(c) Mark Hertzberg
I was on my daily bike ride on my birthday just a month ago when my phone rang. I am never overly eager to answer the phone when I’m riding in the winter, because I have to take my gloves off after pulling off the road, and the weather was nasty, but I was glad I took the call. It was John Thorpe wishing me a happy birthday. I had no inkling that he knew my birth date. Today I awoke to an email telling me that John died yesterday of congestive heart failure. He was 71. The world of Wright preservation is reeling from the news.
John was my mentor when I began my Wright adventures some 15 years ago. I had no background in Wright scholarship, but that did not matter to John. All he cared about was that I was writing about Wright’s work, striving to be as accurate as possible, doing as much original research as possible rather than rely on anecdotes and the existing literature. My mentor became a friend. I could not help but smile all the times he tweaked me for being a native New Yorker (Second City Syndrome, John?).
Jonathan Lipman had introduced me to John when I was looking for advice about how to handle a sticky question about the alleged authorship of a house I was writing about. John in turn introduced me to the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. I turned to him for advice often. His advice was always the same: let proven facts lead the way.
I had the pleasure of helping John chair the Building Conservancy’s 2007 annual conference in Northbrook and Racine.
In 2012 John was the person I called for advice from the basement of Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House when I was showing the house to a prospective buyer, Gene Szymczak. The house needed extensive repairs, and the Building Conservancy had fretted about its future. I wanted to know how much the house might be worth as a Wright property over its assessed value. John firmly told me it was time to bring in professional appraisers and to step out of the picture.
Gene ignored his advice, surprising the owners and me by making an offer out of the blue a week later, as they met over lemonade and cashews at the owners’ new apartment. It was an unexpected turn of events, and the house had a new steward. Gene completely rehabilitated the house over the next three years, earning a Wright Spirit Award last October. What better tribute to John than to have the house preserved for another century?
Next year’s Building Conservancy meeting in San Francisco…and each one thereafter…will be diminished without John’s presence. Indeed, so will the Building Conservancy itself, as well as Wright scholarship and preservation.
Farewell, my friend.
Information about any memorial service for John will be posted to the Building Conservancy’s website: www.savewright.org Blair Kamin’s feature obituary story for the Chicago Tribune is at: