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Frank Lloyd Wright

The Most Famous Architect of the 20th Century

By Shelly Schwartz, Contributing History Writer

Picture of Frank Lloyd Wright, American architect.

Portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright at approximately 38 with hand on book, Oak Park, Illinois. (circa 1904-1906)

(Photo by Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust/Getty Images)

Who Was Frank Lloyd Wright?

Frank Lloyd Wright was the most influential American architect of the 20th century. He designed private homes, office buildings, hotels, churches, museums, and more. As a pioneer of the “organic” architecture movement, Wright designed buildings that integrated into the natural environments that surrounded them. Perhaps the most famous example of Wright’s daring design was Fallingwater, which Wright designed to literally hover over a waterfall. Despite murder, fire, and mayhem that plagued his lifetime, Wright designed more than 800 buildings -- 380 of these were actually built, with more than one-third now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dates: June 8, 1867 – April 9, 1959

Also Known As: Frank Lincoln Wright (born as)

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Childhood: Playing With Froebel Blocks

On June 8, 1867, Frank Lincoln Wright (he would later change his middle name) was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin. His mother, Anna Wright (neé Anna Lloyd Jones), was a former schoolteacher. Wright’s father, William Carey Wright, a widower with three daughters, was a musician, orator, and preacher.

Anna and William had two daughters after Frank was born and often found it hard to earn enough money for their large family. William and Anna fought, not only over money but also over her treatment of his children, for she greatly favored her own. William moved the family from Wisconsin to Iowa to Rhode Island to Massachusetts for various Baptist-preaching jobs. But with the nation in the Long Depression (1873-1879), the bankrupt churches were often unable to pay their preachers. The frequent moves to find steady work with pay added to the tension between William and Anna.

In 1876, when Frank Lloyd Wright was about nine years old, his mother gave him a set of Froebel Blocks. Friedrich Froebel, the founder of Kindergarten, invented the polished maple blocks, which came in cubes, rectangles, cylinders, pyramids, cones, and spheres. Wright enjoyed playing with the blocks, building them into simple structures.

In 1877, William moved the family back to Wisconsin, where the Lloyd Jones clan helped secure a job for him as secretary of their church, the profitable Unitarian church in Madison.

When Wright was eleven, he began working on his mother’s family farm (the Lloyd Jones family farm) in Spring Green, Wisconsin. For five consecutive summers, Wright studied the topography of the area, noticing simple geometric shapes repeatedly appearing in nature. Even as a young boy, the seeds were being planted for his uncanny understanding of geometry.

When Wright was eighteen, his parents divorced, and Wright never saw his father again. Wright changed his middle name from Lincoln to Lloyd in honor of his mother's heritage and the uncles he had grown close to on the farm. After graduating from high school, Wright attended the local university, the University of Wisconsin, to study engineering. Since the university offered no architectural classes, Wright achieved hands-on experience via a part time construction project at the university, but dropped out of school during his first year, finding it boring.

Wright’s Early Architectural Career

In 1887, 20-year-old Wright moved to booming Chicago and acquired a job as an entry-level draftsman for the J. L. Silsbee architectural firm, known for their Queen Anne and shingle-style homes. Wright drew hundreds of drawings that specified width, depth, and height of rooms, placement of structural beams, and shingles on roofs.

Growing bored at Silsbee after a year, Wright went to work for Louis H. Sullivan, who would become known as the “father of skyscrapers.” Sullivan became a mentor to Wright and together they discussed the Prairie style, an American style of architecture completely opposite of European classical architecture. Prairie style lacked all the fuss and gingerbread that was popular during the Victorian/Queen Anne period, and focused on clean lines and open floor plans. While Sullivan designed high-rise buildings, Wright worked his way up to head draftsman, handling house designs for clients, mostly traditional Victorian-styles that clients wanted, and a few of the new Prairie style, which excited him.

In 1889, Wright (age 23) met Catherine “Kitty” Lee Tobin (age 17) and the couple married on June 1, 1889. Wright immediately designed a home for them in Oak Park, Illinois, where they would eventually raise six children. As if built out of Froebel Blocks, Wright’s house was rather small and plain at first, but he added rooms and changed the interior several times, including the addition of a large triangular-shaped playroom for the children, an enhanced kitchen, a dining room, and a connecting corridor and studio. He also built his own wooden furniture for the home.

Always short on money due to his eccentric over-spending on cars and clothing, Wright designed homes (nine other than his own) outside of work for extra cash, even though it was against company policy. When Sullivan learned that Wright was moonlighting, Wright was fired after five years with the firm.

Wright Builds His Way

After being fired by Sullivan in 1893, Wright started his own architectural firm: Frank Lloyd Wright, Inc. Delving into the “organic” style of architecture, Wright complemented the natural site (rather than muscling his way into it) and used local raw materials of wood, brick, and stone in their natural state(i.e. never painted).

Wright’s house designs incorporated Japanese-style, low-pitched roof lines with deep overhangs, walls of windows, glass doors etched with American Indian geometric patterns, large stone fireplaces, vaulted ceilings, skylights, and rooms flowing freely into one another. This was very anti-Victorian and not always accepted by many of the new homes’ existing neighbors. But the homes became an inspiration to the Prairie School, a group of Midwest architects who followed Wright, using indigenous materials to ground the homes to their natural settings.

Some of Wright’s most notable early designs include the Winslow House (1893) in River Forest, Illinois; Dana-Thomas House (1904) in Springfield, Illinois; Martin House (1904) in Buffalo, New York; and the Robie House (1910) in Chicago, Illinois. While each home was a work of art, Wright’s homes typically ran over budget and many of the roofs leaked.

Wright’s commercial building designs also did not conform to traditional standards. An innovative example is the Larkin Company Administration Building (1904) in Buffalo, New York, that included air conditioning, double-glass windows, furniture made of metal, and suspended toilet bowls (invented by Wright for ease of cleaning).

Affairs, Fire, and Murder

While Wright was designing structures with form and consistency, his life was filled with calamities and chaos.

After Wright designed a house for Edward and Mamah Cheney in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1903, he started having an affair with Mamah Cheney. The affair turned into a scandal in 1909, when both Wright and Mamah deserted their spouses, children, and homes and sailed to Europe together. Wright’s actions were so scandalous that many people refused to give him architectural commissions.

Wright and Mamah returned two years later and moved to Spring Green, Wisconsin, where Wright’s mother gave him a portion of the Lloyd Jones family farm. On this land, Wright designed and constructed a house with a covered courtyard, free-flowing rooms, and natural views of the land. He named the home Taliesin, meaning “shining brow” in Welsh. Wright (still married to Kitty) and Mamah (now divorced) lived at Taliesin, where Wright resumed his architectural practice.

On September 15, 1914, tragedy struck. While Wright was overseeing the construction of Midway Gardens in downtown Chicago, Mamah fired one of the Taliesin servants, 30-year-old Julian Carlton. As a demented form of retaliation, Carlton locked all the doors and then set fire to Taliesin. As those inside tried to escape through the dining room windows, Carlton waited for them outside with an axe. Carlton murdered seven of the nine people inside, including Mamah and her two visiting children (Martha, 10, and John, 13). Two people managed to escape, although they were seriously wounded. A posse ensued to find Carlton, who, when found, had drunk muriatic acid. He survived long enough to go to jail, but then starved himself to death seven weeks later.

After a month of mourning, Wright began to rebuild the home, which became known as Taliesin II. Around this time, Wright met Miriam Noel via her condolence writings to him. Within weeks, Miriam moved into Taliesin. She was 45; Wright was 47.

Japan, an Earthquake, and Another Fire

Although his private life was still publicly discussed, Wright was commissioned in 1916 to design the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Wright and Miriam spent five years in Japan, returning to the U.S. after the hotel was completed in 1922. When the huge Great Kanto earthquake hit Japan in 1923, Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo was one of the few large buildings in the city left standing.

Back in the U.S., Wright opened a Los Angeles office where he designed California buildings and homes, including Hollyhock House (1922). Also in 1922, Wright’s wife, Kitty, finally granted him a divorce, and Wright married Miriam on November 19, 1923, in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Just six months later (May 1924), Wright and Miriam separated due to Miriam’s morphine addiction. That same year, 57-year-old Wright met 26-year-old Olga Lazovich Hinzenberg (Olgivanna) at the Petrograd Ballet in Chicago and they began an affair. With Miriam living in L.A., Olgivanna moved into Taliesen in 1925 and gave birth to Wright’s baby daughter by the end of the year.

In 1926, tragedy once again hit Taliesin. Due to faulty wiring, Taliesin was destroyed by fire; only the drafting room was spared. And once again, Wright rebuilt the home, which became known as Taliesin III.

That same year, Wright was arrested for violating the Mann Act, a 1910 law to prosecute men for immorality. Wright was briefly jailed. Wright divorced Miriam in 1927, at a high financial cost, and married Olgivanna on August 25, 1928. Bad publicity continued to hurt Wright’s demand as an architect.

Fallingwater

In 1929, Wright began work on the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, but only as a consultant. While working in Arizona, Wright built a small desert camp named Ocatillo, which would later become known as Taliesin West. Taliesin III in Spring Green would become known as Taliesin East.

With home designs in a slump during the Great Depression, Wright needed to find other ways to make money. In 1932, Wright published two books: An Autobiography and The Disappearing City. He also opened Taliesin to students who wanted to be taught by him. It became an unaccredited architectural school and sought mostly by wealthy students. Thirty apprentices came to live with Wright and Olgivanna and became known as the Taliesin Fellowship.

In 1935, one of the wealthy student’s fathers, Edgar J. Kaufmann, asked Wright to design a weekend retreat for him in Bear Run, Pennsylvania. When Kaufmann called Wright to say he was dropping by to see how the house plans were coming along, Wright, who hadn’t started on them yet, spent the next two hours penciling in a house design on top of the topography map. When he was done, he wrote “Fallingwater” at the bottom. Kaufmann loved it.

Anchored to the bedrock, Wright built his masterpiece, Fallingwater, over a waterfall in the Pennsylvania woods, using daredevil cantilever technology. The home was built with modern reinforced concrete terraces hovering in the thick forest. Fallingwater has become Wright’s most famous endeavor; it was featured with Wright on the cover of Time magazine in January of 1938. The positive publicity brought Wright back into popular demand.

Around this time, Wright also designed Usonians, low-cost homes that were the precursor to “ranch-style” tract housing of the 1950s. Usonians were built on small lots and incorporated a single-story dwelling with flat roofs, cantilevered overhangs, solar heating/radiant-floor heating, clerestory windows, and carports.

During this period, Frank Lloyd Wright also designed one of his most well-known structures, the famous Guggenheim Museum (an art museum in New York City). When designing the Guggenheim, Wright discarded the usual museum layout and instead opted for a design similar to an upside-down nautilus shell. This innovative and unconventional design allowed visitors to follow a single, continuous, spiral path from top to bottom (visitors were to first take an elevator to the top). Wright spent over a decade working on this project, but missed its opening since it was completed shortly after his death in 1959.

Taliesin West and Death of Wright

As Wright aged, he began to spend more time in the agreeable warm weather in Arizona. In 1937, Wright moved the Taliesin Fellowship and his family to Phoenix, Arizona, for the winters. The home at Taliesin West was integrated with the outdoors with high sloping roofs, translucent ceilings, and large, open doors and windows.

In 1949, Wright received the highest honor from the American Institute of Architects, the Gold Medal. He wrote two more books: The Natural House and The Living City. In 1954, Wright was awarded an honorary doctorate of fine arts by Yale University. His last commission was the design of the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, California, in 1957.

After undergoing surgery to remove an obstruction in his intestines, Wright died on April 9, 1959, at age 91 in Arizona. He was buried at Taliesin East. Upon Ogilvanna’s death of a heart attack in 1985, Wright’s body was exhumed, cremated, and buried with Olgivanna’s ashes in a garden wall at Taliesin West, as was her final wish.

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