other writings

what kind of a man was Mr. Wright
to work for?

That is the probably the most often asked question upon being introduced as a 'former Frank Lloyd Wright Apprentice'. I am not sure of what the generic response is, but it is not an easy question to answer. There are as many answers as there are apprentices. This is my own personal view based on my experience.

After four years of architectural school and four years in the Army Air Force in WWII, I was accepted at the Taliesin Fellowship and arrived in the spring of 1947 (or should I say I arrived and was accepted.) Most of the annual fee for the first four years was paid by the GI Bill of Rights. I was discharged from the Army Air Force with the rank of Captain and having spent four years in the service, including two full years in the jungles of New Guinea, where, there being no jungle emporiums, I was able to save a substantial amount of money to fulfill my life long dream of being an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright. Those funds saw me through the first 4 four years.

The fifth year Mr. Wright sent me to New Hampshire to supervise the Zimmerman House at a time when my standing in the Taliesin hierarchy somewhere above the junior apprentices and below the senior apprentices. I never aspired to the rank of Senior Apprentice anyway, nor did Mr. or Mrs. Wright, I suspect, ever consider me for that exalted station. I might have expected to be put on the stipend at this time, but I did not want that either. Mr. Wright had never asked me for the money not paid on the GI Bill balance and since I had my own resources, I saw no reason to ask Mr. Wright for money. While it is true that I had the privilege of living and working at Taliesin I did not want to even symbolically to work FOR Mr. Wright by dint of the stipend. Being sent to the Zimmerman house had rendered my status moot for the fifth year anyway. The sixth year I was back at Taliesin in much the same status as the first four years.

At the beginning of my seventh year Mr. Wright sent me off to New York along with several other apprentices to work on the 60 Years of Living Architecture exhibition at the site of the Guggenheim Museum in New York city. I stayed there for the duration of the showing and went to a repeat performance in Los Angeles in 1954. There was a brief period supervising the construction of the Oboler stone box residence but I never returned to Taliesin. I couldn't face Mr. Wright to tell him I was leaving the Fellowship, so I wrote him a letter from Minneapolis to deliver the message. No response from Mr. Wright. Wes Peters called me shortly thereafter to ask me to work on the Greek Orthodox Church, but I was remodeling my mother's house, and declined the request. The time had come to cut the cord. If there were any hard feelings on Mr. Wright's part, they were gone two years later when I asked him for a letter of recommendation to the California State Board of Architectural Examiners. I received the letter and the following cover letter in May 1956, "Dear John: Hope your will come and see us some time. We miss you. Affection, Frank Lloyd Wright." I was flattered by the invitation but did not respond. Mr. Wright did not anticipate that I would.

So what kind of a man was Mr. Wright to work with? Not always easy, but gratifying. The overwhelming feeling of former apprentices that I have spoken with since the 1986 reunion is that the time spent at Taliesin was the single most important experience in their adult lives, with the possible exception of their marriage. Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between the apprentice relationship with Mr. Wright and life at the fellowship. The relationship with Mr. Wright was easy going and cordial. Life at the fellowship was also easy going most of the time; but there were irksome tasks like kitchen help, cooking, haying after tea, gardening, house cleaning, etc to be done. But, individually we probably did not spend any more time at these chores than would be necessary to maintain oneself independently. There were also perks like chorus for an hour a day, the orchestral ensemble for an hour a day, dinner and a movie on Saturday in the theater and dinner and music in the living room on Sunday. Regimented? Guess so. But you made your choice and took your chances. The opportunity to live and work with a man of truly mythic proportions is one to be treasured and understood, but not to be dominated by. Each of us responded to life at Taliesin with his own modus opperandi. I always tried to keep my overall objective in mind and respond to situations accordingly. If I learned nothing else in 4 years in military service, it was not only to survive but to prosper emotionally. Mr. Wright, and the environment with which he surrounded himself, simply had to be judged by a different standard; his profligacy, if that is what it was, was understandable, if not acceptable; but neither understandable nor acceptable for a lesser man.

'Work for' or even 'work with' is probably not the correct phrase to use to describe Mr. Wright's relationship with the Fellows. There was no employer, employee relationship. We were called apprentices and that is what we were. Mr. Wright was not a teacher. He was more of a mentor in the sense that John Bly uses 'mentor', the 'old man', in his book Iron John. Scully accuses Mr. Wright of concealing his 'sources' from the apprentices but the accusation is irrelevant. Mr. Wright expected the apprentice to find his own medium of expression, his own 'sources'. He did not expect to teach the apprentice his. Understanding of Mr. Wright's expression came, to the extent each apprentice was capable of understanding, naturally enough from the work in the drafting room. He was essentially a mentor, not a teacher.

The relationship with his earlier Oak Park and pre-Fellowship employees is another matter. There an employee, employer relationship existed, at least superficially. When Mr. Wright left for Europe in 1908 he turned "my clients' plans and draughtsmen over to a man whom I had but just met, a young Chicago architect, Von Holst..." A very curious thing to do; a virtual stranger. What about his faithful employees? The fact was that Von Holst's partner was James Fyfe; whose wife, Harriet, was the sister of Cudworth Beye who was the client of the 1905 Yahara River Boathouse. Both sister and brother were friends of the Wright family, including the mother and the two blood sisters, and spent many social occasions with the family. That was the real connection. We owe a debt of gratitude to John O. Holzhueter for bringing this information to light in his story on the Yahara River Boathouse in the Wisconsin Magazine of History (Volume 72, No 3, Spring 1989). So why Mr. Wright's reluctance to name Fyfe instead of Von Holst in An Autobiography, or why Von Holst all? Why not a senior draughtsman in the office? We can only wonder, but it is to me, somehow, typical of Mr. Wright and an understandable course of action. Perhaps his own words in An Autobiography explains the enigma as much as it will ever be explained. (Because he “sold” the practice.)

"In the workshop at Oak Park, inasmuch as they all had to shift for themselves, all received a nominal wage--the equivalent of board and lodging at the beginning. With the exception of some six or seven I have never had reason to complain of their enthusiasm for their work nor their loyalty to me. But, of their loyalty to the CAUSE (emphasis mine)--yes. And after all, were they not taken on, in that cause?

This process of NATURAL SELECTION (emphasis mine) on their part had its advantages. Some disadvantages. NEVER GOING OUT OF MY WAY AFTER THE MATERIAL I REALLY NEEDED BUT ALWAYS TAKING THOSE WANTED TO COME TO ME (emphasis mine)--I do make some sacrifices for sympathetic co-operation, oftentimes not so efficient as it should be. I am fond of the flattery of young people. They indulge me and I indulge them. It is easy for them and for me to do this. But they get the idea that when the master's back is turned, to draw his ideas in his own way, or in theirs, does make those ideas and his way their own. Later on, they must do something to justify in this "reflection." Soon, this type of alter ego becomes a detractor. I am in this way (?) unless good-naturedly I will let them trade on me. Or in me." Autobiography, p. 236.

This was written prior to the 1932 Taliesin Fellowship. But, at least in my time, the apprentice selection process of the quotation had not changed. If you showed up at the GATE with enough determination, regardless of money, you were admitted. Others, particularly the foreign applicants, went through the formal process, paid their dues and joined the entourage. On the apprentices part, they entered into the relationship as a voluntary participant in what was to be a way of life as well as an architectural practice. Anyone who thought Mr. Wright was a munificent man and would be monetarily generous in life or death was not living in the real world. It was an association, by choice, with a man of great genius, made freely by the apprentice for his or her own reasons. I don't think anyone had any illusions, after the first month or so in the Fellowship, about Mr. Wright or their role in the Fellowship.

There were times when Mr. Wright did things that made you wonder; like the year we built the new theater in Arizona. The roof was desert concrete with a span of 20 feet, supported on one side by a continuous wall and on the other by cast in place decorative concrete columns at 7 feet on center producing roof bays of 7x20 feet. Mr. Wright bought the steel reinforcing and left for New York and then Wisconsin. We were to stay and finish the roof pour. The trouble was that the entire reinforcing consisted of diagonal reinforcing of 1-1/2" square bars for each bay which left a clear span at the diamond in the center of 7 feet with no reinforcing at all, not even welded wire fabric. There was some minimal reinforcing between the concrete columns. Where the reinforcing crossed at center span the slab was only 5" thick and the crossing bars 3" thick, which left 1" of concrete top and bottom. Wes Peters had argued the minimum reinforcing point with no success. Mr. Wright was gone, there was no money to buy additional reinforcing so we made do with all the fence posts, water pipe, bailing wire and what ever else we could find. When the shoring was removed the roof sagged, so the next year, we jacked it up, drilled holes for steel hangers and poured the external overhead beams. The roof and beams are still there but I wouldn't sit under that 3' x 5' foot rock somewhere in the middle of the room. A similar recalcitrance ensued in the construction of the Sun Trap at a time in Mr. Wright's life when personal frustrations (with Mrs. Wright and Iovanna?) manifested themselves in his architecture.

On the other hand, one day in the desert after I had come back from the Zimmerman house (my sixth year), Mr. Wright said to me in very casual circumstances "John, I know it not easy being back here after being out there in touch with the glory of the thing." I was flabbergasted. It had never occurred to me that Mr. Wright had ever given my personal feelings even a fleeting thought but he obviously had. I am sure that I was not the only one. However, I heard him tell Mrs Wright at lunch one day they had no business involving themselves in the personal lives of the apprentices. Alan Gelbin gave him some of his poetry to read and Mr. Wright responded in a few days, "Alan, you need more practice." He had read them and responded.

I didn't work much with him in the drafting room, that area of work being left primarily to Jack Howe, Curtis Besinger and Wes Peters for structural, but before sending me to New York for the 60 Years Show, he asked Curtis Besinger and me to come to the drafting room with him and he sat down and redesigned the Usonian House that was part of that exhibition. It only took a few minutes but it changed an ordinary Usonian into a work of art. The exhibition pavilion and Usonian house were erected at the site of the Guggenheim Museum the help of Irons & Reynolds for the exhibition building and David Henkin for the Usonian house; and last but not the least, the ever loving apprentices and scores of volunteers from the local architectural schools, without whose help we would have been in big trouble. Mr. Wright was in New York for the entire time and visited the site daily. We managed to survive the entire process without any problems with Mr. Wright (too bad curator James Johnson Sweeney and the Museum officers couldn't say the same thing) but one day there were problems with the local union workers. Mr. Wright shouted at their shop steward, "I wouldn't trade one of my boys for the whole damned lot of you." and took us, and the volunteers, off to lunch at the local Schraft's, much to the dismay of the maitre'd when Mr. Wright rearranged the tables to seat us all together. The show opened and closed and then reopened in Los Angeles the next summer with yours truly in attendance.

After the show closed, but before it left New York, it sat there in the Pavilion with snow blowing in and the roof straining under the snow loads. Mr. Wright had authorized me by telegram on December 30, 1953, to have the exhibition materials crated and prepared for shipment to Los Angeles. The Museum was taking an arms length approach as to the dismantling of the pavilion but at some point decided to take the initiative and proceed. I advised Mr. Wright by letter and received the following telegram on January 23, 1954, in response, "WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY MUSEUM REMOVING PAVILION HOLDEN NOW ON THE JOB SO SENDING WES TO TAKE CHARGE TO GET SHIPMENT UNDER WAY. FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT." My approach was to sit tight and let things blow over, which they did. On January 29, 1954, he sent another telegram asking me to send structural details of the existing building for the future Hoffman showroom, which I had been researching. All was well again.

There was some damage to the models in the rail shipment from New York to Los Angeles that was, fortunately, covered by insurance. Mr. Wright said to me, "John, you should have gone down to the freight car and supervised the packing. But, with that word of admonition, we will say no more." It was his way of dealing with and dismissing the problem. I am sure the thought never entered his head again. He was not one to clutter his mind with petty problems or jealousies. He reserved that space for important thoughts and major jealousies.

The only real run in I had with him was in Los Angeles the day the 60 Years show was to open there. The day before the opening he decided to move the entry door. The slab had been poured complete with Rixon hinges and all the trimmings. We had to rip up the slab, move the doors, and make the final slab pour at about noon with a 8 PM opening staring us in the face. Thank God for Morris Pynoos, the contractor, who accomplished the changes with a lot of energy, skill and quick set concrete. Mr. Wright waltzed in about 4 PM in complete evening regalia including the hat, cape, and cane, walking straight across the newly poured concrete, which had fortunately set by this time. In New York we had set up a slide show in the adjoining building very late in the game. Mr. Wright was anxious that we had the continuous slide show up and running for the LA show.

I had the slides ready, and on the morning of the opening, had told the foreman that at 5 PM, no matter what he was doing or what was going on, to stop and build the frame for the translux screen and set it in place in front of the garage door opening. The work should not take more than 30 minutes. However, at 4:00 PM the sreeen was not in place but Mr. Wright was. He took one look at the gaping garage entrance, sans screen, and began to shout at me and brandish the cane. I maintained a discrete distance and tried to explain that the screen would be there in a hour. Thanks to Pynoos the entire building had been built in 21 days; I had worked day in, day out, month in, month out, to a very commendable conclusion; and both of us had the expectation for at least a modicum of praise rather than abuse. Mr. Wright was not in a benevolent mood and I was of no mind to put up with his petulance so I just let him cool off a bit. I had never known Mr. Wright to be generous with praise but someplace along the line there is a limit. And that boundary had been reached within the limits of my parameters.

At about 4:30 PM I went to him and told him everything was ready to go so; all he had to say was OK. He ignored me and did not respond. I would not like to repeat the conversation with myself but in part it said: no communication, no screen. Ten minutes later I tried again. No response. The 5:00 hour, and an inevitable decision, was rapidly approaching so I gave it one more try and received a grudging response. By 5:20 the screen was in place; Rita Pynoos, the contractors wife, had arrived with the rental chairs in her station wagon; the chairs were set and the show was on. Not a word from Mr. Wright. We all left to return at 8:00 PM for the opening. I arrived in time to open the limousine door and have Ann Baxter emerge to say in that deep throaty voice, "Good evening, John." Mr. Wright must have cued her in. The fuss was over.

As a matter of fact, more than the fuss was over. My active relationship with the Fellowship and Mr. Wright was over. Not really over with Mr. Wright, but held in abeyance; still in place in a spiritual mode; not over until my existance is over. That evening was probably the last time I ever saw or spoke to Mr. Wright.