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Elizabeth Wright Ingraham: Master of architecture and ecology

Both an architect and advocate, she worked to preserve the landscape that served as her key inspiration

La Casa House
Ron Pollard

Elizabeth Wright Ingraham is far from the only modern architect who has tried to escape the shadow of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. But few of her contemporaries have dealt with such high expectations—she was the architect’s granddaughter—while also managing to carve out their own individual, expressive take on organic design.

“Architecture is the language of intervention,” she once said during an interview with NPR. “And as such, architects become builders of ideas.”

The mountainous landscape of Colorado Springs served as the raw material and rugged terrain where Wright Ingraham’s creative life flourished. She said that she was surrounded by incredible architecture all her life, and was born into a legacy of wonderfully designed buildings. But ever since deciding at age 14 that she was going to be an architect, Wright Ingraham worked to establish her own independent style. She would not only shape the landscape, but work to preserve and protect the environment through establishing educational and philanthropic organizations.

“She had huge admiration for her grandfather, and family connections with Taliesin persisted throughout her career and life,” says her daughter, Catherine Ingraham, an architecture professor at the Pratt Institute. “But she also had a desire to be, herself, original and independent as a designer and a person.”

Vradenburg House
Ron Pollard
Beadles House
Ron Pollard

Biography

It’s no exaggeration to say Elizabeth Wright Ingraham grew up alongside modern architecture. Raised in Oak Park, Illinois, the home of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style period, she was the daughter of fellow architect John Lloyd Wright. She studied at the Armour Institute, now the Illinois Institute of Technology, in Chicago, learning from Mies van der Rohe.

After serving as a draftsman for the Navy in World War II and studying at both Berkeley and Taliesin, she married Gordon Ingraham, a fellow apprentice. After racking up nearly 11,000 miles traveling the country, the couple settled in the artsy mountain town of Colorado Springs.

“There was a small, but interesting and vital, group of artists and architects in Colorado Springs at the time,” said her daughter, “and my parents were very interested in being architects in a small community where they could do good design, become involved in local initiatives, and still retain a relationship, through their work, with architectural ideas.”

Ingraham & Ingraham, Architects designed nearly 100 homes in and around Colorado Springs and helped establish a modernist vocabulary for an area that riffed off the Usonian ideals of site-specific design and attainable architecture. The couple divorced in 1974 and Wright Ingraham founded her own firm, Elizabeth Wright Ingraham
 and Associates, where she designed many of her most famous works. Like her grandfather, she excelled at reinvention, refining her vision and creating what was described as a type of “environmental architecture” suited for the Rocky Mountain landscape.

“I think her best architecture emerges from and connects with the terroir of its placement,” says her daughter. “So there is something of the ‘organic’ still present, but it has been modernized in a significant way in the later work.”

Wood-Peterson house.
Ron Pollard

Buildings to know

Built later in her career, the Solaz House in Manitou Springs, Colorado, won a 1999 AIA Colorado design award and showed Wright Ingraham integrating the International Style concepts of her one-time teacher, Mies van der Rohe, with the mountains. Built for artist Dawn Wilde and her husband with cinderblock and concrete, the residence has an industrial feel, with empty steel eaves casting shadows on buffed concrete walls, a maintenance-free, marvelous, and economical facade Wright Ingraham felt was a great complement to the landscape.

Colorado Springs’ Vista Grande Community Church showcased the progressive, sustainable streak that ran through Wright Ingraham’s career. Almost postmodern in its look, with a seemingly color-blocked facade of red brick, blue glass, and white concrete, the house of worship is the first in the country to utilize an energy-efficient type of insulated concrete. A striking barrel vault with glass endcaps crowns the structure, which opened in 1987, offering clear views of nearby mountains.

Legacy and reputation today

Wright Ingraham practiced until she was 85—“the Wright genes tell you to keep on going,” said historic preservationist Elaine Freed—and while she left a rich legacy of more than 100 projects, architecture represents only a fraction of her overall impact. A successful businesswoman and preservationist, she founded the Wright-Ingraham Institute in 1970, an educational and environmental organization dedicated to studying land-use issues and promoting conservation, stewardship, and preservation of natural resources. A regular on the lecture and conference circuit, she also co-founded the Women’s Forum in Colorado, a networking group, and led a local peace march. Wright Ingraham advocated for citizen involvement and engagement. Like her grandfather, she drew inspiration from her surroundings. But she also felt it was her calling to change the landscape for the better.

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