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
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.