His stylistic command of wood, steel and concrete make him an architectural legend. His restrained minimalism remains unmistakable among his peers. Each of his 1,100 designs are as unique as a fingerprint, and a clear reflection of their 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.
Wright’s parents, both teachers, attempted to impress the importance of education on young Frank. And while Wright did attend high school in Madison, Wis. there’s no evidence that he graduated. Even still, he was granted acceptance to University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1886 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 defined as only seven stories tall. For context, Wright began his professional architecture career when the Washington Monument was the tallest structure in the world.
Sullivan taught Wright the basics of form following function. Wright learned the importance of stripping away the ornate styling that was prevalent in most European architecture at the time.
In appropriately 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, Ill. as a bold declaration of his thesis.
Later in life, Wright explained this approach in his book, An Organic Architecture: The Architecture of Democracy 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, while designing a house for his Oak Park, Ill. neighbor Edwin Cheney, Wright met Edwin’s wife, Mamah. She was considered progressive for the time, meaning she was a well-educated, free-love advocate with interests outside the house. Some consider her a proto-feminist.
At that time, Wright had six children with his wife of 20 years, Catherine. This, however, didn’t stop Wright from falling deeply in love with Mamah. Both Edwin and Catherine refused to grant mutual divorces, but the bullheaded Wright didn’t care and whisked Mamah away on a trip through Europe.
Gossip and speculation ran wild thanks to a newly formed, fledgling paper the Chicago American run by the aggressively provocative yellow-journalist William Randolph Hearst.
Taliesin’s Devastating Scene of Horror
Perhaps the most personal of all FLW structures is Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis. Dedicated to Mamah Borthwick, Taliesin sat atop thirty-one and a half acres of land that was owned by Wright’s maternal ancestors.
Far more than a mere love bungalow, Taliesin functioned as Wright’s school for architecture. Welcoming budding young minds yearning to learn from the creator of many unique works known across the world by this point.
Taliesin was intended to be the North Star of Wright’s portfolio, but sadly became the scene of a horrific tragedy of unspeakable evil.
Julian Carlton was in his early thirties when he came to work at Taliesin as a chef for the summer. He was highly recommended from a caterer that Wright previously hired.
The new chef never quite fit in. He got in a heated argument with Milwaukee-based drafter Emil Brodelle over Carlton’s refusal to saddle Brodelle’s horse. A request not quite fitting a chef’s responsibilities.
Carlton became increasingly paranoid and spent many sleepless nights clutching a butcher knife as he stared out across the rolling hills of Spring Green.
After another altercation between Carlton and Brodelle came to blows, Carlton decided to quit. His last day was to be August 15, 1914, a Saturday.
That day Mamah Borthwick issued an urgent telegram to Wright in Chicago. “Come as quickly as you can. Something terrible has happened!”
The plan was simple. Carlton served lunch to Taliesin’s guests precisely at noon, intentionally seating any formidable opponents in a single room to minimize any resistance in the events that were to follow.
He then grabbed a small hatchet, barricaded the door to that room, and set fire to the building.
As flames engulfed the guests, Carlton hunted down any attempting to flee. He took this hatchet (right) and killed as many people as he could.
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.
“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.,” recounts Wright biographer Meryle Secrest.
As Taliesin burned, Carlton receded to the opposite side of a fireproof wall in the furnace room. He carried a small bottle of hydrochloric acid with him and drank the contents in hopes of a swift end.
While the acid did badly burn his esophagus, it didn’t kill him. Carlton was arrested and remained in jail for 47 days before passing due to starvation.
After receiving the telegram, Wright rushed back from Chicago. Arriving on the scene the same day as the massacre, only a few hours after the horrific events concluded.
Upon arriving, he set his eyes upon the twisted nightmare that Taliesin became. Later in life, Wright described what he saw as a, “devastating scene of horror.”
While the man may have never fully recovered from the betrayal and heartbreak, he did rebuild, calling the new structure Taliesin II. He buried Mamah’s remains with a simple tombstone marking her resting place on the grounds of Spring Green, Wis.
Later in Life / Mile-High The Illinois
It would be difficult to find an architect anywhere in the world with as varied a portfolio of projects both realized and planned as Frank Lloyd 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 to be the crown gem of Chicago’s skyline, towering a mile straight into the heavens, The Illinois might just have been Wright’s wildest proposed project of his career.
During the nationwide debate on centralization in Post-WWII America, many believed the government would function best if the decision makers were contained in one building. This would create the need for inconceivably massive super-structures in the 1950s.
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 championed organic architecture, he recognized the need for massive, vertigo-inducing structures. Therefore, he concluded, “If we’re going to have centralization, why not quit fooling around and have it.”
And he was serious about following through by submitting plans for his mile-high building made of steel and glass. To this day, no structure comes close to this dizzying height. It would have been twice the height of today’s current tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and four times the height of that time’s tallest building, the Empire State Building.
With more than 500 floors and a projected 18 million square feet, Wright assured the skeptical public in 1956 that The Illinois could be built. It would accommodate 100,000 people every day by running 76 atomic-powered elevators that could lift 100 people per cabin.
The building would mainly be provisioned for civic and governmental operations, but the top nine floors would be earmarked for TV sound stages. Surely, the views from those windows would put any other local news broadcast to shame.
Wright confidently left Chicago after injecting optimism and wonder into the city’s administrators and receiving the honor of having October 17th proclaimed Frank Lloyd Wright day.
Sadly, two years after leaving Chicago, Wright passed away in Arizona in 1959. After his passing, interest for his mile-high monument diminished, leaving the plans unrealized.
Gone, but not forgotten
Wright oversaw many Taliesin students’ projects before his passing. His influence on the young architects of tomorrow gave way to an eternal spring of fantastic structures.
This includes such iconic structures as Nepenthe in Big Sur, Calif. Created by Taliesin-trained architect Rowan Maiden. This warm and inviting eatery became a local haunt for the bohemian artists of the time, including Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac. Nepenthe continues operating to this day and remains a gem of refuge alone California’s picturesque Highway One.
And Taliesin II continues to accept new creative contemporary minds, inspiring the next generation of bold architecture. The school remained so successful it spawned the western counterpart Taliesin West nestled in the foothills of Scottsdale, Ariz.
Wright’s incredible portfolio of structures, and a dedicated following will ensure a continued impact on American architecture for ages to come.