Tucked into the northernmost corner of Illinois, Lake County is where Chicagoland thins out. Highways widen, development becomes sparser, and strip malls give way to midcentury ranch homes on acre lots. Small farms are still spread along the Tri-State Tollway, with silos and barns peeking above the treeline during the winter. The rollercoasters of Six Flags Great America sit tight and quiet, awaiting another thrilling season.
Along with an optic white, 55 foot statue of Ramses II.
Am I high?
This is the home of Jim and Linda Onan, who would serve as collaborators throughout the design and construction of the six-story Gold Pyramid and its spectacularly bizarre and exciting 10 acre grounds. Assisted by their son Rocko, and inspired by the pseudoscience behind Pyramid Power in the 1970s, Jim acted as de-facto gentleman architect, designing and building a replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza that is 1/9th the size of the original in Egypt. While President Thomas Jefferson found inspiration in Italian villas, Jim Onan, a concrete contractor by trade, looked to the ancient world. That’s right. This is a house like no other. The only pyramid shaped house in the world.
The Gold Pyramid in Wadsworth is proportionally perfect to its sister structure at Giza, and set along the same true north directional axis. This alignment was so important to Onan that when it was discovered that an original foundation wall was off of this axis during construction in 1977, the existing work had to be scrapped and the wall realigned. This axis, along with the natural spring located below the pyramid, is believed to give the pyramid supernatural powers. However one may feel about this claim, the spring allows the pyramid to be heated and cooled through a geothermal system that Jim Onan designed himself. Construction was ripe with the Onan’s trying different techniques to solve complex engineering problems. The Onan’s don’t claim to be architects, fans of high architecture, kitsch or postmodernism. This is their home, and a physical manifestation of their love of all things Egyptian. This is a family obsessed over generations, and that dedication shows in the objects and the stories behind them.
The exterior of the Gold Pyramid is simple and harmonious. Currently clad in gold paint (the Pyramid was originally covered in 24 karat gold plates) the pyramid’s front door is barely visible up a set of stairs within a rectangular recess. Windows are mullionless plate glass set in a haphazard but functional rhythm.
It could easily be believed that Michael Graves travelled to remote Lake County to build a structure that had all of the promise and fun of his renderings, designing a series of workhorse front-facing gables that worked so hard they mighty-morphed into a pyramid. Jim Onan found inspiration in his own interpretation of Egyptian visual language, an approach vastly different than the architects of the lotus flower capitals and cavetto cornices of the Reebie Storage Warehouse in Chicago (George Kingsley, 1922) or the First Presbyterian Church in Nashville (William Strickland, 1848). Is there a precedent for Egyptian Revival Postmodern Outsider Architecture? There is now.
For all of the simplistic elements of the exterior, the interior is very busy-part family home, and part gallery, where Egyptian objets d’art and collectables live freely among pastel Chintz upholstery and billowing white window valances. The ultimate result is a lovingly curated space, where obsession and domestic ease work joyfully together. This is Linda’s contribution as interior designer. Family portraits, suggesting the life of an atypical Midwest family growing up in the 1980s, surround a tapestry of Ramses in the living room, collaboration between Linda and Rocko. The dining room, designed in the shape of a cartouche and located at the absolute center of the pyramid, is filled with real gold objects. A needlepoint portrait of Nefertiti, a gift from a family friend, is displayed beside 16th century Shawabtys, given to the family by the Egyptian government, with whom the Onan’s have enjoyed a fruitful relationship across decades. The home is full of Rocco’s ambitious adolescent projects, including a detailed medallion nearly four feet in circumference, and a 24 karat gold leaf front door. Walls throughout are covered in bright, beautifully stylized depictions of life in ancient Egypt, and done over the course of three years by a sign painter from Zion, Illinois.
Through the 1980s and 1990s the Onans raised their five children, while continuing to add elements to their Post Egyptian estate. The site now includes a four car garage in the form of three small pyramids, a moat, and an exact replica of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings that includes a model of Tut’s mummy and sarcophagus. After the Onan’s opened up the pyramid to tour groups, they filled a gift shop with Cleopatra beach towels and replica brick-a-brac, and the long strip of pavement leading up to the house was flanked with repeating Bull Mastiff-sized Sphinx figures. After some interference from Lake County zoning officials, a 55 foot, 2,000 ton statue of Ramses II was constructed at the end of the driveway. Beats the hell out of a concrete goose wearing a Blackhawks jersey, doesn’t it?
Perhaps what’s more outstanding than the pyramid itself is the desire by the Onan family to be a part of an official conversation about cultural heritage, and there should absolutely be a seat for them at the table. The Onan’s have come to their interest in being designated as a landmark because they recognize and celebrate their own work and dedication to a level of creativity. This lies at the core of why we want to preserve what is special about our built environment, and the type of people that heritage conservation should want to please. They wish to see the Gold Pyramid included on local and national lists of landmarks, and have come to this conclusion on their own, without any prodding or outside influence from state agencies or historians.
Truth be told, we desperately need the Onan’s on our team. Recent legislation challenging local landmarks districts in the nearby states of Michigan and Wisconsin have put the field on the hard defensive. Detractors have called foul on the process and its restrictions on everything from property rights to the replacement of siding and wood windows. While we fight to keep these ordinances intact and local commissions from making sound decisions, people wince. This has created a major public relations problem. Landmarking anything, whether local or national, has come to be seen as prohibitive
This is the type of progressive thinking about cultural heritage, the type that comes naturally to the folks at the Gold Pyramid, that we need to encourage in order to survive-the type that people-not preservation, pushes on its own. Perhaps it’s magical thinking to envision a world where we don’t need historic districts, local landmarks designations, or demolition delay to keep great buildings around to serve our future, but maybe this is a start. Could we realign ourselves with a message that in preserving our architectural heritage, we provide a place where memories can live forever? Could we put ourselves in the frame of thinking that realms of kitsch and roadside attractions have the potential to transform over time into an acknowledgement that history takes peculiar and miraculous terms, and that the word “historic” belongs not to the historian, but to the drive-ins, movie theatres and pyramid houses that are given historic status by the people that love them? Perhaps the deepest question is “how do we get historic preservation to happen without historic preservation”? The answer might be Jim, Linda and Rocko Onan, as well as a bit of our own pyramid power.