John Lloyd Wright

 

[ Early Years | Long Beach Practice | War Years | Later Career ]

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Independent Practice in Long Beach

John moved back to Oak Park, to the apartment which his father had outfitted over the old studio in order to provide some income for John's mother, who still lived in the old family home. He remained there after marrying again, this time to Hazel Lundin, in 1921, and it was there that his first child, Elizabeth, was born in 1922. Late in 1923, he and his family moved to Long Beach, a lakeside residential enclave of Michigan City, Indiana. There he renewed his architectural practice, starting with the construction of his own house and studio, Studio Court, built in 1924. This was a simple, boxy, shingled structure set into the side of a rolling dune, away from the lake. It had the casual air of a summer house and proclaimed that its architect/occupant was ready to settle into the peaceful surroundings of this picturesque town which was only a two-hour train ride from Chicago.

 

Long Beach Town Hall
This is the Long Beach Town Hall which John designed. Click to get a bigger picture.

Over the next fifteen years, John Lloyd Wright set out to create for himself and his family a life that recalled the delightful, gregarious, suburban existence of his own childhood in Oak Park. He filled his house with beautiful things and with music- but not books, which he considered a diversion from the real things of life. He and his wife quickly formed a number of friendships within the insular Long Beach community, and lively dinners and parties kept a constant stream of people coming through the house. Wright drew his commissions from this circle of friends and their acquaintances, and from the town itself. Though the amount of work was never overwhelming, there was a new project or two nearly every year throughout the 1920s and '30s, which provided enough income to support the family (now including a second child, John Jr., or "Jack," born in 1925) and even allow John and Hazel a European tour in the summer of 1929. The pace was leisurely enough that Wright had time to spend with his family, enchanting his children with the same sense of fun and even some of the extravagance that his own father had shown toward him. He continued to design and market toys, which he tried out on his own children. And, with his wife helping him with business correspondence, financial affairs, and specifications, he was able to take the time to design and supervise every detail of his buildings in the way that he enjoyed, for he never lost that sense of the romance of his work that he had first felt back in California.

 

The Long Beach of the 1920s was primarily a resort town for Indianapolis businessmen, though it was also accumulating permanent residents. It was sparsely settled, with many large and often dramatic sites available on the dunes and shore. Wright's clients wanted houses substantial enough to serve in winter as well as summer, if only for periodic visits, and they generally wanted something spacious enough for entertaining. Consequently, Wright's designs were often fairly expensive, with $9,000 to $12,000 representing the typical cost of the smaller jobs, even during the Depression, when schemes for $5,000 houses regularly appeared in the architectural press. Nonetheless, many of Wright's clients were willing to commit their money to experimental designs. In the 1920s, Wright leaned to a conservative blend of traditional and contemporary styles, but by the 1930s he had begun to try out more imaginative and unusual forms, materials, and structural schemes.

 

Wright's career in Long Beach belies the easy assumption that he acquired his clientele merely on the strength of his father's reputation. Between 1909 and 1936, the elder Wright had few commissions and spent all but a few years outside the Midwest. Working outside his father's shadow, John at first produced relatively conservative designs. But he gradually gained the confidence to be more venturesome. More important, John was a man of both considerable personal charm and strong convictions about his architectural philosophy, and he was an established member of his community who had made his ambitions for its artistic enrichment known in occasional columns for the Long Beach newspaper. When meeting with prospective clients, he could point to two early houses (Miller, 1926, and Krutckoff, 1928), which had won area awards, and to the commissions for the Elementary School (1927) and Town Hall (1931) of his own town. In Long Beach he stood on his own feet. He could bring in commissions independently and could persuade clients to accept the schemes that he was anxious to try out.

 

Long Beach House
Long Beach House Interior

One of John's Long Beach homes

and interior view

Wright's early Long Beach houses generally reflect an attempt to adapt his father's principles of organic architecture to conservative contemporary styles. For example, Villa Z (1926), designed for the W.A. Zumpfes, who were "summer people" from Indianapolis, uses the picturesque peaked roofs and rough brick and stucco walls popularized by contemporary architects of the "Wall Street Pastoral" style on the East Coast. Red Oaks (1928) for H.E. Otte, a businessman, is more modern in character, with smooth-stuccoed, white-painted walls, a built-out, shaped doorway, and sleek interiors in the Hollywood style. The principal strength of both houses lies in their relationship to their sites, for both are drawn out horizontally by porches and wings which give them a firm footing on the steep dunes. Throughout his career, much of Wright's best work was done on hilly sites, and he often succeeded in introducing an almost theatrical drama into changes of level within his houses.

 

Also of this period is Wright's charming design of 1927 for the Long Beach Elementary School. Sited on an open greensward inside the coastal ring of dunes, the projected building would have had something of the modernized picturesque and rural character of contemporary Scandinavian and German architecture. Although the original plan called for the school to be built in three stages, and only one wing was completed (which was later extended by other, not entirely sympathetic hands), the existing fragment of Wright's work is an attractive, sturdy, light-filled building entirely in character with the atmosphere of sophisticated ruralism which Wright and his neighbors were trying to encourage in Long Beach.

 

Long Beach School


Long Beach Elementary School. Click on the image for the full size.

 

When the expansive 1920s gave way to the uncertain years of the Depression, Wright became more experimental in his designs. Though he intimated that he was already too familiar with the principles of modern architecture to be much influenced by his European tour of 1929, it is hard to believe that his visits to the workshop of Joseph Hoffmann, the Viennese architect and decorative designer, and the offices of H.T. Wijdeveld, editor of the Dutch magazine of modern architecture, Wendingen, as well as encounters with the work of modern architects like Le Corbusier in France could have left him entirely unaffected. Wright naturally attributed his interest in total design and new materials and structures to his father's influence, but his exposure to European modernism seems to have intensified his vision of a modern organic architecture. The result was some of his most exciting work.

 

Three of Wright's houses of this period particularly demonstrate his new experimental bent: the Burnham house (Long Beach, 1934), the Holden house (Birchwood Beach, Harbert, Michigan, 1934), and the Jackson house (Long Beach, 1938). The Burnham house is something of a transitional work, for it is an attempt to abandon style in favor of structural economy and utility. The house occupies a dramatic site right on the beach, with its back set against the steep slope which drops down from the shore drive. It sits on widely-spaced groups of three 8-inch steel I-beams 30 feet long which are unaffected by shifting sand and water. Most of the frame of the house is composed of Stran-Steel, a newly developed rolled strip steel "lumber" made for easy assembly. Wright covered the frame with sprayed- on insulation and stucco, using metal and wire lath as the basis for plaster walls and concrete floors on the interior. The sloped roof is covered with standing rib copper sections, as are the skirtings which mark the main floors of the house and also house part of the heating recirculation system. The result of all this is an exterior which has a somewhat ungainly but determinedly functional appearance and a spacious interior which includes a two-story living room with a dramatic view of the lake.

 

The Holden house, designed at roughly the same time for a dune-top site, is an experiment in organic unity based on a single material; Wright liked to call it the "House of Wood." Here he heeded his father's proposition of 1894 that the organic design ideal is served by the use of built-in furniture. He also adopted elements of the elder Wright's more recent experiments with unusual geometric floor plans, which appear in Frank Lloyd Wright's projects for a summer colony at Lake Tahoe (1922) and the Nakoma Country Club (1924). The polygonal floor plan of the Holden house not only gives it a striking exterior shape which crowns the dune on which it rests but expands the amount of wall space for mounting furniture. It also emphasizes the rotation of the interior spaces—which on the main floor are separated only by folding partitions—around the stair and fireplace core. Except for cement floors, a brick fireplace, and steel window frames, the entire house is built of wood, with yellow pine framing, cedar shingles, and fir, pine, and red oak interiors. The plywood interior walls are tinted with water- color stains, which Wright used extensively throughout his career to introduce subtle color variation into his designs. The Holden house generally conveys a sense of artistic control new to Wright's work.

 

Lloyd Long Beach Home
House of Tile

interior shot

The "House of Tile" in Long Beach, Indiana

Top: House in 1938

Middle: House as it looks in 2010

Bottom: Interior of house
Click on the images for full size.

The Jackson house, which Wright called the "House of Tile," also concentrates on a single material but otherwise bears little relationship to Wright's previous work. It ventures into European modernism with a rectilinear, asymmetrical composition and white, undecorated surfaces. This relatively small building seems more spacious because the living and dining areas are arranged on a series of platforms which also serve as the path of circulation to a second-floor gallery and three bedrooms. Interior wall surfaces and portion of the exterior are covered with tile to stress spatia continuity, while wood siding provides a contrast on the exterior of the bedroom area. The sense of spaciousness is also enhanced by the large areas of glass, which were made possible by exterior buttressing on the walls of the living area.

 

The Jackson house is comparable to much of the early work of Frank Lloyd Wright's "second career," which began in the mid-1930s. By this time it was clear that John was keeping pace with his father and trying new approaches that no longer relied on the lessons of the elder Wright's Prairie style years. Two other buildings, one public and one private, fill out the picture of John's developing style. The Coolspring School (1937), built under the Works Progress Administration, is a striking composition of bands of brick, tile, and glass block. Not only was it aesthetically successful; it was also extremely practical for it featured a novel and economical system for recirculating heat.

 

The culminating work of Wright's career as a residential designer in Long Beach was "Shangri- La" (1938), which had a particularly inventive relationship to its site. Built for Frank and Frances Gordon Welsh, this home was also known as the "House of the Seven Levels" because of the changes in floor level, a device which allowed it to settle into its saddle-shaped site between the dunes. The melange of stone, wood, steel, and glass which make up the exterior and the rough stone and smooth plastered surfaces of the interior give the house an air of modernized traditionalism which was to be characteristic of American residential design well into the 1950s. Had Wright continued on the professional and artistic path that he had laid out for himself in Long Beach, he might have achieved considerable success in a modified modern genre of residential and public building.

 

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, however, three events conspired to loosen Wright's ties to Long Beach and undermine his architectural practice. First, on an icy night in the winter of 1938-39, Wright's automobile caught on fire, presumably because of an electrical short circuit, and ignited the wooden structure of the studio wing of his home. The volunteer fire department subdued the blaze with difficulty, and Wright spent the following day salvaging smoke and water-damaged drawings with the help of neighbors. But the fire continued to smolder in the insulation of the walls and flared up the next night. This time many of the previously salvaged drawings were totally destroyed. Some projects were completely lost, while only scattered drawings or blueprints of others survived.

 

At the same time that the records of his early career were nearly obliterated, Wright found himself falling in love with his client for "Shangri- La," Frances Gordon Welsh. The sorting out of affections took a long time: like his father before him, John Lloyd Wright was reluctant to leave his family but wanted his freedom. He was divorced in 1942 and married Frances in September of that year. Finally, the turmoil in his own life was complicated by the nation's entry into the Second World War. Residential commissions dried up and Wright spent most of the war years working on the design of a defense plant.

 

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[ Early Years | Long Beach Practice | War Years | Later Career ]

[ School Design | His Toys | Gallery #1 | Gallery #2 | Gallery #3 ]