The Unexpected Life Behind Architecture’s Rebel, Frank Lloyd Wright
The Unexpected Life Behind Architecture’s Rebel, Frank Lloyd Wright

The Unexpected Life Behind Architecture’s Rebel, Frank Lloyd Wright

Aimee Heidelberg - May 13, 2023

The Unexpected Life Behind Architecture’s Rebel, Frank Lloyd Wright
Taliesin, the original (1912), Spring Green, Wisconsin. Public domain.

Built Taliesin to Escape Public Scrutiny

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.”

The Unexpected Life Behind Architecture’s Rebel, Frank Lloyd Wright
Taliesin, the original (1912), Spring Green, Wisconsin. Public domain.

Wright’s Greatest Heartbreak

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.”

The Unexpected Life Behind Architecture’s Rebel, Frank Lloyd Wright
Carson Pirie Scott building, Chicago, Louis Sullivan (1899 – 1904). Victor Grigas (2016).


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.

The Unexpected Life Behind Architecture’s Rebel, Frank Lloyd Wright
Louis Sullivan Memorial, Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, IL. Paul R. Burley (2020).

Lieber Meister

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.

The Unexpected Life Behind Architecture’s Rebel, Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright (l) and Miriam Noel (r). Public Domain and UCLA Digital Library

Dangerous Criminal (?)

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.

The Unexpected Life Behind Architecture’s Rebel, Frank Lloyd Wright
Hillside Home School, Spring Green, Wisconsin. Marykeiran (2017).

Hillside Home School

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.”

The Unexpected Life Behind Architecture’s Rebel, Frank Lloyd Wright
Outbuilding on Taliesin grounds for Fellowship workers. Stilfehler (2018).

Laboring at the Taliesin Fellowship

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.

The Unexpected Life Behind Architecture’s Rebel, Frank Lloyd Wright
Ayn Rand, 1943 portrait. Public domain.

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.”

The Unexpected Life Behind Architecture’s Rebel, Frank Lloyd Wright
Schwartz House (Stillbend), Two Rivers, WI. D. Heidelberg (2008)

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.

The Unexpected Life Behind Architecture’s Rebel, Frank Lloyd Wright
Labrador Retriever. Giuseppe Pitzus (2016).

Wright’s Smallest House – A Usonian Treasure

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.

The Unexpected Life Behind Architecture’s Rebel, Frank Lloyd Wright
Wright’s design for Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, built as King Kamehameha Golf Club, Waikapu, Hawaii. Heidi deVries (2021)

When Frank Met Marilyn

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.

The Unexpected Life Behind Architecture’s Rebel, Frank Lloyd Wright
Crowds in from of Boy’d Department Store, Missouri, USA (c. 1910). Public domain.

Wright Hated Cities

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.

The Unexpected Life Behind Architecture’s Rebel, Frank Lloyd Wright
Monona Terrace, Wright’s design with arched windows. Madison, Wisconsin, USA. Emory (2014).

New Wright Buildings are Still Constructed

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.

Busted: Frank Lloyd Wright “Failed to appear in class.” (n.a.) University of Wisconsin – Madison, College of Letters and Sciences, 25 January 2012.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Japan. Kevin Nute, Center for East Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2021.

Frank Lloyd Wright credited Japan for his all-American aesthetic. Kevin Nute, Smithsonian Magazine, 8 June 2017.

Letters to Architects: Frank Lloyd Wright. Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer (ed.). The Architectural Press: London, pp. 1 – 41.

Little known facts about Frank Lloyd Wright. Crystal Bridge Museum of American Art, 8 June 2017.

Long, hard journey: From the pen of Frank Lloyd Wright to Hawaii. Brett Campbell, Wall Street Journal, 19 April 2007.

Marilyn Monroe’s houses: Inside her most notable addresses. Lisa Liebman, Architectural Digest, 29 September 2022.

Native Genius. (n.a.), Time Magazine, 20 April 1959

The Auto as Architect’s Inspiration. Ingrid Steffensen, New York Times, 6 August 2009.

The Houses Wright Built. Charles Lockwood, New York Times, 8 June 1986.

The Massacre at Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Love Cottage.” Christopher Klein,, 8 June 2017

The Triumph of Frank Lloyd Wright. Arthur Lubow, Smithsonian Magazine. June 2009.

Unmasking Frank Lloyd Wright. Gary Abrams, Los Angeles Times, 29 November 1987.

Usonian Architect. (n.a.) Time Magazine, 17 January 1938.