John Lloyd Wright

 

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

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The War Years of John Lloyd Wright

The unusually high demand for large quantities of cheap, quickly constructed houses generated by the rapid growth of the defense industry and the subsequent return of G.I.s gave Wright opportunities to pursue the possibilities of standardized designs, prefabrication, and cheap materials, all of which had long interested him. John had been working for his father when the latter tackled the problem of standardized housing with the American System-Built Houses, commissioned by the Richards Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1916. This group of designs was based on a three- foot module and required little more than two-by- fours, inch planks, stucco, and plaster as materials. Their construction was further simplified by such provisions as restricting windows to the areas between the studs. These were systematized rather than prefabricated houses, and although they had little success in the 1910s, they were in principle much like the ones that were in fact put up by the thousands after World War II.

 

Wright BlocksJohn Lloyd Wright first experimented with the notion of standardization in planning his toy construction block sets. Limited in the range of elements they comprised, they lent themselves easily to mass production from the drawings that Wright prepared. But by the 1930s Wright also sought to adapt varying degrees of standardization to architectural design. For example, his Arcade Cabins Hotel (1930) for the Indiana Dunes State Park was framed with steel elements made up into 24-foot units, two rooms long, which were fabricated at the mill and put together at the site. This approach proved to be less expensive than conventional wood framing and may have inspired Wright to use steel "lumber" in the Burnham house. Most of his projects for standardization and prefabrication, however, were never built.

 

In 1932, Wright made two designs for a Unit House System with the hope of patenting them. Only the elevations survive, but they possess both interest and charm. Although materials are not specified, both facades appear to consist of metal panels with metal battens concealing their joints. 1 he stamped decorative panels of Unit House 1 recall the cement "textile blocks" which Frank Lloyd Wnght used extensively during the 1910s and '20s, while Unit House 2. freer of the elder Wnght s influence, discards ornament in favor of a balanced asymmetry to produce interest. Indeed the latter is an almost International style design which may have grown out of John's visit to Europe in 1929 and anticipated his design for the Jackson house.

 

In a more traditional vein, Wright designed the "Indiana-Wright" house in 1936 for the Architects' Small House Bureau. This was a boxy, peaked- roofed, wood-frame structure which was completely covered with shingles and detailed with four sizes of standardized wood trim with a plain rectangular section. Wright specified a total of nine variations that could be constructed by adding extra bed- rooms, a garage, a porch, or planting boxes to the core house. All materials were standardized, cheap, and easily procured, while the design itself was so unobtrusive that it could fit comfortably into any suburban context.

 

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Plans for officers residences in Kingsbury Ordinance. Click on the image for a larger view.

During the war, roughly between 1941 and 1944 Wright designed administrative and technical buildings and officers' residences for the Kingsbury Ordnance Plant, about twenty miles south of Long Beach The residences are of particular interest, for all are variations on a compact plan organized under a broad, peaked roof. All have board-and- batten walls, stock metal sash windows, and asphalt shingle roofs. In the smaller houses, utilities are placed in a single second-floor room to save space. Although not exactly standardized, these residences are simple, attractive designs based on a single theme which makes the most of the interesting surface textures that could be produced by a range of inexpensive construction materials.

 

After the war, Wright re-used his design for a three-bedroom officer's residence, with slight variations, for a projected house for Mattie McComb and Mary Groves in Long Beach. The transition to private dwelling was so easily made that one regrets that Wright never saw this design built He had struck on what would have made an excellent house type for returning G.I.s but never had the opportunity to exploit it. At this point in his career, it seems that Wright's feeling for the potential combinations of standardized elements might have made him an ideal collaborator for a residential developer. But for a man who admitted to feeling "swamped" by any more than a couple of projects a year, such an undertaking might have proved difficult.

 

Later Career: The Del Mar Years

After his marriage to Frances Welsh, Wright stayed in Long Beach, moving into "Shangri-La" and setting up his studio there. Long Beach in the 1940s was probably not much different in some ways from Oak Park in the 1900s; and for two people who had chosen the course that John and Frances had, it must have been little easier to stay on where they were than it had been for Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney some thirty-five years earlier. John reacted to the situation in two ways. In 1946, he wrote a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, My Father Who is on Earth. Contemporary reviewers found the book odd, even flip, in tone and questioned its value as a study of its well-known subject. Yet it is as much a kind of half-concealed autobiographical sketch as a portrait of the father. It is particularly impassioned in its defense of the elder Wright's love for Mamah Cheney and brings an anguished sympathy to the account of Wright's decision to leave his family. In hindsight, it is not difficult to see that John was trying to justify his own actions through this examination of his father's experiences. Thus having come to some kind of peace with himself, Wright decided to leave Long Beach late that year and go to California with his wife in search of a new home.

 

The Wrights found what they were looking for in the oceanside town of Del Mar, just outside San Diego, in the classic rocky, scrub-covered landscape of coastal southern California. There they bought a well-forested hillside lot where, in 1947, they built a combined house and studio. They settled into a community of recent arrivals like themselves, many from the Midwest. Wright would draw most of the commissions of the remaining twenty-five years of his life from such clients. This fluid postwar society, often self-conscious, often fickle in its tastes, but full of people looking for an image of something that they could call home, would reward Wright with far more work than he had had in Long Beach: more than sixty projects between 1947 and 1972 (though only about half were constructed). But Del Mar would never be his Taliesin.

 

The character of Wright's work in California was less experimental than that of his Long Beach years. He continued to be guided by his father's philosophy of organic architecture, with a particular emphasis on materials that were compatible with the climate and the traditional ranch and mission architecture of the region. Thus natural wood and stucco served as his principal media. He also continued to try to achieve unity of design through the use of built-in furniture and generally devoted more attention to designing the interior decor of his houses.

 

Most of Wright's commissions were for houses of relatively small size, ranging from the tiny studio residency of the Earl McPhersons (1947) to a variety of two-bedroom houses like that for the B.W. Wrights (1951). In some cases these homes were set into hillsides and split into two stories banked into the site; more often, they were confined to one level and arranged around two or three sides of a courtyard. The courtyard house was, of course, a traditional Spanish colonial and ranch type popular in California, and Wright often took it as a model for small homes when he wished to create a variety of interior and exterior spaces and enhance the relationship of building to site.

 

Many of these designs resemble Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian houses of the 1930s and '40s: small dwellings of moderate cost with very open plans laid out on a regular module, natural wood walls both inside and out, and technical innovations like radiant heating in the floor slab. The elder Wright conceived of these houses as prototypical dwellings for Americans of the mid-twentieth century. John Lloyd Wright never built a true Usonian house but adapted certain features of the type to his work.

 

To his dismay, though, he found that his California houses were frequently taken for the work of his father. No sooner had John tried to free himself of the burden of his father's influence through writing My Father Who is on Earth than he found the burden redoubled by the public's heightened awareness of the phenomenon of Frank Lloyd Wright. For his part, the elder Wright was happy to foster the impression that the buildings designed by John and his brother Lloyd, who also practiced in the Los Angeles area, were merely poor substitutes for their father's work. John nonetheless persevered in trying to develop his own interpretation of organic architecture in the southern California setting.

 

The house that John Lloyd Wright built for himself at Del Mar is one of the best of his California works. A masterly combination of the hillside and courtyard types, it is a kind of pledge to the California ideal that John and Frances Wright had embraced. The house is set into a hill and comprises a high-ceilinged living, dining, and study area adjoined by a kitchen, two bedrooms, and a bath. A studio opens onto the living area from a balcony. But these interior spaces are treated as only part of the house, for one approaches the building through a series of outdoor living areas laid out on terraces and overlooking a pool. Indeed, there is an intimate relationship between interior and exterior space which could only be achieved in the sympathetic climate of that region. The exterior of the house is brick, stucco, and wood, while the interior finish is mostly rough lumber stained in rosy tints with watercolors. The house was furnished simply by the Wrights, but with a great range of textures and colors produced by fabrics, art objects, and natural forms like pine cones and grasses, thus emulating, in a southern ^ California guise, the nature of Wright's boyhood home in Oak Park.

 

As with his buildings in Long Beach, one of the strengths of Wright's best houses from his California period was their siting. Wright's principal reason for preferring not to carry too heavy a load of commissions was his love of spending time at the building sites, from walking the ground over and over while he plotted his design, to finishing watercolor stains or wood-block ornament himself as a house neared completion. Thus he was sensitive to the nuances of topography of a site like that of the B.W. Wright house in La Jolla. The house wraps protectively around its entrance court while offering a panoramic view across the steep ravine behind it. A series of brick terraces anchors the structure to the hillside. And he made the most of his project for the Page house in Lake County, Illinois (1952), by letting it ramble across the creek that ran through the middle of its site, treating the living room as a bridge between the public and private wings of the residence. These are not dramatic solutions but comfortable ones which put the houses at ease with the ground they stood on.

 

The principal shift in Wright's architecture which took place after his move to California was toward a greater use of ornament and built-in or freestanding furniture which he designed himself. In Long Beach, Wright had often worked with designers, notably Alfonso Lannelli, to produce sculptural reliefs, art glass, lighting fixtures, and garden fountains to embellish his residential work. But by the late 1940s, he had begun to feel that for both artistic and economic reasons, the architect should be responsible for ornament and furnishings, and he closely supervised their fabrication. In this respect he was moving closer to his father's precepts, for since the first years of the century Frank Lloyd Wright had been designing furniture, rugs, glass, and other decorative and utilitarian objects for his buildings.

 

Since most of his California houses were of wood, and the interior wall surfaces usually pine or fir plywood, Wright used plywood for his furniture and for the ornamental cornices and block murals with which he decorated many of his houses. The furniture consisted of geometric plywood shapes attached to solid wood frames by plywood gussets which prevented the parts from torquing under stress. Usually, the plywood and frames were stained different colors. Wright used this system for chairs, tables, and plant stands for a number of his California houses. In their unrelieved and somewhat awkward angularity, these pieces resembled some of the furniture designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1930s and '40s but had a more homemade look.

 

For some projects, Wright fashioned small pieces of plywood into what he called "lichen- aceous ornament," drawing a parallel between the almost symbiotic relationship of rock and lichen and the nature of ornament which adheres to the structure of a building. A number of his designs include chain and fret patterns worked into the undersides of roof overhangs as well as interior panels of geometric and floral ornament. The most extensive use of plywood block ornament appears in "Brickwood," the large house which Wright designed and helped decorate at Rancho Santa Fe, California, between 1964 and 1968. Here plywood pieces were laminated in as many as three layers to give depth, and then painted in intense colors—or even gilded—to create elaborate block murals. The most effective of these featured running geometrical patterns generated by the play of basic shapes which they included. Of all Wright's work, this ornament is the part which is the hardest for tastes of twenty years later to accept. Nonetheless, it was consistent with the tastes of the period, as one is reminded by reading descriptions in society columns of the dresses women wore when they partied in Wright's houses.

 

In the early 1950s Wright also experimented with producing patterns for rugs and fabric to complete his conception of integral interior design, just as his father had done. His schemes for rugs were rectilinear, in patterns ranging from modified Greek frets to more abstract arrangements in earth tones. Wright had some of these rugs made up by Navajo weavers for his own house. His fabric designs played lines and geometric solids off against strips of bright color. None of these seems to have been printed and marketed.

 

At the same time that he increased his attention to furnishings and ornamentation, Wright renewed his activities as a toy designer, now concentrating on construction block sets. In late 1949 he patented—and in 1950 began to sell—a new version of his Wright Blocks, an interlocking block set which he had first patented in 1933. These were rectilinear, cross-grooved wooden blocks packaged in "No. 1" and "No. 2" sets of 36 and 70 pieces respectively, which differed slightly in the types of pieces they included and in the materials used. Some sets were in a variety of natural woods while others were colored with watercolor stains. The Wright Blocks were not only more abstract and modern than Lincoln Logs, but they were also more versatile and could be assembled into lighter, more open structures. Nevertheless, they failed to catch the public's fancy to the same extent as their log cabin predecessors and were not produced in any great quantity.

 

Probably some time in the mid-1950s, Wright developed a prototype for another toy construction block set, the "Timber Toy" (no specific date for the toy has come to light in the Wright papers). This was the most ambitious of his construction sets, comprising seventeen different shapes which included both interlocking wood blocks and flat wood strips designed to serve as "floor" and "wall" elements, all stored in a partitioned wooden box mounted on casters. To demonstrate their versatility, Wright built and photographed a wide variety of block towers, bridges, small houses, and even a "cathedral," but he did not succeed in having them fabricated and marketed. Both the Wright Blocks and the Timber Toy resembled much of Wright's geometric wood ornament; and indeed, over the years the design of these toys had gradually become an integral part of his architectural thinking rather than an entirely separate activity. Stymied in his attempts to develop prefabricated and standardized buildings, he found an outlet for these interests in developing his toy blocks.

 

Wright did not, however, lose interest in projects of larger scope than single-family houses. During the first half of the 1960s, he dabbled unsuccessfully in working with developers. In 1960 he did a jazzy design for a small chain of restaurants with deep, zigzagging overhangs representing a pun on the name of one of the owners, a Mrs. Eaves. The project conjured up in a lighthearted way the spirit of the American strip, and it is disappointing that it was never built. A project for a theater followed. In 1962, Wright drew up a number of plans and elevations for a tract house development entitled "University City." He introduced variety into the humdrum of the subdivision by such devices as putting a forty-five degree rotation on one or more stories of a plain square house, partially raising houses on piers, adding balconies, and changing roof lines. The results are indeed lively but often eccentric. Still more unconventional was Wright's design (drawn in 1965) for a developer, Coy Burnett, for a huge apartment and shopping complex in Del Mar. The apartment building which dominates a ridge-top site has some of the futuristic flamboyance of the late designs of Frank Lloyd Wright and John's brother, Lloyd.

 

The quantity of commissions that Wright received in California should have been cause for satisfaction, but there were other, frustrating difficulties in his career there. Just as Wright's architectural practice was expanding rapidly in the early 1950s, he became entangled in a lengthy legal battle over his eligibility to design buildings in California. Upon arriving on the West Coast in 1946, Wright, who was a licensed architect in Indiana, had failed to pass a civil engineering section of the California licensing examination and was therefore denied a state license. But by law he was nonetheless allowed to design dwellings of up to two stories as well as one-story commercial buildings with less than 25 feet between bearing walls.

 

When Wright went ahead and established a practice as a building designer, he ran up against opposition from the State Board of Examiners and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. After Wright taught a course for the San Diego Extension of the University of California in 1948, the local AIA objected to its being included under the heading of "architecture," so Wright withdrew from the school. In 1950, when he brought suit against a client for payment for services rendered, an architect testified that Wright's plans were improperly prepared. Although Wright subsequently succeeded in having the man reprimanded by the national AIA, of which he was a member through his Indiana license, Frances Wright claimed that the State Board of Examiners suggested to some of Wright's clients that they sue him for having handled their commissions without a license.

 

Finally, in 1954, Wright was arrested and charged with four misdemeanor violations of the California business and professional code stemming from his design for a clothing store in Oceanside, California. Three of the charges were thrown out by the judge, but the fourth- that Wright had advertised himself as an architect because his professional sign bore the letters "AIA" after his name- was pressed as an amended complaint. Wright was convicted of unlicensed practice in May 1955 and was given a suspended sentence by a judge who criticized the statute under which the charge was brought. The San Diego appellate court overturned the conviction in February 1956 on the grounds that the AIA was a national, not local, organization and that membership did not imply possession of a local license. Wright was otherwise perfectly within the law in calling himself a "designer." The uproar seems not to have significantly affected the volume of Wright's practice, but it must have marred his contentment with his adopted state, where architects felt obliged to adopt protectionist tactics against builders lured by the postwar real estate boom.

 

Still, on the whole the Del Mar community regarded John Lloyd Wright as a kind of local treasure. They made him part of the local planning commission, included his houses on benefit tours, invited him to give lectures, sent him Christmas cards full of testimonials to their enduring pleasure in his designs- and, when he wrote a profile of his father for the magazine Architectural Design in 1960- snapped up all the copies in the local bookstores. And most important, they gave him work. For a son who did not crave the kind of adulation that his father had always needed, it was a pleasant enough place to live out one's last years.

 

John Lloyd Wright died eight days after his eightieth birthday, on December 20, 1972. Frank Lloyd Wright had by then been dead for thirteen years, but John had still not outlived being his son. He knew this, and expressed mixed feelings about it. Architect Bruce Goff, who knew both the elder Wright and his two architect sons, wrote that John had been the more favored by his father; and indeed, it was John whom the father took on as an apprentice, and to John that he revealed some of his innermost feelings. Yet in favoring him, Frank Lloyd Wright very nearly crushed the spirit out of his son, as he did out of some of his other followers. John sensed early on that he had to get off on his own, but spent the rest of his life both prizing the association of the name Wright with genius and resenting the fact that many of his own creative acts were taken for hand-me-downs from his father. Because he believed in his father's architectural philosophy, much of his work depended upon the elder Wright's; but particularly a the height of his career in Long Beach, John did some promisingly original designs. Yet his father's ever-dominant presence on the American architectural scene, and the upheavals in John's own life in mid-career that almost uncannily replicated some of his father's personal entanglements, dulled that promise.

 

John Lloyd Wright continued to do competent, often sensitive, work in his later career but rarely work of marked distinction. The one place where he successfully gave leash to the inventiveness and wit that friends saw in his personality was in his design of toys. There he did not have to compete with his father. Yet aside from that one brief period in the late 1910s and early 1920s, he could never give himself over completely to toys because the romance of architecture was too strong for him. Rather than give up what he most loved doing, he was willing to bear the burden of being his father's son.

 

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

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




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