The Van Trump Report

How a Poor Preacher’s Son Became One of the Most Important Architects in America

Several Frank Lloyd Wright homes have hit the market recently, one of them here in my backyard. The Sondern-Adler house in Kansas City, Missouri, is currently on the market for a cool $1.65 million. In Oskaloosa, Iowa, the Carroll Alsop House is taking private bids. The Alsop home sale also includes Wright-designed furniture that is original to the house. These buildings are rather rare, with only around 380 to 500 Wright structures remaining in the U.S. They are also considered by many architecture enthusiasts to be more than just homes – they are works of art. Wright always said one of his biggest design inspirations was the Midwestern landscape where he grew up. He was equally influenced by his own experiences with poverty and the struggles of working-class people.

Born on June 8, 1867, in the small town of Richland Center, Wisconsin, to William Carey Wright, a preacher, and Anna Lloyd Jones, a teacher. According to his biographer, his early childhood was spent traveling from ministry to ministry in Iowa, Massachusetts, until the family finally settled in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1878. When Wrights parents divorced in 1885, his father took off, which worsened the family’s already challenging financial circumstances. Wright doesn’t appear to have ever received a high school diploma but at the age of 18, he was working for the dean of the University of Wisconsin’s department of engineering while also studying at the university. Wright already knew that he wanted to be an architect but he didn’t want to wait for a degree and left school in 1887. 

Wright went to Chicago where, as a result of the devastating Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and a population boom, new development was plentiful. He found worked as a draftsman for a couple of different architectural firms before being hired by the prestigious partnership of Adler and Sullivan, working directly under Louis Sullivan for six years. Wright had risen to head draftsman and made a generous salary but had expensive taste. To supplement, he took on a handful of outside projects, which was against his employment terms. His boss, Louis Sullivan, caught on to his two-timing scheme when he recognized Wright’s unmistakable design work in a new home being built just blocks from his own. It’s not clear if Wright quit or was fired, but the two men parted ways on a very sour note and didn’t speak again for more than a decade.

The split led Wright to start his own practice, which ultimately came to be located in the Steinway Hall building. He shared the space with several other young, independent architects that were all inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement and the philosophies of Louis Sullivan, forming what became known as the Prairie School. By 1901, Wright had completed about 50 projects, including many houses in Oak Park, Illinois, where he lived at the time. His residential designs at the time were known as “prairie homes” because the designs complemented the land around Chicago.

Prairie Style was uniquely American and seeded the Modern architecture movement but Wright had begun to reject the upper-middle-class model by 1909, shifting focus to what he considered more “democratic architecture.” Burned out and lacking inspiration, he went to Europe where he worked on two publications of his work, including what is now known as the “Wasmuth Portfolio” that brought international recognition to his work.

Wright was married at the time to his first wife Kitty, but he was living in Europe with a woman named Mamah Borthwick Cheney. He wanted to return to the U.S. but wasn’t welcome in Chicago due to his scandalous affair, so he and Mamah relocated to Wisconsin. Wright began to build himself a new home, which he called Taliesin. However, tragedy struck in 1914 when Mamah and her two children were killed in an attack and fire. Wright was devastated and sought solace in rebuilding Taliesin in their memory.

He abandoned Taliesin shortly after it was finished and traveled around the world working on various projects for over a decade, including Tokyo where he worked on the Imperial Hotel, and in Los Angeles with the Hollyhock House and Olive Hill for oil heiress Aline Barnsdall. He married Olga Lazovich in 1928, who then helped him establish the Taliesin Fellowship. The Fellowship evolved into The School of Architecture at Taliesin which was an accredited school until it closed in 2020.

When the United States was in the depths of the Great Depression, Wright realized that the nation’s housing needs would forever be changed. “It is not only necessary to get rid of all unnecessary complications in construction…” wrote Wright, “it is necessary to consolidate and simplify the three appurtenance systems — heating, lighting, and sanitation.” Wright came up with a series of concepts of suburban development united under the term Broadacre City. To complement his community of the future, he also conceived a new type of dwelling that came to be known as the Usonian House. Designed to control costs, Wright’s Usonian houses had no attics, no basements, simple roofs, radiant heating (what Wright called “gravity heat”), natural ornamentation, and efficient use of space, inside and out. Many features of modern American homes date back to these same ideas.

Taliesin West, Wright’s winter home and studio complex in Scottsdale, Arizona, was a laboratory for Wright from 1937 to his death on April 4, 1959. Now the home of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, it continues today as the site of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. Wright turned 80 shortly after World War II ended, yet remained busy. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City occupied Wright for 16 years (1943–1959) and is probably his most recognized masterpiece. The building rises as a warm beige spiral from its site on Fifth Avenue; its interior is similar to the inside of a seashell. Its unique central geometry was meant to allow visitors to easily experience Guggenheim’s collection of nonobjective geometric paintings by taking an elevator to the top level and then viewing artworks by walking down the slowly descending, central spiral ramp.

Though Wright is perhaps best known for his public works today, his influence is particularly noticeable in the Midwest to this day, where his home designs can be found in small towns across middle-America. His influence on the larger world of architecture is equally far reaching and considerable. He was never affiliated with the American Institute of Architects during his career, referring to it once as “a harbor of refuge for the incompetent.” However, in 1949 the organization nonetheless awarded him the AIA Gold Medal. He was awarded the Franklin Institute’s Frank P. Brown Medal in 1953, and received honorary degrees from several universities.

In 2000, Fallingwater was named “The Building of the 20th century” in an unscientific “Top-Ten” poll taken by members attending the AIA annual convention in Philadelphia. He was also the only architect who had more than one building on the list, which were the Guggenheim Museum, the Frederick C. Robie House, and the Johnson Wax Building. Eight of Wright’s buildings – Fallingwater, the Guggenheim Museum, the Hollyhock House, the Jacobs House, the Robie House, Taliesin, Taliesin West, and the Unity Temple – were inscribed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. If you’d like to learn more about Wright, I highly recommend the Ken Burns documentary, available over at PBS. Check it out HERE. (Sources: The Spaces, Architectural Digest, LAConservancy)

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