Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Big Plans - Gustafson Home

The Gustafson Home in Winter
In 1958, Dave and Violet Gustafson commissioned Don Erickson to custom design their home in Winnetka, Illinois. By 2009, the Gustafson home was slated for demolition but prior to the demolition, the estate sales agent found a box of the original plans in the house and contacted me. We were able to retrieve these plans prior to the home's destruction, plans which tell a story about the Gustafson home.

Located at 1055 Starr Road, Winnetka, Illinois, the Gustafson residence was notable for its grand foyer, fireplace,masonry and extensive use of glass windows which illuminated the home with natural light. The stones were “imported” from a quarry in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and the masonry was done by Linari Construction, of Highwood, Illinois while the carpentry was done by Carl I. Bengtson & Sons.

In addition to designing the Gustafson home, Don acted as Owner’s Agent and contracted out the jobs. Don’s designs were sufficiently complicated to cause the ordinary contractor to “turn tail and run;" as Owner Agent, Don and Richard could “hand-hold” the contractors throughout the job.
Don's notes to his client concerning their request for changes
Richard Erickson, chief drafts person to Don from 1954 through 1992, would begin his work using a thumb nail sketch from Don, which detailed the design concept. It was not unusual for this thumb nail sketch to be done on a place mat or napkin...Once the concept was provided, Richard and Don would work collaboratively together to flesh out the drawings. The development of the Gustafson plans followed a similar path. These plans were hand-drawn on tracing paper by Richard over a period of months. The box of plans I now own show the evolution of the house, from the basic sketches required to secure the building permit to the final drawings.
Richard Erickson poring over the Gustafson plans
Notable, too, is the fact that the Gustafson plans were developed at EMMCO Interiors in Des Plaines, Illinois; The EMMCO building appears to have been constructed sometime during 1957, when Don was working “solo,” and not affiliated with a partner. Later, when Don took in a partner and established the firm Erickson & Stevens, Inc., Don was the design lead while his partner’s principal contributions centered around business development.

Please contact me, or provide comments on this page, if you would like to submit information that you may have on the work and/or its history. And, if you would like to contribute to championing the preservation of the Don Erickson Legacy, please email me at the address posted under my profile.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Being Outside the Mainstream

"Modernist designs still remain outside the mainstream aesthetic," many preferring homes that architectural aficionados refer to as "McMansions." (See “Too New for New Canaan?”) While Americans invest in the mainstream, foundations like "Save Wright" and Hollywood actors like Diane Keaton who publicized the need to restore and preserve Wright's Ennis house, struggle to preserve the works of Frank Lloyd Wright throughout the U.S. The Ennis home is now being offered for sale, with substantial price decreases offered to tease prospective buyers; none, apparently, have yet come up to the plate.

Don Erickson was an apprentice to Wright between 1948 and 1951, leaving Taliesin to develop his architectural practice. His first creation began with the Inverness home, which, ironically, is now being offered for sale. David and Violet Gustafson later acquired the Inverness home from Gunnar and Ebba Erickson, and within a few years commissioned a new home in Winnetka, Illinois, a home which, also ironic, was leveled in 2009 to make room for a new addition on adjoining property. See link below.

Outside the Mainstream; Nature Influences Design
To appreciate a Don Erickson designed home, one must appreciate nature, for aside from being schooled in the Wright tradition, Don was influenced by what he saw. . . from the structure of a diatom observed under the microscope to the “engineering” of a nautilus shell with its spiral design. An avid reader of medical journals, science and physics, perhaps Don would have made a great doctor but, it appears, that design was part of his genetic make-up as it was part of his Swedish family tradition. It seems that he was born to be an architect.

In observing Falling Waters in Pennsylvania, I was awestruck by the graceful manner in which Wright’s house became integral with the water falls themselves, and how the house invited nature inside, offering its guests a private retreat where they could listen to the symphony created by the rushing waters below.

Having myself resided in traditional American homes, I have always felt enclosed and cut-off from the natural world. But, life in my father’s home was a blending of nature with human creation. One could feel the seamless connection with the trees and grasses outside, or the snow in winter, a private retreat. Thus, to appreciate a Don Erickson designed residence, or his own home which is being offered for sale, one must also appreciate and marvel at nature.

It requires a unique buyer to appreciate a unique home.

Email me for specifics:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Inside the Architect's Home

Click on slide show on the side-bar of this blog to see new photos; an inside view into the architect's own home.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Too New for New Canaan?

Modernist homes, like that of Philip Johnson, which Don and I visited in Summer 2000, are featured in the article posted below. In 2000, Johnson's home was privately owned and monitored by a caretaker who kept careful watch on the home.  He did not allow us inside, despite Don's best appeal to view Johnson's home.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation writes about modernist homes, like that of Don Erickson, and wonders are these homes "too new" for "modern society?"

Too New for New Canaan?

The following article should also be of interest to Chicago residents.

North Shore House for Sale for $1 Million

You, the Reader

Google has added a new feature to blogs which allows blog writers to review statistics about blog readers (in the aggregate). This addition has provided me with an understanding about the posts that are most read and searched by visitors to this blog. For instance, posts about the Singer Bowl and the Playboy Pad are widely read and searched. And, visitors to this blog, while principally from the U.S., also come from Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan, Serbia, the Netherlands, Australia and many other countries (surprisingly, however, not Sweden!)

While I write "when the spirit moves me," I'd like to ask you what you would be interested in reading about Don Erickson and his work. I have many stories to tell, and many photos to offer.

Please contact me, or provide comments on this page, if you would like to submit information that you may have on Don's work and/or its history or if you have articles about Don's buildings that you would like to see. E-mails can be submitted to

Monday, September 13, 2010

EMMCO Stairs, Des Plaines, IL

The Erickson boys were industrious. Each of the four young men immigrated to Chicago from Arvika, Sweden. Eventually, their two sisters, Regina and Signey, and their mother, Anna Louise, followed them to the Second City.

The oldest brother, Martin, formed (or took over) the August J. Johnson Company in partnership with Carl Olson on Eastman Street in Chicago. Employing his younger brothers, Gottfried and Herbert, Martin’s firm, at its height, employed about fifty workers. The firm manufactured wooden cabinets for pin ball machines and supplied such firms as Gottlieb, Williams and Bally companies. During World War II, the firm dedicated its business principally to making wooden coffins. At age fifteen, Richard Erickson, Don’s cousin, worked at August J. Johnson on a work permit on Saturday, making $2.00 for one-half day’s work. By age seventeen, Richard “graduated” to work on the machines. During the later years, Martin, who died at the early age of 54, had moved August J. Johnson to the Chicago suburbs; Gottfried and Herbert worked for Martin throughout their careers.

Although Gunnar probably also worked for Martin’s firm at one time, Gunnar was similarly entrepreneurial. Instead of following in the family tradition, Gunnar established his own firm in partnership with Mr. Nordholm, locating the firm on Higgins Avenue in Chicago. At first Gunnar’s firm turned out hand-built kitchen cabinets, but later Gunnar began to design and manufacture hand-built wooden stairs. Gunnar later earned a reputation for the design and manufacture of hand-crafted free-standing, spiral wooden staircases, one of which is pictured here. His work was inspiration for his son, Don, who became an architect. (Don's dream of being an architect competed with another dream, to become a concert pianist, for, you see, music was in Don's blood. Don’s mother, Ebba Larson, came from a family featuring a long line of organists who played at the local churches of Olmstad, Sweden.)

Gunnar and Don remained closely bonded throughout their lives and often worked on projects together. Gunnar manufactured the stairs for the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Glore home in the Chicago area. Gunnar was probably also the inspiration for the exterior spiral stairs that grace Don’s Bird Cage apartments (see blog archives.)

Gunnar later formed a partnership with Mr. Mathison, whom, it appears, was a financial backer for a new firm, EMMCO Interior Stairs, a firm named after both Erickson and Mathison.

On or about 1957, Don, designed and managed the construction of EMMCO Stairs building in Des Plaines, Illinois. The building earned an Honorable Mention, Industrial Division, for the design which was awarded by the Des Plainer Chamber of Commerce.

The front of the building housed two offices upstairs, the first office being that of Gunnar Erickson, with the office closest to Busse Highway belonging to Don. Don’s office had a secretarial area where clients were greeted. There was a small conference room and a large workspace which housed four back-to-back drafting tables in which Don and his cousin, Richard Erickson, worked. In turn, the drafting room was surrounded by windows, affording natural light to the architects and draftspersons who worked there.

The bottom floor of the building was occupied by hand and machine tools. Large supplies of wood were housed at the back of the building, behind which the Chicago Northwestern commuter train roared by at scheduled times. I remember the smells of freshly sawn wood, sap and glue, and seeing soaked wood being cajoled into curved structures over wooden molds . . . It was in the stair factory that the model for the 1964 Singer Bowl was hand-built by Don and Shirley, painted with painstaking details and landscaped with spray-painted twigs which served as trees. (Today that model sits in storage and has been happily occupied by mice. . .)

EMMCO Stairs is featured as a significant architectural resource by the Illinois Landmark Society. (See sidebar, “About the Architect.”) EMMCO Stairs is now owned by an auto body repair shop and is located at 1873 Busse Highway, Des Plaines, Illinois.

Please contact me, or provide comments on this page, if you would like to submit information that you may have on the work and/or its history.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Organic Architecture For Sale In Inverness

Organic Architecture For Sale In Inverness

Bird Cage Apartments

Bird Cage Apartments is featured in the AIA Guide to Chicago, edited by Alice Sinkevitch. See link to book on the sidebar to this blog under "About the Architect."

#59) 6901 N. Ridge Avenue, Chicago, IL

An excerpt follows, "former Frank Lloyd Wright fellow Erickson curved this flagstone and curtain wall building to give every apartment a view of open space. The steel-rod staircase gave the apartment it's nickname, 'the birdcage' which originally rose above a fish pond whose reflection doubled its pizzazz."

2nd Edition, May 2003.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The 50-cent Tour

Yesterday, I gave a tour of my father's home to the son of a former client and his daughter. In my dreams this morning, I heard my father asking me to give his visitors "The 50-cent tour." This request was legend in our family. At the end of the tour, I would attempt to collect the 50-cents; of course, the attempt was feigned.

Visitors to our home took the long path up to the front door, greeted by Paolo Soleri bells which lined the front walk. They entered our house through a hand-carved, heavy wood door from Mexico with a metal wood knocker. And caught a glimpse of the Fica tree in the atrium, behind which was the large mosaic of a Mexican woman with flowers in her hair, and tropical jungle behind her.

Giving tours of our home was normal routine, however, it occurred to me this morning that most people do not provide such tours for 50-cents or otherwise. But, then, most people are not the children of an architect whose "bread and butter" was designing residences for his clients. And, many of our visitors were the parents and children of people who wanted a "Don Erickson" home.

The people to whom I was providing the "50-cent" tour and I had a special bond for the son was raised in a "Don Erickson" home on Murphy's Lake in Park Ridge. As we toured the home, he could see the same design concepts used in his home as my father used in ours. And, I realized that this man and his daughter both revered my father's work; further, the son missed the home that he had been raised in.

We walked into the living room, a room whose edges had been softened by an oriental carpet and protected by ancient, bronze foo dogs that used to frighten me when I was a child. Below the living room is the entertainment room where two baby grands used to sit, side-by-side, for both Don and Shirley had trained to be concert pianists. Indeed, I told our visitors, that we used to hold family concerts in the living room, with my father playing the piano, our guests playing the cello, and viola, and me on the violin.

I explained that the entertainment room was an addition to the original structure, a structure which was leveled by a tornado which ripped through Barrington, Illinois. At that time, the house was more in keeping with Wright's prairie style; the home was topped with a flat roof that curved over the brick walls, punctuated with skylights. But, having traveled to Jamaica, and enchanted by the thatched cottages in the Jamaican countryside, my father fell in love with these simple roofs. In rebuilding our home after the tornado, he incorporated Jamaican roofs into the design. Huge, wooden beams arched up to the sky, topped with skylights, covered with cedar shake shingles. (One could lay in bed and watch the rain fall from the sky or see the stars at night.)

The three children's bedrooms are small and intimate. After having read "Swiss Family Robinson," I asked my father to design a loft with a ladder that we could raise and lower (and where we met with our friends beyond our parent's reach.) Our rooms looked out onto trees and lilies of the valley, or to snow in winter, our private retreats.

The master bedroom is reachable through a long hallway, and is deliberately far from the children's wing. Don incorporated this same long hallway in the Inverness home built for his parents. Lined with closets on one side, and dressers on the other, when one emerges from the hallway, the master bedroom is also a private retreat, perfect for reflection.

Perhaps it was the outdoor showers at the "Rock House" in Negril that influenced my father, or not, but the experience of showering in nature was incorporated into the master bedroom. Surrounded by lava rock, windows and tropical plants, the shower is designed to provide the feeling that one is close to the jungle, a celebration of nature.

We circled back to the kitchen area with the adjoining family room. It was the family room that we really lived in, and where my father conceptualized many of his designs. Having resided away from home for much of my adult life, when I visited home, my father and I would convene at the early hour of 6:00 a.m. to speak of my life and his recent designs. This lead to "blueprints" being rolled out on the kitchen table, and lengthy discussions about a design concept for Don's newest client. And, if time allowed, we would make a driving tour of Don's building projects where we gingerly stepped over paint cans and wood piles, and were greeted with the sweet smell of sap seeping from newly cut 2 x 4's.

In our Barrington home, the "studio" which was originally reserved for my mother's creations (she is an award-winning artist), became my father's place to work in 1992 when he broke off a partnership with another FLW-trained architect, leaving even his cousin, Richard Erickson, behind to go "solo." Although Don had a number of apprentices, he said that he was never able to find a chief draftsperson like Richard again. The two men, raised by Swedish immigrant brothers in Chicago, reconciled just prior to Don's death; they left an indelible impression on each other.

But, here I was providing a tour to a man and to his daughter who appreciated my father's work and who knew what it was to live in a "Don Erickson" home. I didn't have to say very much for they already understood so much about our home, for the son's own home had some of the same features. And, I knew that they loved their home, respected my father and his work, and were part of a greater family, a family who had been touched by Don's design. If I have any wish, it is that just such a family would own Don's Barrington home . . .