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My Father, Frank Lloyd Wright
By John Lloyd Wright
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1992 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
IN THE BEGINNING
SAINT'S REST" they called it—better known as Oak Park, Illinois. Amid patriarch trees on the low-rolling land, his nearest neighbor a church a mile away, Frank Lloyd Wright conceived something new in the building of his time. And he started with the building of his own house—a continuously mortgaged and periodically remodeled experimental laboratory of design and finance!
Horizontal lines; double-leveled rooms of one and two stories; scattered vases filled with leaves and wild flowers, massive fireplaces seemed to be everywhere. Here and there a Yourdes of rare beauty covered a floor. A Persian lantern, samovars, windows which met and turned the corners, lights filtering through fret-sawed ceiling grilles, sunshine and shadows ... these made the house that was our home.
A woven fabric of brown creosoted cedar shingles was studded with diamond-leaded glass. Massive common brick walls were enriched by stone urns and Boston ivy. Covered screened porches overlooked terraced gardens, a pool and fountain in a garden court. All this grew naturally out of the luxuriant landscape.
The window and doorheads at the same level were connected by a continuous band. I remember a piano, a life-sized bronze bust of Beethoven, an old carved Chinese chair; "The Shere Mill Pond," a landscape by Turner, one by Wendt, statuettes of Indians by McNeil and some rare Kakemonos.
A gigantic willow tree grew right up through the roof of a corridor that connected the house with the large, two-story drafting room. Statuettes, wild flowers and leaves scattered the room in Dad's characteristic order. Here was inspiration, his inspiration, the kind which recognizes the beauty of the works of the past, yet lives in the world of today and cares for its simplest flowers.
The library was books! Long, thick, big, little books. Covers without books, books without covers; colored, patterned, and textured papers in large folios, all piled up and pushed on wide ledges on either side of a long window.
My first impression upon coming into the playroom from the narrow, long, low-arched, dimly lighted passageway that led to it was its great height and brilliant light. The ceiling twenty feet high formed a perfect arch springing from the heads of group windows which were recessed in Roman brick walls. The oak floor marked off with kindergarten arrangement of circles and squares was always strewn with queer dolls, building blocks, funny mechanical toys, animals that moved about and wagged their strange heads.
The semicircle plaster panel above the fireplace was covered by a mural of the allegorical "Fisherman and the Genie" designed by Dad and painted by Giannini. At night the flames from six-foot logs lit up strangely the serene face of the Genie and, at the opposite end, the Winged Victory over the door, making it stand out white and strong against the shadowy galleries beyond.
It was late one night, years later, when for the first time I came unexpectedly upon the Square of Saint Mark in Venice. After approaching through a narrow, low-arched passageway I found myself abruptly in the brightly lighted Square where a band concert had just been concluded. Walls of brick, sculptured balconies and niches, brilliant murals surrounded a multitude of brightly costumed people in picturesque confusion. Scores of white doves fluttered about. The sky formed an arched ceiling overhead. Only upon this one occasion did I ever have a similar impression to the one our playroom left with me. In this room were the milestones to maturity; treasures, friends, comrades, ambitions; and through the years I have dreamed through the inspiration of this playroom.
It was Dad's desire that his children should grow up with a recognition of what is good in the art of the house. He believed that an instinct for the beautiful would be firmly established by a room whose simple beauty and strength are daily factors. And Dad was right.
When I first became conscious of my father, he looked like this:
A self-photograph. No "picture-taker" could satisfy him. So he rigged up his camera with a long rubber tube, and at the right moment, squeezed the bulb! It was in the year 1895.
I looked like this:
He twenty-six, I three, this is evidence of what he did to me. He wanted a girl, thus the dress and the curl! The tie is his.
His first design looked like this:
Is it the Gay Nineties or 1946? Anachronism is the first thought that comes to mind when looking at this modern building in the midst of antiquated apparel and mode of travel. Yet it is not an anachronism. It simply conveys at a glance how far ahead of his time was the nineteen-year-old boy, Frank Lloyd Wright.
The ideal of Jenkin Lloyd Jones, "Uncle Jenk" to us, was unity. His dream was to erect a building to house a social and civic center, and his nonsectarian church. He was the founder of All Souls Church in Chicago. His weekly publication was called Unity.
Here was an opportunity for one member of the family to allow expression for the rising genius of another member. So, Uncle Jenk commissioned "the boy" nephew to design the building.
Uncle Jenk and the trustees liked the design just as "the boy" made it, but Jenk was not so sure "the boy" was capable of carrying out so large a project. Then, too, Uncle Jenk knew that "the boy" had a mind of his own, equal to his in strength of will and determination. In keeping with the precedent of unity in family, everyone for himself, Uncle Jenk called in another architect whom he could direct, to collaborate with him and "the boy" in the building of "the boy's" design. Grossly offended, "the boy" would have nothing further to do with the project. Evidently this suited Uncle Jenk. He and his collaborator proceeded unhampered to carry out "the boy's" plan to suit themselves. The building emerged, a clumsily revised version of the original. The tradesmen called it "All Souls Cold Storage and Warehouse."
In 1893 he announced his practice like this:
A reproduction of the upper left-hand corner of the cover of a gray-paper, four-page brochure. The dark printing was Chinese red, the lighter black. His red-square mark shown above was later revised to a solid red square with single-line frame—then to a solid red square, unadorned. This is a characteristic note in his development toward simplicity.
A reproduction of the second page.
THE PRACTICE OF ARCHITECTURE as a profession has fine art as well as commercial elements.
These should be combined to their mutual benefit, not mixed to their detriment.
To develop in a better sense, this fine art side in combination with its commercial condition, the architect should place himself in an environment that conspires to develop the best there is in him. The first requisite is a place fitted and adapted to the work to be performed and set outside distractions of the busy city. The worker is enabled on this basis to secure the quiet concentration of effort essential to the full success of a building project,—the intrinsic value of which is measured by the quality of that effort.
To practice the profession of architecture along these lines, in the hope of reaching these better results, a complete architectural workshop has been constructed at Oak Park, and for purely business purposes, consultation and matters in connection with superintendence, an office has been located in "The Rookery," Chicago.
OFFICE HOURS: At 1119 Rookery from twelve to two, P. M. Telephone Main 2668. A record of work, together with plans and details in duplicate will be kept on file at this office and accessible to clients and contractors at this time.
At corner of Forest and Chicago Avenues, Oak Park: Eight to eleven, A. M. Seven to nine, P. M. Telephone Oak Park. Clients and those with a kindred interest in architecture will also be welcomed to the suburban studio during business hours, where provision has been made for their reception and entertainment.
The third page was a halftone paster of the plan and elevation of his studio. On the fourth page was printed:
"Oak Park may be reached by Lake Street elevated trains connecting at 48th Street with the Chicago Avenue surface electric road which passes the Studio, or by the Chicago and North-Western Ry."
He announced his first exhibition like this:
The left-hand panel shows the sculptured capital with solemn secretary birds and open book beneath the fruitful tree. The plan of his private study is etched on the pendant scroll. This enriched the square columns at the entrance to his studio. The chair on which stands the statuette goldenrod-holder of his red-haired boy John was the first piece of modern furniture made in this country.
Not satisfied with the bric-a-brac of the day, Father designed his own. The copper weed-holders pictured to the right and left of the chair are his early creations. Father liked weeds!
In those days furniture manufacturers would have nothing to do with furniture not of period design. Father didn't like periods! He designed most of our furniture and had it made in the mill where the doors and trim for his buildings were made. The pieces that were not built in, built out or nailed down, he rearranged with a regularity most disconcerting to Mother.CHAPTER 2
DAD THE PAPA
BROWN EYES full of love and mischief, a thick pompadour of dark wavy hair—that is my father when I think of him as he was when I was very young. His smile enlivened everything about him—his laugh defied grief and failure.
The unrestrained character of this man of Welsh and English ancestry, and his peculiarities of genius, caused him to have little in common with his neighbors. They thought him an eccentric visionary because his ideals and even the house that was our home were different from theirs. His clients were subjected to ridicule—a "crazy architect" built "freak houses" for them. He didn't think, act or dress like the fathers of the day, but was married like them and this, only, gave him a right to be at liberty.
His rebellion against existing conventional tyranny, his ardent temperament and headlong pursuit of whatever he most wanted not infrequently involved him in serious troubles from which, thanks to his own ingenuity and "good fairy," he emerged, scathed or unscathed—but he emerged!
As a young man he had the indispensable quality of confidence in himself. He was ambitious, but his idea of the way to rise was to improve himself, never suspecting that anyone wished to hinder him. And as for the ungenerous attempt to keep a young man down, he fought valiantly always, but never allowed his mind to be diverted from its true channel to brood over real or imaginary injuries.
He made sport of the inertia that blocks progress, and astonished everyone by his audacity. His outspokenness incurred both political and personal enmity. Yet his brilliant and attractive personality exercised a curious charm on those who knew him.
He bought my clothes, my shoes, my toys. He performed all the functions of fatherhood, only he performed them differently. He took no personal interest in my religious or academic training. But when it came to luxuries and play, he tenderly took my hand and led the way.
He performed all the functions of an architect, only he performed them differently.
He designed round drawers for square stationery!
He performed all the functions of an author, only he performed them differently.
He permitted no index in his books!
Not innocent of rudeness he boldly and knowingly broke the fetters of form. His devotion to his ideals caused his stubborn cry: "No Compromise"—his courage and love for his work, later, inspired in me the love for architecture.
He was the man whom I called Papa.
Papa went to bed late at night—pulled me under a cold shower with him in the morning—rubbed me with a coarse towel till my skin burned and glowed. He tickled my toes, tossed me into the air again and again to the accompaniment of my shrieks of delight and Mother's "Stop, Frank! Stop!"
I watched curiously as he laid off his dressing gown, put on his coat, arranged his flowing tie before the mirror—took a full breath of fresh air and led me down to Mother and to breakfast. Then he would disappear! That was the first great mystery of my life. Where did this man go, the man whom I called Papa?
I didn't see much of him except at mealtime until I was able to discover and find my way to the drafting room adjoining the house. Then the mystery was solved. I could get to the balcony from a hidden stairway. From here I would quietly throw things over the railing on the tops of the drafting tables and the heads of the drafting men. I saw more of him from then on. He would chase me, gather me up, perch me on his shoulder and ride me back to Mother. It wasn't long before he couldn't even catch me. He never punished me.
His favorite frolic was to torment me at mealtime. He would swing his arm over my head. I'd duck only to find he was scratching the back of his neck.
Now and then I wouldn't duck.
Now and then he'd pop me!
He bought colored gas balloons by the dozen—released them in the playroom—arranged and played with them by the hour.
Papa kept a naked woman on his drafting-room balcony. I saw her through the high windows opening over the flat gravel roof. She was pretty and had freckles. I tore across the street to get my playmate, Cliff McHugh. Dickie Bock, the sculptor, squinted his eyes in her direction, then pressed the clay into curves like those she was made of. Papa came to the balcony and scrutinized Dickie's work. All of a sudden he ripped it apart. Dickie watched him with big tears streaming down his cheeks, then proceeded to do the parts over to suit Dad.
Papa spied us, chased us off the roof, brought us in and sat us down next to Dickie. Here we could get the artistic viewpoint. Papa said Dickie was modeling a statue for the Dana house to symbolize Tennyson's immortal lines:
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
We lost interest. Bees buzzed, frogs croaked, we could hear them through the open window. Sap flowed, life hummed—spring was in the air. I wanted but one thing now—to get back to making whistles from the branches of the big willow tree that grew right up through the house and spread its giant limbs over the rooftops.
One day, without previous warning, at least to me, a Cecilian Piano Player was rolled into our house. Papa pushed it up to the keyboard of his Steinway concert grand and pumped Beethoven by the roll. His eyes closed, his head and hands swaying over the throttles, I think he imagined he was Beethoven. He looked like Beethoven, and, with the help of the Cecilian, he played like him. As he went at this thing, his motions suggested revenge for those days when he was compelled to pump his father's organ till he collapsed. It seemed to me that he was now hell-bent on pumping this thing till it collapsed. It did! I
Then the complicated procedure began. Instead of sitting on the bench playing the Beethoven, he now sat on the floor and played with the parts. This went on for days. He finally tinkered it together, but it was never the same.
Papa liked vaudeville!
Vaudeville liked Papa!
When in the theater, tam, stick and all, he would parade down the aisle to his seat, pause—swing about toward the audience, remove his cape—look right, left, up into the balconies like a Caesar about to make an oration—then, he would sit down.
His laugh was so contagious it sent the audience into spasms. One night the comedian, laughing all the while himself, looked directly at him and bowed in tribute.
Dad would sit in quiet ecstasy when we would go to the great Auditorium Theater, the work of his master, Louis Sullivan. He told me, then, that the auditorium was acknowledged to be the greatest building achievement of the period, and to this day, all things considered, it is probably the best room for opera yet built in the world. He would point out where his own feeling of flatter planes crept into the detail, eliminating much of the free-flowing efflorescence of Sullivan's leaf ornament. This was conspicuously apparent on the gilded plaster reliefs of the proscenium, inscribed with the names of great composers. He called my attention to Beethoven. "Beethoven is not for the shallow," he said. "Beethoven believed that the barriers are not yet erected which can say to aspiring genius, 'Thus far and no farther.' "
Papa liked to read "Mr. Dooley." Before the reading was over no one knew who was laughing at him or what he read. He would go into convulsions before he gained much headway. I laughed at Papa. I think his favorite was "Life at Newport." Mr. Dooley tells Mr. Hennessy about the "great goin's on at Newport."
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