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21 First Drafts: Frank Lloyd Wright's Hillside Home School

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Franziska Barczyk

First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Occasionally unexpected but always insightful, these undertakings represent their initial, finished buildings as solo practitioners. While anecdotes accompany the work of all great builders, there's often more to learn about their first acts.

Frank Lloyd Wright
Hillside Home School in Spring Green, Wisconsin
Date completed: 1887

Getting the Gig:
The year was 1887, and a budding young architect without a degree was finding that the job market in Chicago wasn't to his liking. After five firms and five rejections, Frank Lloyd Wright, who was living with relatives in neighboring Oak Park, decided to look up a family friend in hopes that he could find steady employment. J. Lyman Silsbee, a prolific architect who was then running offices in Syracuse, Buffalo and Chicago, and would design a moving walkway system for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, had first come into contact with Wright's uncle, Jenkin "Jenk" Lloyd Jones, a former Civil War soldier turned pacifist and minister, in 1885, when he was hired to design his All Souls' Church in Chicago. Wright had already worked with Silsbee on the Unity Chapel in Spring Green, Wisconsin, the previous year. Credited with the interior design and ceiling of the church, the "boy architect," as a church magazine later described him, had demonstrated impressive sketching abilities, apparently enough for Silsbee to take him on as an delineator and draftsman. Wright would describe his contributions to that project as "his first work," but his first true independent commission was more of a family affair. Later in 1887, Wright got the call from Ellen and Jane Lloyd Jones, gregarious and outspoken relatives whom he would refer to as simply "the Aunts," to design a school in Spring Green, the rural valley where he spent his summers growing up surrounded by family. Informed by their liberal, Unitarian upbringing—the Lloyd Jones family motto was "truth against the world"—they had helped found the country's first co-educational school, a respected "learning-by-doing" institution removed from the distractions of the city (science classes were held outdoors). It would seem the women shared a philosophy of experimentation, and a propensity to act instead of ask, with their driven young nephew.

Description and Reception:
Done in the shingle style that his mentor, Silsbee, was known for, the "Home Building," as the structure was initially called, showed Wright's budding talents, though it didn't necessarily foreshadow his unique vision. A 33-room building set on the school's 100-acre plot, the structure was built to a very domestic scale and had modern conveniences such as steam-heating. An extension was added the following year, which some have taken to mean Wright's initial design was too small. Wright would later publish drawings of the building plans in his uncle Jenkin's magazine, Unity. Not much has been written about this project, which would be replaced 15 years later by a new building designed by Wright.

Impact on His Career:
Along with the Unity Chapel work, the Hillside School provided a key part of Wright's early resume; the 20-year-old circulated drawings of those projects, as well as other residential work he did for his family, to promote himself, and succeeded in getting hired by Adler and Sullivan the following year to do drawings of the Auditorium Theater project. Photos he took of the school and the surrounding landscape in 1900 would later be used in a brochure sent to prospective students. He would remain closely tied to these projects, and Spring Green, for decades (he was initially buried in the cemetery behind Unity Chapel). The school project also proved fortuitous in other ways, as well; he was hired to design the City National Bank Building and Park Inn of Iowa City in part because those who hired him had family who attended the Hillside School, so they were familiar with his work.

Famous Future Works:
Darwin D. Martin House (Buffalo: 1905), Unity Temple (Oak Park: 1908), Robie House (Chicago: 1909), Hollyhock House (Los Angeles: 1922), Imperial Hotel (Tokyo: 1923), Johnson Wax Headquarters (Racine: 1936), Taliesin West (Scottsdale: 1937), Fallingwater (Mill Run: 1939), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York: 1952)

Current Status:
Wright, who would demolish the first Hillside School himself in 1950, continually revisited and repurposed the Hillside campus throughout his life and career. In 1896, he constructed the Romeo & Juliet windmill tower for the school, its octagonal base and diamond upper level meant to recall an embrace between the star-struck lovers (it's since been demolished, but the base was repurposed as part of a replica tower erected in 1992). In 1902, he built a new campus in rose-colored sandstone and oak, which he would inherit when the school went bankrupt in 1915 and then repurpose in 1932 as a campus center for his Taliesin Fellowship.

50 Shades of Gray: Matching Concrete and the Challenges of Restoring Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple [Curbed]
The Organic Beauty of Frank Lloyd Wright's Graycliff [Curbed]
"Lost" Frank Lloyd Wright Home Rediscovered in Milwaukee [Curbed]
Frank Lloyd Wright's Lone Star Style: $3M Gets You This Pool-Hugging Usonian Upgrade [Curbed]