Frank Lloyd Wright


Frank Lloyd Wright was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin on June 8, 1867, to William Cary Wright and Anna Lloyd Jones Wright. Even before he was born, his mother was determined to make him into an architect. Wright’s father was a music teacher and a Baptist minister who led churches in Iowa, Rhode Island and Massachusetts during the first 10 years of Frank’s life. In 1877 the family returned to Madison, Wisconsin where Wright spent the school year and summers on his mother’s family farm just outside of Madison. By 1885 Wright’s father had left the family, never to be seen or heard from again. Wright then got a job working for Allen D. Conover, a local builder, and began taking drafting classes at the University of Wisconsin.

Yearning to go to Chicago, Wright pawned some of his father’s books in 1887 and used the money to buy a ticket on the next train to Chicago. On his fourth day in Chicago he walked into the office of Joseph Lyman Silsbee, an architect who had been associated with the Jones family, and after being interviewed by Cecil Corwin, one of the draftsman in Silsbee’s office, he obtained a job as a tracer for eight dollars a week.

Wright worked for Silsbee for about a year before he left to take a better paying drafting job with Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, who were working on the design of the Auditorium Theater in Chicago at the time. Wright referred to Sullivan as his Lieber Meister (beloved master) and was the only architect that Wright would acknowledge had an influence on him. The basis for Wright’s future work was born out of the idea and philosophy of Sullivan’s that "form follows function". He stayed with Adler and Sullivan until 1893 when a dispute over his acceptance of a growing number of independent commissions led Sullivan to fire him.

In 1889, Wright met and married his first of three wives, Catherine Lee Clark Tobin. He also borrowed $5000 from his then employer, Louis Sullivan, to purchase a lot in Oak Park, Illinois and build his first house. Frank and Catherine raised six children together in the house that he used as an architectural laboratory, a building that saw many changes and additions as he developed his Prairie style of architecture.

After leaving the employ of Adler and Sullivan, Wright opened his own office in the Schiller building in downtown Chicago, sharing space with Cecil Corwin. In 1894 he relocated his office to the 11th floor of the Steinway Piano Company building, joining Robert Spencer and Dwight Perkins and the others that would start the Prairie School of Architecture. This arrangement lasted until 1898 when he added a studio on to his home in Oak Park. The studio had become the new home for his practice and at various times had been the workplace of some of the most notable of Prairie School architects, including the likes of Walter Burley Griffin, Marion Mahony, John Van Bergen, William Drummond, and Francis Barry Byrne. This arrangement lasted until the studio was officially closed in 1911.

In 1909 Wright scandalized his family by going to Berlin, Germany with Margaret (Mamah) Cheney, the wife of a neighbor and client, to work on the Wasmuth Portfolio, a book dedicated to his work. They spent almost two years in Europe before returning to the United States. Shortly after his return he officially closed his Oak Park studio and opened an office in Orchestra Hall in Chicago. At the same time he began to build a house for himself and Mamah Cheney on 200 acres of family owned land that his mother had inherited near Spring Green, Wisconsin. He called the home Taliesin, which means "shining brow" in Welsh, the language of his ancestors. He situated the house just below the top of the hill so that the house was "of the hill" not "on the hill". Wright would divide his time between Chicago and his weekends at Spring Green.

This arrangement went on until August of 1914, when on the 14th a recently hired chef, Julian Carleton, inexplicably locked all but one door and set the house on fire. He axed Mamah, her two children and two others as they fled through the only unlocked door in the house. Wright was devastated and afterward buried himself in his work. During the following months he completed the drawings for the Midway Garden commission in Chicago and then proceeded to rebuild Taliesin.

After the incident at Taliesin, Wright received many letters from friends and strangers offering their condolences. One of them came from a lady named Miriam Noel. She was a self-proclaimed sculptor who claimed she could understand what Wright was going through. Soon after she and Wright had met, and he asked her to move into Taliesin with him, though Wright was still married to Catherine, who refused to grant him a divorce.

With mounting bills coming in from the rebuilding of Taliesin, along with the cost of maintaining an apartment in Chicago, Wright gladly accepted the offer to design and build the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan in 1914. He left for Japan in 1916 to oversee the design and construction of the hotel. Even though he accepted other commissions during this period, Wright basically was devoted to the execution of the Imperial Hotel for the next six years.

In November of 1922, Wright left Japan and the Imperial Hotel project. Upon his return to Chicago he learned that Catherine was willing to give him the divorce that he had been wanting since 1909. Even though he was now free to marry, he waited until November of 1923 before marrying Miriam Noel. But by April of 1924, the troubled Miriam had left him. It was not until August of 1927, after numerous attempts by Wright’s attorney and her attorney, that she finally agreed to accept the terms of their divorce.

While still married to Miriam, Wright had met Olga Milanoff Hinzenberg, known as Olgivanna, 33 years his junior, at the ballet in Chicago in 1924. A native of Yugoslavia, Olgivanna had studied under Soviet occult teacher Georgi Gurdjieff at his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Paris, France. She was the estranged wife of a Russian architect named Vlademar Hinzenberg, and together they had one daughter, Svetlana, born in 1917. In February of 1925 Wright had invited Olgivanna and Svetlana to move into Taliesin with him. Two months later she obtained a divorce from Hinzenberg, and by the end of 1925 Frank and Olgivanna’s daughter Iovanna was born. Almost three years later on August 25, 1928 they were married.

During the Great Depression when his commissions were dwindling, Wright turned to lecturing and writing. He authored several books and became a frequent contributor to architectural magazines. Then in October of 1932 he established the Taliesin Fellowship, his self-styled architectural school in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The school opened to 30 students, each paying an $1,100 tuition fee, and a waiting list of 27. As part of their education Wright had his students finish repairs started by local contractors and execute other remodeling projects at Taliesin. This facet of their training was borne out of the influence of Olgivanna’s training at the Gurdjieff Institute, where there was no formal training and the belief that physical labor for the master would bring knowledge and inner peace.

In 1934 one of Wright’s apprentices, Edgar Kaufmann Jr. convinced his father to let Wright design a summer home for him near Bear Run, Pennsylvania. Out of that association came Wright’s masterpiece, Fallingwater, the house built on the waterfall. At the other end of the financial spectrum, Wright was developing his vision for modestly priced homes. His first Usonian house was the Jacobs house near Madison, Wisconsin. Wright believed that everyone should have an architect design a house specifically for them no matter what the price of the house was instead of living in a "cookie cutter" house.

In 1938 Wright returned to the Arizona desert near Ocatillo where he had spent time in 1929 working on the unexecuted "San Marcos in the Desert" and the Phoenix Biltmore projects. But this time it was to have the apprentices build his winter home, Taliesin West, on 800 acres he had purchased from the government. Wright and the fellowship could now spend winters in the desert and summers in Spring Green.

With his reputation on the rise again after completing Fallingwater and the Johnson Wax building, Wright had again become very active with numerous commissions. He was constantly refining the Usonian house, accepting more civic and private office buildings and also some ecumenical commissions. In 1943 Wright had accepted a commission from Solomon R. Guggenheim to design a museum in New York City. After enduring delays caused by World War II, Guggenheim’s death, and numerous discussions with the building commission, construction finally began in 1957. Construction lasted almost two years, and the museum finally opened in October of 1959.

Wright never got to see the completion of the Guggenheim Museum. On April 4, 1959, Wright had surgery for an intestinal blockage. Seeming to be recovering as expected, he suddenly died five days later on April 9th. The body was returned to Spring Green to be laid to rest in the family burial ground at Taliesin. On April 12th he was buried near his mother and Mamah Borthwick Cheney.