Interpreting a passion for Frank Lloyd Wright

By Lisa Owad
-July 20, 2010-

Katherine Braz claims she isn’t an expert.

“I’m an enthusiast,” she explains.

Braz leads tours at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House on the University of Chicago’s campus in Hyde Park. If you are lucky enough to take one of her tours, that clarification is one of the first things you’ll hear.

“By saying I’m an enthusiast, I hope it conveys my interest and my passion, but also that I’m still learning,” she says. “I’m still exploring.”

Braz, who goes by “Kat,” is one of the 800 volunteers at the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust. The nonprofit organization manages the Frederick C. Robie House and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, Ill. Both museums are National Historic Landmarks.

A graphic designer during the week, Braz spends her weekends leading tours at the Robie House and Samara, a Wright home known as the John E. Christian House, in West Lafayette, Ind. She has worked at the Robie house since 2007.

“The first Frank Lloyd Wright structure I ever saw was the Robie House,” Braz says. “I think that was in 1999 or 2000. So the Robie House does have a little personal meaning for me.”

The 30‐year‐old Wright enthusiast doesn’t have an architecture background. She recently finished an undergraduate degree in graphic design at Purdue University to compliment her Bachelor of Liberal Arts degrees in sociology and theatrical lighting design.

“My husband claims that I didn’t know who Frank Lloyd Wright was, that I didn’t even know he was an architect,” Braz says. “But it’s hard for me to believe that now.”

Knowing little about Wright and architecture is not uncommon for new volunteers, according to Kent Bartram, the director of volunteer resources at the Preservation Trust.

“One‐third,” he says, “are retirees, one‐third are middle‐aged and have a real passion for Wright and architecture and one‐third are 20‐somethings or early 30s who view this as something like the Peace Corps, as their duty.”

Volunteer tour guides, or interpreters, as they are called, sit through lectures, complete homework, are paired with mentors and participate in model tours to give them a comprehensive training on leading tours. It’s about more than simply knowing the history of architecture.

“You need to be engaging,” Bartram says. “You need to be the sole first responder in the case of any emergency. And you have to think logistically, that there might be another tour 10‐15 minutes after you. Do they need to know Doric versus Ionic columns? No, because that’s not part of the house.”

“The most valuable part of my training experience,” Braz says, “was that all of the senior interpreters were extremely supportive and encouraging.”

Her mentors must have done something right.

“She’s very engaging,” Bartram says of Braz. “We actually use her as a model when we do some of our training.”

Volunteers are asked to contribute four hours each month. But for passionate interpreters like Braz, four hours just isn’t enough.

Braz lives in West Lafayette, where she started volunteering at the Christian House. In 2006, she called Dr. Christian to book a tour at the house he still lives in. After their conversations revealed her knowledge of Wright, she was convinced to do more than just visit.

“He sent me the information, and I studied up,” Braz says. Before I knew it I was conducting tours!”

Members of the Christian Trust later convinced her to volunteer with the Wright Preservation Trust. So, once a month she drives from West Lafayette, Ind. to Chicago to lead tours at the Robie House. She leaves her house at 8 a.m. EST and doesn’t return until 5:30 p.m. having given five back‐to-back tours.

“I do the 9 a.m. Private Spaces tour,” she says. “And the 10:30 a.m. Chicago Architecture Foundation tour, and then I do the full tour at 11 a.m., 12, and 1 p.m.”

And as if volunteering at two Wright houses in two different states weren’t enough, she’s considering volunteering at Wright’s B. Harley Bradley House in Kankakee.

“The thing I find so interesting about Wright,” she explains, “is that so many of the concepts and elements and materials he uses are unchanged. It’s how he reworks those things to create dramatically different spaces. It has this elevated quality of existence, which sounds incredibly corny. But it transports you to this environment that is somehow more rich and more fulfilled.”

Since Braz’s first visit to the Robie House 10 years ago, she has seen 123 Frank Lloyd Wright structures, including the 36 she has seen inside or toured.

“I just recently started counting,” she explains. “I have a system. I mark it if I’ve seen it, like justdriven by. And then I put a star by it if I’ve actually toured it. I have several hundred more to go!”

Spoken like a true enthusiast.

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