The unforgettable Frank Lloyd Wright

Monday, April 19, 2004

Having a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in McCook, the only one in Nebraska, is something of which people in McCook are very proud. It is one of the sights that natives show off to visitors; it is something that teachers tell grade schoolers about, and it is something that we chuckle about when we see out of towners taking pictures of the house to show the folks back home -- just as we take pictures of the Statue of Liberty and other well known tourist attractions.

The Frank Lloyd Wright house in McCook has had only a few occupants in its almost 100 year history, and all of the occupants have done a good job of keeping the home up and mostly preserving its architectural integrity. There were a few years that the home served as a medical clinic. At that time the owners erected a high concrete block wall that pretty much shielded the home from view. There was a fountain built into the wall on the southeast corner. The first spring that the fountain was in place, and working, MHS seniors filled the basin of the fountain with dishwasher detergent, which caused a cascade of suds to run across the sidewalk. After that the fountain water was turned off.

The present owners of the McCook house, Mr. And Mrs. Van Korrell, tore out that ugly wall and have done a major restoration job on the home, preserving the character of the original home, while at the same time adding modern amenities, like air conditioning, upstairs laundry, extra baths, and an addition to the back of the house -- all of which has made the home just as beautiful as it was originally, and much more livable.

Anyway, just being a citizen of McCook has given me a bit of pride of ownership in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, and a feeling of familiarity with the great architect. So, when we were on a trip this winter to Scottsdale, Ariz., and our daughter mentioned that Taliesin West, Mr. Wright's winter home, was located nearby, I was eager to see the place. The visit was well worthwhile. We learned a lot about Wright and his work.

Frank Lloyd Wright spent his early years in Wisconsin, but began his professional career in Chicago. Wright and his first wife raised six children together in a Wright designed house in Oak Park, Ill., which he used as an architectural laboratory. There he worked out many of the features of what he later called the Prairie style of architecture. It was during this period that he designed the McCook house for Mr. & Mrs. H.P. Sutton.

While Wright's career blossomed, his family life deteriorated, and in 1909 he walked out on his wife and family (as his own father had done some years before) and went to Berlin for two years with the wife of a client, one Margaret (Mamah) Cheney.

When the couple returned in 1911 Wright began to build a home/studio on the family farm in Wisconsin. He named his place Taliesin, which means "shining brow" in Welsh, his ancestral language. Here Wright lived with Mrs. Cheney and her children.

In 1914 a recently hired chef inexplicably went mad---set fire to Taliesin and hacked to death, with an ax, Mrs. Cheney, her two children and two others as they attempted to flee from the burning home.

It was a bleak time for Mr. Wright personally. He immersed himself in his work, entered into a hasty (bad) marriage, and proceeded to rebuild Taliesin. One of the commissions he accepted to help pay his bills was the design and construction of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. This was a radical departure from earlier designs, but was well constructed, designed to resist earthquakes, and greatly added to Wright's stature as an architect on the world stage.

(In 1952, while on R&R in Japan from Korea, I was privileged to have tea in the Imperial Hotel one afternoon. It was a beautiful place, on a little island in the middle of Tokyo, quaintly Japanese, but also American. Unfortunately, in 1968 this unique hotel was torn down to make way for reconstruction on Tokyo.)

Into the 1930s, Wright still did not have the repairs to Taliesin completed. He enlarged his studio into an architectural school and accepted students, at $1,100 each, to live at the school, learn from Wright, and work with their hands -- by completing the work on the home and the school. The idea was that there should be no formal training, and the belief that physical labor for the master would bring knowledge and inner peace.

In 1938 Wright opened a second location, on 800 acres of land north of Phoenix, which he called Taliesin West. Again he allowed his apprentices to build his home, and the school -- for a fee. Taliesin West never was completed. Work went on until his death in 1959. His third wife, Olgivanna, kept the school going until her death in 1985.

Taliesin West is a part of the desert, in keeping with Wright's philosophy of keeping his buildings as part of the landscape -- built with natural materials, and never painted. He did so successfully with his Prairie homes, the Tokyo Imperial Hotel, Falling Water, a home built around a waterfall in Pennsylvania, and a Country Club in Hawaii.

Taliesin West is built on the side of a small mountain. The walls of the buildings are made of native desert rock. He designed high sloping roofs, translucent panels in the ceilings of most of the buildings, which makes for no shadows -- good for engineering drawing, and large open doors and windows that created a subtle distinction between the building and the environment. Each building was built to take advantage of the view of the desert valley. When the power company put in transmission lines to the south, well within view, Wright was incensed.

He complained to the power company, to county and the state. Getting no satisfaction, he complained to his friend, Harry Truman, the president. He couldn't help.

So he erected walls across the south of the buildings, cutting out the offending view, and opened up a view on the other side, looking up the mountain behind. Lately, a communications tower has been erected on the mountain, again spoiling the view. I don't know how Mr. Wright would have responded to that.

There are many buildings at Taliesin West -- homes, dormitories, mess halls, offices, studios, classrooms, but also a movie theater, a concert-hall/playhouse, a night club, and an art gallery -- all of which were built by Wright's students. They all display the mark of the great man, from the design and construction of the building to the design and construction of the furnishings -- chairs, sofas, theater-seats. For instance, the theater seats are put in at an angle, which allowed Wright to sit with his legs crossed, his arm over the back of the next seat, and still be facing the stage without turning his head.

He thought that form was all-important, and that all should be in proportion. He thought that anyone over 6' tall was wasting space. His son-in-law, who was 6 feet, 4 inches tall, became his student. When son-in-law entered a room Wright would shout, "Sit down, John, you're ruining my symmetry."

Wright died at 92 at his home in Taliesin West. He created 1,1412 designs, of which 532 had been completed. His name had become synonymous with great design, design with function. He showed not just what to live in, but more importantly he influenced the very nature of how we lived. Early on he had said that he aspired to not just be America's greatest architect, but the greatest architect who ever lived. There are many who would say that he met his aspirations.

Source: Frank Lloyd Wright at prairiestyles.com

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