiral staircase of wood, steel and ropes used in the “Coach” house, part of Erickson’s home. (The “coach” house is a bit pretentious . . . the coach house was our barn. No usual barn, we stored hay and straw bales in the upper level of the pagoda roof and, below, we sheltered horses. . .pintos and palominos and Arabians.) Don would prefer calling the coach house a “pad” for when one climbed the spiral stairs, one arrived at the loft which overlooked the living room and an expansive of land and trees. A romantic retreat in the midst of the bustling Chicago suburbs . . . a breath of fresh air.

Mr. Wright also had a fascination with spirals and things round. . . from the gallery on Maiden Lane in San Francisco, to the Guggenheim in New York, to the circular windows, surrounded by golden frames at the Marin County Civic Center, which, as one drives by at night, remind me of the bubbled windows of the “Singer Bowl” designed by Don for the 1965 New York World’s Fair. . .Undoubtedly, Mr. Wright had a profound influence on Don, both as an architect and as it relates to women. (But, that is yet another story. . .)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Unsung Hero

Richard and Don at Taliesin West

Frank Lloyd Wright was supported by his Chief Draftsperson, Jack Howe. Just as Wright was supported by a master draftsperson, Don Erickson was supported by his Chief Draftsperson, Richard Erickson, until Don went “solo” in 1992 intent on returning to his passion for pure design. By 1992, Don had a following of clients who were unafraid to build a home with an indoor cave (featured in “Playboy” magazine) or to build a building which many Americans considered unorthodox.

Richard is Don’s cousin. An unassuming man, and quiet by nature, Richard enjoys detail and precision. It is just such precision that made Richard a superb draftsperson. This talent was combined with an almost instinctive understanding about how to translate a concept into a structure. When Don entered his studio with his newest architectural design rendered on a cocktail napkin over dinner, Richard instinctively “got” the concept and would begin to flesh out the renderings on drafting paper.

Like Gunnar (Don’s father), Richard’s father Herbert Fritz, followed suit and immigrated to Chicago from Arvika, Sweden. While Don spent most of his childhood years in Elmwood Park, Illinois, Richard and his parents lived on another side of Chicago. As boys, the two young men would spend their weekends designing dream homes. These childhood musings lead Richard to attend Lane Technical School and to follow Don to the University of Illinois architectural program at Navy Pier, after graduating from high school.

Upon his professor’s advice, after a year at U of I, Don set out to gain admission to Taliesin. Accepted by Frank Lloyd Wright after Wright viewed Don’s design portfolio, Don conditioned Wright’s offer upon his additional acceptance of Richard as an apprentice. Wright complied.

After both men left Taliesin, and at different times, Don worked for a construction company while studying for the architectural licensing examination. With “seed money” from Gunnar, Don began to develop his architectural studio out of his home in Palatine, Illinois which he shared with his wife, Shirley, and his two young children.

Richard joined Don in the mid-1950’s and was integral to the development of Don’s practice. The two men were “simpatico;” they shared a passion for architecture. But where Don’s talent was in the engineering and design of a building, Richard’s was in the drafting of those designs, drafting with sharpened pencils and particular precision...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bird Cage Apartments

Charles Matthies had a house on Murphy Lake in Park Ridge, Illinois. Designed by Don Erickson in 1958, the house was featured in the Chicago Daily News on July 18, 1958 in an article entitled, "Wright Influenced this Luxury Home."

Mr. Matthies later commissioned the "Bird Cage" apartments, named for its' free-standing spiral staircase featured on the outside of the building, which was surrounded by a coy pond at the bottom of the stairs.

Don's father was a master staircase builder who immigrated to the U.S. from Sweden. E. Gunnar Erickson, a man with a third grade education, was driven to succeed. Traveling from Ellis Island through New York and on a train to Chicago, Gunnar first began working as a carpenter in a barrel factory where he applied wooden staves to metal barrel frames. Later, Gunnar worked for a pin ball machine company, and made wooden cabinets for the machines. During the depression, Gunnar began to work with a partner, designing and crafting kitchen cabinets and wooden staircases. Surrounded by the sweet smell of sap leaking from the wood, and sawdust, it seems that Don's love of design originated from his father. Or, perhaps design was "in his blood," a genetic predisposition for making buildings, and other things.

Thus, the influence for the free-standing staircase outside the Bird Cage apartments probably came from Gunnar.

Having visited the Bird Cage apartments in 2007 (at which time the building was for sale), the building required loving care and mortar . . . the building can be seen at: 6069 N. Ridge Boulevard, Chicago. Please add your comments to this blog, should you visit the building. Photos would be appreciated.

Photo of the Matthies house by Jim Herrlin, Barrington, Illinois.

Friday, March 19, 2010

On the River

When I was young, my family would drive to my grandparent’s house on the “River.” The “River,” as we had come to call it, had a family history behind it. My great-grandfather built electric power dams. He had used dynamite to alter the flow of the river upstream, leaving underbrush of trees and bushes which would scrape the bottom of our “row boat” and, sometimes make it treacherous to maneuver.

Arnold, my grandfather, had asked my father to design their River home for him and for Bernice, my grandmother. My father, Don, designed a structure which began with a garage and transitioned it into a type of A-frame with redwood siding. Dad placed the children’s room in a loft with windows that looked into the living room below. As children, we used to sneak up to the windows and watch the adults in conversation, and sometimes catch a glimpse of a television show.

Suffice it to say, the home stood out from the farmhouses nearby and across the River; the River home was perched on a hill above the river itself, with two piers where we fished with bamboo poles and worms. Grandma would fry the fish that we caught for breakfast, and we would go out again, on the river to catch snapping turtles and then let them go.

Our father taught us how to skip a stone on that river. We have thrown a pebble into the river and are watching the water around it ripple in concentric circles, casting out for like souls, lovers of beauty and appreciators of art.

Pencil drawing, “The Boat that Si Wilcox Made,” by Shirley D. Erickson, depicting a boat on the White River, Wautoma, Wisconsin
As pictured in gallery flyer, “Seven Variations, June 7, 1964
Owned by Judge Wilcox, Wautoma, Wisconsin

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Standing on a Hill for 100 Years

“You see, the final result is going to stand on that hill a hundred years or more. Long after we are gone, it will be pointed out as the Ennis House and pilgrimages will be made to it by lovers of the beautiful – from everywhere.”

- Quoted from the Ennis House Foundation Fact Sheet and taken from a letter written by Frank Lloyd Wright to Mr. & Mrs. Charles Ennis (1924)

One of four homes in the Los Angeles area built with concrete block and art glass, the Ennis house stood the test of time and many owners until, when damaged by the aftermath of an earthquake in 1994 and by an unprecedented amount of rainfall in 2004, the Ennis house was placed on the 11 Most Endangered List by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. These events stimulated the formation of the Ennis House Foundation in 2005 to preserve the home and provide the loving attention needed to restore the home to its original beauty.

Due to the market economy and costs to restore the home, the Foundation placed the Ennis House on the market for sale to private buyers, listing the house with Hilton & Hyland and Dilbeck Realtors in Los Angeles and with international marketing services provided by Christie’s Great Estates.

To most, a house becomes a home. A home becomes tied together with memories of one’s first child, or of a college graduation ceremony in the backyard, or a wedding reception, or a stolen kiss. It is the rare home that is imbued with memories and which, itself, is a work of art. The Ennis house is just such a house . . .

Monday, March 15, 2010

Family Picnic

Although my father designed Indian Lakes Hotel, in Bloomingdale, Illinois, and such award-winning buildings as “The Round House,” the building that he loved the most was his own home in Barrington, Illinois.

My parents first purchased our property when I was seven years old. The land was vacant until I was eleven, at which point my parents had raised sufficient money to build their first Don Erickson home. Until then, we spent many summers in Barrington, where Dad designed and we built a tree house which spanned between four oak trees whose branches rose, cathedral-like, in the woods. We flew balsa-wood airplanes, crafted with our Dad, which had noisy, little engines which had a mind of their own. Our first airplane landed in the trees, flaying like a bird with a broken wing, the engine sputtering until it was out of fuel.

Mom would use a scythe to cut-down the expanse of weeds, and we would have family picnics. My parents would dream about where to build their house; on top of the hill, overlooking the expanse of land and the neighbor’s pond below? Or nestled in the woods where it was more private, leaving the ten acres of land to let wild raspberries grow. . .

Our first house originally had a flat roof with skylights – the floor plan was a long, one-story expanse of brick and wood…Brick which we helped to lay under the tutelage of our father, wood which we helped to stain. Just one year after moving in to our now-completed home, a tornado ripped through our property and lifted up the roof to the home, as if it were balsa wood, to send it sailing into the woods below. Undaunted, Dad redesigned the house, using the same floor plan, but this time he added his “Jamaican” roof; four, huge wood beams that curved upward into air, anointed by a skylight. I remember lying in my bed beneath the skylight in the “coach house,” and watching the stars above, feeling the expansiveness of nature. I lived in a home that invited nature in as if to say, “I am a part of you.”

Sunday, March 14, 2010

My father was an architect who studied with Frank Lloyd Wright between 1948 and 1951. This blog is about my father, the architect and the man, as told by his oldest daughter.

If you had commissioned a Don Erickson design or acquired a Don Erickson home, you probably know that my father died over three years ago. Dad said that he would probably die near my birthday so that I would never forget him. He missed the mark by two days, but even if he had died on the day I was born, my father was unforgettable to me.

My earliest memories of my father were of Dad working in his first family home in Palatine, Illinois, where he operated his first studio. I remember crawling in my footed pajamas on the cold, concrete floor which was painted a Taliesin red and looking up to see my father and his cousin, Richard Erickson, working at their drafting tables.

When I was only a few years old, Dad took me to “job sites” where he supervised the design and construction of his client’s buildings. Dad would patiently explain how a wood beam carried a structural load as if to imbue a child with his same love of design. I remember the smell of sap leaking from pine 2 x 4’s and playing in the sawdust mounds beneath the wooden “horses.” I remember the smell of burning fuel from the “Sally’s” the work men used in winter to shield themselves from the cold. I remember my Dad lifting me over large, gaping holes in the flooring that looked down below, areas reserved for staircases where ladders temporarily resided.

Dad died in October 2006. I thought that he would have a quiet service and funeral and that I would walk away with an emptiness to be filled with memories, that my life with my father would be absorbed into a cosmic black hole, and reserved for later recall -- private memories with family and with friends. But, while a talented, and some would say “great” architect, his life – and his death – was somehow shaped by Wright’s own life and death, as if the events that came before (and after) were foretold long ago.