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The Early Years of Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright by author Meghan Carter

  • A look at the beginning of Wright's career in architecture.
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    Frank Lloyd Wright has been celebrated as one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, and some would argue that he is the greatest American architect of all time. Wright began his solo career in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, and it's the best place to visit if you want to learn about the early years of Wright as an architect. Among the 34 homes designed by Wright in Oak Park stands the first home Wright built for himself: Frank Lloyd Wright's Original Home and Studio.  
    The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, a non-profit organization, offers tours of the home and studio, and I took one with Lauren Finch to better understand the most well known architect of our time.
    "So this is the place where it all started," I said.
    "It started here," Finch said. "The first 20 years of his career were right here. In Oak Park. ... This is where the Prairie School of Design was developed. And just so much history comes from this house. That's why it's so celebrated."
But before living in Oak Park, Wright spent the later part of his childhood in Wisconsin where he learned to appreciate nature while working on his mother's family's farm. His appreciation for nature would later influence his architectural career. When it came time to go to college, Wright attended the University of Wisconsin and studied engineering. But after a short time, Wright decided to leave college. In 1887 he headed to Chicago at the age of 19.
    Like many architects of his time, Wright chose Chicago because it was a city booming with new architecture. After the great fire, there was a demand for architects to rebuild the city. While in Chicago, Wright worked for an architectural firm that had designed two buildings for his uncle.
Photo Credit: Frank Lloyd Wright (b. 1867 – d. 1959), Date: unknown, Photographer: unknown. Courtesy Collection of Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, H&S H267
   "He came down here to Chicago, worked for [Joseph Lyman] Silsbee as a draftsman for not really that long, for less than a year and then he worked his way into Adler and Sullivan, one of the best architecture firms here in Chicago, and Frank Lloyd Wright was just such a confident man that Sullivan saw this man and knew he had great things, and just after a short time as a draftsman, he moved his way up in the company," Finch said.
    But before visiting Wright's house I already knew that part of the story, and it was his home in Oak Park - the house I was standing in - that ruined Wright's job at Adler and Sullivan. Had Wright never built his home in Oak Park, he may not have struck out on his own. But he did build the house by making an agreement with Adler and Sullivan to work exclusively for them if they would lend him money to build a home for him and his first bride, Catherine Tobin. In 1889 the home was built, and shortly after Wright began working for other clients on the side.
    "The story goes, though there are many, you know, the story isn't written down, and there are many different interpretations," Finch said. "Some people knew Sullivan knew that Frank Lloyd Wright was doing this and nothing ever happened, he let him go on. But as the story goes, Frank Lloyd Wright actually built a house just a few blocks from where Sullivan lived and as Sullivan was walking by one time he said, 'That looks like a young architect Frank Lloyd Wright's work,' and then found out he was doing the moonlighting and had to let him go."
    Being fired by Adler and Sullivan did not hurt Wright's career. In fact, it enabled Wright to create his own style of architecture. In 1898, Wright built a studio next to his home, and in that studio the Prairie style of architecture, arguably Wright's most famous style - took form. But it wasn't just the Prairie style that developed. Wright's own style as an architect began to shape, and throughout the different architectural styles he created there were certain elements of his manner as an architect that never changed.
    "It's a common misperception that Frank Lloyd Wright's stuff is minimalistic, but really there's a high attention to detail in all of them," I said.
    "Frank Lloyd Wright designed everything," Finch said. "He would choose the site, he would build the home, he would everything from the outside of the home to the inside of the home to the furniture down to the napkin rings, sometimes even the dress the hostess, the wife of the home would wear."
    "The dress," I said in shock.
    "The dress," Finch said. "He would design everything. Everything was an ideal space, and you know everything. He had been known to, when he would come over to a house that he had designed, he had been known to move furniture back to where he had originally had it planned to be. A lot of people, a lot of his clients said that they worked for him, but these are the people who really, truly appreciated the work he was doing, and it was an honor for them to work with him."
    Throughout his career, nature greatly influenced him and it was that influence that helped to make him such a revolutionary architect. Rather than depicting things as they were in nature, Wright created abstract representations that evoked the feeling of the object without competing with it. His buildings were meant to be in harmony with their surroundings, which showed in where he chose to place them.  
    "He believed that any building, you can't just pick a plan out of a book and build the house just anywhere," Finch said. "Actually, the building had to come from the ground, and had to belong there. He never believed in building a house on top of a hill. That wasn't the place for it. It's right below the hill, or right below the top of the hill. So, he didn't believe in that. Thing had to come from nature. He was very in tune with his surroundings."
    During his career, Frank Lloyd Wright created numerous groundbreaking designs, including the Robie house, Fallingwater and the Guggenheim. In all Wright designed over 1,100 projects and almost half were built. But despite his groundbreaking work, Wright was not always appreciated. There were periods in his life where he lost favor due to some of the choices he made in his personal life and the radical nature of his style. But that did not keep Wright from appreciating himself.
    "He felt as though he was the world's greatest architect, and many people will agree with that," Finch said. "He was very revolutionary and definitely here we call him the great American architect, and he really did too. The American form of architecture, he felt that, you know, you have the great, the gothic cathedrals, and you have the Greek and Roman structures, he felt America needed its own form of architecture, and that's what he set out to do and that's what he accomplished."
    Whether you like his style or not, there's no doubt that Frank Lloyd Wright was a great architect. When walking through his home, you can begin to see his genius. But it's not until you step outside and walk down the streets of Oak Park that it really hits you. Placed between large Victorians, Wright's homes stick out as if they'd been built years later. But really they were built during the same time period. And as you look at his homes, it become obvious that Wright was far ahead of his time. He might have been right when he said he was America's Greatest Architect.


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