Frank Lloyd Wright's Dana House: The Illustrated Story of an Architectural Masterpiece

Frank Lloyd Wright's Dana House: The Illustrated Story of an Architectural Masterpiece

by Donald Hoffmann


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486291208
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 03/17/2017
Series: Dover Architecture
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 9.25(w) x 10.75(h) x (d)

About the Author

American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) designed more than 1,000 structures in a career that spanned eight decades. A leader of the Prairie School of architecture, he also designed interiors, wrote 20 books, and was a popular lecturer.

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Frank Lloyd Wright's Dana House

By Donald Hoffmann

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1996 Donald Hoffmann
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13922-7


The Site and the Times

IN 1900, THE year he turned 33, Frank Lloyd Wright at last began to find his voice. Not long after, in Springfield, Illinois, he seized the chance to test his entire range [Figs. 1, 2]. The house of 1902–04 for Susan Lawrence Dana, a woman of means, became the largest house Wright had built, the most ornamental, the most vital in its contest between mass and space. It also became the most paradoxical.

Comprehensive and complex, the Dana house stretched along its site to evoke the romance of the frontier and the freedom of the vanished prairie [3]. But it was crowded by the railroad at its back and by the state capitol and center of town nearby [4]. The long horizontal also collided indoors with spaces two stories tall, where the sense of the open landscape gave way to a world more like a child's dream, with steps everywhere up and down, overlooks and covert nooks, softly colored lamps and sudden vistas toward partly hidden places [5]. Through such episodes of space and light, the interior unfolded slowly, to a more Victorian rhythm, and its visual grammar grew intricate and various. Glass patterns conceived purely as geometric inventions kept company with others abstracted from plants and even insects. Allegorical sculptures led to a room with landscape murals of unembarrassed realism.

So far as the principles of architectural structure, or what John Ruskin declared the three good architectures of the world, the house expressed all three at once, thus invited tensions and ambiguities not easily resolved. The principle of the gable, so vigorously asserted by the roofs, perforce contended with that of the post and lintel, but also with the arch and the vault, which lingered from the years Wright had spent as a draftsman for Adler & Sullivan. The house at the same time took strength from dynamic principles of structure far beyond architectural tradition.

Here was Frank Lloyd Wright at full tilt; but surely the house meant something else to Mrs. Dana. Why would a widowed woman without children build a place of such size and splendor? And why next to a railroad? For her, the house must have risen as a grand affirmation in the wake of staggering personal losses: not only a new residence, but a beacon of culture and high society, as well as a memorial to the man whose money built it, R. D. Lawrence, her father [6].

Rheuna Drake Lawrence, who sometimes spelled his surname "Lawrance," possessed the uncommon ability to succeed at any number of enterprises, public or private. He could not be counted among the earliest settlers of Springfield, but his years there reached back to the time of Abraham Lincoln, whom he may well have known; the presence of Lincoln strangely permeated the town. Early in 1859 the elder sister of Lawrence's wife married a young lawyer with political ambitions, Charles S. Zane, who soon was pleased to be in Lincoln's company on May 18, 1860, at the moment Lincoln first learned of his nom-ination to the Presidency. When he departed for the White House on February 11, 1861, Lincoln left behind his law partner, William H. Herndon, and Herndon chose Zane to be his new partner. Then, too, in a note of January 1864 to Edwin M. Stanton, the Secretary of War, Lincoln wrote, "If another Assistant Quarter-Master is needed to serve in Central Illinois, or with Illinois troops, let Mr. Lawrence be appointed."

Lawrence, much like Lincoln, witnessed the great changes of the time and the steady transformation of his town. The quaint means of travel and transportation afford a brief but telling index. Lincoln came to Illinois in 1830 by wagon and ox team, and first saw Springfield a year later by taking a large canoe down the Sangamon River and hiking more than five miles into town. In 1837 he moved there with all he owned on the back of a borrowed horse. After 24 years he left town for the Presidency from the depot of the Great Western Railroad. The building arts in Springfield had progressed still more swiftly. The town was founded somewhat artificially, but decisively, with a stake driven into the prairie some 600 feet above sea level; the stake signified the temporary seat of Sangamon County. The first courthouse, a log cabin that cost $72.50 to build, was twice succeeded within a decade, first by a frame building and then by one of bricks. At the boom time of the mid-1850s, when Lawrence chose Springfield as a good place to be a bricklayer, the town claimed seven brickyards and an annual output of six million bricks. Small wonder that he would someday build a home of bricks, and so would his daughter.

Life was short, and Lawrence was quick to learn about building. His mother, Susan Minerva Lawrence, born in 1813, was already a widow when she married Lewis W. Lawrence in 1836, and she became a widow again when her second husband died of pneumonia in April 1849. He had served in the Mexican War of 1846–48. Their son Rheuna, born January 18, 1837 at the farm home near Cedarville, Ohio, proved dutiful yet precociously independent; he may have left home at ten. In any event, he went to work in a brickyard, to bear off the fresh-made bricks, and at 14 earned journeyman's wages as a bricklayer. He pursued his trade in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and then in Chicago, where he became a foreman. To his mother he sent the larger part of his pay. Around 1856 he moved to Springfield, where, before he reached his majority, he became a building contractor. He first built a three-story structure downtown, at Fifth and Jefferson Streets. In 1857, with a partner, he built the Universalist Church at the northwest corner of Fifth and Cook Streets, two blocks from the corner where he would one day build his home. But his first great success, also in 1857, was to win the masonry contract for six buildings and additions at the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane, in Jacksonville. There exists a frail copy of the Daily Illinois State Register for June 18, 1857, which he kept all his life, announcing that bids were due July 1. The work took several years, and it entailed some three million bricks and three thousand perches of stone.

When he married Mary Agnes Maxcy on January 24, 1859, Lawrence was 22 and his bride a few weeks shy of 18. They soon took Lawrence's mother into the household; she stayed until her death in 1892. Their first child, born in November 1859, was named Agnes Salome Lawrence, but she lived less than a year. A second daughter was born October 13, 1862. They named her Sue C. Lawrence, but because the initial stood for nothing else, "Sue C." easily evolved into "Susie." In the years to come, through caprice or marriage, her name changed five more times. Susie Lawrence would learn that nothing about life was certain, and certainly not life itself.

R. D. Lawrence thrived during the years of the Civil War. In 1868 he spent $6000 for a prominent homesite only two blocks from the governor's mansion. The corner site, where a friend of Lincoln's had once lived, was in that central part of town where the street grid tilted two degrees east of due north. Lawrence bought two lots for an 80-foot front on Fourth Street and two more lots for an equal front on Third. The alley between the two pairs of lots had been vacated in 1863. That gave the property a fine reach of 241 feet along the street named Wright—not, of course, for Frank Lloyd Wright, but for the educator, surveyor and fervent abolitionist Erastus Wright, who arrived in Springfield in 1821 and later claimed to have built the first frame house there in 1823. In August 1833 he surveyed into town lots a 60-acre tract that had been sold earlier in the year for only $300. In 1842 a cabinetmaker named Daniel Ruckel, who knew Lincoln, bought the lots that later became the east part of the Lawrence homestead. Ruckel built a small house, expanded his property in 1850, and in August 1851 mortgaged it to Lincoln for a loan of $300. Lincoln charged ten percent a year, then a modest rate of interest. "Daniel E. Ruckel," he wrote much later, "was a dear friend of mine; and any favor done a member of his family would be appreciated by me."

Ruckel died in 1854 at only 42, but he had lived long enough to see the railroad, known most often as the Chicago & Alton, come along Third Street at the west edge of his property. The depot stood at Third and Jefferson Streets, only a block east from where the town was founded, and on May 3, 1865 it became the last stop for Lincoln's funeral train. Lincoln had understood what railroads meant. In March 1832, in his first published message to voters, he hailed them as a "never failing source of communication." It was six years before the first locomotive appeared in Illinois on order from the Northern Cross, conceived to link the central prairies to the Illinois River, which in turn flowed into the Mississippi and toward large markets. Then more of the prairie soil might be profitably tilled. A steamboat carried the first locomotive to Meredosia, and the Northern Cross finally reached Springfield in 1842. It failed very soon. Revived a few years later, it eventually became part of the Great Western, which ran along Tenth Street on the east side of town. Ice on the Illinois River, however, could still halt commerce. The town of Alton, situated on the Mississippi north of St. Louis, promised Springfield a less seasonal port. In 1851, Lincoln represented the Alton & Sangamon Railroad Company in pursuing shareholders delinquent in paying their installments. He himself owned six shares. This was the road that would begin to run along Third Street in 1852:

The first train of cars from Alton came into the city on Thursday afternoon [September 9], about five o'clock. Their approach was announced by the firing of cannon, and the train was received by a national salute and the cheers of the citizens present. The cars immediately returned. Arrangements will now be made for running the cars regularly—and the hour for arrival and departure will soon be announced.

The fact that trains rattled by the Lawrence homestead signaled a victory for the west side of town: not so much a nuisance as an amenity. After the war, Lawrence himself ventured into railroad contracting—"150,000 Cross Ties Wanted on the Line of Gilman, Clinton and Springfield Rail Road," he advertised in undertaking to build a road that would reach 111 miles north and later become part of the Illinois Central. If the Italianate villa he built at Fourth and Wright Streets failed to find a place among the 67 prominent residences cited by J. C. Power in his 1871 History of Springfield, Illinois, it nonetheless stood as an impressive residence for a young man who had come to town as a bricklayer [7].

In 1872, with three partners, Lawrence sank a coalmine shaft and laid out the company town of Barclay, 11 miles northeast of his home and conveniently next to the new Gilman, Clinton and Springfield line. He managed the company for seven years. Today the mine is gone, and Barclay survives as little more than a signpost; but two of Lawrence's commercial buildings in downtown Springfield stand as testimony to his pride in masonry construction. He built the Central Block in 1881 at the southeast corner of Sixth and Adams Streets and immediately leased it to the John Bressmer Company, the leading dry-goods store [8]. (Bressmer, a German who arrived in Springfield in 1848 at the age of 15, first went to work on the street in front of Lincoln's home; he saw Lincoln come and go, but lacked sufficient English to speak with him.) Not far south on Sixth Street, the asymmetrical front of the Lawrence Building betrayed a remodeling of two older fronts [9]. Here, by 1880, Lawrence had his offices. But he must have built the new front in a later year.

On the occasion of Susie Lawrence's marriage, on December 4, 1883, it was reported that after her debut in society she had "easily maintained the position she at once took as one of the reigning belles." She looked much like her father, yet the lesson he must have intended by giving her a savings account at only seven evidently had gone unlearned. Edwin Ward Dana, the man she married, had grown up about 30 miles away in Lincoln, Illinois, where his father ran the abstract and title office. His family came from the same New England tree that bore the brilliant but erratic Charles A. Dana, once an Assistant Secretary of War under Lincoln and later the editor of the New York Sun. Edwin Dana and Susie Lawrence settled in Minneapolis, where he dealt in real estate [10].

R. D. Lawrence kept busy as ever. In later years he gained even greater prominence. He served as mayor from 1891 to 1893, then joined the board of education and later became its president. He was also president of the reorganized State National Bank, at the southwest corner of the courthouse square. He had invested in mines in Leadville, Colorado, and in Josephine County, Oregon. Despite the silver panic of 1893 his monthly ledgers from Leadville showed dividends as high as $36,000. Lawrence was a wealthy man.

Dana did not fare so well, either in business or in marriage. Occasionally he borrowed money from his father-in-law. In 1893, the year of the World's Columbian Exposition, he grandly identified himself as president of the Western Business Agency in Chicago, with branch offices in nine other cities. But by 1894 the company had disappeared, and Dana and his wife were living back where they had been married, in the Lawrence home. Dana went to work for his father-in-law and eventually managed the mines in Oregon. One mine failed and he started to work another, near Leland, with only primitive equipment. His wife stayed at Grants Pass, about sixteen miles away. "I hope you may soon have a barrel full of gold and then come home and be happy," her father wrote her on August 17, 1900, "or come home and be happy without the barrel."

She soon came home, but with the body of her husband. Dana had been hoisting ore on September 2, a Sunday afternoon, when a harness snapped, causing the sweep of the capstan to spin in reverse, strike him in the chest and kill him. Death had already taken their two infant sons, and a few months later, on February 17, 1901, death came to the mainstay of the family, R. D. Lawrence.


Circumstance, Plans and Construction

THE DEATH OF R. D. Lawrence, mourned though it was, left Mrs. Dana free to live and build on a lavish scale. She began her new life by taking a most dubious route to her inheritance. For his part, Frank Lloyd Wright rarely ignored an opportunity, and when it came to spending someone else's money, he hardly stood on principle. The probate record tells almost nothing about the Lawrence estate or its true value. Mrs. Dana in fact withdrew her father's will, and to keep its contents as unknown as the extent of his wealth, she presided over its disappearance. Many years later she scribbled a few sentences to clear the air; but even the conservator of her own estate grew convinced that she had conspired to circumvent her father's wishes.

Three weeks after her father died, Mrs. Dana deposited his will with the county court. A notice of March 20, 1901 in the Illinois State Journal listed nine legatees. But the ostensible witnesses to the will, two officers of the State National Bank, said it was not signed in their presence. Judge G. W. Murray—in 1884 he had been the last law partner of William H. Herndon, the last law partner of Lincoln—refused the will for probate. He named Mrs. Dana administrator on April 17, and on May 8 granted her an extraordinary privilege. She could withdraw the will if she preserved it for future use in court. She did not.

Almost a year later, on April 14, 1902, Mrs. Dana filed an inventory and appraisal that merely listed eight parcels of real estate with no declared value and other assets described only as sundry notes, stocks, bonds and cash totaling $70,125. Expenses came to more than $11,000. From the balance she distributed $19,684.93 to her mother and $39,369.85 to herself. A note found among her effects appears to be an aide-mémoire for J. F. Bunn, cashier of the State National Bank and one of the nominal witnesses to her father's will. It may offer a clue to the cost of the new house. Dated to the time of Lawrence's final illness, the note says to "put aside about ninety thousand dollars paper for Susie in case of death." Thus it is possible Mrs. Dana had spoken with her father about extensive improvements to the homestead. For a building program of any great scope she needed more than a regular income from rents and dividends.

People would talk, especially in a town the size of Springfield. As the new house was being finished, Mrs. Dana, too, worried about the way she had handled the estate. She continued to worry for years to come. "There can be no confusion after I am gone," she wrote as though beginning an apologia pro vita sua in September 1926. The will was rejected on a mere technicality, she wrote, and she was appointed administrator at her mother's request. They decided to honor all bequests as if the will had been valid, and to prove they acted in good faith they kept receipts for the payments. The largest, $5000 in cash and $5000 in municipal railroad bonds, went to Flora Lawrence, an unmarried cousin of R. D. Lawrence's who had lived since 1872 in his home.


Excerpted from Frank Lloyd Wright's Dana House by Donald Hoffmann. Copyright © 1996 Donald Hoffmann. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
The Site and the Times,
Circumstance, Plans and Construction,
Elements and Principles,
In Another World,
To the Studio,
No Other House That Compares,

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