Images & Stories
Get to know the characters—people, buildings, places—in Frank Lloyd Wright's life from the 1920s to 1950s as he travelled throughout the world, always circling back to New York City.
Frank Lloyd Wright
A century and a half after his birth in 1867, Frank Lloyd Wright remains the most well-known architect on the planet yet still a mystery. Wright’s self-proclaimed arrogance, his famous buildings, like the Guggenheim Museum, and the stories of his dramatic life combine to create the impression we know intimately. His image even appeared on a two-cent postage stamp.
A close look shows, however, that we don’t really know Wright as well as we think. Having produced over 600 buildings and 20,000 drawings, as well as a vast archive of 100,000 letters, Frank left us with a complex personality and a vastly ranging oeuvre that we are still discovering.
Wright in New York explores an unexpected revelation from the architect’s legacy: New York catalyzed the years between 1925 and 1932 as the pivotal period in Frank Lloyd Wright’s career. The two visionary buildings he created for the city—a vast Modern Cathedral and a new prototype for the skyscraper—liberated his imagination to launch the most dramatic phase of his professional life. New York not only rescued Wright from personal and professional nadir but also confirmed him as the American champion of modernism itself. The Big Apple turned Wright’s career around at the end of the Jazz Age, but the city and the architect developed together from Wright’s first visit in 1909 to his last in 1959. New York was a major character in the complicated scenario of his life.
Wright visited New York City in late 1909 when he met up with his lover, Mamah Borthwick, en route to Europe. They stayed at the Plaza Hotel, which had opened only two years earlier, on October 1, 1907, after twenty-seven months of construction at the unprecedented cost of $12.5 million.
In the early 1950s, Wright was back at the Plaza Hotel. In 1954, Wright and his wife, Olgivanna, moved in to a double suite that became known as "Taliesin III."
Intertwined with the social life at the Plaza was the full range of Wright’s professional activities. The Guggenheim Museum was finally emerging after its long gestation. From his station in the Plaza, he oversaw it and other projects in Westchester and Connecticut, and he designed three other projects for New York City—all minor in the big scheme—Hoffmann Automobile Showroom (Manhattan), New Sports Pavilion (Long Island), and the Cass House (Staten Island).
Wright, Mother & Miriam
Wright had a complex relationship with his mother, Anna Lloyd Wright. He saw the divorce from her husband exclusively from her perspective. Thinking about the closeness between Wright and Anna suggested to me that an excerpt of their dialogue with and about his lover Miriam Noel would be interesting. To see that exchange click here.
In the mid-1920s, Wright had suffered enormous personal losses and his life had become fodder for sensationalized newspaper media coverage.
By 1925, Miriam Noel had left Wright and, though they were married and he was 57 years old, he had filled the void with a new love, the twenty-seven-year-old Olgivanna Hinzenburg. Born Olga Ivanovna Lazovich in 1897 in Montenegro, her maternal grandfather, Marko Milanof, had been a Balkan general credited with preserving the country’s independence. Her father had been chief justice of the country for almost thirty years. Married at nineteen, she had a daughter, and soon came under the influence of Georgi Ivanovich Gurdjieff, the Armenian-born charismatic mystic who taught dance techniques called Movements, which he claimed could transport his followers beyond the realm of ordinary senses. By the early-1920s Olgivanna was one of Gurdjieff’s principle devotees. Soon after they met in 1925, she and Wright started to plan a future together.
It looked as if divorce might allow Wright to escape Miriam’s clutches, until she discovered not only that Olgivanna had entered Wright’s life, but that Olgivanna was pregnant with his child. Thus began years of harassment, charges, counter-charges, and outbursts that were covered in the national press. During this period, Wright became known more for his scandals than for his architecture – which posed a problem in recruiting clients. In Chicago, Miriam even assaulted Olgivanna in the hospital at the birth of their love child in early December 1926.
Church of St. Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie, New York City
In 1911, William Norman Guthrie had become rector of St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie, one of oldest churches in New York (on 10th between 2nd and 3rd). At that time the congregation was dwindling. The old patrician families had either died out or moved up town and the neighborhood was in flux. Immigrants from Poland, Ukraine, Germany, Ireland, and Italy had begun settling into what would later be called the East village.
Guthrie’s immediate task was to rebuild the congregation, bring life back to the neighborhood, and stabilize the finances of the Church. His means: total revision of the liturgy, new rituals ad practices and Eurythmic dances with light and sound—and controversy. Universal religion was his goal. The west could learn in particular from Eastern religions as well as the rituals of Native Americans.
Born in 1868 in Dundee, Scotland, Guthrie was a Renaissance figure and wildman. A playwright, he gave the first lectures in America on Ibsen and Materlinck. He preached on Sundays, but also lectured during the week and traveled widely to lecture on literature. As a cleric, he promoted exotic religious practices for the sake of universalism. His own library contained 7,000 volumes on comparative religions. He was also a prolific author, covering a range of subjects. Guthrie had already played in an important role in Wright’s life when he advised the architect on moral issues during his flight with Mamah Borthwick in 1909-1910. Radical iconoclasts, they had much in common. The minister saw Walt Whitman as a font of mystical secrets, yielding insight into religion and he believed, as Wright did, that Native American rites had contemporary spiritual relevance.
Guthrie wanted not only to radical revise Episcopal liturgy and create not only new rituals and rites, but needed an architectural vision that would support them. Visionary, he was one of Wright's most significant clients and an intimate friend.
St. Mark's Towers Proposal
Early on the evening of Monday, November 4, 1929 Wright appeared at the Rectory on East 11th Street to unveil the fully developed design for a tower on the site of St. Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie. Its purpose was to provide rental income. For Wright, it became a prototype for a new model of a skyscraper.
Acknowledging the reverend’s request for a single tower, he still went ahead and provided the option for three more towers surrounding the church, the fourth one replacing town houses at the corner of East 10th and Stuyvesant Streets. With a series of towers the park between them would become continuous, forming an extended green zone at ground level for light and air. Each tower would sit in the garden park and could vary in height with the shortest one closest to the corner.
St. Mark's Tower Perspective
Wright designed an eighteen-story tower with four duplex apartments on each floor above the entry level. The tower’s walls were mostly glass screens with small balconies protruding like open-air bays. Bands of sheet copper formed into patterns punctuating the glass screens horizontally. Each floor spun around a central core that protruded from the top of the structure; the layout was a pinwheel. The spinning affect made each building side dynamic and ever-shifting with the changing light of day. The floors were concrete slabs cantilevered from a central, concrete pylon, the design’s major innovation. Furnishing and utilities were integral features of the whole.
By some strange intervention of fate, Wright presented this scheme to the Vestry Board just five days after the Stock Market Crash. Wright, willfully oblivious, had walked into the heart of global financial chaos. Later known as “Black Tuesday,” October 29, 1929, had come and gone. No one could fully grasp the repercussions of the Crash but in short order most new construction was aborted and architects hit a brick wall. Though Wright would insist that it could still be built, the Crash doomed the project, and precipitated the undoing of Guthrie with his Vestry rising up against him.
The great irony is that it didn’t matter that the tower wasn't built at the time. It liberated Wright’s imagination, gave him confidence, and confirmed that someone out there would risk much to hire him. And, as it happened, someday a client would built it in some version. In the meantime, the project provided talking points for prospective clients.
From New York, Wright’s two visionary schemes he hatched in New York City in the 1920s—the Modern Cathedral and St. Mark's Tower—became reality in the 1950s. He had always included them in the models and various drawings developed for Broadacre City but they now leaped into early life.
Wright would show a model and drawings of St. Mark’s in every exhibition of his work from the 1930 onward. The project would be realized as Price Tower, a corporate headquarters in Bartlesville, Oklahoma for Harold Price who’d made fortune by patenting a welding technique for oil pipelines.
Beth Sholom Synagogue
For Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins, Pennsylvania, Wright scaled down his Modern Cathedral to reality. The synagogue was the product of fruitful collaboration between 85-year-old Wright and Rabbi Mortimer Cohen and a major building at the end of Wright's career.
Wright’s most important promoter on the cultural scene in New York City was Alexander Woollcott, the critic and writer for The New Yorker. Alec, as he was called, was also a founding member and central figure at the Algonquin Round table. This “intellectual oasis in the arid Philistinism of Broadway” began as a lunch gathering for authors, playwrights, illustrators, cartoonists, actors, artists, sculptors, and celebrities.
“All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal, or fattening,” Alexander Woollcott once declared.
Among his sharp-tongued peers, Woollcott became “the most courted and best hated in the business.” Wright and Woollcott developed an intense case of mutual admiration. Wright claimed that he had even attended some of the meetings of the Algonquin Round Table as Woollcott’s guest. He and Wright shared a warm and witty correspondence, loaded with mutual admiration.
“Could you ever come to New York and discuss with me a building for our collection of non-objective paintings,” Hilla Rebay asked Wright on June 1, 1943. “I feel that each of these great masterpieces should be organized into space and only you so it seems to me would test the possibilities to do so….”
Frank received Rebay’s letter just days before his seventy-sixth birthday.“I appreciate your appreciation,” Wright replied. “I would like to do something such as you suggest for your worth foundation…Of course, I feel I should have no difficulty in giving the Foundation what it desires and needs.”Within a month the contract for the project arrived at Taliesin.
So began the genesis of the greatest monument to modern architecture, the Guggenheim Museum. Solomon Guggenheim, eighty-two years old, Hilla Rebay, the fifty-three year old curator of the Guggenheim Foundation, and Wright combined forces to launch an endeavor that produced a landmark of modernist culture and altered how architects saw themselves and their role in society. New York in the mid-1940s lay in wait enduring the war and anticipating its conclusion. The long and slow development of the Guggenheim Museum continued from the mid-1940s onward to its opening in 1959 after Wright’s death.
By the 1950s, Wright saw to it that his ideas and work achieved mass dissementation, through the media, particularly shelter magazines such as House Beautiful. John DeKoven Hill, associate editor to Elizabeth Gordon, was his in-house man. Gordon promoted Wright’s organic architecture as the antidote the sterility of the International Style.
Wright also saw in his work opportunities for merchandising. A line of his furniture was produced by Henredon, a major commercial firm, and Schumacher’s sold the “Taliesin Line” of fabrics and wallpaper. Wright even had marketed the color palettes of his organic design, which the consumer could buy from Martin-Senour Paints.
Beyond the his now-famous buildings, Wright also helped to created the idea of the modern architect: the image of a cultural star and vendor of objects of consumption, of architecture as commodity and art that we associate today with star architects today.