John Lloyd Wright designed many buildings around the
United States. Following is a biography of John by Sally Kitt Chappell and Ann Van Zanten and published by the Chicago Historical Society in 1982. The author so graciously sent me a copy of the book and gave me permission to print it here in 2002.
The career of architect and designer John Lloyd Wright was dominated by the problem of reconciling the artistic influence of his father, Frank Lloyd Wright, with his own, independently developed ideas about design. Wright believed in his father's principles of organic architecture and tried to express them in his own terms. Yet he resented the assumption that his buildings were mere pastiches of Frank Lloyd Wright's.
Throughout his career, John Lloyd Wright moved in and out of his father's sphere of influence as the course of his personal life led him to live in different places-Chicago; Japan; Long Beach, Indiana; and Del Mar, California-and pursue a variety of types of commissions. His work seems to have achieved artistic independence and success according to the extent to which he was comfortable with his surroundings and at peace with himself. His most original designs were produced during a period when he assumed a confident role in a tightly knit community, Long Beach of the 1920s and '30s. Wright never wrote down the story of his own career, although he recounted some of its key moments in the context of a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, My Father Who is on Earth (1946). It is only by looking at John's work that his career can be reconstructed, and a knowledge of his life brings the character of his buildings into sharper focus.
The Early Years and Apprenticeship
John Lloyd Wright was born John Kenneth Wright on December 12, 1892, in the house that his father, Frank Lloyd Wright, had built for himself in Oak Park, Illinois. He was the second son in a family that would come to number four boys and two girls.* The children were largely raised and educated by their mother, Catherine, who ran a kindergarten for her own burgeoning brood and some neighborhood children. Their activities centered on the playroom that Wright added to the house in 1895, a long, high-vaulted room full of building blocks and "funny mechanical toys" which John later described as an almost magical space in a surpassingly beautiful house. When childish amusements palled, the children found their way to the staircase, completed after 1898, which led to the balcony overlooking their father's architectural studio. They would whisper and giggle and toss things onto the drawing boards, disrupting meetings with clients and causing general consternation.
But their exasperated father put up with them, for if education was their mother's business, play and luxury were his. Wright boxed with the boys and took cold showers with them, bought them horses, and later shared his shiny yellow Stoddard - Dayton with them; he introduced the children to music and beautiful objects; and he tolerated their presence at dinners and parties. "Papa's parties were best of all. He had clambakes, tea parties in his studio, cotillions in the large drafting room; gay affairs about the blazing logs that snapped and crackled in the big fireplace. From week to week, month to month, our home was a round of parties. There were parties somewhere all of the time and everywhere some of the time."
This world of laughter and surprise, the fruit of a devil-may-care attitude toward money and conventions, ended abruptly in the fall of 1909 when Frank Lloyd Wright left for Europe with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of one of his clients. The scandal broke slowly, but John, then in his final year at his great-aunts' Hillside Home School in Spring Green, Wisconsin, soon suffered the humiliation of his classmates' whisperings and the loneliness that followed the harsh disruption of his enchanted childhood. He later wrote that it took him a long time to get over it. Rather than go home the next summer, he stayed in Wisconsin to work on his great-uncle Lloyd-Jones's farm, just as Frank Lloyd Wright once had done after his own father left home. From there John went on to the University of Wisconsin, but like his father and brother Lloyd before him, he showed little interest in his studies. When the university suggested in 1911 that he would do better to forgo higher education, he left. But rather than return to Chicago and reminders of home, he struck out directly on his own.
At age eighteen, John began his career with more energy than purpose. He went first to Portland, Oregon, where he worked for a paving contractor, but he soon migrated south to San Diego, where his brother Lloyd was planting bushes for Olmsted Brothers, landscape architects of the Panama-Pacific Exposition. At first he hawked posters designed by Lloyd- and when he tired of that, he got a job pressing pants but burned through a pair of white flannels on the third day of work. As John later recalled, it was at this dismal moment that he had a nostalgic vision of parties and clambakes and decided that what he really wanted was to become an architect. It is hard to believe that he had given no thought to architecture before; something must have rubbed off in the Oak Park years. Perhaps it took being away from the overwhelming presence of his father to turn him in that direction.
In any case, whether on impulse or by premeditation, when John saw a sign for a draftsman in the window of the Pacific Building Company, a residential contractor, he applied for and landed a job drawing "cobblestone" bungalows. Shortly afterward, when Pacific promoted him to chief designer, John concluded that he was ready for a position with an architectural firm and found one with Harrison Albright, one of the more successful commercial architects in Los Angeles. The job was not quite what he had expected: he "drove Mr. Albright about in his Chalmers Detroit, ran errands, typed letters with one finger and made miscellaneous sketches."
Even so, John was learning something about architecture, for in 1912 Albright put him in charge of a commission for a house in Escondido for a Mrs. M.J. Wood. John solved the problem of this first independent design by borrowing his father's 1906 scheme for the Grace Fuller house in Glencoe, Illinois. He modified it slightly by changing the fenestration and adding a pair of posts visually "supporting" the cantilevered roof at each end of the house. The placement of the staircase at the core of the house, the use of built- in furniture, and the simple treatment of the unpainted, rectilinear wooden moldings inside the house were all features which would reappear in John's work. The solid corners and discontinuous windows of the house also reflected his belief, contrary to his father's, that each room must be designated as a separate entity on the exterior of the building.
John later wrote that his sentiments toward this first house as it rose out of the ground amounted to "the closest feeling to worship I had ever known." He was in love with the materials and couldn't stay away from the site. Architecture had become something he simply had to do. Albright soon gave him another opportunity, this time to design the Workingman's Hotel, a philanthropic enterprise intended for day laborers and underwritten by J.B. Spreckels, a sugar baron, shipper, and real estate speculator who was one of Albright's regular clients. The design was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright's few projects for multiple dwellings and his City National Bank Building (Mason City, Iowa, 1907), but it is far less derivative than the Wood house. The Workingman's Hotel provided John with the first of a number of opportunities to collaborate with Alfonso Iannelli, a young Italian immigrant sculptor, who did the corner pier sculptures of the hotel. Although the design of the building was altered somewhat in construction, it was still a major work for twenty- year-old John.
With two serious commissions to his credit, carried out with the aid of reference books and Albright's other staff, John decided that it was finally time to get some formal architectural schooling.
As he later recounted,"I did not want to ask Dad to take me into his office for he had not encouraged me toward this end, so I wrote to Otto Wagner, the great Austrian architect who had a school of modern architecture in Vienna. I asked Mr. Wagner if I could serve him as apprentice for a few years in exchange for my room and board. His prompt reply translated was: "... Come on..."
I felt I was on the way toward making Dad proud of me, so I wrote to him asking his help to buy the ticket to Vienna. I enclosed photographs of the Wood House and the Workingman's Hotel. He telegraphed: "Meet me in Los Angeles in two weeks..." He thought his office would be better for me than Otto Wagner's. "I'd like to know what Otto Wagner can do for you that your father can't do!" This was the way he invited me to work for him. [My Father, p. 67]
Thus began a struggle that was to last most of John Lloyd Wright's life, between his father's extraordinarily dominating personality and style and his own independence and artistic development.
On returning to Chicago in late 1913, John was placed in charge of his father's office, now located in Orchestra Hall on Michigan Avenue, where he handled business matters when Frank Lloyd Wright was at Taliesin, the home he had built for himself and Mamah Cheney at Spring Green, Wisconsin. The elder Wright gave John a copy of Discourses on Architecture by the French architect E.E. Viollet-le-Duc and arranged for a private course of engineering to fill the gaps in his architectural education.
At about this time John married Jeanette Winters, a young woman he had met in Los Angeles. (They were divorced in 1920.) The young couple moved into a tiny wooden building at 938 Lincoln Parkway (now Michigan Avenue at about Delaware Place), probably a nineteenth- century worker's house. They dubbed their home "Bird Center," decorating it with jig sawed and painted birds.
Midway Gardens, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, had financial problems when it first opened. It was later sold and renamed Edelweiss Gardens. It was sold once again and renamed Midway Dancing Gardens. It was demolished on October 10, 1929.
Toward the end of 1913, Edward Waller, Jr., the son of an early client, commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design Midway Gardens, an indoor-outdoor dining and entertainment complex on the Midway Plaisance. John's time was soon consumed by preparing working drawings for the project and acting as superintendent of its frenzied construction, which was scheduled for completion by summer 1914. He also brought in his friend Iannelli as one of the chief decorative artists on the project.
As work progressed, the elder Wright often came down from Taliesin for extended periods, and he and John virtually lived at the site. It was there that on August 14, 1914, Frank Lloyd Wright received word that Taliesin was on fire. He and John caught the first train back, only to find that Mamah and six others had been murdered by an insane servant. John stayed with his father to help him bury the woman he loved in an unmarked grave on the Taliesin grounds, and then returned to Chicago to look after the office. Ironically, this was the first time that John had ever been to Taliesin and looked into the inner recesses of the world that his father had made for himself when he left Oak Park. The experience revealed to him something of the emotional wellsprings of his father's creative existence and aroused sympathetic feelings which would eventually have repercussions in his own life.
The Midway Gardens opened shortly after the Taliesin tragedy, and after a few finishing touches were carried out, there was a lull in the business. Most of Frank Lloyd Wright's designs were made at Taliesin, so John probably had little to do but prepare working drawings for the few houses that were constructed during this period (mostly those in a small development underwritten by Sherman Booth in Glencoe, Illinois). He passed the time by experimenting with the design of toy construction blocks, an interest which was most likely the outgrowth of his own childhood in Oak Park, where blocks were prominent playthings. A Frank Lloyd Wright-style construction made with blocks of John's design appeared in the elder Wright's exhibition of work for the Chicago Architectural Club in 1914. The survival in Alfonso Iannelli's correspondence of some letters from John on stationery from the Orchestra Hall office indicates that John was also given some responsibility for arranging decorative schemes for his father's buildings. One letter, for example, requests Iannelli to prepare a sketch and model of a sculpted or painted frieze for a kindergarten, probably the Avery Coonley playhouse in Riverside, Illinois, which had been built in 1912.
Though John learned a great deal during his apprenticeship, the experience was marred by his father's inconstancy in money matters. Despite continual pleas and admonitions, the elder Wright refused to pay his son a steady salary, forcing John to live on sporadic handouts. Nevertheless, he agreed to accompany his father to Japan to start work on a major commission, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, and to serve in the same role of chief assistant that he had played at Midway Gardens. Father and son sailed for the Orient in January 1917.
For the next sixteen months, John worked with his father in testing earthquake-proof foundations and took charge of developing working drawings and a plaster model while Frank Lloyd Wright traveled back and forth to America. He also worked up sketches for the private commissions which the elder Wright had begun to receive from the Japanese. It was one of these assignments which finally precipitated a crisis in mid-1918 over the father's failure to pay his son's salary. Wright cabled John from America to collect a payment from Viscount Inouye on a residential design. John later wrote,
"I worked all the next day and night to complete the sketches for the layout Dad had left with me delivered them to the Viscount the next day and collected two thousand dollars on account. After deducting twelve hundred dollars for salary due me, I cabled the remaining eight hundred to Dad."
"The next day I received a cable: 'you’re fired! Take the next ship home..." Out went the lights! [U. Father, p. 101]
The apprenticeship was over. Although John suspected that his father might take him back after a proper show of contrition, he chose instead to
return to Chicago on his own. There he settled again in "Bird Center" and began to make his living by designing wooden toys, most of which were distributed by Marshall Field & Company. These included an assortment of construction blocks and jig sawed birds, like the ones he used to decorate his studio, as well as such items as chess pieces and toy animals, all sold under his Red- square" label. But his most successful toy by far, was his log cabin construction set, Lincoln Logs, which he designed in Japan in 1917 and put on the market in 1918. Although he later sold the patent for Lincoln Logs, the product marketed today is substantially the same as his original design.
But John did not stop thinking about architecture. Indeed, his intense involvement with toy design, and particularly his experimentation with construction blocks, only strengthened the foundation which his father had already laid for John’s interest in rhythmic pattern, prefabrication, and construction from interchangeable elements, it was also during this period that John sought out his father's old employer, Louis Sullivan, who was by then living more on the charity of friends than on the income from rare commissions. He spent hours in Sullivan's deserted Auditorium Building office, listening to the master talk about organic architecture. Gradually, John's old desire to see his own buildings rise out of their sites reasserted itself.