In a day and age in which we celebrate fleeting moments, from viewing photographs on Instagram or catching up with friends via Facebook rather than a face-to-face encounter, there is something to be said for long-term connections.
Brookfield resident Peg Zak is a walking testament to the personal and community benefits of a commitment to an organization. Zak recently celebrated 40 years of service to the organization now known as the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust.
For her, the Trust widened her world beyond the usual parameters of family, church and work since she first responded to an advertisement looking for tour guides four decades ago
“I read an article stating that the Home and Studio was looking for volunteers to give tours, and I went to training,” Zak said. “It changed my life. It opened up a whole new world for me.”
In the beginning
At the time, Zak was living with her husband and children in an Oak Park house on Gunderson Avenue. With her children in school, she found plenty of opportunities to volunteer with their Brownie and Cub Scout troops, but she was eager to do something for herself.
“My interest was in doing something adult,” Zak said. “It was time to do something for mom.”
Zak said that it was around the time of the nation’s bicentennial that people finally realized old wasn’t necessarily bad, and historic preservation movements, such as the one spearheaded by the Home and Studio volunteers, were graining traction.
She got in on the ground floor of the organization that was at that point called the Home & Studio Foundation. The group was strictly volunteer, but it was by no means lacking in expert leadership.
“We had an eight-week training with Saturday sessions running from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., rain or snow,” Zak said. “We were taught by architects like John Thorpe and Bob Bell. We learned so much about architecture and Wright’s emphasis on the home.”
Once trained, a volunteer class of 25 to 30 people took shifts leading tours of the Home & Studio as well as the Unity Temple. At first, Zak recalls that the numbers of tourists were low, allowing the volunteers time to build relationships with those who came to see Wright’s work.
“It was great fun. In the beginning, we had a lot of architecture students and architects who knew Wright,” Zak said. “They were happy to correct us, but a lot of the time they were wrong about the facts. The level of research we had was phenomenal.
“That’s how we discovered that Wright was two years older than we thought. We had continuing education and speakers. We visited other Wright sites like the Robie House. It was a constant learning experience.”
Without the benefits of the internet, research in the mid-1970s was quite labor intensive, and Zak recalls that Oak Park village records on architects were not well documented until 1921.
“We went through all of the newspapers looking for references, and of course, the Historical Society was invaluable,” Zak said. “Van Bergen was an architect who closely followed Wright’s Prairie style, so many people living in Van Bergen houses thought they lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright House.”
“Now with computers, it’s easier. In the early days, we went to the library or maybe the county building. It was hard to even pin down a build date. Was it the date stamped on the blueprints, the date of the permit or the date the family moved it?”
Early fundraising efforts
Along with research on the work of Wright and his contemporaries, volunteers also took on fundraising duties. Early fundraising gatherings were called patrons parties, and Zak recalled that they were not only beneficial in raising money but in creating camaraderie.
In 1974 and 1975, the Home and Studio Foundation held its first fundraising house walks, called 10 by Wright. With a limited supply of Wright houses, in 1976, the walk was called Wright Plus, which Zak said allowed the organization to put into perspective what came before and what came after the Prairie Style.
Zak chaired the walks in 1979 and 1980 and served on the house selection committee for almost 20 years. She added sidewalk commentators to the tour, putting volunteers on the streets outside the tour homes so that ticket holders in long lines would learn more about the homes they were about to enter.
Today, Zak enjoys leading bus tours for the Trust, taking visitors by Wright’s houses, as well as homes in Oak Park connected to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Hemingway, and architects William Drummond, and Talmadge and Watson.
“This is the most fun for me,” Zak said. “It gives me the chance to interact and connect with people. I’ve been doing the Wright Plus Friday Excursions for 14 years.”
Zak enjoys interacting with tourists from Japan and Germany as well as those a bit closer to home.
“It‘s a new experience every time, because you have new people every time,” she said. “Some of the better groups are the grammar school students from Oak Park. They are so well-prepared by their teachers.”
Zak’s granddaughter participated in a summer program at the Home and Studio while in high school and is now a practicing architect.
“I’m kind of proud that I passed on my love of this to her,” Zak said.
At the end of the day, Zak emphasizes that she thinks her 40 years of service, like those of others, has been mutually beneficial.
“I always talk about the ‘V’ factor: visitors and volunteers. It’s wonderful to have visitors come and share their knowledge,” Zak said. “I think the volunteers are probably the most important support to the organization and to me. The friends I’ve made are so important.”