Frank Lloyd Wright


Tragedy and Controversy followed Frank Lloyd Wright, conceded by many to be the century's pre-eminent architect. By 1879 the family had settled in Madison in a modest house with a deep lot that sloped down to Lake Mendota. From those years on, Wright retained ties to Madison.

Never a diligent student in the classroom, Wright did some minimal work at the University of Wisconsin before striking out for Chicago and the offices of famed architect Louis Sullivan. During his brief stay at the university, however, he worked as a draftsman for Allan D. Conover, a university engineering professor who was working on plans for several Madison buildings. One of those buildings was Science Hall on the UW-Madison campus; Wright worked, supposedly, on those plans. So it is likely that Madison is home both to the first building Wright ever worked on as an architect and the most recent and perhaps last building constructed from one of his designs (Monona Terrace).

In 1904, Wright designed a house for a neighbor in Oak Park, Edwin Cheney, and immediately took a liking to Cheney's wife, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. The two fell in love, even though Wright had been married for over a decade. Wright's wife, Kitty, would not grant him a divorce however, and at first, neither would Edwin Cheney grant one to Mamah.

In the fall of 1909 Wright left his estranged first wife and went to Europe with Cheney. Two years later, Wright shocked the small town of Spring Green, Wisconsin, by moving to the property of his maternal grandparents, the Lloyd Joneses. He brought Cheney with him and built his famous home, Taliesin. Years later, when Wright was campaigning for Monona Terrace, people would remember what they viewed as Wright's transgression. The late Marshall Erdman, a Madison contractor who worked with Wright, remembered giving a talk to the Madison Kiwanis about the proposal. “Their major objection,” he recalled, “was that he had lived with a married woman.”

On August 15, 1914, while Wright was in Chicago completing a large project, Midway Gardens, Julian Carlton, a male servant who had been hired several months earlier, set fire to the living quarters of Taliesin and murdered seven people with an axe as they tried to escape. The dead were: Mamah; her two children, John and Martha; a gardener; a draftsman; a workman; and the workman’s son. Two people survived.

It would not be the last time tragedy and controversy would visit Wright. In 1925, he went through a very messy and very public break-up with his second wife. Fires again damaged Taliesin in 1925 and again in 1927. Creditors repossessed Taliesin and its contents in 1927. Money problems dogged Wright throughout much of his career. He was a spendthrift. In both Spring Green and Madison there are still people who tell of Wright's spectacular lack of money sense, especially his penchant for not paying bills. In 1932, Wright was punched in the face by C.E. Secrest in Madison because Wright had refused to pay a debt. Through it all, however, Wright put down on paper the designs that would carry his name into history.

By the 1930s, when he was in his 60s, Wright had revived a career gone sour because of controversy. In 1932 he designed the strikingly graceful home Fallingwater, atop a waterfall in Pennsylvania. And in 1936, he started work on the corporate headquarters for Johnson Wax Co. in Racine. It was at this time that Wright began to design Monona Terrace.

Wright pushed the engineering limits of the materials he used. As a result, his buildings are famous not only for breath-taking design but for leaky roofs and other structural problems. When one client complained about a leaky roof, Wright allegedly told him to get a bucket.

During his 70-year career, Wright designed 1,141 buildings, including homes, offices, churches, schools, libraries, bridges and museums. Five hundred and thirty-two of these designs were completed, and 409 still stand. Wright pioneered a long, low style known as the Prairie Style.

He developed a series of low-cost homes which he called Usonian. Wright was married three times and had seven children. His work was controversial and his private life was more controversial.

Between 1900 and 1917, his residential designs were Prairie Houses so-called because the design is considered to complement the land around Chicago.

Wright wed Miriam Noel in November 1923, but her addiction to morphine led to the failure of the marriage in less than one year. In 1924, after the separation, Wright met Olga (Olgivanna) Lazovich Hinzenburg, at a Petrograd Ballet performance in Chicago. They moved in together at Taliesin in 1925. In Minnetonka, Minnesota, Wright and Olgivanna were accused of violating the Mann Act and arrested in October 1925. The charges were dropped in 1926.

One of his projects, Monona Terrace, originally designed in 1937 as City and County Offices for Madison, was completed in 1997 on the original site, using a variation of Wright's final design for the exterior with the interior design altered by its new purpose as a convention center. The design was carried out by Wright's apprentice Tony Puttnam.

In 1985, following the death of Olgivanna, it was learned that her dying wish had been that Wright, her daughter by a first marriage and herself all be cremated and relocated to Scottsdale, Arizona. During the nearly 30-year period prior to Olgivanna's death, Wright's body had lain interred in the Lloyd-Jones cemetery, next to the Unity Chapel, near Taliesin, Wright's later-life home in Wisconsin.

Wrights remains were exhumed and cremated and sent to Scottsdale where they waited in storage before being interred in the memorial area. Today, anyone who visits the small cemetery south of Spring Green to look upon a gravestone marked with Wright's name will be visiting an empty grave.

Wright rarely acknowledged his influences, and routinely claimed his employees' work as his own design. In his earlier days Wright worked with some of the top architects of the Chicago school, including who he would later refer to as his 'Lieber Meister' (dear master) Louis Sullivan.

Son and architect, John Lloyd Wright, invented Lincoln Logs in 1918, and practiced extensively in the San Diego area.

Wright Designs that still exist in the Madison area:
  • Jacobs I
  • Jacobs II
  • Gilmore "Airplane House" House
  • Lamp House
  • Monona Terrace
  • Unitarian Meeting House
  • Eugene Van Tamelen House
  • John C. Pew House
  • Walter Rudin House

    Some Wright Designs from Madison that are gone:
  • City Boathouse
  • Rocky Roost