Metro-East Living

Springfield’s Dana-Thomas House has metro-east connections

Larry Betz, of Belleville, gives tours of the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield. Completed in 1904, it's one of Frank Lloyd Wright's early Prairie-style homes. Cost to build? $60,000. It has 12,600 square feet of living space. The 4,000-square-foot carriage house is now used as the visitors center.
Larry Betz, of Belleville, gives tours of the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield. Completed in 1904, it's one of Frank Lloyd Wright's early Prairie-style homes. Cost to build? $60,000. It has 12,600 square feet of living space. The 4,000-square-foot carriage house is now used as the visitors center. News-Democrat

Larry Betz is known locally as a retired schoolteacher and Belleville Historical Society president, but he’s also a walking encyclopedia on the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield.

Betz drives more than 100 miles each way in his red Corvette to give tours of the home, which is a state historic site. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the early 1900s and has been largely restored to its original condition.

“We literally have people from all over the world come to this house,” said Betz, who takes his volunteer job very seriously.

He remembers one Boston architect who flew to Chicago, boarded another plane to Champaign, rented a car and drove to Springfield to see the home. Then he turned around and went back the same day.

“There was a great deal of pressure to give him the best tour possible,” Betz said.

Betz isn’t the landmark’s only metro-east connection. Its site manager is Justin Blandford, 38, who grew up in rural Waterloo.

“The Dana-Thomas House is a treasure of art and architecture,” Blandford said. “It’s arguably the most complete example of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in the country.”

Not only is the 12,600-square-foot structure preserved, it’s filled with furniture, art glass and even accent pieces that Wright designed.

“Each art-glass panel is essentially an individual work of art,” Blandford said. “The fact that this entire collection (more than 450 windows, skylights, doors, chandeliers and sconces) is intact is incredible.”

Built for wealthy socialite

Springfield socialite Susan Lawrence Dana commissioned Wright, a young Oak Park architect, in 1902, shortly after her wealthy father died.

Wright incorporated a portion of the Lawrence family Italianate home, but mostly followed his own Prairie style, characterized by low horizontal roofs and wide overhanging eaves.

“Wright was under the belief that architecture should reflect its environment,” Betz said.

Much of the art glass featured Wright’s interpretations of prairie plants such as sumac and goldenrod and insects such as butterflies and dragonflies.

The home is constructed of brick, red oak and plaster with a clay tile roof. It has 35 rooms, including three bedroom suites with bathrooms, two other bedrooms for maids, a library and six fireplaces.

“Since Dana made the comment that, ‘I don’t care what it costs,’ Wright experimented with this house,” Betz said.

Dana was a women’s rights activist. She threw lavish parties and hosted fundraisers at the home. Notable features include balconies off the reception hall, dining room and gallery for musical ensembles.

Dana also faced her share of heartache. Neither of her two infants survived. Two of her husbands died unexpectedly, and her third marriage ended in divorce.

“I am convinced that all men are liars,” she quipped after the first Equal Rights Amendment failed.

Dana lived in the home until 1928, when her health began deteriorating and her live-in cousin died. It was sold in 1944 to the Thomas family, which used it as headquarters for their publishing company for 37 years.

“The house was sold to the state of Illinois in 1981,” according to a brochure. “It has been totally restored and is under the jurisdiction of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.”

Tours five days a week

Today, volunteers lead tours Wednesdays through Sundays at the Dana-Thomas House. T-shirts, jewelry, ties and other gifts with Wright’s designs are available in the Sumac Shop.

Some days, visitors are greeted at the information desk by Hannah Gadberry, 19, of Virden, a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville nursing student. This is her second summer working for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

“I had a lot to learn,” she said. “I had never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright when I came here.”

On a recent Friday, Betz’s tour included visitors Janie Swenson, of Northbrook, and Sue Greenwood, her friend from England. They started by watching a short video, which warned that the home includes many levels and steps, low ceilings and curtain rods. Most tours last an hour, although Betz offers a more in-depth look from Wright’s perspective.

One of Swenson and Greenwood’s favorite rooms was the dining room, which has a 26-foot-high, barrel-vaulted ceiling and table that seats 40.

“What’s the significance of the tall and short chairs?” asked Greenwood, 67, a retired P.E. teacher.

Betz explained that alternating low- and high-back chairs made serving easier and allowed women to wear giant hats, fashionable in the day.

The home was equipped with several “modern” conveniences, including electricity, a built-in ice box, an intercom system and annunciator to show which of seven doorbells was ringing.

The kitchen had three faucets for hot, cold and rain water. The latter was used for washing hair and doing laundry.

“Wright always put the latest technology in his houses,” Betz said. “We’ve done research, and we’re pretty sure (Dana had) the first shower in the United States.”

The tour ended in the home’s “man cave,” a lower-level retreat for male guests with a duckpin bowling alley and billiards table. Dana’s walk-in safe is hidden behind a door.

Wright’s biggest fan

Betz taught full time for 36 years, mostly health at Belleville West High School. He subbed for another 12 years.

Betz began volunteering at the Dana-Thomas House 10 years ago to revisit his architectural roots. As a young man, he studied architecture at Washington University but lost his athletic scholarship after a serious football injury.

“I broke my neck, which changed my life dramatically,” he said.

Betz later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He continued to be a huge Wright fan, even following Prairie style with additions to his 1838 German folk house in rural Belleville.

Betz has visited more than two dozen of Wright’s homes and other buildings across the United States.

“Belleville almost had a Frank Lloyd Wright house,” he said.

In 1947, Dr. Charles Bell commissioned the architect to design and build a home on the Mississippi River bluff, but Bell died shortly after the foundation was poured.

Betz is a father of six grown children and grandfather of nine. He’s a member of the Dana-Thomas House Foundation, which gradually has been reacquiring original lamps and other accent pieces sold in a 1943 auction.

Dream job

Blandford graduated from Waterloo High School in 1995 and earned a history degree at Webster University. He considered law school but landed a prestigious Dunn Fellowship, allowing him to work in the Illinois governor’s office.

“It was very exciting,” he said. “You get to be part of the operation of state government at a very high level at a very young age.”

Blandford then worked 18 months as an Illinois Historic Preservation Agency administrative assistant before being named temporary site manager at the Old State Capitol in 2003. That job expanded to include other state historic sites, including the Lincoln Tomb and War Memorials, Lincoln-Herndon Law Office and the Vachel Lindsay Home.

“We have a staff of nine people,” Blandford said. “We maintain over 20 acres of ground and serve over half a million visitors a year. (More than 300,000) visit Lincoln’s Tomb alone every year.

“But we have hundreds of volunteers, like Larry, who help us with everything from gardening to leading tours.”

The Dana-Thomas House was closed to the public in 2009 because of budget cuts, but Blandford helped draft a shared-management plan that permitted its reopening.

Brandford lives in Springfield with his wife, Holly Rae, a college nursing administrator formerly of Collinsville, and their 4-year-old daughter, Greta.

“I love my job,” Brandford said. “Not only is the history extremely fascinating, you get to share it with people from all over the world who are visiting Illinois. It’s really a thrill.”

At a glance

What: Dana-Thomas House State Historic Site

Where: 301 E. Lawrence Ave. in Springfield

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday (last tour at 3:45 p.m.)

Cost: Free, but suggested donations are $10 for adults, $5 for children or $15 for families

Reservations: Groups of 15 or more only

Tours: Throughout day; allow 1 1/2 hours for visit

Photographs: Outside only

Information: Visit www.dana-thomas.org or call 217-782-6776 (seven days a week)

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