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Meet Marion Mahony Griffin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s best frenemy

The two architects are forever intertwined

Ward W. Willits house, Highland Park, Illinois, 1902. Watercolor and ink rendering by Marion Mahony Griffin.
Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation/Frank Lloyd Wright Trust

Marion Mahony Griffin would probably spit on Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th birthday cake if she had the chance. So let’s get that out of the way. After a fruitful partnering in young adulthood, they parted with bitterness, a bitterness that did not mellow in old age for either of them.

Despite any inclination to do so, it’s difficult to separate the architect and artist from either of her work husbands: Mahony Griffin’s metaphorical one (Wright) and her literal one (Walter Burley Griffin). In fact, attempting to do so creates a Marion Mahony Griffin that didn’t exist. While Mahony (most typically pronounced “May-oh-nee” by American scholars) Griffin nursed a grudge against Wright for a large part of her life, their contributions to the Prairie School are intertwined—they each helped make the other’s career. Meanwhile, Mahony Griffin was such a fierce cheerleader of her husband, the Prairie architect Walter Burley Griffin, that she happily painted herself in his background.

So I won’t try to focus solely on Marion Mahony Griffin. Some women work solo and some work in teams, and Marion was a team player. It’s hard to consider her life and work without the proper context of her two most famous collaborators. Instead, I picture her at center stage with Wright and Griffin as her floppy-tied supporting actors.

Chicago burned the year that Mahony Griffin was born, and from those ashes grew a city that would seed her life and career. Marion Mahony Griffin was born in the city in February 1871, to Jeremiah Mahony, an Irish journalist and teacher who would die young, and Clara Perkins, who would become a well-known school principal. When the family home was threatened by the conflagration, the Mahony family moved north to what is now the North Shore’s Winnetka area. Currently known for mansions that boast tennis courts and media rooms and wine cellars and guest houses, the area then was rural. The landscape, still marked by windy beaches and giant, ancient trees, made a mark on young Marion that influenced her throughout her career.

The fire had another effect on Marion’s life: The destruction of 17,500 buildings resulted in what would be known as a Great Rebuilding, to which Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan contributed. Their work would influence Marion both in Chicago, where she worked with Prairie School architects like Wright, and in Australia, where she and Walter designed Canberra, the capital, influenced by the World’s Columbian Exposition, driven by Burnham and Sullivan.

Marion Mahony on the left, and Catherine Wright, wife of Frank, on the right, about 1907.
Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation/Frank Lloyd Wright Trust

Marion’s early life is also noteworthy for the progressive backdrop against which she was raised. Following the early death of Mahony Griffin’s father in 1882, her mother, Clara Perkins, joined the influential Chicago Woman’s Club and traveled in a circle of female activists intent on women’s voting rights and educational and labor reform. Growing up surrounded by a team of powerful, progressive women made an impact on Mahony Griffin. (Glenda Korporaal, an Australian journalist and author of Making Magic: The Marion Mahony Griffin Story, tracked these political leanings back even earlier—Abraham Lincoln used to pop by and spend time with the Perkins family, on her mother’s side.)

In 1894 Marion became the second woman to graduate from MIT with an architecture degree, again supported by strong women. Wealthy and influential society progressive Mary Hawes Wilmarth, along with her daughter Anna Wilmarth Ickes (who herself served in the Illinois state legislature), provided young Marion with tutelage and ultimately funded her education. During her time in college Marion forged lifelong relationships with other women at MIT—a handful of her friends and she referred to themselves as the “Round Robins” after the style of letters they exchanged for over 40 years.

After graduation, Mahony Griffin traveled through Europe. When she returned to the States, says David Van Zanten, Northwestern art historian and father of my friend Clara, she listed herself at immigration as “Marion Mahony, architect”—having just received her degree about a year earlier. “That is bold,” Van Zanten says. “That was the first time she was ever really asked to give herself a professional name, and it isn’t artist, and it isn’t tourist, it’s architect.”

While some people seem to come out of nowhere, that’s not the case with Marion. She was an intelligent girl raised by a cabal of strong women, living in nature but close to a growing metropolis, and she was getting an education. You can’t not do something amazing with a beginning like that.

“She walked into the room and everything stopped,” says Van Zanten. “She was a very pronounced personality.” That was Marion’s reputation around the office. After graduating from MIT, Marion found work as a drafter in downtown Chicago’s Steinway Hall, which housed the offices of Dwight Perkins, an architect and Marion’s cousin. The offices were shared by Frank Lloyd Wright, who ultimately hired Mahony Griffin as his first employee. For the time, this was an unusual move—she was the first woman in Illinois to obtain a license to practice architecture.

“You have to give it to Wright,” architecture professor and Griffin expert Paul Kruty says, “That he thought [hiring a woman] was fine.”

Marion was no shrinking violet in Wright’s office. She was known for her wit, her refusal to bow to Wright’s ego, and her loud laugh. In H. Allen Brooks’ book The Prairie School, Wright colleague Barry Byrne remembered Mahony Griffin as “a good actress, talkative, and when around Wright there was a real sparkle.” Those in Wright’s office enjoyed when Marion came around, “because it promised an amusing day.”

Unity Temple, 1905, Oak Park, Illinois. Watercolor and ink rendering by Marion Mahony Griffin.

For nearly 15 years, off and on, Mahony Griffin worked with Wright, designing her own buildings and producing drawings of Wright designs that helped establish his reputation. She created drawings for the Wasmuth Portfolio, the book of lithographs that made Wright famous around the world. Mahony Griffin’s Japanese-influenced illustrations became what many people to this day envision when they hear the name “Frank Lloyd Wright.” “She really revolutionized the way architecture was presented,” says Kruty. “When she invented that style, she put [the buildings] in a whole new way that hadn’t existed before. Everybody copied it—it became the way of presenting architecture in America.”

In 1895 Mahony Griffin joined Wright’s Oak Park studio, which is where she initially encountered her future husband, Walter Burley Griffin. The Oak Park office, considered by many to be the Mecca of the Prairie style, offered the type of lively discourse Mahony Griffin had grown up with. Wright described the office as “our little university” (and in the same sentence refers to Marion as “a capable assistant.” Okay, Frank.) During that time Marion forged a close friendship with Wright’s first wife, Catherine Tobin Wright—a photo survives of Marion and Catherine, taken by Frank himself, where it looks like Catherine is about to receive an embrace from Marion. She worked with Frank, she hung out with Frank and Kitty—it was a fruitful relationship that blended the business and personal.

In 1909, Wright left for Europe and offered Marion the job of running his office while he was gone. She foresaw the role as being a headache and declined, which was a smart move. The position went to poor Hermann von Holst, who learned belatedly that his boss had been paid a good deal of his fees in advance. Wright made front-page news when it became official that he had left Kitty for Martha "Mamah" Borthwick Cheney, and here we come upon Marion’s first major break with Frank. She was incensed with him for destroying the cozy family friendship she had developed with him and Kitty, and for leaving his work behind and all his officemates looking stupid. In her unpublished memoir, The Magic Of America, which Marion wrote from 1938 to 1949, in a race against the onset of dementia, she had enough clarity and anger to put down the bitterness she still felt against Wright. “When the absent architect didn't bother to answer anything that was sent over to him the relations were broken.”

And that was only the first time Marion and Frank’s relationship would sour.

My mother says that in a relationship, one partner is the talker and the other is the listener. If that’s the case, it seems like Walter Burley Griffin was the listener to Marion’s talker. Griffin was clearly a strong designer—and ostensibly a mostly decent husband to Marion—but personality-wise he seems like a step down from Frank. But even if that’s the case, Marion didn’t care. She set her sights on Walter and then spent her life honoring him.

Marion reconnected with Walter after Frank left for Europe. She was about 40 at the time, long past the typical marrying age. It’s possible that one of their shared interests was griping about Frank Lloyd Wright, since Walter Griffin had his own beef with him. Originally, Walter was in love with Frank Lloyd Wright’s sister Maginel and proposed to her (she gave him a hard pass). Later, he parted acrimoniously with Wright after assuming, incorrectly, that the two would eventually form an equal business partnership. “Wright was a one-man band his whole life, but he had to have people around him who made it possible,” says Kruty. When Griffin left to start his own firm, Wright maligned him as second-rate, Kruty says. “He went out of his way to tell everybody [Griffin] was nobody. If you didn’t toe the line, he tried to sink you.”

Marion Mahony Griffin and Walter Burley Griffin gardening in the backyard of ‘Pholiota’, Heidelberg, Victoria, 1918.
National Library of Australia

Marion enjoyed working and going on canoe trips with Walter, who was five years her junior, and eventually she pursued a romantic relationship with him (“Sometimes I call her a cougar,” says Korporaal, who believes that Marion was the one who proposed). They married in 1911 and were together for 26 years.

“She then spent her life making Walter look good,” says Korporaal. Again, it may seem disappointing to us now that she willingly chose a subservient role, but for the era, Marion had the best of both worlds. Unlike other female colleagues, Griffin didn’t fade into obscurity once she got married, but unlike trailblazing architect Julia Morgan, she had a partner in her life, both professionally and personally.

Marion was happy to describe herself as Walter’s “useful slave” or, on a more professional level, the office manager or junior member of Griffin’s office. “Truly I lost myself in him and found it completely satisfying,” she wrote in her memoir. Yet again it was Marion who brought the energy. She was the reason why Walter entered—and won—the competition to design the new capital of Australia, and why today the Griffin name lives on in Canberra through Lake Burley Griffin, Marion Mahony Griffin View, and even the new light rail that’s currently being built in the city, credited to Walter’s initial designs.

The Griffins’ practice in Chicago was busy and successful. While Walter considered applying to design Canberra, he dithered over the difficulty of managing it. Marion, in a pushy big-mouth manner with which I 100 percent identify, nagged him into it. “She has a big fight with him in front of her friends and shames him into it,” says Korporaal. “‘You’ve been talking about this for years. You’ve got to do it.’”

Marion ultimately convinced Walter to enter. When it came to the practice, confirms Van Zanten, “She was the fire and he was the muffler.” They entered the contest and won—because of Marion’s drawings.

Nobody knows how much input Marion truly had on the “form follows nature” design of Canberra, but Korporaal is confident the city bears her influence. “If you had two men and one was five years older and had gone to a better university, and they were working on a project together, would you say the younger man did it himself?” she says. “Apart from that, I think that they spent the whole time just working day and night, discussing it between themselves.” Even without her architectural input, without Marion’s drawings—and encouragement—design of Canberra would likely not bear the Griffin name and the city might look completely different.

The appointment of Griffin to design the capital of Australia caused a sensation in the United States—but Wright wasn’t thrilled about his former colleagues and friends receiving such acclaim. Wright made it known publicly that he thought the work of the Griffins was second-rate, and disparaged Walter as merely his draftsman. With the one-two punch of dismissing Marion’s work as well as that of her husband, Wright solidified a hatred that Marion nursed until her death. Korporaal wonders whether there was a love-hate relationship between Marion and Frank, which seems quite possible—clearly there was a period when they had a good chemistry, or else they wouldn’t have worked together for as long as they did. Regardless, Marion must have enjoyed rubbing the Canberra job in his face.

In 1914 the Griffins left for Australia so Walter could oversee the building of the new capital city, which was difficult going. Walter was confronted with stubborn builders and bureaucrats reluctant to take orders from an American architect. Plus, some parts of his design were simply not practical (his proposal for five separate water basins was deemed too expensive).

Canberra Federal Capital of Australia preliminary plan, Walter Burley Griffin, 1913.
National Library of Australia

During that time Marion managed the Griffin office, designed their practice’s private commissions, and found her own identity in a land far from her own. While she lost some professional cachet upon relocation—in Chicago she had achieved recognition for her work as an architect, but in Australia she was better known as “Walter Burley Griffin’s wife”—Marion found much to love about the country. In 1918, she and some female friends traveled to Tasmania, which resulted in some breathtaking nature paintings, including a deep-red depiction of a gum tree against a sunset that now lives at Northwestern University’s Block Museum.

In 1921, the Griffins also designed the town of Castlecrag, in New South Wales. The couple moved to the area in 1925, engaging with the community in the form of tree planting, landscaping, and, in Marion’s case particularly, the design and management of the Haven Scenic Theatre, which hosted plays and festivals and which Van Zanten describes as “important and weird and wonderful.” Despite the tough time Walter had realizing Canberra, the couple found true community in Australia. And the country loves Marion back, keeping her memory alive much more than her home country. “Here you have a foreigner coming to Australia, looking at botany and seeing it with fresh eyes, wide open and enthusiastic eyes,” says Korporaal.

In 1935, Walter traveled to India to work on the Lucknow University library, and Marion joined him the following year. There, Marion oversaw the completion of several projects, but this was the final chapter in her and Walter’s partnership. He died, suddenly, of peritonitis, in 1937. Marion returned to Australia and then back to Chicago, in 1939, after having played a major role in spreading the influence of the Prairie style onto two new continents.

Marion lived 24 years without Walter, mostly in a house with her sister and family at the corner of Estes and Damen in Rogers Park. From there she walked a few blocks to George Armstrong Elementary School, where her sister taught, to paint a mural. School administrators weren’t surprised in the least when I came to see it, and told me that they’ve had visitors from Australia make the same pilgrimage.

In Marion’s mural, which resembles gold glinting from the depths of a greenish pond, fairies feed baby herons. Marion was an adherent of anthroposophy, a philosophy established by Rudolf Steiner (founder of the Waldorf school) that I have a hard time explaining briefly, but its influence shows through in this scene. To put it generally, anthroposophy blends nature, spirituality, knowledge, and freedom and feels similar to Scientology in terms of its confusing nature and apparent irresistibility to certain people. Marion was a big fan, although she had to work to get Walter on board. “When you walked into the room, she immediately could perceive your aura, [which] tells so much about your personality,” says Paul Kruty. “I don’t think [Walter] ever saw an aura in his life.” After her return to Chicago, when Marion was invited to lecture the Illinois Society of Architects, she neglected to talk about her own work, but instead discussed anthroposophy and Steiner (typical Marion—at center stage, she uses the opportunity to help a man).

It is quite likely that by that point, Marion’s mind was deteriorating. The effects of her dementia are apparent in her roiling memoir The Magic of America, which is available, in text and manuscript facsimile, via the Art Institute of Chicago. The document contains drawings and nature descriptions that Korporaal finds beautiful, but she admits the book is “a bit ravey.”

Portrait of Marion Mahony Griffin, 1935.
National Library of Australia

Something that did not escape Marion’s memory, however, was her hatred of Wright, whose reputation enjoyed a revival at the time, as he worked on the Guggenheim, enjoyed a brisk private practice, and was the subject of an exhibit at the MOMA. Marion never names him directly, but it’s accepted that he’s who she had in mind in writing, “The Chicago School died not only because of the cancer sore in it—one who originated very little but spent most of his time claiming everything and swiping everything.”

Marion lived to be 90, but died poor in Cook County Hospital, her ashes interred with no marker. There is now a small plaque in memory of her at Graceland Cemetery, which is also the final resting place of Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and her cousin Dwight Perkins. Walter is nowhere near her: He is buried in India.

I had never heard of Marion Mahony Griffin before writing this piece and then, suddenly, she was everywhere. The Block Museum is a nine-minute drive from my home in Evanston. The site of All Soul’s Church, the earliest known Mahony Griffin commission, is now the parking lot of the church where I attended preschool. The Armstrong school and the house on Estes and Damen are on the route we take to my son’s daycare. Evanston is a town that honors local female heroes like suffragette Frances Willard, but why had I never heard of the pioneering female architect who walked where I walk?

Of course I had heard of Frank Lloyd Wright because he’s That Famous Architect Guy From Oak Park, which makes me angry on Marion’s behalf. If she helped create Frank Lloyd Wright, Famous Architect Guy, she should also get some due. And yet, and yet, if it weren’t for that damn Frank, would she have become the artist and designer that she was? Would she have married Walter Burley Griffin? Would she have worked as much and as hard without that chip on her shoulder?

If you’re not from Chicago, you might visit Marion Mahony Griffin Beach Park and laugh, wondering whether the size of the plot mirrors the size of the woman’s reputation in America. That is to say—it’s petite. You can sit on a park bench directly across from the beach and look at the entire thing without moving your head at all. But if you’re a Chicagoan, you’d know that these types of tiny neighborhood beaches are typical for the Rogers Park neighborhood, which is where Mahony Griffin spent her final days.

In some ways, the beach is a good tribute to Marion. It mashes together city and nature (a key theme both of Mahony Griffin’s career as well as that of Chicago—urbs in horto). The park and beach are ringed by Rogers Park apartment buildings—one is so close that somebody with a really strong arm could throw a ball from their back window into Lake Michigan. But walk all the way out on the beach’s small pier and then you’re on the lake, part of nature, no longer in the city.

There is a plaque affixed to a red rock at Marion’s beach, and in its brief biography of Marion, Frank Lloyd Wright is mentioned twice. It states, “Her exquisite drawings helped Wright achieve fame.” Even in death, even in a fine attempt to give Marion her due, her name is affixed in metal to rock, forever stuck there alongside Frank’s.


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