Kent Bartram on Frank Lloyd Wright and old Hollywood
It is four o'clock on a Sunday afternoon in Oak Park as clusters of tourists gather in the shade of an overpowering ginkgo tree central to the courtyard of Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio.
"Wright believed that a house should reflect the sight, not the other way around," said Kent Bartram, referring to the courtyard centerpiece. Bartram explains that when Wright first purchased the property in 1889, the ginkgo tree was a mere four inches in diameter. Freshly certified as an "interpreter," Bartram was about to guide a small group of eager tourists through the renovated home and studio of one of America's most famous and beloved architects.
For Bartram, working in Wright's Oak Park home and studio is just another facet to his already diverse palette of accomplishments, many of which stem from his love for Chicago. Put simply: Bartram is an amateur historian and genealogist who loves architecture and old Hollywood.
Bartram began his work with the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust as a volunteer. Volunteers founded the trust in 1974. They have since then restored Wright's home and studio as closely as possible to its original state in 1909. As a volunteer, Bartram learned the ins and outs of the extensive and on-going restoration of the property. In spring 2008, after three years working as a volunteer, Bartram was hired to re-vamp the trust's volunteer program.
Initially, the trust was apprehensive to hire Bartram, as his resume did not exhibit the standard criteria for the job; the trust was used to people in the role who were professional volunteer managers. However, they soon realized that much of what Bartram did outside of his professional life contained the necessary elements.
Bartram is no stranger when it comes to organizing and utilizing a team of volunteers. After studying journalism and business at the University of Kentucky, Bartram moved to Chicago permanently in 1986. He first settled in the Lakeview neighborhood where he and his partner, Terry Wittenberg, lived together. The two met through Wittenberg's involvement with the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus where they had mutual friends. They relocated to the Southport neighborhood just west of Lakeview. It was in Southport that Bartram became involved with "Southport Neighbors" ( a local resident's organization ) where he managed the implementation of a neighborhood recycling program prior to the city's blue bag initiative.
Bartram and Wittenberg were an integral part of the resurgence of Southport Street after opening a Mail Boxes, Etc. store. "We were ranked number three internationally," recalled Bartram noting that the company helped boost business in the area. They sold the store in 2004.
Boosting business is among Bartram's many talents. In 1995, Bartram was a part of a team of people spearheaded by Tracy Baim and Kevin Boyer in founding the Chicago Area Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. The chamber was set up to promote economic opportunities for the LGBT community.
While living in Southport, Bartram and Wittenberg were also key figures in an attempt to preserve the historic character of the neighborhood when 50-foot-tall concrete apartment buildings began to replace the classic wooden frame houses. Bartram's love for preserving a historic aesthetic and the need to make an actual living lead he and his partner to create Cottage Industries, LLC. Together, they would do adaptive reuse of architecturally beautiful properties, such as houses or flats. "The goal of each project was to envision what each property actually looked like when it was built," Bartram explained, "and to modernize it without stripping it of its character…even put its character back if possible."
However, Cottage Industries suffered as a result of the economic decline with homeowners cutting back on unnecessary costs, which often meant forfeiting restoring aesthetic antiquities. But Bartram found another way of celebrating his love for architecture. In a lot of ways, Bartram's work with the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust was a logical progression that grew from his previous experiences as a business and community leader in Chicago. This is what ultimately led the trust to hire and upgrade Bartram's position on staff and to bring new life to its volunteer program, a project he has treated similarly to his restoration of old properties. "I have been taking a very solid strong volunteer program here and bringing it into this century with new technology and quality control… [ I am ] making it more modern."
It may seem like Bartram's life is scattered, but really he sees everything as a whole.
Bartram describes himself as a dilettante of architecture, beauty and design. His fascination for lost aesthetics and history stems from his esoteric connection to a generation before his time. In many ways, Bartram is a man plucked from the film reel of a 1940s Los Angeles' Hollywood and stuck in the 21st-century yearning to return to an era long gone.
"When I open up Vanity Fair, I want to be the person who writes those stories about old Hollywood that reveal things that nobody ever knew was actually happening behind-the-scenes," Bartram said.
Seven years ago, Bartram began writing a book. What started as a small research project has turned into a comprehensive biography on Little Edie Beale, the late first cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Currently titled "Staunch Character," writing the biography has brought him back to the Hollywood he knows best.
His fascination with Little Edie was not homegrown; in fact, it was not until much later in his life that he even came across her. "Friends at dinner parties would talk about this movie about Jackie's cousin and Aunt and it was this crazy film [ called Grey Gardens ] ." Bartram recalled seeing segments of the documentary but remembers thinking it was weird and never being able to finish it. After watching it through, Bartram wondered, "Why is no one talking about Edie Beale? People on the street should be talking about her, she is so fantastic!" Bartram started digging only to find that there was very little information available. "Gay men were keeping her alive…small cliques of urban gay men…primarily on the East Coast."
Bartram began piecing together Little Edie's story and soon connected with her family. It was through Edie's family that he met Michael Sucsy who had been developing a movie treatment of the actual story of Grey Gardens and the Beales. Sucsy and Bartram joined forces and Bartram became the official research consultant for the new Grey Gardens. The movie was picked up by HBO and released in April 2009 starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. It was Bartram's first big break.
"It was serendipitous. It was like being dropped on the moon. It was utterly fascinating," Bartram said of his involvement with Grey Gardens. Bartram noted that there were several people interested in Little Edie's life at the time, "Different groups of people were trying to get Edie to market." At the same time that he and Sucsy were working on the film, Doug Wright was adapting the story of Grey Gardens as a musical, completely independent from Sucsy and Bartram's project. Wright's musical went to Broadway and starred Christine Ebersole as Little Edie.
Bartram said he would be hard pressed to believe any gay man wouldn't fall in love with Edie after seeing the film. He describes Edie's fashion sense as innate, saying that she was in so many ways magnetic. Edie was able to start a trend without little effort or care for what society thought. Bartram argues that Edie's influence was similar to the chic sway her cousin held for the unmistakable garments of her time, which were not as simple as fashion or clothes. "Jackie was more like Edie than she [ Jackie ] would want you to know," Bartram said, fascinated with the broader historical implications and pop influence Edie's story holds. "The big thing that I learned is that pop culture does not happen by accident."
Bartram has one more year with the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust before he will commit full time to finishing writing "Staunch Character," which he expects will take another two years before it is completed. In the meantime, he and his partner are preparing to move back into the city, to the Andersonville neighborhood, to be closer to friends.