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Frank Lloyd Wright

America’s greatest architect

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July 28th, 2017
The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Milwaukee, Wis., was completed in 1961. It is a pale yellow circular building with a shallow dome roof and half moon windows.

The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Milwaukee, Wis., was completed in 1961.

His buildings were innovative and modern, but they had leaky roofs. He earned his living through commissions, yet he routinely offended his wealthy clients. And his carefully cultivated image as an intellectual and a visionary was challenged each time his scandalous personal life made headlines. A larger than life genius, Frank Lloyd Wright was and still is America’s most famous architect. 

He was born Frank Lincoln Wright in 1867—just two years after the Civil War ended. The world changed dramatically during Wright’s 91-plus years. The horse and buggy culture of his youth gave way to automobiles and supersonic jets. When he died in 1959, JFK had just set out to win the presidency. 

He designed more than 1,000 buildings in his seventy-year career, and his legacy is alive and well in every home featuring an open floor plan, a slab-on-grade foundation, and a modern sensibility.

Froebel gifts

From the start, Wright was encouraged to embrace all that was new and different. His mother was a teacher interested in emerging theories of education. She gave him Froebel gifts, a set of geometric blocks designed by Frederich Froebel, the inventor of a new program called Kindergarten. 

Wright credited those blocks with igniting his interest in building. Reflecting on their impact, Wright said, “For several years I sat at the little Kindergarten table-top… and played…with the cube, the sphere, and the triangle—these smooth wooden maple blocks....All are in my fingers to this day.” (Froebel gifts are for sale at store.redhentoys.com.)

While he enjoyed a close relationship with his mother, Wright’s father deserted the family. Because of this, Wright changed his middle name from Lincoln to Lloyd in honor of his mother’s family.

Career

After an apprenticeship with renowned architect Louis Sullivan in Chicago, Wright went on to design some of the most innovative buildings of the twentieth century, including the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan and Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa. 

His Prairie homes are considered to be the foundation of modernism. And both the sensibility and the design principles of his Usonian homes continue to reverberate in suburbs across America. 

Many of his creations are still standing and some offer tours to the public. 

Architect of scandal

Considered a visionary by some and a heretic by others, Wright is probably the only celebrity architect in American history. While his buildings awed and inspired, his personal life was just as salacious as today’s tabloid regulars.  

In 1903, he abandoned his first wife, Catherine and their six children. He had fallen in love with Mamah Cheney, the wife of one of his clients. Their affair was no secret and they were often seen together in Chicago. 

Cheney divorced her husband, but Catherine adamantly refused to divorce Wright.  

Undeterred, Wright built a large complex known as Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis. Part home, part architectural commune, Wright lived there with Cheney and her children until tragedy struck. 

In 1914, a groundskeeper set fire to Taliesin and then killed seven inhabitants with an ax, including Cheney and her children. A motive for the horrific act was never determined, but the tabloids had a field day. The NY Daily News’ apt headline of the news story was “Wright Mare!”

Catherine finally granted Wright a divorce in 1922. One year later, he married Miriam Noel. That marriage failed almost immediately due to Noel’s morphine addiction. 

Next, he met Olga Lzaovich Hinzenburg, a married dancer with the Petrograd Ballet. They lived together while awaiting their respective divorces. In 1926, Wright and Olga were travelling to Minnesota when they were arrested for violating the Mann Act, a law forbidding the transportation of a female across state lines for any “immoral purpose.” The charge was dropped but the damage was done when once again, Wright’s life became gossip column fodder. 

Celebration

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Wright’s birth and there are many exhibitions and retrospective events planned at museums and cultural centers across the country. 

Most notably, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City is exhibiting “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive” through Oct. 1. The exhibition catalog sums up the architect’s immense influence saying Wright was “a radical designer and intellectual who embraced new technologies and materials; pioneered do-it-yourself construction systems as well as avant-garde experimentation; and advanced original theories with regards to nature, urban planning, and social politics.”

The Milwaukee Art Museum, The Guggenheim, Taliesin in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona are among the many institutions celebrating Wright’s legacy. 

Little known legacy

Wright fathered eight children. One of his sons, John Lloyd Wright, followed in his father’s footsteps and became an architect. He also designed toys. John invented Lincoln Logs—a toy that encouraged twentieth-century children to build and design in the same way Froebel gifts had a century before. And while most people believe the toy’s name honors President Abraham Lincoln, others believe the name pays tribute to the inventor’s father whose given middle name was Lincoln. 

To learn more about Frank Lloyd Wright, his work, and exhibitions around the country, visit FrankLloydWright.org.

 

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