other writings

A Summer's Work --
Not in the Taliesin Drafting Room:
The Neils House, Minneapolis, Minnesota

A version of this essay was published in the Journal of the Taliesin Fellows (Issue #2, Fall, 1990, pp. 13-15). The text below is derived from a draft revised by Geiger in September 2008, and contains additional paragraphs analyzing the composition of the Frieda and Henry J. Neils house, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1949.

It was the summer of 1949 and Jack Howe assigned me the job of doing the working drawings for the Neils House that was to overlook Cedar Lake in Minneapolis. As I examined the preliminary drawings it became evident that there were serious problems with the planning of the house, at least the lower level. There were a storage, bath, servant and utility rooms confined to an area on a lower level that was woefully inadequate in size and largely below grade requiring an excavated area with a retaining wall to make it work. Meanwhile, the far end of the living room was a full story above grade and marked unexcavated. The original preliminary drawings are documented as illustrations #506 and #509 pages 260 and 261 in Vol. 7, Frank Lloyd Wright Monograph 1942-1950, published by A.D.A. Edita, Tokyo, 1988. Other drawings and photographs of the same reference are of the revised house. This article was originally published in the Journal of the Taliesin Fellows, Issue #2, pages 13/15 along with a plan of the revisions and photographs of the completed house.

      I struggled with the problem for a while but could not make it work so I finally went to Jack and told him the house needed Mr. Wright’s attention. His response was, “Don’t bother Mr. Wright”. I worked some more with no success and finally went to Jack again with the same request and received the same response; “Don’t bother Mr. Wright.” It was clear to me that the house needed Mr. Wright’s attention, but if Jack said no, I wasn’t going to challenge his decision. So I said, “OK, I won’t ‘bother’ Mr. Wright, but I won’t complete the working drawings either.” So I spent the remainder of the summer mowing hay, by choice I might add. We had considerably more freedom of choice in our work assignments than writers on Wright would have you believe. Who was going to challenge my decision? A challenge would involve Mr. Wright and we would be back to square one where I wanted to be in the first place. It wasn’t going to happen, and I wasn’t going to rock the boat, although in hindsight it might have been more productive if I had I taken a more aggressive stance. Wes Peters made all work assignments excepting household and kitchen chores, was an easy taskmaster, and was respected by all apprentices for his probity. The switch to mowing was an easy move.

It seems to me that the entire summer was spent mowing that one large field across the highway from Taliesin. It extends from the Lloyd Jones Chapel on the south on around the bend to the coffee shop at the east that was opposite the abutment of the bridge over the Wisconsin River. The field was beautiful after mowing with the concentric rows of mown hay diminishing to zero at the center. I was delighted to think that I had created all that beauty on such a vast scale with only a hay mower. The field was in full view from the Taliesin living room and I thought afterwards that a similar view must have inspired the abstraction that is the frontispiece for BOOK THREE, WORK from An Autobiography by Frank Lloyd Wright. (In case no one else has made the connection, the frontispiece for BOOK ONE, FAMILY, is an abstraction of his trek with Uncle John described on page 3). It was an altogether delightful summer. There was ample opportunity for reflection while riding the mower eight hours a day. Early on in my endeavor I managed to bend the mower support arm trying to mow around the edges of the field for a more manicured look. Ken Lockhart wasn’t too happy about that but had it repaired with only a few pointed remarks. I also mowed around all the roads visible from the Taliesin living room

Meanwhile, back in the drafting room Steve Oyakawa had completed the working drawings for the Neils house without any changes from the preliminary drawings. It was Mr. Wright’s practice to sign drawings in the drafting room after breakfast on Sunday morning and on this particular Sunday I just happened to be present, and the Neils house working drawings just happened to come up for Wright’s signature. So I said to myself, “This will be interesting.” Mr. Wright leafed through the drawings, picked up a pencil and preceded to redesign the house on the completed set of working drawings. The final design is as illustrated in the reference of the first paragraph. All the lower level functions were moved to the upper level adjacent to the workspace, and the long outside entry walk was enclosed as part of the interior space; the carport swung around in line with the bedroom wing and the roof changed from a hip roof to a gable roof. It was a major redesign and took less than half an hour. When Mr. Wright was finished, he stood up, tossed the pencil on the table, and said, “Well, occasionally one of these gets through without the benefit of clergy.” The comment was accompanied by his wry smile. I was delighted. My position had been vindicated.

It might appear that Wright redesigned the Neils house on the spur of the moment when presented with the working drawings to sign, but I don’t think that that is the case. We know from his sketching on the preliminary drawings that Wright considered changes to the lower floor, but we don’t know when that sketching took place. It is most likely that it was after the drawings had been returned to Taliesin after looking at them. It much more likely that Wright took with him from the time of that sketching a mental image of the project, redesigned the house in his head and simply put those thoughts to paper when presented with the working drawings to sign. The redesign is comprehensive and much too complicated to improvise on the spot. Wright used to say that he could “Shake them out of my sleeve.” It makes a good sound bite, but it was not true. He had to work through the design process just like any other architect. I will cite examples in the future when he did sit down and put a complete design to paper, but those are instances where he had a complete design in his head and was just putting it on paper. There are other examples where the design development process took place over several revisions and some time.

The two most obvious changes that Wright made were the realignment of the carport with the bedroom wing, and the elimination of the lower level by expanded the workspace area to accommodate the maid’s room and bath. This house was now under one big roof, although with a bend, to accommodate the floor plan and an ear to accommodate the maid’s room. But it was still just one big simple roof, which was a hallmark of Wright’s work from day one. He also enlarged the fireplace mass to include a furnace room. Wright loved the big fireplace mass to anchor the house to the ground.

However, the most significant change by Wright was from a hip to a gable roof. That was not all. He changed from an equally to a non-equally pitched gable roof. Why did he do that? The equally pitched gable, by its very nature, tends to create a center line, and that is OK if such is your intention, as with the Mossberg house in South Bend, Indiana. There the focus of the enclosed space is one of centrality and it works. However, with Neils the focus is towards Cedar Lake and not the angled end of the living room where an equally pitched gable roof would tend to direct your attention. He moved the ridge inboard towards the inside angle of the plan one unit while keeping the eave height the same. This increased the pitch of the lesser roof, kept the pitch of the main roof the same, and tended to focus your attention towards the lake. The diamond shaped terrace was consistent with this paradigm.

The ridge of the roof is now offset one unit from the centerline of the living room which, is through the 120-degree point of the end wall. This creates an active, as opposed to static, relationship between the bent roof plane and the bent plane of the end wall of the living room, as well as the relationship of a vertical plane to a horizontal plane, in this case the bent plane of the roof, but nevertheless a horizontal plane. This is what gives the living room its dynamic. If the ridge had coinciding with point of the wall it would have been a pretty pedantic solution and would have tended to create a center line in a direction opposed to the orientation of the space towards the lake, which is what the house was all about. The diamond shape of the terrace again reinforces this orientation and opposes the orientation (direction) of the living room roof, which was, again, the dynamic Wright was looking for. He loved opposing forces. Just look at Fallingwater.

Curtis Besinger did the working drawings for the redesigned house, making an entirely new set of drawings. The Neils owned the Flour City Ornamental Iron Company and produced the spherical fireplace kettle shown in the photographs. They made another one in 1953 for the Usonian House at the New York showing of 60 Years of Living Architecture at the site of the Guggenheim Museum. That one was returned to Taliesin at the close of the show.

How many other works did get through without the benefit of clergy is the real issue elicited by the saga of the Neils house. If Wright had been angry, rather than amused, by these events, he could have instituted measures to ensure that this transgression did not happen again. But no such measures were taken and it did happen again. But this is Frank Lloyd Wright. If his reaction had been anger rather than amusement would he still be Frank Lloyd Wright? Probably not; Frank Lloyd Wright is Frank Lloyd Wright, is Frank Lloyd Wright. The lack of monetary concern made it possible to redo the drawings for this house with no consideration other than the quality of the project.

It would be interesting to speculate what this total lack of monetary concern in the drafting room had on Mr. Wright’s work in his most productive years of the career in the mid-1930s. The availability of the apprentice labor pool made it possible to rework any project endlessly with few or no monetary consequences. The hours dedicated to the drafting room were probably only fifteen percent of the hours of available apprentice time. But that percentage was the basis of the majority of the income supporting the entire endeavor. The other 85% of the apprentice hours were divided between construction and maintenance services, such as food, house cleaning, etc. The construction record of the Fellowship was remarkable when viewed in retrospect. By November 1, 1933, the Playhouse was complete and was welcoming the public on weekends, and Hillside had been essentially restored. By 1939 the parking terrace at Taliesin and the drafting/apprentice room complex had been completed. Taliesin West was started from scratch beginning in 1939 and was essentially complete by 1941. This was no small accomplishment for a volunteer (apprentice, slave, depending on your POV) labor force, and an aging Frank Lloyd Wright.

Meanwhile, back in the drafting room….