Grand palaces, temples, churches, and political seats are often architecturally stunning and filled with art and decorative elements, which, when combined, produce a powerful atmosphere. These elements can also help us learn more about the purpose of a building, its place in history and the thoughts of those who designed it. In museums throughout the world there are great works of art that were once decorative items, such as the Parthenon Marbles now located in the British Museum. However, these type of items are often at the center of a great debate. There are those who think that removing architectural or decorative items from their original setting is nothing short of vandalism, while others make the point that museums can provide a stable environment that still allows the items to be viewed by the public. An attempt to tackle this debate would be a vast and relatively unsatisfying endeavor. So instead, MIR Appraisal Services would like to discuss some prominent decorative artifacts and encourage our clients to look around, because they may have historically/artistically significant items hiding in plane sight.
The Midwest, and Chicago in particular, is known for the prairie school of design and architecture. An art movement that draws its influence from the flat vistas of the Midwestern landscape, creating items and buildings that are comprised of long lines and linear shapes. A recognized master of this movement was Frank Lloyd Wright, who was not only the architect behind several famous prairie school structures but who is also know for filling them with decorative items that he designed. One such item is the dining room table and chairs that he created for the Frederick C. Robie House in Hyde Park. As seen in the photo below the vertical lines of the chair backs harmonize with the long horizontal lines found among the architectural elements in the Robie house dining room. This piece is now located a couple of blocks from the Robie House at the Smart Museum of Art on the University of Chicago’s campus. Some may question why this item does not remain in its original location, since the Robie House is now also a museum of sorts. However, what is really important is that, regardless of where it is located, it remains in good condition and is available for public enjoyment and study. It would be much sadder if this impressive item went missing or was destroyed.
An example of a missing (or destroyed) prairie school gem is the mural that once hung in the living room of the William D. Gates home in Crystal Lake, IL. Gates is the founder of Gates Potteries, better known as TECO, which made beautiful prairie school decorative items. Gates was also innovative in the use of terra cotta as a surface for painting, and commissioned the artist Hardesty G. Maratta to paint a landscape, using slip on terra cotta tiles. This mural filled the space above Gates’s fireplace, which is visible in the image provided below. The item would have been very difficult to create, a testament to Maratta’s ability, and would have shown a soft Midwestern landscape. Furthermore, like Wright’s dining room table and chairs, it would have beautifully complimented its architectural surroundings-- in this instance, the extensive tile work, rustic wood and large landscape window found in Gates’s living room. Unfortunately, we must hope that this item was removed from its original location and is now in a private collection; otherwise it has been lost or destroyed, as shown in the image provided below.
The above example demonstrates that although we are lucky to have several amazing decorative items available for public viewing and study, there have to be so many more items that have been destroyed or are missing. Sadly a lot of valuable decorative pieces are overlooked as unimportant and, therefore, are disregarded for years. To prevent additional items being lost to obscurity, we ask that you reassess your surroundings and call MIR Appraisal Services, Inc., if you come across anything that may be of significant monetary, cultural or historical value.
Researched and written by Anja Keppeler
MIR Appraisal Services, Inc.
Principal Appraiser: Farhad Radfar, ISA AM
307 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 308
Chicago, IL 60601
MIR Appraisal Services is located just steps from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Cultural Center; please do give us a ring to set up an appointment for a verbal evaluation of your most prized works of art.
Darling, Sharon and Richard Zakin. 1989. Teco: Art Pottery of the Prairie School. Erie: Erie Art Museum.
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