Richard Guy Wilson: Exploring the geometry of place

BY NICK FETTY | APRIL 16, 2009 7:38 AM

Around a year ago, Richard Guy Wilson, a Commonwealth professor of architectural history at the University of Virginia, got a call from the White House asking if he would speak there for Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.

“At first I thought, ‘This is a joke,’ [because] I’ve been very active in Democratic politics,” Wilson said.

But the invitation was real. Wilson gave his speech to a room of approximately 250 people, including President Bush and his wife, Laura.

Today, he will give a free lecture — not focusing on the nation’s third president, but rather on art history — at 5:30 p.m. in 105 Adler Journalism Building.

After receiving an undergraduate degree at the University of Colorado, he attended the University of Michigan to earn his master’s and doctorate. Before settling at the University of Virginia in 1976, he taught at Michigan and Iowa State University.

At tonight’s lecture, Wilson will discuss the Prairie School, a group of architects who designed buildings all around Iowa during the first fifth of the 20th century and included Frank Lloyd Wright.

“Iowa has one of the largest concentrations of this very unusual architecture compared with anywhere else in the country,” Wilson said.

While teaching at Iowa State in 1977, he published his second book, The Prairie School in Iowa. The book focused on the Prairie School-style architecture all across the state from Sioux City to Dubuque.

Iowa City even has a couple Prairie School-style buildings. The Moses Bloom House, 116 S. Dodge St., was designed by J.J. Holtz in 1908 and housed a former Iowa City mayor. The Jones House, 1155 E. Court St., known as the Cornog House, was constructed in 1922 and was later owned by famous painter Grant Wood.

Wilson has lectured at some of the most prestigious schools in the country including Harvard, Columbia, and Yale. Among many other accolades, in 1986, he was named an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects, an organization that is more than 150 years old. He was also awarded the University of Virginia’s outstanding-professor award in 2001.

This fall, he will present an exhibit at the University of Virginia showcasing the architecture of Thomas Jefferson, who designed the college. He is also working on a book about the former president.

Christopher Roy, a UI professor of art history, is familiar with Wilson’s work and looks forward to the lecture.

“I was excited because he is well-known [and] speaks well,” Roy said. “[He] is speaking about a topic that is important to us here, Prairie-style architecture.”

Roy believes the UI does not get enough art-related lecturers to come to Iowa City, and last summer’s flood has only made things worse. He encourages people to attend this evening’s event for a sense of regional pride.

“Come to see and hear about the great Prairie Style, one of the truly American architectural styles that we can see all over Iowa and the rest of the Midwest,” he said. “Who doesn’t like to look at beautiful buildings?”

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