Barbara Ballinger and the Legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright: A  History and a Tribute

Some reflections by Bob Trezevant (Feb. 2023)

[Bob is a decades-long member of UTRF, as well as being an interpreter at Unity Temple and an active member of the Historical Society of Oak Park & River Forest. He and his family moved to Oak Park in 1977. He was administrative assistant for the Oak Park Festival of 1978, sponsored by the Festival Theater Company, and became actively involved then as a member of the steering committee of the Oak Park Tour Center of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio Foundation. He feels honored to have known and worked  with Barbara Ballinger for forty-four years.]

Barbara Ballinger, 1990, shelving, or unshelving, Ernie. | CREDIT: Historical Society OPRF

When Barbara Ballinger died at age 97 on Nov. 14, 2022, she left behind an extensive and impressive array of connections to the Oak Park community. Noted in her obituary [Wednesday Journal, Nov. 16, 2022] were the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, First United Church, the Doris Humphrey Society, and “several other nonprofit organizations.” Her most important connection, clearly, was her professional one as head librarian at the Oak Park Public Library.

Barbara arrived in Oak Park in 1958, first serving at the Maze branch of the library and then as assistant librarian at the main library, where she became head librarian in 1967. She served in that capacity for 24 years, until her retirement in 1991. During her tenure at the library Barbara played a significant role in preserving the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright for the community.

The first 20 years of Wright’s career were spent in Oak Park, from the building of his own home in 1889 and the building of his adjoining studio in 1898 to his departure in 1909. By the time Wright died in 1959, he was known worldwide as perhaps America’s greatest architect. Besides the many private homes he had designed in Oak Park and River Forest, his most notable structure was Unity Temple, constructed from 1906-1908 and dedicated in 1909. Though the building was an architectural masterpiece designed for a Unitarian-Universalist congregation, it soon became an economic burden for the congregation. Its construction in poured reinforced concrete, a cost-saving measure, became problematic. Maintaining it was expensive, and it began to deteriorate, requiring costly repairs.

Fortunately, there were many people both in and out of the congregation who stepped in to preserve the building. One such person was Bob Rice, the congregation’s minister from 1952-1970.

He appreciated the building’s architectural significance, and he tried his best to welcome into the building the many local and even international visitors who would appear unannounced. One person who helped him was Helena Gervais, who had grown up since infancy in the congregation and who was married there in 1935. After her husband, Paul Gervais, died unexpectedly in 1963, she worked for minimal pay as a part-time assistant to Bob Rice. Together and with the involvement of others, they compiled the first brochure and audio recording for self-guided tours of Unity Temple. Helena gave me my first tour of Unity Temple in the summer of 1966 before my marriage to her daughter, Katherine Gervais.

The year 1969 brought the tenth anniversary of Wright’s death. Interest in his local private homes and in Unity Temple was intense. The congregation at Unity Temple could certainly welcome any income that might be generated from tourism. A local group decided to have a five-week-long Frank Lloyd Wright Festival, organized primarily by the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce, to run from Memorial Day through the Fourth of July. The festival included a tour in Unity Temple and three of Wright’s private homes, as well as a parade, forums, concerts, and then fireworks Among the many people active in that endeavor was Barbara Ballinger, head of the Oak Park Pubic Library.

The Oak Leaves of June 25, 1969, headlined its editorial as “Wright Festival success credited to villagers.” The article noted: “Barbara Ballinger, Oak Park’s chief librarian and her staff gathered and made available a large collection of books, drawings, photographs and records of Wright, especially as they pertain to his works locally.” These materials were listed in A Guide to the Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park and River Forest, produced by the library.

The editorial continued: “Two special awards were given to individuals who have worked for years to preserve the Wright heritage. Mr. and Mrs. Clyde Warren Nooker were honored for the restoration of the Wright studio on Chicago Ave. And the Rev. Robert Rice was recognized for having given time to countless visitors who have come to view Unity Temple on Lake St.”

“Tours, which drew more than even the most optimistic individuals expected, were planned by Helena Gervais.” As a matter of fact, 1,800 people showed up, paying $2.50 each. The line of people waiting to enter Unity Temple stretched from Kenilworth Ave. along Lake St. to Oak Park Ave. “The tour included admission to the inside of four of Wright’s most famous building—Unity Temple on Lake St., the Cheney House at 320 East Ave., the Gale House on Elizabeth Ct., and the Winslow House in River Forest. In addition, ticket buyers inspected the outside of other Wright homes in the two villages.” Lloyd Wright, the eldest of the Wright children, who himself became a noted architect, participated in the festival. He spent his time in Oak Park as the guest of Helena Gervais and her friend Marion Herzog at the Gervais home at 201 Linden Ave. In his thank you letter to Helena, he wrote about Unity Temple, “There is still some vitally needed restoration there that I can help with.” True to his word, he did return to help at Unity Temple and later as advisor to the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio Foundation.

Marion Rawls Herzog was another local librarian who was also involved in preserving the Wright legacy. Marion, eight years older than Helena, had also grown up in the congregation at Unity Temple. In fact, her grandfather, Ralph Skillen, was on the building committee for Unity Temple but resigned because he was skeptical of Wright’s design. Marion had served as librarian at the Art Institute’s Burnham Library of Architecture and later set up the library for United Airlines. She was subsequently hired by Barbara Ballinger to be a readers’ services librarian at the Oak Park Public Library, where she worked on the local authors collection. After Marion’s divorce, she shared the first floor apartment of her longtime Unity Temple friend Helena Gervais on Linden Ave.

During her time at the Burnham Library, Marion had assisted Grant Carpenter Manson on the research for his 1958 book Frank Lloyd Wright to 1910: The First Golden Age. In his acknowledgements, Manson wrote, “In the early days of my research, my most valuable co-worker was Miss Marion Rawls (now Mrs. William Herzog), then associated with the Burnham Library of The Art Institute of Chicago. There was nothing about my subject, it seemed to me, which Miss Rawls didn’t know or couldn’t find.” As part of Barbara’s efforts to acquire relevant materials on Wright, she and Marion convinced Grant Manson to donate his archives to the Special Collections at the Oak Park Public Library. Marion and Helena drove to Minneapolis to personally retrieve the papers and get them to Oak Park.

Barbara kept up the pace of collecting Wright materials after the festival of 1969. She discovered that Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, John Lloyd Wright, owned a copy of his father’s 1910 Wasmuth monograph (portfolio), published in Berlin in 1910 after Wright’s twenty years in Oak Park. It was a crucial factor in Wright’s career, vastly strengthening his reputation and influence in Europe and later Japan. Barbara convinced the Oak Park Rotary Club to purchase the work from John Lloyd Wright and donate it to the library. The event was reported in the Oak Leaves of April 8, 1970. The same article includes the following: “In addition to the Rotary Club gift, the library received from an ‘anonymous donor’ a small brochure designed and printed by Wright in 1898. announcing his new office at the Rookery and visiting hours at his Oak Park studio. The brochure shows floor plans of the Oak Park ‘draughting rooms’ and business offices at the Rookery. The item has been described by the library as ‘very rare.’ It is in the Wright collection room.”

By the early 1970s, the condition of Unity Temple was dire. A restoration committee was formed, of which Marion Herzog was the chair. Among its members was architect John Michiels, who the Oak Leaves had noted in 1969, “supervised the construction of the new Wright-Bock fountain plaza and has been a prime mover in the restoration of Wright’s renowned Unity Temple on Lake St.” The committee submitted an application to the National Trust for Historic Preservation to have Unity Temple declared a national historic landmark. Though such a designation would not necessarily elicit any federal or state funds, the hope was that its significance would boost fundraising from private and corporate sources. The application was successful, and so in 1971 Unity Temple became Oak Park’s first national historic landmark. In order for funds to be channeled to a non-profit organization instead of to a church congregation, the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation (UTRF) was incorporated in 1973, with Marion Herzog as its founding president. The Forest Leaves of December 13, 1972, had reported that the new organization would have a seven-member board, which would include a representative from the village of Oak Park (in this case, its president, John Gearen), a representative from the American Institute of Architects, a representative from the Art Institute, three representatives from the congregation, and a seventh elected by this group. I’ll leave it to more competent researchers to find out who actually constituted the first UTRF board.

Courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust

Meanwhile, Charlotte Nooker, now a widow, decided to sell the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio property to assure its protection. After two years of negotiations led by Art Replogle of the Oak Park Development Corporation, the Wright complex was purchased by a consortium of local banks to take it off the market and put it under the ownership of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In June of 1974, the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio Foundation was incorporated, with Dawn Follett Goshorn as its first president. Under the direction of Barbara Ballinger, the library published Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie School of Architecture: A Selection of Materials in the Oak Park Library.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Festival tour of 1969 served as the prototype for what eventually became the Home & Studio Foundation’s Wright Plus. Its first tour, in the spring of 1975, was called Ten by Wright. The Foundation’s president, Dawn Goshorn. had been an OPRF classmate of Katherine Gervais, had taught high school history, and had helped Helena with the tour situation at Unity Temple. Helena assisted Dawn at the organizational meeting for future Home & Studio Foundation board members. In 1978, Dawn chaired the Oak Park Festival.

After 1974, Barbara Ballinger had seventeen more years as head of the Oak Park Public Library before her retirement in 1991. I hope others will recount her continued support of the Wright legacy. Library staff members would know of all the work she and her staff did to support professional researchers and to collect materials. Staff and volunteers of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust would know of the library’s  role in providing background research for tour houses and in hosting training sessions in the library’s Veterans Room. Barbara herself served at one time on the board of the UTRF and was a donor to Unity Temple’s complete restoration, completed in 2017. I’m certain she was proud of the 2019 designation by UNESCO of Unity Temple as a World Heritage site.

Barbara Ballinger was only one of the many people who contributed to the success of UTRF in preserving and restoring Unity Temple. For fifty years now, members and ministers of the Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oak Park have participated constructively in the process. Other Wright aficionados joined the UTRF board and brought their expertise to the effort. UTRF has had a number of executive directors to help guide its work. And let’s not forget the many interpreters and other volunteers who help make the building available and meaningful to its many visitors. We can be proud that Unity Temple is the grande dame of architecture in Oak Park and that since its inception in 1973 UTRF has led the way in securing Wright’s legacy in Oak Park for a world-wide audience.