Gold Coast Archaeology

The Charnley House may be one of the most significant houses in American architectural history. Designed by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright (though which architect deserves the most credit is contentiously debated), it marks the beginning of modern domestic architecture, and the beginning of Wright’s remarkable, and unprecedented string residential masterpieces that literally transformed the American home.

For all of that, though, little beyond the basic biographical details in known about the Charnley family and their time in Chicago. No photos or family histories from the Charnleys are known to exist. There is a chance that that may change — this summer, urban archaeologists have been digging around the house, hoping to find clues to previous occupants.

Earlier this decade, work on the foundation of the Charnley House turned up a number of artifacts (a photo of some of the artifacts can be found on the Society of Architectural Historians’ siteand the decision was made to mount a professional excavation on the site.

The items discovered initially are believed to pre-date the house, possibly from the Potter Palmer estate (the original landowners of what is now known as the Gold Coast) but some items unearthed this year bear the dates after 1892. At the very least, the excavation will serve as an important step in the on-going research into the history of Chicago’s Gold Coast.

Whether Wright or Sullivan deserve the majority of credit for the house is debated. Wright claimed that he did nearly all of the work, though historians, including Tim Samuelson are skeptical:

“I suppose the simple answer is that they both designed it,” said Samuelson. “Louis Sullivan and James Charnley were dear friends, and when Charnley asked Sullivan to design a new home for him, there is no way Sullivan would hand the job over to an assistant.

“He would have come up with the overall design and attended all the meetings and weighed in on all the decisions, though it is obvious he also left a lot of detail work for Wright to do. In the house interior, especially, you see a lot of elements and flourishes that seem identifiably as Wright’s.”

There is a video of the excavation on the Chicago Tibune’s website. More information (including tour information) on the Charnley House, can be found on the Society of Architectural Historians’ site