clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Becoming Frank Lloyd Wright

Finding the origins of the architect’s famous work

Anyone who has spent time reading about Frank Lloyd Wright knows that the facts of his life and career can be hard to pin down. According to critic and biographer Brendan Gill, Wright’s own 1932 autobiography is full of “prodigious lies,” and the architect’s penchant for self-mythologizing has tended to confound both colleagues and admirers. Philip Johnson once complained that Wright thought he was “born full-blown from the head of Zeus” and considered himself “the only architect that ever lived or ever will.”

Wright’s self-aggrandizement has a tendency to obscure both the underpinnings of his designs and the importance of his early career. Wright’s masterpieces, from the Prairie School Willits and Robie houses to Fallingwater to the Guggenheim, didn’t spring fully formed from the head of Zeus any more than Wright himself did; instead, Wright’s best-known works show a conscious progression from his earliest buildings. Indeed, there are echoes of Wright’s early works—both those he did under the tutelage of Joseph Lyman Silsbee and Louis Sullivan, as well as his first independent commissions as a brash young architect in suburban Chicago—in every iteration of his career.

Walking through the streets of Oak Park and River Forest, Illinois, today—where nearly 30 examples of early Wright homes dot the landscape—it’s easy to see how these tight-knit Chicago suburbs where Wright resided and worked for two decades inspired his later musings on how to make people live more harmoniously. In part, that may be because “harmonious” was a word people generally didn’t associate with Wright during his Oak Park years.

Wright was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin, on June 8, 1867, and would live a significant portion of his life no more than 25 miles from that spot. His mother’s Welsh ancestors had settled in the Helena Valley of Iowa County, near the town of Spring Green, and not only would Wright spend much of his childhood there, but the Helena Valley would also become home to his earliest works as well as his famous home, studio, and school, Taliesin. Today the valley’s gentle, sloping hills are covered with trees, but the area is actually the gateway to the prairie, which would so profoundly influence Wright’s thinking about American architecture. Despite living from ages 4 to 10 on the East Coast and then moving to Chicago at age 19, the prairie was a singular element in Wright’s life long before there was such a thing as “Prairie style.”

Encouraged by his famously overbearing mother to pursue a career in architecture, Wright enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in January 1886, but lasted only two terms. At the time, the university had no architecture program, but Wright studied some engineering. That same year, Wright’s uncle Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a well-known Unitarian minister, commissioned Chicago architect Joseph Lyman Silsbee to build a small chapel on some Jones family land in Wyoming, Wisconsin, near Spring Green. Probably at his uncle’s urging, Silsbee permitted Wright to help him on his chapel’s design. According to an 1886 edition of his uncle’s Unity magazine, Wright “looked after the interior.

Certainly, this is what Wright would say later in life: As his chief draftsman, John H. Howe, would later note, Wright “always claimed that the ceiling, which is designed in squares, was his own invention.” The Unity article and Howe’s recollection suggest this building is Wright’s first architectural work. He was just 19 years old.

Though the modest shingle-style building doesn’t immediately announce itself as Wright’s handiwork, neither is it a typical 19th-century wood-frame country church. In fact, despite its small belfry, the building’s exterior doesn’t reveal its function at all—only the graveyard outside, filled with Wright’s relatives (and his own tomb, now empty), clearly delineates the structure’s use. Soon, Wright would find himself in the employ of Louis “form ever follows function” Sullivan, but while Wright admired Sullivan and considered himself a highly functional architect, Wright’s own buildings are often enigmatic: entrances are hidden, trees poke through rooflines, expansive floorplans are impossible to discern from the sidewalk by casual passersby. That love of architectural mysteries begins, I think, at the Unity Chapel.

The Hillside Home school.

After dropping out of college, Wright moved to Chicago to work for Silsbee, who, like Wright, was a Unitarian and the son of a minister. Wright joined the office just as Silsbee was finishing work on All Souls’ Unitarian Church (now demolished), a Queen Anne structure with the haphazard massing typical of the style; some of Wright’s earliest homes, such as the “bootleg” Thomas Gale house in Oak Park (1892), would show the influence of the Aesthetic Movement of which Silsbee was the Midwest’s major proponent. Wright received his first independent commission while working in Silsbee’s office: a new home for the Hillside Home School run by his aunts Ellen and Jane Lloyd Jones in the Helena Valley (the structure is also now gone). Wright replaced the 1887 school building, which bore a distinct resemblance to the Unity Chapel, with a building more typical of his maturing style in 1902. (Another Wyoming school building, today a cultural center down the road from Taliesin, would be one of Wright’s final projects before his death in 1959.)

In Wright’s autobiography, he claims his year in Silsbee’s office inspired him to become such a good draftsman that he was hired away by Louis Sullivan of Adler & Sullivan to work on the Auditorium Building in downtown Chicago. Biographer Meryle Secrest doubts this account—Wright’s sketches for the Hillside Home School and other early projects are tentative and “have a stilted, agonized over feeling”—but it’s certainly true that Wright did land a job with Sullivan and quickly rose to become his chief draftsman.

Immediately, Wright was involved in “every aspect” of the Auditorium’s “ornamental, functional and acoustical design, as well as its innovative structure and construction, an apprenticeship in practice unparalleled anywhere in the world at that time.” Though trying to pinpoint Wright’s specific contributions to the Auditorium Building would probably be a fool’s errand, it’s clear that the project—and Sullivan—had immense influence on him. In his autobiography, Wright writes that “the Auditorium interior was the first great room for audience that really departed from the curious prevailing traditions.”

What’s important in that sentence is not just Wright’s admiration for Sullivan, who he called Lieber Meister (“beloved master”) despite their later falling out, but for his boss’s iconoclasm. Wright’s first iteration of the Hillside Home School that he’d designed for his aunts had been conventional; now, he was working for someone who was happy to puncture those “curious prevailing traditions.” A willingness to take risks would define Wright’s later career, even if it would be a few years before Wright’s own iconoclasm would be fully realized.

In 1889, Wright married Catherine (Kitty) Tobin. He had been living in Oak Park, an unincorporated suburb 10 miles west of Chicago, with his mother and sisters. It was an area that was still essentially the edge of the prairie, which in some measure returned him to his Wisconsin roots. But as a married man, he now needed a place of his own. He found a property at the corner of Forest Avenue and Chicago Avenue (which was the route of the streetcar into the city); the only problem was that Wright couldn’t afford it. Depending on which version of the story you believe, Louis Sullivan either advanced $5,000 cash in exchange for Wright signing a five-year contract at Adler & Sullivan, or Wright—having already signed the contract—convinced Sullivan to front him the money. Either way, it meant Wright had the funds to build the newlyweds a house and he was yoked to Adler & Sullivan at a weekly rate for the next half decade—and Sullivan held the deed to the home.

Children’s playroom, Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio, Oak Park
Library of Congress

The house Wright built for himself was relatively small, though as the family grew—Wright and Kitty had six children—the house grew with them. Originally the home’s plan was “simply divided” with “an entry, large living room, dining room and kitchen” on the ground floor with the bedrooms above. As Grant Manson notes in his book Frank Lloyd Wright to 1910, “the plan of the Studio is a long stride toward Wright's ultimate goal of free-flowing interiors. There are few partitions, the various functions being defined by bearing walls, chimneys, and other isolated supports.”

Still showing the influence of Joseph Silsbee, the home’s exterior had more in common with the Queen Anne style than with the work Wright was doing at Adler & Sullivan, but during this period, Wright was also absorbing the styles of notable designers around the country. Vincent Scully has argued that the original 1889 Wright home was clearly influenced by Bruce Price, the noted builder in Tuxedo Park, New York, and his William Kent house there. Price’s architecture, in turn, was inspired by the Japanese pavilions at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Wright would travel to Japan for three months in 1905, a trip that would have a profound impact on his later Prairie buildings, but the first inklings of that influence—albeit thirdhand—are already apparent in his Oak Park home.

As Frank Lloyd Wright would soon discover, feeding a growing family on a draftsman's salary was difficult, especially because he was famously bad at handling financial matters. (The quote from his autobiography is that “so long as we had the luxuries, the necessities could pretty well take care of themselves.”) The Wrights became notorious in Oak Park for running up bills that they either wouldn’t, or couldn’t, pay. It speaks to Frank Lloyd Wright’s considerable charm that this did not seem to put a damper on his relationships; his neighbors continued to give him many important commissions, and he both attended and hosted various Oak Park gatherings.

Being a part of the social milieu of Oak Park was important to Wright, so it’s crucial to realize that when he was designing houses in the area for his clients, he was also designing them for himself. Any entertaining space he created was one in which he expected to be later hosted. If you take a guided tour of any Wright-designed house, it will inevitably come up that the space—especially in later houses with built-in furnishings that came with Wright’s nearly dictatorial instructions on how things were to be arranged—seems more designed for the architect than for the client. Oak Park’s cozy camaraderie led to this, I think: Wright fully expected to be welcomed into every house he built.

However, many of these early homes in Oak Park had to be built secretly. Though Wright seems to have been able to take on outside work while employed by Silsbee, while under contract with Adler & Sullivan, outside commissions were forbidden. Many of Wright’s earliest works are known as “bootleg” houses, a term Wright likely used in part because it connotated danger and lawlessness, an image of himself he liked to encourage.

The Charnley townhouse.

Wright’s first domestic architecture had already been done under the aegis of Adler & Sullivan. The firm generally specialized in corporate work—theaters, offices, and such—and Louis Sullivan trusted the less prestigious and less profitable house commissions to his able draftsman. One such important early house is the Charnley townhouse from 1891, a strange brick pile with tiny windows and a second-story, classically inspired loggia. Though it was officially assigned to Adler & Sullivan, Wright took credit for the house; and since it’s such a strange building—nowhere near as successful as Sullivan’s designs for homes like the later Babson house in Riverside, Illinois—it seems unlikely he would have done so if it weren’t true. What’s important about the building is that it showed Wright’s willingness to conform to a style (in this case, Sullivan’s) that wasn’t his own. In this early stage of his career, he couldn’t yet afford to do anything except what his clients wanted.

This is especially true of the bootleg houses. “I did not try anything radical,” Wright wrote in his autobiography. In part, this was because he was breaking his contract, but also because three of the six bootleg homes were in the neighborhood where Louis Sullivan lived, and Sullivan was undoubtedly aware of their construction. Two homes, the Warren McArthur house and the George Blossom house, were erected in 1892 on adjoining lots. The Blossom house—which sold for $675,000 in 2014 and is currently undergoing massive renovations—is outwardly a typical Colonial Revival home, perhaps based on McKim, Mead & White’s Taylor home in Newport, though inside the layout is less conventional, with a living room in the center of the house instead of a Victorian parlor.

The McArthur home next door, with its steeply pitched roof and brown, shingled exterior, barely appears to be from the same architect’s drawing board. Here, a few “Wrightian” touches begin to appear, including wraparound bay windows that prefigure Wright’s later obsession with banded windows.

Wright also built a pair of bootlegs in Oak Park, just a block from his home and studio, for Thomas Gale, a prominent real estate developer. Again, Wright was clearly adhering to the needs of his client. While the homes are typically Queen Anne in style—probably the most popular house style of the period—some of the architect’s personal touches shine through. In the home that Thomas Gale kept for himself and his wife, Laura, Wright’s use of windows to bring natural light into the home is even more pronounced, as is an emerging sense of strong horizontal elements on the facade, including a distinct wraparound band at the top of the first floor. (Wright used variations on this same design for the home he built two doors down on Chicago Avenue as well as one for a client in La Grange, Illinois.)

At some point during this bootleg phase of Wright’s career, Louis Sullivan became aware of what was going on; he may, in fact, have known all along. In 1893, Sullivan fired Wright (or—in Wright’s own telling—he quit before he could be fired), in part because Adler & Sullivan could have faced sanctions for Wright’s moonlighting. Biographer Meryle Secrest wonders if Sullivan—who was becoming more anti-establishment all the time—was less annoyed at Wright’s moonlighting and more concerned that his protege was becoming conventional. Would Sullivan have found a way to keep Wright on if his extracurricular activities had shown more individualism and flair?

Certainly, Wright had reason to be concerned with self-expression. For example, for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition—the so-called “White City” World’s Fair—Sullivan had designed the fair’s most unconventional and least Beaux-Arts structure, the Transportation Building, but it was poorly received amid the grandeur of Daniel Burnham’s neoclassical designs. Sullivan later complained the “damage wrought by the World’s Fair...will last for half a century from its date, if not longer. It has penetrated deep into the constitution of the American mind.” Sullivan may have been right, but in the short-term, the Beaux-Arts style became wildly popular and his decision to build something that railed against the norm essentially killed his career. With that in mind, it’s little wonder that Wright’s early commissions play it safe.

After Wright’s abrupt departure from Adler & Sullivan, he and Sullivan didn’t speak for a decade, although Wright would continue to show his debt to his beloved master in his independent commissions. In 1894, he was asked to build a home for William Winslow in River Forest, a suburb neighboring Oak Park. The resulting building is an early Wright masterpiece, which both reflects Sullivan’s influence in its wide-arched porte cochere (an homage to many Sullivan buildings, including the fair’s Transportation Building) and shows Wright’s own emerging aesthetic. As Brendan Gill points out, the long hip roof, with clean lines and no dormers, “silently” announced “the Prairie Houses to come,” while making it appear that the house has no attic—a feature, along with basements, that Wright would soon banish from his work.

William H. Winslow House
Richard Nickel/Library of Congress

The house has other optical illusions, too, like the squat front door that seems too small; in fact, the door is normal height, but Wright enjoyed playing with scale. He would become famous for his use of “compression and release,” where narrow, low-ceilinged hallways would lead to barrel-vaulted rooms where the ceiling heights were made to feel even taller than they were. Certainly, the entryway to the Winslow home aggrandizes the entire facade, while inside, a small entryway with a platform and inglenook (a fireplace offset into a private conversation area) bring the home back to human scale. Though some architectural historians don’t classify Wright as a true practitioner of Arts and Crafts style, his love of fireplaces, which would take on an even greater role in his houses as the central feature and focus, is a pure Arts and Crafts embellishment. The Winslows’ inglenook—along with the one he’d placed in his own home in Oak Park—marks the beginning of ideas that would coalesce by the end of the decade in the Prairie movement.

A year later, in 1896 in Hyde Park (not far from the site where he would build the Robie House 13 years later), Wright constructed one of his first conspicuously “Wrightian” homes for Isidore Heller. Though the emphasis in this building is still more on the vertical than the horizontal, the distinctive brick facade and art-glass windows mark a radical departure from prevailing Victorian norms. Indeed, standing outside the house today, it seems so modern that it’s a shock to see horse-hitching rings still embedded in the curb.

As with the Winslow home, some of Sullivan’s influence is readily apparent in the Heller house, particularly in the terra-cotta ornamentation by Richard Bock, which is evocative of the figures beneath the cornice of Sullivan’s Bayard-Condict Building in New York. Though Wright’s use of ornamentation would become more geometrical over the years, he never lost his taste for embellishments, a move that would put him in opposition to many later 20th-century architects.

Also in 1896, Wright designed a new windmill for his aunts’ school in Wisconsin. Dubbed by the architect the “Romeo and Juliet” windmill due to its bifurcated design and whimsical balcony, the structure has little to do with Wright’s ongoing development as a domestic architect. But it provided a big confidence boost for the young architect (he was still not yet 30 years old); all his uncles in Wisconsin told his aunts not to build it—it was too expensive and would surely fall down. To Wright’s delight, his aunts went ahead with the project (a replica of Wright’s design stands on the site today), a testament to Wright’s engineering skills as well as an early indication that with charm and persistence, he could bend clients to his will.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s emergence as a brand-name architect did not go unnoticed in Oak Park, though he was still willing to conform to the wishes of his clients for the next few years. For example, in 1895, he built a Tudor home on Forest Avenue for his friend Nathan Moore that—perhaps to Wright’s chagrin—helped popularize the Elizabethan Revival. (When the house’s upper floors burned in the 1920s, Wright renovated the building, stripping away the mock-Tudor elements and adding some Sullivanian decorative touches.) Wright also continued to build Queen Anne and shingle-style houses (like the George Smith House, 1898) and took on jobs remodeling earlier Oak Park homes.

By 1897, Oak Park was taking on a distinct Wrightian look, which would only grow over the next decade. Oak Park had always had a social cohesion in its churches, clubs, and other civic and social organizations. Indeed, as Brendan Gill points out in his biography, Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright, “from its founding [Oak Park] was altogether different from any other suburb of Chicago; like Llewellyn Park, in New Jersey, and Lawrence Park, in Bronxville, New York, it was conceived of as a utopian suburb. It drew its high intellectual aspirations from New England and, indeed, thought of itself as a sort of transplanted New England town.” Given Wright’s later devotion to both suburbs and utopianism, it seems plausible that his Broadacre City plans were both an expansion on—and reaction to—his time in Oak Park.

The Rollin Furbeck house.

Certainly, having a unifying architectural element in Oak Park went along with its sense of being a separate, cohesive community. Wright was happy to be the architect whose work would bring Oak Park together while setting it distinctly apart—an often unstated goal of any utopia.

In 1897, in a home he built for Rollin Furbeck, Wright continued to refine elements of the Heller house, adding a massive picture window to the main floor, while still emphasizing the home’s tremendous verticality. (As at the Winslow house in River Forest, this window serves to make the home seem even bigger than it actually is.) But this home was just about the last gasp for the columns and loggias that were left over from Wright’s days at Adler & Sullivan; soon, he would fully marry the Arts and Crafts influence with his own ideas about organic and natural architecture into a uniquely American Prairie style.

By this point the actual prairie that had stretched out from Oak Park when Wright had moved there in the 1880s was built over—and his houses were partially to blame—so perhaps Wright’s full embrace of the Prairie style was a reaction to that loss.

In 1901, Wright built what many consider to be his first true Prairie-style house, the Frank W. Thomas house on Forest Avenue in Oak Park. With neither basement nor attic, a piano nobile on the second floor where the main living spaces were set, a stucco exterior, a central hearth, and an abundance of windows with art glass, here for the first time were all the elements that would become his hallmarks. For the next eight years, Wright would dot the landscape of Oak Park and River Forest with variations on the Prairie style: the Heurtley house (1902; another early masterpiece); the Ingalls house (1909); the Laura Gale house (1909 and currently on the market); as well as the famed Unity Temple (1906). But the beginning of the end of Wright’s time in Oak Park came in 1904 with the building of the Edwin H. Cheney house. The house itself is a fantastic example of Wright’s use of interior space, but that’s not why it’s famous. During its construction, Wright began an affair with Cheney’s wife, Mamah. In 1909, he abandoned Kitty and his six children and went into exile in Europe; when he returned, he moved back to the actual prairie of the Helena Valley to begin work on Taliesin, the house he was building for Mamah, in which she would later be murdered.

By the time Wright left Oak Park he had already become one of the country’s leading architects. The Prairie movement had taken on a life of its own as Wright’s colleagues and imitators began to repudiate older Victorian styles. Wright had sparked a revolution, and every ranch house dotting suburbia today is a pale reflection of this crucial moment in time. Oak Park’s small house lots and interconnected social and business lives probably also influenced Wright’s later thinking. Wright’s Usonian houses and his Broadacre City model each emphasize wide-open space; Wright undoubtedly chafed at the incestuous nature of Oak Park, where everyone knew everyone else’s business.

Though Wright’s designs would continue to evolve and modernize, he would never lose sight of his earliest work. In Taliesin today, pride of place is given over to gifts from Louis Sullivan, including a decorative mold for a terra-cotta detail. Was this a design crafted by the hand of his Lieber Meister? Or was it something that Wright himself designed during his apprenticeship that Sullivan later sent along as a keepsake? Either way, it shows the pride Wright took in his years at Adler & Sullivan.

From the cantilevered porch at Taliesin, you can see Unity Chapel, Wright’s first work. While Wright’s death in 1959 at the age of 91 came as a shock to many in his circle, the architect knew his lifespan was finite, and in the late 1950s, he began plans for what was either going to be a mausoleum on the grounds of the Unity Chapel or a complete replacement of the chapel itself. Like many of Wright’s plans at the end of his career, this scheme was never realized, though local stone was hauled to the site in preparation. Had this final project been built, it would have provided a fitting capstone to Wright’s career, a monument to seven decades of design and a reminder that Wright’s architecture was always tied to his beloved prairie.


How to Avert the Next Housing Crisis


The Neighbors Issue


Can a Neighborhood Become a Network?

View all stories in Longform