Frank Lloyd Wright (June 8, 1867 – April 9, 1959) 

Frank Lloyd Wright (June 8, 1867 – April 9, 1959) was an American architect, designer, writer, and educator who designed more than 1,000 structures over a creative period of 70 years and played a key role in the architectural movements of the Twentieth Century; influencing architects worldwide through his works and hundreds of apprentices in his Taliesin Fellowship.

Wright believed in designing in harmony with humanity and the environment, a philosophy he called organic architecture. Wright was also the pioneer of what came to be called the Prairie School movement of architecture. He also designed original and innovative offices, churches, schools, skyscrapers, hotels, museums, and other commercial projects. Wright-designed interior elements (including leaded glass windows, floors, furniture and even tableware) were integrated into these structures. He wrote several books and numerous articles and was a popular lecturer in the United States and in Europe. Wright was recognized in 1991 by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time.”

Wright was born on June 8, 1867, in the town of Richland Center, Wisconsin, however maintained throughout his life that he was born in 1869. In 1987 a biographer of Wright suggested that he may have been christened as “Frank Lincoln Wright” or “Franklin Lincoln Wright” but these assertions have not been supported by any evidence.

Wright’s father, William Cary Wright (1825–1904), was a gifted musician, orator, and part time preacher who was admitted to the bar in 1857. He was also a published composer. Originally from Massachusetts, William Wright was originally a Baptist minister, but later joined his wife’s family in the Unitarian faith.

Wright’s mother, Anna Lloyd Jones (1838/39–1923) was a teacher and a member of the Lloyd Jones clan; her parents emigrated from Wales to Wisconsin. According to Wright’s autobiography, his mother declared when she was expecting that her first child would grow up to build beautiful buildings. She decorated his nursery with engravings of English cathedrals torn from a periodical to encourage the infant’s ambition.

Wright grew up in an “unstable household, […] constant lack of resources, […] unrelieved poverty and anxiety” and had a “deeply disturbed and obviously unhappy childhood.” Because the Wright family struggled financially, William gave music lessons and served as the secretary to the newly formed Unitarian Society. Although William was a distant parent, he shared his love of music with his children.

In 1876, Anna saw an exhibit of educational blocks called the Froebel Gifts, the foundation of an innovative kindergarten curriculum. Anna, a trained teacher, was excited by the program and bought a set with which the 9-year old Wright spent much time playing. The blocks in the set were geometrically shaped and could be assembled in various combinations to form two- and three-dimensional compositions.

in his autobiography he cited them indirectly in explaining that he learned the geometry of architecture in kindergarten play:

For several years I sat at the little kindergarten table-top ruled by lines about four inches apart each way making four-inch squares; and, among other things, played upon these ‘unit-lines’ with the square (cube), the circle (sphere) and the triangle (tetrahedron or tripod)—these were smooth maple-wood blocks. All are in my fingers to this day.

Wright later wrote:

“The virtue of all this lay in the awakening of the child-mind to rhythmic structures in Nature… I soon became susceptible to constructive pattern evolving in everything I saw.” Wright attended Madison High School, but there is no record or evidence that he ever graduated.

By1886, at age 19, Wright had already decided he wanted to become an architect and was admitted to the University of Wisconsin–Madison as a special student working under Allan D. Conover, a professor of civil engineering. Later, Wright left the school without completing his degree.

In 1887, Wright arrived in Chicago in search of employment. As a result of the devastating Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and a recent population boom, new development was plentiful. Wright later recorded in his autobiography that his first impression of Chicago was of an ugly and chaotic city. Within days of his arrival, and after interviews with several prominent firms, he was hired as a draftsman with Joseph Lyman Silsbee.

Feeling he was underpaid for the quality of his work for Silsbee at $8 a week, the young draftsman quit and found work as an architectural designer at the firm of Beers, Clay, and Dutton. Wright soon learned that the Chicago firm of Adler & Sullivan was “… looking for someone to make the finished drawings for the interior of the Auditorium Building”

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Wright did not get along well with Sullivan’s other draftsmen. He wrote of several violent altercations occurring between them during the first years of his apprenticeship.

After leaving Adler & Sullivan, Wright established his own practice on the top floor of the Sullivan-designed Schiller Building on Randolph Street in Chicago. Wright’s projects during this period followed two basic models. His first independent commission, the Winslow House, combined Sullivanesque ornamentation with the emphasis on simple geometry and horizontal lines. For his more conservative clients, Wright designed more traditional dwellings.

In 1894, Edward Waller, a friend and former client, invited Wright to meet Chicago architect and planner Daniel Burnham. Burnham had been impressed by the Winslow House and other examples of Wright’s work. He offered to finance a four-year education at the École des Beaux-Arts and two years in Rome. To top it off, Wright would have a position in Burnham’s firm upon his return. In spite of guaranteed success and support of his family, Wright declined the offer.

Between 1900 and 1901, Frank Lloyd Wright completed four houses, which have since been identified as the onset of the Prairie Style.” By 1901, Wright had already completed about 50 projects, including many houses in Oak Park. As his son John Lloyd Wright wrote:

William Eugene Drummond, Francis Barry Byrne, Walter Burley Griffin, Albert Chase McArthur, Marion Mahony, Isabel Roberts, and George Willis were the draftsmen. Five men, two women. They wore flowing ties, and smocks suitable to the realm. The men wore their hair like Papa, all except Albert, he didn’t have enough hair. They worshiped Papa! Papa liked them! I know that each one of them was then making valuable contributions to the pioneering of the modern American architecture for which my father gets the full glory, headaches, and recognition today!

Wright’s residential designs of this era were known as “prairie houses” because the designs complemented the land around Chicago.Prairie Style houses often have a combination of these features: one or two stories with one-story projections, an open floor plan, low-pitched roofs with broad, overhanging eaves, strong horizontal lines, ribbons of windows (often casements), a prominent central chimney, built-in stylized cabinetry, and a wide use of natural materials – especially stone and wood.

Wright strongly believed in individualism and did not have any affiliation with the American Institute of Architects during his entire career; going so far as to even call the organization “a harbor of refuge for the incompetent,” and “a form of refined gangsterism.” When an associate referred to him as “an old amateur” Wright quipped, “I am the oldest.”

In 1903, while Wright was designing a house for Edwin Cheney (a neighbor in Oak Park), he became enamored with Cheney’s wife, Mamah. Mamah Borthwick Cheney was a modern woman with interests outside the home. She was an early feminist and Wright viewed her as his intellectual equal. Their relationship became the talk of the town and they often could be seen taking rides in Wright’s automobile through Oak Park.

In October 1910, Wright persuaded his mother to buy land for him in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The land, bought on April 10, 1911, was adjacent to land held by his mother’s family, the Lloyd-Joneses. Wright began to build himself a new home, which he called Taliesin.

On August 15, 1914, while Wright was working in Chicago, a servant (Julian Carlton) set fire to the living quarters of Taliesin and then murdered seven people with an axe as the fire burned. The dead included Mamah; her two children, John and Martha Cheney; a gardener (David Lindblom); a draftsman (Emil Brodelle); a workman (Thomas Brunker); and another workman’s son (Ernest Weston). Two people survived the mayhem, one of whom, William Weston, helped to put out the fire that almost completely consumed the residential wing of the house. Carlton swallowed hydrochloric acid immediately following the attack in an attempt to kill himself. He was nearly lynched on the spot, but was taken to the Dodgeville jail. Carlton died from starvation seven weeks after the attack, despite medical attention.

On April 20, 1925, another fire destroyed the bungalow at Taliesin. Crossed wires from a newly installed telephone system were deemed to be responsible for the blaze, which destroyed a collection of Japanese prints that Wright estimated to be worth $250,000 to $500,000 ($3,863,000 to $7,726,000 in 2021). Wright rebuilt the living quarters.

Wright was a passionate JapanophileHe once proclaimed Japan to be “the most romantic, artistic, nature-inspired country on earth.” Wright first traveled to Japan in 1905, where he bought hundreds of prints. Throughout his entire career, Japanese art and architecture would hold a strong sway over him. He was particularly interested in ukiyo-ewoodblock prints, to which he claimed he was “enslaved. Wright spent much of his free time selling, collecting, and appreciating these prints. He held parties and other events centered around them, proclaiming their pedagogical value to his guests and students.

Though Wright always acknowleged his great indebtedness to Japanese art and architecture, he took great offense to claims that he copied or adapted it. In his view, Japanese art simply validated his personal principles especially well, and as such it was not a source of special inspiration.

Though most famous as an architect, Wright was also an active dealer in Japanese art. He frequently served as both architect and art dealer to the same clients. He would often design a home, & then provided the art to fill it. For a time, Wright made more from selling art than from his work as an architect. In 1912, he also penned a book on Japanese art, The Japanese Print: An Interpretation.

Frank Lloyd Wright was married three times, fathering four sons and three daughters. He also adopted Svetlana Milanoff, the daughter of his third wife, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright.

His wives were:

  • Catherine “Kitty” (Tobin) Wright (1871–1959); social worker, socialite (married in June 1889; divorced November 1922)
  • Maude “Miriam” (Noel) Wright (1869–1930), artist (married in November 1923; divorced August 1927)
  • Olga Ivanovna “Olgivanna” (Lazovich Milanoff) Lloyd Wright (1897–1985), dancer and writer (married in August 1928)

Wright also designed some of his own clothing. His fashion sense was unique and he usually wore expensive suits, flowing neckties, and capes. He had a fascination with automobiles and purchased his first car in 1909, a Stoddard-Dayton roadster, and owned many exotic vehicles over the years. During the cash-strapped Depression, Wright drove cheaper vehicles. Some of his last cars in the 1950s included four Volkswagens and a Chevrolet Nomad wagon along with flashier articles such as a Jaguar Mark VII. Between 1909 and his death, Wright personally owned some 50 cars.

On April 4, 1959, Wright was hospitalized for abdominal pains and had surgery on April 6. He seemed to be recovering, but then died quietly on April 9 at the age of 91.

After Wright’s death, most of his archives were stored at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Taliesin (Wisconsin), and Taliesin West (Arizona). These collections included more than 23,000 architectural drawings, some 44,000 photographs, 600 manuscripts, and more than 300,000 pieces of office & personal correspondence. ✪


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