His command of steel, wood and concrete made him a legend of architecture. His restrained minimalism made his work unmistakable compared to his peers. Each of his 1,100 designs is as unique as a fingerprint, and a clear reflection of its creator, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Born in 1867 to William Carey Wright and Anna Lloyd Jones in the sleepy farming community of Richland Center, Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright entered a world in transition. During the throes of western expansion, and two short years after the conclusion of the Civil War, Wright was born decades before Chicago-architect Louis Sullivan would create the modern skyscraper.
His parents, both teachers, homeschooled young Frank until he was 11. But beyond that, Wright had trouble completing any institutionalized higher education. While Frank attended high school in Madison, there is no evidence that he graduated. He was later accepted into the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a special student, but left the following year.
Adler and Sullivan / Organic Architecture
In 1888, Wright apprenticed under the tutelage of Louis Sullivan, “ the father of skyscrapers.” This was during a time when a skyscraper was considered only seven stories tall. Wright began his career as a professional architecture when the Washington Monument was tallest structure in the world and one year before the completion of the Eiffel Tower.
During his time with Sullivan, Wright learned the basics of form following function. Sullivan was insistent on teaching Wright the importance of stripping away the ornate styling that was prevalent in most European architecture.
In true, defiant Wright fashion, he left that apprenticeship after breaching his contract by taking freelance commissions to design homes.
After leaving Sullivan, Wright established his signature style of “organic architecture” using the Winslow House in River Forest, Illinois as a bold declaration of his thesis. Parenthetically, for the first time since 1955, as of this writing, the Winslow House is on the market. This landmark in architectural history is up for sale for $2.4 million.
Frank Lloyd Wright explained his new approach in his book, An Organic Architecture published in 1939:
“So here I stand before you preaching organic architecture: declaring organic architecture to be the modern ideal and the teaching so much needed if we are to see the whole of life, and to now serve the whole of life, holding no traditions essential to the great TRADITION. Nor cherishing any preconceived form fixing upon us either past, present or future, but instead exalting the simple laws of common sense or of super-sense if you prefer determining form by way of the nature of materials…”
Martha “Mamah” Borthwick
In 1903 Wright designed a house for his Oak Park, IL neighbor Edwin Cheney. During that process Wright met Edwin’s wife, Mamah. She was a progressive woman for the time, meaning she was a well-educated, free-love advocate with interests outside the house. Some have come to consider her a proto-feminist.
Wright had six children with his wife of 20 years, Catherine. This, however, did not stop Wright from falling deeply in love with Mamah. Both Edwin and Catherine refused to grant mutual divorces, but the bullheaded Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t care and whisked Mamah away on a trip through Europe.
The newly sensationalized media ran wild with gossip and speculation, thanks to a new fledgling paper Chicago American run by the aggressive yellow-journalist William Randolph Hearst.
Perhaps the most personal of all Frank Lloyd Wright structures is Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Dedicated to Mamah Borthwick, Taliesin sat atop 31 1/2 acres that carried significant ancestral meaning to Wright. It had been owned by Wright’s maternal ancestors.
Taliesin became far more than a mere love bungalow for Mamah and Wright. The location also functioned as his own school for architecture, welcoming budding young minds yearning to learn from the creator of many seminal and unique works known the world over by this point.
Taliesin, intended to be the North Star in Wright’s portfolio, became the scene of one tragic day that scars its history.
A man in his early thirties, Julian Carlton, came to work as Taliesin’s chef for the summer. He came highly regarded from a caterer that Wright had previously hired.
Carlton grew uneasy during his time there. He became increasingly paranoid, and stayed up late clutching a butcher knife as he stared out across the rolling hills of Spring Green.
The rest of the staff became concerned, yet it was Carlton who decided that he would leave. His last day at Taliesin was to be August 15, 1914.
Unfortunately a heated argument erupted between Carlton and Milwaukee-based drafter Emil Brodelle over Carlton’s refusal to saddle Brodelle’s horse.
Two days later, on Friday, another altercation broke out between him and Brodelle, this time coming to blows.
This may have been just enough to tip Carlton into madness.
On Saturday, August 15th, Mamah Borthwick, who had been living at the residence with her two children, issued an urgent telegram to Wright in Chicago asking him to “Come as quickly as you can. Something terrible has happened”
Borthwick and Wright’s relationship continued to grip their social circles with rumor and intrigue. But the event that follows made their affair seem tame in comparison.
While there is still much confusion of why Carlton snapped, little is left to the imagination on what he did next.
Carlton served lunch to Taliesin’s occupants precisely at noon, intentionally grouping any formidable opponents in a single room so as to minimize resistance as he executed his plan.
He then grabbed a small hatchet and set fire to the residential wing of Taliesin.
As the building burned, Carlton hunted down those attempting to escape the blaze and took this exact hatchet (right) to silence as many survivors as he could find.
Julian Carlton slaughtered seven unarmed men, women, and children that balmy August afternoon.
Sadly, Mamah Borthwick and her two children were among the casualties. She fell from a single blow to the head from Carlton’s hatchet.
Biographer Meryle Secrest recounts the grim details in Wright’s biography she penned in 1992. “The first person to reach Mamah Borthwich (sic) was Wright’s brother-in-law Andrew Porter. He found her body ablaze as though it has been saturated with gasoline. It was 12:45 p.m.”
As Taliesin burned, Carlton receded to the opposite side of a fireproof wall in the furnace room. Having carried a small bottle of hydrochloric acid with him, he reached for it and chugged the contents in hopes of a swift end.
While the acid did badly burn his esophagus, it didn’t kill Julian Carlton that day. He was arrested and lived for 47 more days in jail before his passing behind bars due to starvation.
Frank Lloyd Wright arrived on the scene that same day, only a few hours after the horrific events concluded. He rushed to Wisconsin from Chicago as fast as current travel would allow. Had this happened in modern times, Wright could have gotten to Spring Green, Wisconsin in just over three hours, but since this was 1914, it took him much longer to travel those 186 miles.
Upon arriving, Wright set his eyes upon the twisted nightmare that Taliesin had become. Later in life, Wright reflected on what he felt as he took in the grim scene by describing it as a “devastating scene of horror.”
While he may have never fully recovered from the betrayal, loss and heartbreak, he did rebuild the residence. Simply calling the new structure Taliesin II, and burying Mamah’s charred remains with a simple tombstone marking her resting place on the grounds in Spring Green.
One of the more idiosyncratic notes of Wright’s life was his insistence on finding new terminologies for his concepts. He had great luck proliferating Organic Architecture as a concept, but he now sought a more inclusive term for American architecture.
It remains unclear who originally coined the term, but James Duff Law stated in Here and There in Two Hemispheres in 1903, “We of the United States, in justice to Canadians and Mexicans, have no right to use the title ‘Americans’ when referring to matters pertaining exclusively to ourselves.” Law proposed using the word “Usonia.”
In an effort to prove the thesis of what a Usonian home would look like, Wright designed and built the Millard House in Pasadena, Calif. A testament to modern modular concrete design, the Millard House stands to this day and, as of this writing, is on the market for nearly $4.5 million.
It would be difficult to find an architect anywhere in the world who had as varied a portfolio of projects both realized and planned as Mr. Wright. He designed homes, churches, community centers, schools, hotels, museums, corporate offices, a gas station, an entire city, and even drew up plans for a record-breaking mile-high skyscraper.
Planned for Chicago, and intended to stand a mile straight into the heavens, The Illinois may have been the wildest project of Frank Lloyd Wright’s career.
During the 1950s, in post-WWII America, there was a nationwide debate on centralization. Many believed government would function best if the decision makers were contained in one building. This would create the need for inconceivably massive super-structures for the era.
Wright was personally not a fan of bloating the already strained cityscapes, having said in his book A Testament:
“The primitive ideals of centralization are now largely self-defeating. Human crucifixion by vertically on the now static checkerboard of the old city is pattern already in agony; yet for lack of any organic planning it is going on and on–not living, but rather hanging by its eyebrows from its nervous system.”
While he may have been more of a proponent for organic architecture, he saw a trend of massive, vertigo-inducing structures. Therefore, Wright felt “If we’re going to have centralization, why not quit fooling around and have it.”
And he proved that he was completely serious about making his mark on centralization by designing a mile-high building made of steel and glass. To this day no structure would come close to its dizzying heights. Twice the height of the world’s current tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and four times the height of the tallest building of his day, the Empire State building, Wright insisted it could be made in 1956.
With over 500 floors and a projected 18 million square feet, Wright assured the skeptical public that the Illinois could potentially accommodate 100,000 people every day by running 76 atomic-powered elevators lifting 100 people per cabin.
The majority of the building would be used for civic and governmental operations. The top nine floors being earmarked for TV sound stages. Surely, the views from those windows could have put any local news broadcast to shame.
Wright confidently left Chicago, having done his part to inject optimism and wonder into the city’s administrators, and receiving the honor of having October 17th proclaimed Frank Lloyd Wright day.
Unfortunately two years after leaving Chicago and heading back to Arizona, Wright passed away in 1959.
After his passing, the interest for his mile-high monument to centralization started to diminish. And to this day the potential wonders of the massive Illinois skyscraper have yet to be realized.
Gone but not forgotten
Late in Wright’s life he oversaw the creation of many of his Taliesin students’ projects. His influence on the young architects of tomorrow had given way to an eternal spring of fantastic structures.
Perhaps the greatest restaurant in the universe, Nepenthe in Big Sur, California, was created by a Wright apprentice. This coastal California gem was designed by Rowan Maiden, a Taliesin-trained architect, commissioned by Lolly and Bill Fassett, and completed in 1949.
Quickly becoming a local haunt for the bohemian artists of the time, including Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, Nepenthe continues operating to this day and thrives as a popular spot along Highway One.
And Taliesin continues to accept new creative contemporary minds to help inspire the next generation of bold architecture. The school was so successful that Wright later opened Taliesin West nestled in the foothills of Scottsdale, Arizona.
Wright’s prolific career covers an incredible assortment of structures, and his ideas continue to live on to this day, profoundly affecting American architecture.
This article was originally published on March 5, 2014 on eMortgageRates, and has been lightly edited for clarity.