Come for the architecture, stay for the community

Volunteering with the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Volunteer opportunities abound in the Chicago area, but few offer as rarefied environment as the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust. 

Interpreters lead tours and perform a variety of other tasks under the roofs of five Wright-designed sites and often spend time in some of Oak Park and River Forest's most architecturally significant homes during the annual Wright Plus Housewalk. 

As the Trust prepares for a fall training session for volunteers, Volunteer Resources Manager Linda Bonifas-Guzman notes that going through the comprehensive program often brings volunteers into the fold for a long-term relationship with the Trust.

The Trust operates public tours and programs at five Chicago area historic sites: Wright's Home and Studio and Unity Temple (1905-08) in Oak Park, the Frederick C. Robie House in Hyde Park, The Rookery Light Court in the Loop and the Emil Bach House in Rogers Park. 

According to Bonifas-Guzman, the two sites with the greatest need for volunteers are the Home and Studio and the Robie House.

Typically, she holds training sessions twice a year, in the spring and fall, and also holds special training sessions when sites are re-opened after a period of restoration, such as the recent years-long effort to restore Oak Park's Unity Temple.

Because the Robie House is currently undergoing restoration, she notes that training in the Robie House will not take place this fall but encourages visitors to take advantage of this unique time to see the home.

"Right now, we're exactly at the halfway point in the restoration," Bonifas-Guzman said. "They've done the front half of the house, and in August are opening up the living room and some of the premier rooms. We anticipate completion in February, and right now is a great time to come in and see the restoration in progress."

Training process

The volunteer training process entails several weeks of training during which each future interpreter creates a personalized tour with help from an experienced mentor. 

Volunteer Felix Diaz, who started with the Trust in 2013, notes that the title of interpreter was deliberately chosen. He says that each tour is personalized and reflects the interpreter's personal take on the space. 

"Everyone makes their own tour,"
 Diaz said. "You could come to the Home and Studio multiple times and always get a different tour."

Bonifas-Guzman says that serving as interpreters is the main role for volunteers at the Home and Studio and that roughly 200 volunteer at the Oak Park site, with roughly 350 interpreters spread among all five sites. 

The Home and Studio is closed only five days a year, and during the busy season -- typically April through October -- tours are often only 10 to 20 minutes apart.

Other sites' tours are more spaced out, depending on demand. The Home and Studio offers a variety of tours, with the most popular tour being a one-hour option. Other tours include an audio-guide tour, a neighborhood tour, a combination tour of the Home and Studio and Unity Temple, a Pedal Oak Park tour on bicycles, and a Wright Around Chicago tour aboard a bus.

Many of the volunteer interpreters also help with the duties during the Wright Plus Housewalk, and Bonifas-Guzman says their numbers have to be augmented to handle the scope of the event.

"The numbers vary by year, depending largely on how many houses we have and how far flung they are," Bonifas-Guzman said.

When the walk included homes in Riverside, the volunteer force exceeded 650, with over 100 volunteers serving at the Avery Coonley Estate. When the walk is more centrally located, as it was in 2018, the Trust needs about 500 volunteers to make the weekend a success. 

The volunteer community

Bonifas-Guzman, who herself started out as a volunteer, praises the unique community that exists among the Trust volunteers. 

"The love of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright, history or decorative arts are often the common thread that brings people here, and once they get bitten by the bug, they tend to stay," Bonifas-Guzman said. "People who like Frank Lloyd Wright are like rabid sports fans. They will travel around the world to feed that interest."

For Lauren Witkowski, a childhood love of the Prairie Style moved her to become an interpreter at the Robie House in 2016. 

"Growing up, my dad would take us on family vacations to see the White Sox and Frank Lloyd Wright homes," Witkowski said. "He studied architecture and designed our own home in the Prairie Style."

She and her husband recently purchased their own Prairie Style home in Brookfield, and she enjoys sharing her passion with others. 

"It gives me a lot of pleasure to explain the Robie House, Chicago and Frank Lloyd Wright to visitors," Witkowski said.

Oak Parker Amie Deluca fostered a connection to her new hometown when she began volunteering at the Home and Studio shortly after moving to the area in 2009. Through her work as an interpreter, day leader and Wright Plus organizer, she says the group has become a source of friendships and a way to get integrated into her new community.

Longtime volunteer Vicki Kwarciany has worn a number of hats in her 21 years as a volunteer with the Trust. As an interpreter and day leader at the Home and Studio to leadership roles in Wright Plus, she has found the community as vital to the volunteering as the mission.

"Yes, I love the topic and the activity, but the fellow volunteers are why I stay," Kwarciany said. "We started out with a common interest and built real friendships."

Diaz echoes her comments. An architect, he began volunteering when he moved to the Chicago area from Las Vegas and didn't have a large community of family and friends. 

When he and his husband took a tour at the Home and Studio, Diaz was inspired to begin volunteering. He says the tour groups provide instant inspiration.

"People come from all over the world, and I love to see them become excited about Wright," Diaz said. "Another great part about this is that the organization itself has become like an instant family for me."

Getting involved

 Enrollment for volunteer training sessions starting in September is underway for interpreters to lead tours at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, Wright's design laboratory and birthplace of Wright's Prairie style of architecture.

Interpreter training is a concentrated program that involves online study, class lectures and workshops leading to certification. Interested individuals must qualify for enrollment during an informational orientation where they will also learn about opportunities for training to be interpreters at Robie House and Unity Temple. 

Training takes place Thursday evenings and two Saturdays, Sept. 25 through Oct. 11 at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, 951 Chicago Ave., Oak Park. 

More information and the volunteer application are available at www.flwright.org/volunteer.

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