In 1902, Susan Lawrence Dana (1862–1946) was an independent woman and heiress to a substantial fortune, including silver mines in the Rocky Mountains. Widowed in 1900, Dana enjoyed complete control over her household and fortune. Eager to express her personality and reportedly to become the leading hostess in Springfield, Illinois, Dana decided to completely remodel her family's Italianate mansion located in the state capital's fashionable "Aristocracy Hill" neighborhood.
Her search for an architect to match her aspirations ended when she was introduced to Frank Lloyd Wright, the rising leader of a new movement in architecture.
Susan Lawrence Dana's 1902 commission to Wright to plan the "remodeling" of the Lawrences' Victorian mansion was the largest commission that Wright had enjoyed up to that time. The architect, who recognized a kindred spirit in Mrs. Dana, expanded the boundaries of his commission to design and build what was, in effect, an entirely new house.
This house was a showcase for Wright's Prairie Style. It reflected Susan Lawrence Dana's flamboyant personality and Dana's and Wright's mutual love of Japanese prints and drawings. The house was designed for display and entertainment. An arched doorway admitted guests into a series of expanding spaces, the vestibule and reception hall.
The concept of "expanding space" was repeated throughout the house, with windows placed so as to continually draw the resident or guest into an awareness of the outside. Wright designed approximately 450 art glass windows, skylights, door panels, sconces, and light fixtures for the house, most of which survive. Much of the art glass, and the mural by George Niedecken surmounting the dining room interior, centered on a sumac motif.
A substantial west wing leads visitors through an interior Torii gate into two of the largest rooms in the house. The upper-level gallery was used for musical entertaining, and the ground-level library contains special easels designed by Wright for Dana to display selections from her collection of Japanese prints, part of more than 100 pieces of free-standing Wright-designed white oak furniture in the house.
Susan Lawrence Dana lived in the Dana-Thomas House for approximately 24 years, from 1904 until about 1928. At first a successful hostess and leader of Springfield's social scene, she later became increasingly reclusive and turned her attention to spiritualism and the occult. Suffering from increasing financial constraints in her later years, she closed the main house around 1928 and moved to a small cottage on the grounds. As Dana struggled with age-related dementia in the 1940s, her home and its contents were sold.
Charles C. Thomas, a successful medical publisher, was the second owner and custodian of the Dana-Thomas House in 1944-1975. A view of the building was featured on the title pages of some of his publications. Charles died in 1969 and his Wife Nanette died in 1975. He and his wife are credited with maintaining the house's original furnishings and design, and with selling the home and its furnishings as a unit to the state of Illinois in 1981 for $1 million, significantly less than could have been earned had the household been broken up.
Source: Restoration plans and documents are held by the Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago