The Rise of Frank Lloyd Wright

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, May 2009 | Go to article overview

The Rise of Frank Lloyd Wright


Stern, Fred, The World and I


The Horatio Alger of American Architecture

Horatio Alger was that great 19th Century writer of fiction whose heroes were the poor working boys of America. These underprivileged youngsters would rise from menial jobs, typically that of newsboy, to become rich and successful. Horatio Alger celebrated them in book after book.

Perhaps it was their 'rags to riches' stories that inspired Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). Surely Horatio Alger's tales had nothing on the success story of Wright, who rose from humble circumstances to become one of the most celebrated architects of his time, and who continues to have a profound influence on architecture throughout the world, years after his death.

Frank Lloyd Wright was born and grew up in Richland Center, a small Wisconsin farming community. There was little warmth in the Lloyd household. But his father, an itinerant preacher who would later abandon the family did instill a love of music in his children. And although the family had few resources, his mother later related that she had tried hard to enrich her son's life, insisting that even when he was still in his crib she provided drawings of British cathedrals and placed children's building blocks within reach of his hands so that early on Frank would get the stimulation that might guide him towards a career in the arts.

Wright wasn't much of a student. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison his interests centered on literature, history and math. While there, he took a part time job with an engineering firm which provided him with money as well as a basic knowledge of building and structural design. A quick learner and full of self confidence, he felt he had enough information in construction to get by in that field. He dropped out of school after only two and one half semesters.

It was fortuitous timing. In 1871 in nearby Chicago a devastating fire had wiped out much of the central part of the city, including its downtown section. More than 7000 people had been made homeless in a city of 340,000. It was a time to rebuild, and Wright felt his future lay there. One architectural firm was responsible for much of the reconstruction that commenced shortly after the fire and continued well into the 1890's. That firm was headed by Louis H. Sullivan.

Wright with very limited experience negotiated for a job with the Sullivan's firm as draftsman and designer. Early on he caught the attention of Sullivan and together the two formed a formidable team. Soon suburbanites including those in nearby Wisconsin showed interest in building new homes, and Sullivan ceded this activity to Wright giving him the chance to test his theories in praxis.

Essentially Wright was interested in putting his plan of 'opening up the house' to the test. He wanted to do away with the compartmentalization or 'boxing in' of the house interior in which there were multiple separate spaces for rooms, each with its own fireplace and chimney. He also felt that the outside had to be brought into the house, for greater harmony with its environment. He named his structures 'Prairie Houses.' They achieved early popularity with their gently sloping roofs, minimal terraces and extensions. Affordable and economically sound in terms of maintenance, he was able to design and build hundreds of them.

As his practice expanded and he moonlighted more and more, he was discharged by Sullivan. Now, he would be free to commence a career for which the American Institute of Architects would later award him a gold medal. Meanwhile he had acquired a wife--the first of three--who would eventually present him with six children. His offices were located in his home.

His draftsmen, five men and two women, were an indispensable ingredient in Wright's formula for success. According to his son John Lloyd Wright who became an important architect in his own right, 'They wore flowing ties, and smocks suitable to the realm. …

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