Jeremy and Kirsten Black (far left and right) have taken on the challenge of making an iconic Frank Lloyd Wright building into a home suitable for 21st century living for them and their three children, Simone, Penelope and John. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

The Coonley Playhouse, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed local landmark at 350 Fairbank Road in Riverside, started its life in 1912 as a kindergarten but was converted in 1919 by architect and one-time Wright apprentice William Drummond into a single-family home.

Modified substantially through the decades, the building was owned for the past 40 years by Dr. Ted and Susan Smith, who put the home on the market in 2018 when they relocated to Florida.

The Smiths restored the home’s impressive Wright-designed public spaces – the large former school room that serves as the living room and library – commissioning museum-quality replacements for the whimsical art-glass windows that made the Coonley Playhouse famous.

While anyone walking through the home’s front entrance is wowed by those spaces, the private living spaces of the home made clear why it took three years and a price drop of more than $200,000 for the home to sell.

Rooms that are part of the Coonley Playhouse’s original design, such as the grand main former school room, as it looks today. Renovation work is concentrated in the later residential addition by William Drummond. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

The Coonley Playhouse was a huge project, one now being enthusiastically undertaken by its new owners, Jeremy and Kirsten Black, who bought the home last October. 

The original Wright-designed public spaces essentially were restored by the Smiths, so the Blacks are concentrating their efforts on making Drummond’s later addition to the rear of the property, which made the building into a home, their principal focus.

“We feel like since it was a Drummond addition it gives us the opportunity to make this work for the family without messing with the original Frank Lloyd Wright section,” said Jeremy Black during an interview with the Landmark at the home last week.

The couple, who have three children, had lived in the Hollywood section of Brookfield since 2009. Black, who is president of the Riverside Arts Center board of directors, said the family was looking to move to a more spacious home. While the Coonley Playhouse might not have immediately ticked that box, it also was an attractive possibility.

As the asking price for the home kept dropping, it became more and more attractive, even if it was going to be a months-long project.

“This was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that kind of arose as a chance, because we wanted more space and we were going to move anyway,” Black said. “That price drop came into our scenario of what we thought we could do with the house.”

The grand main room, as it appeared in 1912. (File)

Even then, others thought maybe taking this plunge wasn’t such a hot idea.

“We had multiple people tell us not to do it,” Black said. “And we would slowly talk to them and win them over. ‘This is why we’re doing it. This is why it makes sense.’”

Bolstering their confidence in pulling it off was the fact that Kirsten Black’s father, Phil Wieneke, owned a construction company for many years and is serving as the unofficial general contractor for their remodel.

Wieneke’s experience also included work on a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in the south suburbs, said Jeremy Black. In addition, the Blacks have hired Riverside architect Sander Kaplan – who is also a neighbor and owner of a William Drummond home – to design the renovation.

 “To have someone who lives in a Drummond home to come in and know the landscape, know Frank Lloyd Wright and just be able to help out with the plans was [key],” Black said.

It was Kaplan, for example, who suggested installing under-floor heating – a feature common in Frank Lloyd Wright’s later Usonian home designs – in the remodeled Drummond wing to the rear.

Natural gas pipes that had been wrapped around the building’s exterior are being brought inside, and the Blacks are restoring the original footprint of the Wright-designed kitchen, removing a section of wall added later to open it up to the main living space as originally designed.

Now a two-bedroom home, the renovation will make it a four-bedroom, three bath residence.

“There’s a weird balance you strike between making a house livable and [making it so people will want to buy it in the future. We plan on staying for a good chunk of time, but we do have that forethought to think somewhere down the road. … What do we change so the next buyer will say, ‘We can do this.’”

Kaplan, director of architecture for Bloom Companies LLC, also worked on the house for the Smiths, an experience he called a “learning process that helped me later in how to approach these historic projects.”

The original drawings for the Coonley Playhouse are not as detailed as contemporary plans, Kaplan said, so it’s necessary to understand the design intent.

“It can be difficult to make contemporary living work in a home designed over 100 years ago,” Kaplan said. “It requires an owner who appreciates the original design in concept, proportion and detail, and wants to create a modern living space that respects them. Both the current and previous owners were and are dedicated to do this. [Frank Lloyd Wright] although a master of built space both inside and out, was not the greatest at kitchen and baths which is what most modern families require these days.”

The Coonley Playhouse will also soon be known as just the second Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structure to be outfitted with solar panels, something made possible by the building’s flat roof and boldly cantilevered eaves that project from the Fairbank Road façade.

The Riverside Preservation Commission on Aug. 12 voted to approve a certificate of appropriateness for the solar panel installation after having the Blacks make a plywood mockup and placing them on the roof to ensure they couldn’t be seen from the public right of way.

“The decision to do that was to upgrade the home to have more contemporary utilities,” said Black, who added he believes utility costs are headed upward, so it’s a way to save some money in the future. “With all the rebates Illinois gives it seemed like a no-brainer.”

Two sets of panels will go up on the roof, one above the main playroom space and another over a later garage addition to the east.

“The question really was, would we be allowed to do it,” Black said. “Most Frank Lloyd Wright homes don’t have flat roofs, so it really gave us the opportunity to do something that wasn’t visible, that could upgrade the home and make it more efficient without destroying the view.”