Frank Lloyd Wright's Right-Hand Woman
-by Lynn Becker
An exhibition at the Block Museum brings the work and career of Marion Mahony , the first woman to be licensed as an architect, out of the shadow of her collaborators Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Burley Griffin.
Frank Lloyd Wright's first employee was woman. This, in itself, is not particularly remarkable. What is surprising is that the woman was not a secretary or housekeeper, but someone who would soon become the world's first licensed architect, Marion Mahony. It was 1895. Wright, twenty-eight, had only recently set up his own practice, after being fired by Louis Sullivan for taking on outside commissions on the sly. Mahony, herself, had recently been dismissed from the employ of her cousin, Chicago architect Dwight Perkins, during an economic downturn.
It can be argued that it was Mahony's distinctive renderings that created the public face that helped Wright's work command attention throughout the world. It could be speculated that Wright's work, itself, was influenced by Mahony's role in the spirited exchanges of ideas that went on in his studio, yet she is one a series of pioneering women architects and designers who have disappeared into the deep shadow of their male associates - Lill Reich in that of Mies van der Rohe, Aino Aalto in that of Alvar Aalto, and Mahony, in that of both Wright and her husband Walter Burley Griffin. Observes Jeanne Gang, part of a very different and more indelible generation of women architects, They seem to get erased.
According to an invaluable dissertation by North Dakota State University Professor Elizabeth Birmingham, Mahony was born in 1871 - her autobiography describes escaping the Great Fire in a clothesbasket - to a mother who was the daughter of a New Hampshire doctor and an Irish-born father from whom the young Marion stole pocket change. Birmingham describes him as a poet, journalist and educator, and probably an alcoholic, perhaps even an addict, dying from a overdose of laudanum, a popular opium-based painkiller, when Marion was eleven.
Mahony was only the second woman to graduate from MIT. She was also the first woman at MIT to appear on stage, portraying two of Shakespeare's most eloquent heroines: Portia in The Merchant of Venice who disguises herself as a male to argue against Shylock in a Venetian court, where she beats the men at their own game, and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, a woman who could hold her own in any conversation, much as Marion was one of the few who could counter Wright's opinionated bluster.
Wright set up his offices in Steinway Hall, a new building designed by Dwight Perkins, with Mahony's assistance in creating renderings, at 64 East Van Buren, in the shadow of the soaring Auditorium Building tower where Sullivan kept his offices with Dankmar Adler. Steinway Hall became a magnet for young architects. There was Wright. Perkins moved his own offices to the 11th floor. In the attic above, he set up drafting space for a group of architects that would include Walter Burley Griffin, the Pond Brothers, and Myron Hunt. It could be said that this was aviary where the Prairie School of Architecture was hatched.
Marion Mahony's skills as a draftsman made her indispensable to Wright, and as the practice expanded and added bodies, as an administrator, as well. Historian H. Allen Brooks, in his book The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and His Midwest Contemporaries, relates that her presence in Wright's office was irregular - whether or reasons of health or merely inclination - yet her services were always in demand. Since Mahony didn't have a telephone, Barry Byrne, another early Wright associate who went on to his own distinguished career as an architect, had the job of tracking her down and bringing her in.
Brooks recounts Byrne's description of Mahony as a thin, angular, shallow-skinned person with a beak of a nose . . . She had a fragile frame and walked as though she were falling forward. She was a good actress, talkative, and when around Wright there was a real sparkle. Byrne welcomed Mahony's appearance, because it promised an amusing day. Wright's son John remembered finding Mahonyso ugly, and her laugh so boisterous that I was afraid of her. Later, after seeing and appreciating her beautiful drawings, I thought she was beautiful.
It was a time when Chicago architects were in thrall to Japonisme, the late 19th-century obsession with art and culture from Japan. It's influence touched fashion, popular culture and music (Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado was first staged in 1885), as well as French impressionist painters such as Monet, Degas and Van Gogh, who painted his own version of two woodprints by the Japanese master Hiroshige.
Wright was a major collector of classic Japanese woodprints, and, like many of his colleagues, a serial visitor to the Ho-o-den, a half-scale reproduction of an ancient Uji temple that was the real-life Mikado's presentation to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Its simplicity and flowing space were qualities that came to characterize Wright's work.
According to Christopher Vernon, who writes of the Giraffe's' work in Australia for the Block exhibition's catalogue, it was another architect, Birch Burdette Long, who brought the Japanese style to the renderings used to depict Wright's buildings. It was Mahony, however, who perfected it. Birmingham describes Mahony's style as influenced by the sparse detail, continuous line, and skewed perspective and dramatic space of Japanese prints. The other key element was the increasing importance of landscape, part of the march to an organic architecture. Just as Romantic painters were drawn to depicting classical ruins overgrown with vegetation, Mahony's renderings placed buildings within a rich landscape, sometimes cascading over the floor plans in her later works.
The renderings also took on a standardized layout: Perspective at the top, floor and ground plans in the middle and a sectional elevation at the bottom. They drew on her MIT training - sepia outlines with light color washes.
Scholar Paul Kruty has made a detailed analysis of the development of the Mahony style of rendering. It contrasted sharply with the "bland professionalism" then popular, in which buildings were rendered with a sort of flat super-realism that ignored the effects of light and reduced the landscape to undetailed splotches.
In creating a new style of architectural rendering, Mahony drew on what she learned at MIT, especially the Beaux Arts tradition of the analytique, a page of close-up drawings of the individual architectural details that defined a building's character. Kruty pegs the emergence of the Mahony style to the 1906 rendering of Wright's K.C DeRhodes House in South Bend, Indiana. Depth is expressed through line width; the foliage, richly detailed, provides a frame and focus for the house, itself. Wright knew she was on to something, He took his own pencil to her rendering to write, drawn by Mahony after FLW and Hiroshige. It was a technique that came to used by the draftsmen of countless other Prairie School architects for years to come.
Brooks quotes Barry Byrne, "She was the most talented member of Frank Lloyd Wright's staff ... Mr. Wright would occasionally sit at Marion's board and work on her drawings, and I recall one hilarious occasion when his work ruined the drawing. . . . Andrew Willatzen, an outspoken member of the staff, loudly proclaimed that Marion Mahony was Wright's superior as a draftsman. As a matter of fact, she was. Wright took the statement of her superiority equably. In the judgment of critic Reyner Banham, She was the greatest architectural delineator of her generation, ranking higher not only than Wright, but also above such European masters as Adolf Loos in Vienna, and Edwin Lutyens in Britain. (SIDEBAR: Loos may not really have been such a great draftsman. Read Loos Scholar Professor John Maciuika's account here. )
Mahony did the presentation drawings for Wright's great masterpiece, Unity Temple. 'Marion Mahony has been doing great work, observed a contemporary. the Unity perspectives are hers. According to Brooks, Mahony contributed at least half of the renderings in the 1910 Wasmuth Portfolio, the book of Wright's work that spread his fame like wildfire throughout Europe. Mahony's distinctive monogram, however, somehow came to be deleted when the drawings were retraced for the publication.
Unlike Sullivan, Wright permitted his employees to take on side jobs, but the works created entirely by Mahony are few. For the Church of All Souls in Evanston, built in 1903 and demolished in 1960, Mahony revised her original, more radical octagonal design to gracefully meet the client's demand for something Gothic with a limestone exterior whose climbing ivy made the church, in the words of writer Jay Pridmore, appear to be part of the natural landscape. When Wright ran off to Europe in 1909 with the wife of a client, it was Mahony who eventually wound up taking his sketches and completing commissions for homes like the Adolph Mueller House in Decatur, Illinois.
Still, it's Mahony's association with her husband, Walter Burley Griffin, that is probably best remembered today. Six years his senior, Mahony fell in love and married Griffin in 1911, when they both worked in Wright's office. Shortly after, Mahony urged Walter to enter a recently-announced competition to design a new Australian capitol in Canberra. It would be the turning point for both of their lives.