Frank Lloyd Wright is considered one of the most influential architects of modern history, moving design from the excessive Victorian era to the toned-down modern era. There is an inexhaustible amount of literature about his work. But for those who knew him outside of this drafting table, it was easy to get caught up in the tornado that was his life. While he worked on some of the grandest buildings in the world, his personal life was often a mess and he courted scandal. It is possible to have an extraordinary talent to share with the world while being inherently flawed as a person. Wright is not the first public figure to prove that. The flaws coexist with the talent. It is not two sides of a coin – it is two sides of a 20-sided dice, each unique side contributing to the whole.
Wright Was From Rural Wisconsin
As famous as Wright is today, he did not start off from a place of great wealth or privilege. He was born in 1867 to a Baptist minister/ musician, William Carey Wright, and schoolteacher Anna Lloyd Jones Wright. He grew up in central Wisconsin on the lands settled by his mother’s family. The family had a fighting, independent spirit, with their own motto, “Truth Against the World.” Young Frank had the run of the rolling hills along the Wisconsin River as he played and explored, seeking his own truth in the world. He helped on the Lloyd Jones farm, “working from tired to tired,” tending the animals and watching the cycle of growth, death, and rebirth. He watched how the sun changed the landscape and everything in it. His time in Spring Green would give him a love of nature, which would have an enormous impact on his architectural career.
Before Frank Lloyd Wright was a world-famous architect, he was just a kid who loved to play with blocks. His mother, Anna Lloyd Jones, just knew he was going to be an architect. She would take pictures of grand cathedrals from Harpers Weekly, frame them, and hang them on the wall of his nursery. She encouraged his love of building by giving him a block set when he was nine. The blocks his mother gave him, though, were not regular building blocks. Friedrich Froebel, the man who invented kindergarten in 1830, created these blocks. Wright credits the blocks, and Froebel’s philosophy as significantly influencing his design work. The Froebel blocks showed him how all architecture and construction is based on a simple geometry, and that the important part of the building was the space within it. This would be a cornerstone of Prairie style architecture.
At age eighteen, Wright left Spring Green for the University of Wisconsin in Madison to study civil engineering (the University had no architecture program at the time). He had never been a strong student, but the University admitted him on a trial basis. He joined the Phi Delta Theta fraternity and took classes part time. Structural engineering did not give Wright much of a chance to develop his interest in design and aesthetics. He quickly grew disenchanted with the program. One of Wright’s progress reports from 1887 has a hand-written note, “Rhetoricals – Failed to appear in class.” Wright left the University after just two semesters. He went to Chicago to start his career without ever completing a university degree. Despite this, the University of Wisconsin gave him an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts in 1955 for his years of professional service.
Wright worked for two architectural firms before finding a position at Adler and Sullivan, working with renown architect Louis Sullivan. Wright and Sullivan shared the opinion that nature should be part of architecture. Sullivan promoted organic designs, bringing nature into an urban setting. Wright, like Sullivan, believed architecture should not dominate nature, but work with it. This was a rebellious idea in the era of grand Victorian designs like Queen Anne and Romanesque that were all about dominating the landscape with their height and aesthetic. In a unique twist, Sullivan allowed Wright, still a draftsperson at the firm, to help with the design of the Charnley House in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Draftspeople were not typically involved in the design process, they produced the construction drawings for the firm’s projects. This shows Sullivan’s recognition of Wright’s vision, and how it aligned with his own. Sullivan became Wright’s mentor and respected friend.
Not long after his success organizing the 1893 World’s Fair, Daniel Burnham offered Wright a partnership at his architecture firm. As part of the offer, Burnham would have sent Wright to the Ecole de Beaux Arts school in Paris, where Burnham trained, for three years. The Ecole de Beaux Arts school focused on classical and neoclassical design, bringing Greek and Roman styles into modern structures. Wright, a strong believer in architecture working with nature, not dominating it, turned the offer down. For all their differing ideas of what architecture should be, Wright gave Burnham credit for an innovative urban design. During a lecture, he said, “Thanks to Dan Burnham, Chicago seems to be the only great city in our States to have discovered its own waterfront.” Today’s cities are rediscovering this idea that blends Daniel Burnham’s use of waterfront as public space and Wright’s connection with nature.
Although Wright was a rising star in the architecture world, his inability to manage his spending habits plagued him. He loved the finer things, fine suits, fast cars, and a large house for his family. Because he refused to accept less than the best, he was always on the verge of bankruptcy. When he married Catherine Tobin in 1889, they built a home in Oak Park, Illinois with a loan from Sullivan. In exchange, Wright entered a five-year contract with Sullivan’s firm. He had a stable job, a wife, and a house, but he was borrowing hundreds – even thousands – of dollars from friends and patrons. Yet he was always struggling for money, even after he started getting big-name commissions. He was slow to pay bills, was constantly in debt, and had to make paid public appearances for extra income.
With debts mounting during the early years with Sullivan, Wright tried to pay off his expenses by designing houses around Oak Park. But in his rebellious style, he did not tell Sullivan he was taking these projects. Sullivan had specifically forbid him from designing for clients on his own while he was working for Adler and Sullivan. That meant Sullivan’s firm received no commission, and his star employee built his own client base. Well, sort of his own name. He used fake names to create the designs. These properties are known as the “Bootleg Houses.” What was supposed to fix Wright’s financial troubles ended up costing him dearly. Sullivan found out about these houses in 1893. Historians are uncertain whether Sullivan fired Wright (possibly using the Bootleg houses as a pretense, as Wright’s ego may have irritated him) or if he quit, but he separated from Sullivan and Adler.
Wright has never had difficulty with self-promotion and touting his genius. But he never forgot the man who cultivated his career, Louis Sullivan. When Sullivan had to fire Wright for the Bootleg House incident, it was painful on both sides. They had developed such a closer relationship that Sullivan had even hired Wright to design his home. While the two would not speak for nearly twenty years, they kept a mutual, if distant, respect. Wright referred to Sullivan as “mein lieber meister” (his ‘beloved master’). He called their parting “This bad end to a glorious relationship has been a dark shadow to stay with me the days of my life.” It may have been one of the few times Wright would publicly admit to feeling shame. As Wright’s fame ascended, Sullivan’s was in decline. His firm, Adler and Sullivan, broke up in the 1890s.
Frank Lloyd Wright started his architecture career at the height of the Victorian era, when the “More is more” philosophy dominated architecture. As he walked through Chicago and his neighborhood in Oak Park, he saw the tall, heavily decorated buildings with distinctive European classical elements. Wright preferred simplicity, clean lines, and an emphasis on width rather than height. The interior was an open concept; most rooms would flow in to one another rather than the disjointed cluster of rooms in other Victorian styles. He wanted his architecture to be an extension of the landscape, to improve upon it rather than fighting with it. Wright’s Prairie Style reflects the mindset of architects moving into the early 20th Century Arts and Crafts era – honest designs that evoke the structural elements, hand crafted woodwork, ribbon windows and earthy colors. Wright wanted Prairie Style to be fresh and distinctly American.
Even though Wright’s financial pressures grew, he and Catherine (“Kitty”) had six children. In 1895 he built a large, vaulted play space in his home and studio where Kitty held kindergarten courses and gave the kids Froebel blocks to play with. But this may have served a dual purpose; to keep Wright’s children away from him. He was famously discontent with traditional domestic life and fatherhood. Wright wrote that he “hated the sound of the word ‘papa'” in Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography (1932). Even so, the children recall their early years fondly, full of music, crafts, books, and play. But later, his son John would comment that one hobby played a role in the collapse of this family, Wright’s love of cars.
Wright enjoyed hobbies outside of his architectural career. He may not have been a ‘kid’ guy, but he was definitely a car guy. He drove a self-built Stoddard Dayton around Oak Park, a yellow 45-horsepower beast that topped out at 60 mph (97 km/h). The neighbors called Wright’s car the Yellow Devil, and knew to stay out of the way when it came barreling down the street. John Wright, his son, said later, “Dad was kept busy paying fines.” He loved his cars so much he had a private gas pump installed in his garage. His love of cars gave in insight into the car culture that would pervade American communities in the 20th century. He designed the Robie House in Chicago with an integrated three car garage in 1908, when most houses were still storing their cars in sheds far detached from their house.
Although Wright loved mechanics and was a wild man in a car, nature was the driving force behind everything Wright designed, at every stage of his career. He famously said, “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.” His Prairie Style buildings often put living space on the second floor, connecting the occupant with the trees instead of the sidewalk. His later designs featured large plate glass windows, making the people inside feel like they are outside. He did not want to imitate nature, but to create an architecture that worked in conjunction with nature and the natural form of the building site. Wright used the phrase “organic architecture” in 1908, almost 100 years before sustainable design became popular. He believed his designs were a “product of its place and its time, intimately connected to a particular moment and site – never the result of an imposed style.”
In his 1943 autobiography, Wright described Japan as “the most romantic, artistic, nature-inspired country on earth.” He had studied the culture through its art for years, since his earliest exposure to its woodblock art. Wright went to Japan in 1905, 1913, and in 1917 was able to spend three years in Japan to design and develop the New Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. To his delight, Japan was everything he pictured in his mind, and more. He loved the structural elegance and honest forms of Japanese art and design of the buildings and streetscape. He appreciated the way each element contributed to the whole design, a harmonious blending of form and function. His Prairie Style was based on this Japanese-style appreciation of form and function working together. Each element of the building, each line of the aesthetic had purpose, a strong reaction to the overblown wedding cakes seen in Victorian architecture.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s love of Japanese art and culture went beyond his architecture. He was an active, prolific dealer of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. He appreciated the structural honesty in their minimalist lines, geometric structures, and how they conveyed a story in an efficient manner. These prints, to Wright, showed order and the organization of smaller elements into a greater structural unity. He collected the prints during his trips to Japan. He brought them home and set up a presentation to display the works at the Art Institute of Chicago. Legend has it that he made more money from selling the art than from his architecture practice. He sold them to private collectors but also lucrative customers like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By the time he passed away in 1959, Wright had a collection of 6,000 Japanese woodblock prints.
Wright developed a sense of style all his own. He wore his hair longer than men’s style at the time. He decked himself out with expensive clothes and accessories that would make him stand out from a crowd. The brim of his hats were a little wider than most of the styles of the time. He would have suits made of velvet worn with shirts that had lace collars and wide cuffs. Instead of the traditional bow tie or necktie, he would wear ties with a large, floppy bow and his cummerbunds trimmed with tassels. He was not a tall man, something he incorporated into his designs (he would create small, cramped spaces that open into large, high-ceilinged spaces). To counteract his stature, he wore shoes with high heels. He emphasized the flamboyance of his look by wearing a cape and carry a cane.
As Wright’s fame in the architectural community exploded, he took on more commissions around Oak Park and Chicago. Edwin Cheney, an Oak Park electrical engineer, contacted his neighbor Wright about designing a new house for him, his wife Mamah, and their two children. Wright and his wife Kitty got along well with the Cheneys. It was not unusual for them to get together to socialize outside of the project. Wright and Mamah got along very well. As the couple’s friendship bloomed, so did their quiet romance. But it did not stay quiet for long. In 1909, Mamah left her husband to join Wright, who was in Europe to work on projects and avoid more scrutiny, triggering an international scandal and leaving Catherine devastated. While Mamah and her husband quickly divorced, Catherine refused, believing Frank’s fling was a temporary thing and he would come home to her and his six children.
The news of Wright’s infatuation with Mamah hit Kitty Wright exceptionally hard. They had been more than his clients, they were friends. The four of them, Wright, Kitty, Mamah, and her husband Edwin, would spend time together, just enjoying each other’s company, talking about work, life, children, all the normal things. But when Mamah and Frank became made their affair public in 1909, Kitty refused to take it quietly. She called Mamah a “vampire seductress” in news articles of the time. Wright had enough scruples to be conflicted about what he was doing to Kitty and his children; he attempted to get back together with her in 1910. But that did not work out, as he was deeply in love with Mamah. Even with the scandal and Wright’s clear preference, Kitty would not divorce Wright until 1922, hoping he would return to the life they built in Oak Park.
Wright never did return to Kitty and his life in Oak Park. He wanted to get away. The publicity around his romance with Mamah took a toll on the scandalous couple. To escape the scrutiny, Wright built a home and studio on the rolling hills of Spring Green, his family’s land. He called it Taliesin, Welsh for “Shining Brow” on the slope of a hill – not on top, as Wright’s insistence that architecture work with nature was too deeply embedded in his soul. While the couple never married, they lived happily at Taliesin for three years. The community was hesitant to accept the unwed couple, but Wright and Mamah did not mind. Wright justified it to himself, saying, “two women were necessary for a man of an artistic mind – one to be the mother of his children and the other to be his mental companion, his inspiration and soul mate.”
By 1914, Mamah settled in at Taliesin while Wright was in Chicago working on the Midway Gardens project in Chicago. On August 15, 1914, Mamah, her two children visiting from Chicago, were having lunch on the dining area porch. Several Taliesin workers and draftspeople were enjoying their lunch in the dining area. While everyone was eating, Julien Carleton, one of Taliesin’s servants, locked the exits. The workers did not know Carleton had just killed Mamah and her children with a hatchet. He then poured gasoline around the outside and lit it on fire. Carlson struck those who escaped the flames with a hatchet. Seven people died in the homicide. It viscerally devastated Wright. He boarded a train at once to Taliesin – sharing a car with Mamah’s ex-husband. In a memoir of his father, Wright’s son John wrote, “Something in hm died with her, something loveable and gentle.”
In 1918, still heartbroken over Mamah’s death, Wright put another painful episode from his past to rest. He received a call from Louis Sullivan, asking him to come to Chicago for a visit. Fortune had not been so kind to Sullivan. After Adler and Sullivan broke apart, demand decreased for his designs. Sullivan had few clients. By 1918, Wright was working on Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, but Sullivan was struggling. The tables had turned, and now Sullivan was deeply in debt. Eventually he had to close his architectural practice. Of course, Wright was in debt, too, due to his continued lavish lifestyle and flamboyant spending, but he was flourishing. Wright made the visit, ending one of the most troubling episodes in his life. Even so, after the twenty-year estrangement, they redeveloped the friendship that had been so brutally torn apart.
When wright reconnected with Sullivan, he found a man in a desperate situation. He was living in a hotel. He could no longer practice architecture. Despite Wright’s financial woes, he sent Louis Sullivan money to meet basic expenses. Letters between the two show the affection the two had for one another. Wright starts all of his letters, “Lieber Meister.” In his last letter to Sullivan, Wright talks about his Imperial Hotel project and calls him the “best good sport I know.” They got together for the last time in April 1924, three days before Sullivan’s death. Wright Sullivan giving Credit to Wright for creating the new American architecture, but saying, “but I do not believe you could have done it without me.” In 1949, Wright honored his Lieber Meister by publishing a book, Genius and the Mobocracy, lovingly detailing his work with Sullivan and honoring him as a true genius.
As Wright deeply mourned Mamah, artist and spiritualist Miriam Noel started writing him condolence letters. By 1916, they were living together, and married in 1922 shortly after Kitty granted Wright a divorce. But her addiction to morphine and their constant arguing led to a separation in 1924. The two separated. In November of 1924, as Wright mourned the loss of Sullivan, he met Olgivanna Lazovich at a ballet in Chicago. Their romance moved quickly; by February of 1925 Olgivanna moved into Taliesin. Things moved too quickly, though. Wright was still married to Noel when he took Olgivanna to Taliesin, crossing the border into Wisconsin – and making him a criminal. In 1926, Wight was charged with violating the Mann Act, illegal for men to transport women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Despite the charges and drama (or perhaps partly because of the drama), Wright and Olgivanna married in 1928.
Back at Taliesin, Wright and Olgivanna were developing an idea to train a new generation of architects and designers in the Wright philosophy. Wright’s aunts had run a school in Spring Green until 1915. This school, the Hillside Home School, was housed in a building Wright designed. In the early 1930s, Wright and Olgivanna used the vacant building to create a community of artist architects who could help rehabilitate the building and create a community. In addition to architectural training, students would study fine arts and industry as a comprehensive understanding of culture. The Wrights made sure the students developed as architects and artists. They arranged cultural events at Taliesin, bringing musicians, movies, and plays to Hillside Home School each week. Students sometimes put on shows themselves or held their own events. As Fellowship member Yen Liang said, “I learned, without realizing it at the time, a way of life.”
But it was not always a leisurely life full of culture and learning architectural technique at the Taliesin Fellowship. Students worked under the philosophy of “Learning by doing.” Fellowship students performed manual labor and the farming tasks necessary to keep Taliesin and the Hillside Home School operational. Work tasks were assigned each week, rotating students between kitchen duty, construction, architectural drafting, and other tasks necessary around Taliesin. Yen Liang describes doing “masonry, carpentry, plumbing, furniture building, and even lumber milling.” Photos of the Fellowship show students performing hard labor around Taliesin. In later years, when Wright and Olgivanna built Taliesin West, the Fellowship would close the Hillside Home School, and the collective would road trip to Arizona to study with Wright in his secondary home. They performed the same labor functions at the Arizona site.
Ayn Rand Based the Protagonist of The Fountainhead on Wright. Sort of.
Ayn Rand made a splash with her 1943 novel The Fountainhead. The novel’s hero is Howard Roark, an architect who bucks conventions of the time. Rand vocally admired Wright and the way he went against social norms, the two differed in their philosophies. Rand was a staunch individualist, opposing the collective. Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship was an unapologetic collective. She considered him more of a populist and left of center. But she admired his work, even asking that he design a home for her in Hollywood. She would never build it, as her plans changed, and she stayed in New York. The plans still exist, however, as a testament to their friendship. She said, in a 1937 letter to Wright as she wrote The Fountainhead, “My hero is not you…His life will not be yours, nor his work, perhaps not even his artistic ideals. But his spirit is yours – I think.”
Wright Adapted to the Times – Popularizing Usonian Form
Despite Wright’s ego, he didn’t want to exclusively design high-style homes for the wealthy. He saw which way the winds were blowing in the United States. In 1929, the economy crashed, leading the country into the Great Depression and fewer commissions for expensive houses. Wright designed a Usonian style. It was an affordable design from a famous architect for clients with a modest budget, around $5,000. In 1938, LIFE Magazine hosted a design project. Eight families, with annual incomes between $2,000 and $10,000. LIFE paired each family with two invited architects, a classicist and a modernist. Wright was the modernist for the Blackbourn family. The Blackbourns chose Wright’s modern style but were unable to build it. The Schwartz family of Two Rivers, Wisconsin collaborated with Wright to adapt the plans to their site, completing it in 1940. Today, Wright’s Usonian, called Stillbend is available as a vacation rental.
In 1956, Wright designed his smallest house, “Eddie’s House,” designed to shelter a client’s Labrador retriever. He was working on a Usonian home for the Berger family in San Rafael, California. Their 12-year-old son Jim requested a matching doghouse for Eddie, their Labrador retriever. Jim offered Wright his paper route earnings for a sketch. Wright replied to Jim, telling him it would be “an opportunity” to sketch the doghouse when wasn’t as busy. Wright made good on his word, at no cost to Jim. He developed a sketch, complete with building instructions. While Jim never got to build the doghouse, but his father and brother did in 1963, during Jim’s Army service. Eddie, however, refused to use it. He did not like sleeping outside. Jim’s mother threw away the original in 1970, but Jim and his brother rebuilt it in 2010. They donated it to the Marin County, California library.
After marrying Arthur Miller in 1956, Marilyn Monroe contacted Wright to create a home on Miller’s Roxbury, Connecticut property. They were looking to renovate the house Miller had bought in 1949 when he completed Death of a Salesman. The were thinking of tearing down the original building, a Revolutionary War-era farmhouse built in 1769, replacing it with something sleek and modern. Rather than drawing a brand-new design, Wright resurrected unbuilt plans he created for a wealthy Texas couple. But Miller disliked the design. Nor did he want to take on oversight of a complete overhaul of the property. The couple divorced in 1961, and the plans remained unbuilt. Miller would live in the original farmhouse until his death in 2005. But the plans wouldn’t stay down for long; in 1988, some investors from Japan used the plans to create the King Kamehameha Golf Club clubhouse.
Wright was no fan of the state of cities. He found them overcrowded, poorly designed, and lacking cultural and social quality. He once said, “To look at the plan of a great city, is to look at something like the cross-section of a fibrous tumor.” Wright would not avoid cities, however. One of his last big projects was the Guggenheim Museum along Central Park, which required him to make an extended stay in New York City. But Wright had a vision of making cities better. He developed his idea, Broadacre City, to create a better city, based on the automobile (one of Wright’s lifelong loves), to decentralize the urban core and focus on the individual. As with his architecture, the parts of the community all played into a whole, to serve as “urban form and democratic ideas” to allow for individual growth.
When Wright died, he left hundreds of design ideas in his file cabinet. Designers have adapted some of Wright’s designs for modern use and construction. In Madison, Wisconsin, Monona Terrace. The Marilyn Monroe plans that now serve as a golf clubhouse in Maui, Hawaii. And in 2007, Marc Coleman of County Wicklow in Ireland wanted to build a Wright design. He contacted the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, who looked at the land and selected a Wright design that would suit the terrain. Coleman chose a 1959 design. The Foundation requires people building a Wright design to consult with one of the architects that worked and studied with Wright, so they worked with E. Thomas Casey, who studied under Wright and was the structural engineer on Wright’s design for the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Where Do We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:
10 things you never knew about Frank Lloyd Wright. Dana Schulz, 6sqft, 8 June 2017.