Susan Lawrence Dana
Susan Lawrence (1862-1946), the woman who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright in 1902 to “remodel” her deceased father’s home in Springfield, Illinois, lived during a period in history when women were finding their voices and carving out new places in society. As the world changed around her, she assumed several names and played many roles. She entertained lavishly, traveled the world, championed the rights of women and African-Americans, shared her time and money, and led seekers of spiritual truths. Her personal life included friendships with celebrities as well as childhood friends and three marriages (two ending with tragic deaths of her husbands and one terminating in divorce).
Susan gave the house its life by using it as a showcase for the visual and performing arts, an entertainment venue, and a home. Like other world tourists of her day, she integrated reproductions of classical European statuary and art pieces she purchased on her travels with artwork commissioned especially for the house by Frank Lloyd Wright. Contemporary newspaper accounts reveal that she hosted numerous recitals in the house. The most notable musician to perform in the house was her second husband, Lawrence Joergen-Dahl, who was emerging as a promising professional singer at the time of his death. Susan’s lavish large parties were described in detail by the local media. Her smaller dinner parties which often included notables such as the Illinois governor and his wife were also noted by the press. Finally, the house was always a home to Susan and her cousin Florence as well as to the staff who carried out the many domestic duties. Additionally, her second and third husbands lived in the home briefly and houseguests frequently called it home for both short and long periods of time.
In the early 1920’s, Susan’s interests shifted and the house became a center for political activism and a hub for seekers of spiritual truths. Susan was appointed the legislative chairman of the Illinois branch of the National Woman’s Party in 1923. In that capacity she led from her home the campaign to pass legislation in Illinois that granted equal rights to women. Due to many factors, that effort was unsuccessful. As she recovered from that defeat, Susan opened her home to those who like her were seeking spiritual truths. For a brief time the house was the Lawrence Center for Constructive Thought. There Susan explored with others aspects of a popular movement called New Thought. The Lawrence Center offered classes, lectures, book sales, and children’s lessons on non-traditional philosophies and religions. Thanks to Susan, the house was more than brick, glass, and wood. It was as Frank Lloyd Wright predicted “a house to rest the soul.”