(c) Mark Hertzberg
An estimated 200 people gathered to honor John in Oak Park Saturday at George Washington Maher’s Pleasant Home. A selection of photos follows:
(c) Mark Hertzberg
An estimated 200 people gathered to honor John in Oak Park Saturday at George Washington Maher’s Pleasant Home. A selection of photos follows:
Text and photos (c) Mark Hertzberg
Karen Johnson Boyd died peacefully early Friday morning in her Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in Racine, Wisconsin after a short illness. She was 91.
The house, the Keland House, was designed in 1954. She was one of Wright’s surviving clients. There are aficionados of Wright’s work who keep lists of Wright’s surviving clients. But Karen (pronounced Car-In, after her Norwegian ancestry) was a great woman, a fun person, a friend, not just a name on a dispassionate list of Wright clients still living in their Wright homes. She had a keen sense of humor, matched by the perpetual twinkle in her eyes (dare I post the photos I have of her playfully sticking her tongue out at me when I photographed her?).
She has a great legacy in the art world in Racine and in America. The Racine Art Museum in downtown Racine bears the name Karen Johnson Boyd Galleries. (I refer to her as Karen, rather than Mrs. Boyd, because I had the privilege of being friends with her and her husband, Dr. William B. Boyd.)
Her father, the late H.F. Johnson Jr., became a patron of Wright after commissioning the SC Johnson Administration Building in 1936 and the Johnson home, Wingspread, the following year. Karen and her late brother, Sam, grew up in Wingspread, and that inspired her to want Wright to design a home for her and her first husband, Willard Keland.
Karen was 12 when, unbeknownst to her, H.F, as he was known, hired Wright to design the Administration Building. “I just remember the time right after Dad first saw Mr. Wright, I was at Kemper Hall (a boarding school in nearby Kenosha), and he came down to pick me up one Sunday and he said to me, ‘Karen, you’re studying art history, now who is the greatest architect in America?’” She was sitting next to her father in the front seat of their cream-colored Lincoln convertible, and replied, “Why everybody knows it’s Frank Lloyd Wright.” He was sort of appalled that I knew that. I remember that vividly. He was flabbergasted that his kid would know it. He told me at that time that he was going to have Mr. Wright do the building.”
Just a month ago she spoke of a characteristic of her father’s relationship with the famous architect who had a reputation for not managing money well. “He was always trying to get money from my father. He would come unannounced for a visit with my father, but he always came with some of his students. He came to Wingspread and to the office building.” Did Wright pay the loans back? “Not that I know of. He would tell my father that we had to pay the room and board for his students because they were not in paying jobs to do it themselves. My father did it any number of times, because he felt they were doing good work. They were supporting Mr. Wright.”
The most memorable time that Wright sought a loan from H.F. was in the early 1940s. Wright had sent word to Racine that he was maybe dying. He wanted H.F. to bring “the girl” (Karen, whom Wright was fond of) with him. “They took me into his bedroom. There were about six or seven people watching me so I didn’t take anything as a souvenir.” Wright commanded, “Bring the girl to me.”
“I remember being really flattered that he wanted to speak to me. He made me come over next to him on the bed and he grabbed ahold of my hand He said my father was his best friend. ‘He is a wonderful man,’ he said. And he said, ‘Did you know he’s a wonderful man?’and I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘I’m glad, I’m glad to hear you say that.’ He said, ‘I think I’m going to die, Hib (H.F.’s nickname), but I need to leave my apprentices in a position to stay on the job of guarding the place, keeping it safe.’ He said I haven’t got any money to leave the apprentices, but they have to guard the place otherwise they’ll come and close down the place.’ I remember my father asking what they needed the money for, and he said to keep the place from closing down. They have to pay bills for heating and electricity. Father wrote a check.”
Wright was fond of her. “He would ask my father about what kind of grades I was getting in school and whether I was dating anybody important.” She was flattered by Wright’s interest in her. Karen repaid Wright, if you will, by generously sharing her home for special benefit events hosted by Frank Lloyd Wright groups, even as recently as last fall.
Two of the Wingspread’s signature features were suggested by Karen, then 13, and her brother, Sam, 9. Wright wrote them, asking if there was anything they wanted included in the house. Karen, whose bedroom was at the north end of the house, on the second floor past the master bedrooms, requested a cantilevered balcony like the dramatic one she had seen at Taliesin. Wright told her that one day she would be wooed from below the balcony by a suitor “with a classical guitar, of course.” The bedroom’s location was dramatic, but not ideal, “I had to sneak past my father’s door if I wanted to sneak out.”
The children loved the spectacular view from the cupola of their maternal grandmother’s house in Ithaca, New York, and they asked for a lookout tower in their new home. Wright gave them the Crow’s Nest, a glass enclosure next to the chimney, which is reached by a spiral staircase from the mezzanine above the wigwam. It was a child’s delight. Karen and Sam could see the lake and watch their father, an avid pilot, fly past the house. They left each other notes in a locked cabinet. The key was lost, and Karen wondered in 2003 if there is still a forgotten note in the cabinet.
Karen said she picked Wright to design her own home on the bluff of a ravine that overlooks the Root River and Colonial Park “because I lived in Wingspread and loved it.” Her father was less sure about her choice of architect because he knew what it was like to commission a Wright building, and was afraid that it would be too expensive.
Johnson wrote Wright, asking him to recommend an architect. Karen recalls Wright’s answer: “Of course I can recommend someone, but wouldn’t it be better for the daughter to have the real thing? I would love to do a house for Karen.” He got the commission, but her father warned her to be careful.
It is almost inconceivable to think of Wright agreeing to have another architect looking over his shoulder, but Karen said he did not balk when Johnson assigned John Halama, the company architect, to supervise the job. Halama and Wright had already worked together on the Johnson Research Tower and other projects. When the Kelands also hired consultants from the University of Indiana to help design the home’s radiant heating system, something her father recommended because of problems with Wingspread’s system, she says that “Mr. Wright never said ‘boo’ about it…I think Mr. Wright was relieved he didn’t have to do it.”
Wright may have been on his best behavior when the house was being built, but he was true to form when he and Wes Peters came for lunch in 1956 after the Kelands had moved in. Karen had fixed lunch (it was a lunch she liked to fix for guests: chicken salad, with curry in the mayonnaise; buttered toast broiled with sesame seeds; and green grapes) and served Coca Colas to her guests after lunch, when Wright decided it was time to rearrange the furniture.
“I knew it was to be expected because he had already done it to Irene (Purcell Johnson) and Dad at Wingspread, famously, in the middle of the night without asking permission.” Her stepmother had also warned her. “Just remember, Karen, he’s going to come back and rearrange everything.”
The only furnishings Wright had designed for the Keland house were built-in ledges, bookcases, cabinets, and two built-in sofas. The living room furniture was in two groupings because the family did not often entertain large groups of people.
Wright said he liked the two beige Moroccan rugs, and asked where they were from. Then he turned his attention to the furniture. He had Peters move the baby grand piano into the center of the room because the Keland children were taking piano lessons and he thought the family should gather around the piano every night. Karen remembered Wright asking, “Do you mind if I show you the way I think? I like your furniture and your rugs and the drapes. You’ve done a great job, but I think you have to arrange it in a more family way.”
It was part of his persona. “He was laughing and grinning, he was getting a kick out of it,” Karen recalled, “Even Wes Peters was laughing. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ he whispered, ‘This is just in fun’ as he was pushing and shoving things around.” Karen knew not to argue. “I thanked him for it and said we’ll try it out and see how it works. It stayed that way for a couple of days. It just didn’t look right.”
The Keland house is larger than most of the Usonian homes, but it has many of the characteristics of Wright’s Usonian designs. The original house was L-shaped, with a third wing for the carport. The dining area, with its two-ton Vermont marble table which took 15 men to carry into the house, is just off the entry hall, and flows into the living room. The living room dominates the main wing. It is spacious, and comfortable, filled with books and art. The built-in furnishings are also an important part of the Usonian design concept.
The kitchen is at the “hinge” between the living room/dining room wing and the bedroom wing, following the Usonian model. Wright, who normally didn’t seem to worry about what other people thought, suggested a wood screen to hide a small wet bar that adjoins the kitchen, “What are you going to do when the minister comes?”
The bedrooms are in the south wing. The hallway is narrower than Wright had wanted, because Karen requested built-in storage cabinets along the outside wall. She also insisted on a basement, a feature that Wright termed “unwelcome” in his definition of organic architecture in his autobiography. The guest room is on the second floor of the main wing, adjoining a sitting room, which overlooks the living room and the ravine below.
Wright wanted to include a cantilevered terrace in the design, jutting out from the guest room, like the one he designed for Karen’s bedroom at Wingspread. It was eliminated from the final house plans, for budget reasons, to Karen’s regret years later, “It would have been a very distinctive part of the house.”
Karen loved the Wright home she grew up in, and loved the one she commissioned. “Depending on your mood it expands with you or contracts. You can go in a little cozy eating area in the kitchen or if you feel expansive you come out here (the living room) and have a great big party if you want.”
Her son, Bill Keland, was just one when the family moved into the house, but it had a great influence on him. The land itself was a child’s delight, “We used to live down on that river, and play on that river…that whole valley was our playground. We had our bikes, We caught fish. That was where we lived most of the year. It was a great place to grow up.” His classmates knew there was something different about the house, “(They would) look around (and) wonder, what is this place…with its long hallways, and low ceilings opening up into a big room…”
Wright’s design moved Bill even years later, and influenced the design of his own home in California, “It always felt like it was a sacred space, thought out space. It made me feel like a human being.”
Dr. Boyd, moved to Racine when he became president of the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, in 1980. He was invited to dinner at Karen’s house after starting his new job, “Then I married into the house. I often think she must think I married her for the house, I love it so much.”
Frank Lloyd Wright brought nature and the house together in their spacious, two-story home designed five years before he died. The Boyds enjoyed watching the river and the birds that flock to the courtyard garden.
The house is filled with art. To Karen, it was art. “Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a piece of sculpture,” she said in an interview in 2001.
Karen was a member of Racine’s most prominent family, but she was self-effacing. She and I were sitting in the courtyard of the house one day as she described how architect John (Jack) Howe added on to, and remodeled, part of the house in 1961. She had four children, so a garage was added when the carport was enclosed to make another bedroom. Pointing to the small door next to us, near the kitchen, she said, “And this is where the little woman brought her groceries into the house” after pulling them from the car on a wagon.
We were talking about the movie “Animal House” after Dr. Boyd told me that he gave permission for it to be filmed at the University of Oregon when he was president of the university as long as the college was not identified by name (the scene with the horse in an office was shot in his office). She smiled and let on that her favorite movie scene was one from the movie.
As much as she loved the “piece of sculpture” that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for her, she also loved spending time on Lake Owen in Cable, Wisconsin. That was a family vacation destination since the teens, and she spent every summer of her life but one there. Karen was a world traveler, but she and Dr. Boyd honeymooned in a bare-bones fishing cottage by a stream on the property after they married in 1982. Karen could have described it to us when we visited them there a decade ago, but instead she insisted we climb into a four-wheel drive Suburban which she piloted over rough terrain with careless abandon to take us to that magic spot in their lives for a picnic lunch. The Boyds put their arms around each other as they looked out from the porch.
I visited the Boyds a month ago and was touched when Bill gently kissed Karen’s hand after she stopped to see us in his office. The love, the magic was still there as it must have been at Lake Owen in 1982. I ache for Bill as I write this remembrance.
Karen could have lived the life that many people who know nothing about the Johnsons assume “a Johnson” would live, but she did not. She used to take advantage of the Metra weekend roundtrip fares to take the train to Chicago when she could have simply had a driver take her into the city. She gave of herself unselfishly. Bill lost his soulmate this morning. Racine, the art world, and the world of Frank Lloyd Wright lost a great friend and a great person.
(c) Mark Hertzberg
I was on my daily bike ride on my birthday just a month ago when my phone rang. I am never overly eager to answer the phone when I’m riding in the winter, because I have to take my gloves off after pulling off the road, and the weather was nasty, but I was glad I took the call. It was John Thorpe wishing me a happy birthday. I had no inkling that he knew my birth date. Today I awoke to an email telling me that John died yesterday of congestive heart failure. He was 71. The world of Wright preservation is reeling from the news.
John was my mentor when I began my Wright adventures some 15 years ago. I had no background in Wright scholarship, but that did not matter to John. All he cared about was that I was writing about Wright’s work, striving to be as accurate as possible, doing as much original research as possible rather than rely on anecdotes and the existing literature. My mentor became a friend. I could not help but smile all the times he tweaked me for being a native New Yorker (Second City Syndrome, John?).
Jonathan Lipman had introduced me to John when I was looking for advice about how to handle a sticky question about the alleged authorship of a house I was writing about. John in turn introduced me to the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. I turned to him for advice often. His advice was always the same: let proven facts lead the way.
I had the pleasure of helping John chair the Building Conservancy’s 2007 annual conference in Northbrook and Racine.
In 2012 John was the person I called for advice from the basement of Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House when I was showing the house to a prospective buyer, Gene Szymczak. The house needed extensive repairs, and the Building Conservancy had fretted about its future. I wanted to know how much the house might be worth as a Wright property over its assessed value. John firmly told me it was time to bring in professional appraisers and to step out of the picture.
Gene ignored his advice, surprising the owners and me by making an offer out of the blue a week later, as they met over lemonade and cashews at the owners’ new apartment. It was an unexpected turn of events, and the house had a new steward. Gene completely rehabilitated the house over the next three years, earning a Wright Spirit Award last October. What better tribute to John than to have the house preserved for another century?
Next year’s Building Conservancy meeting in San Francisco…and each one thereafter…will be diminished without John’s presence. Indeed, so will the Building Conservancy itself, as well as Wright scholarship and preservation.
Farewell, my friend.
Information about any memorial service for John will be posted to the Building Conservancy’s website: www.savewright.org Blair Kamin’s feature obituary story for the Chicago Tribune is at:
(c) Mark Hertzberg
This is how Jameson Gagnepain’s adventure at Wingspread starts: unloading two custom-built wood crates and four cardboard boxes, all stuffed with about 50,000 LEGO bricks. In two hours the bricks will have been reassembled into a model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 14,000 sq. ft. home for Herbert F. Johnson, Jr., which will be displayed on the second floor of Wingspread probably into December.
The model is stunning in its detail, the statistics -at the end of the story- are staggering.
First, Gagnepain and his wife, Amy, assemble the five-foot square table the model will sit on.
Each storage box is carefully thought out, explains Gagnepain, “I pack everything as tightly as I can… It’s a little like Russian nesting dolls in there. Lots of sections fitting inside other sections, and every box has shelves in it to make good use of space.”
Gagnepain starts with a blank “canvas,” if you will, a broad expanse of green LEGOs representing the landscape around the house. There is no hesitation as he spends the next two hours assembling the model of the house.
He works in IT for a medical supplies company, but LEGOs have been his passion since he was young. The colorful plastic bricks were his expected presents for as long as he can remember. Amy is so understanding, he says, that she suggested their wedding have a LEGO theme.
Gagnepain scoured the Internet for photos of what the house looked like when it was built, and then took notes during a visit to Wingspread. His biggest challenge was in fashioning daughter Karen Johnson’s cantilevered balcony at the north end of the house. “It took me ages to get right, getting the wood texture right. I built it three or four different ways. I got it right then dropped it and had to start over.” He says the playroom at the east end was another challenge because of the dearth of photos of what it originally looked like.
Amy pours tiny blue bricks into the swimming pool to simulate water. Gagnepain was careful to even show the different levels in the swimming pool.
A LEGO car, which brings to mind a Mercedes sedan that Wright owned, is parked at the front door.
The crown of the model is the roof over the Great Room, with its Crow’s Nest:
If the model is too detailed for some people, they can enjoy the bare-bones LEGO Wingspread he fashioned, as well:
There is even a red Wright “signature tile.” As for the lack of a Frank Lloyd Wright figure, Gagnepain says he will make one as soon as there is a LEGO porkpie hat.
Gagnepain and the model are feature in Tom Alphin’s newly released book The LEGO Architect.
LEGO Wingspread by the numbers:
Construction took 500 hours over six months (“Too long,” jokes Amy)
There are an estimated 50,000 LEGO bricks in an estimated 100 different shaped bricks. There are seven color in the building. Most of the home’s Cherokee red bricks are represented by about 10,000 “1×2 plate in Dark Orange” bricks. The grounds and foliage use the seven colors from the building as well as an additional eight colors.
Photos and text (c) Mark Hertzberg 2015
A press event Tuesday October 6, 2015 sponsored by Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin announces the documentation of the house at 2107 West Lawn Avenue in Madison as another one of Wright’s American System-Built houses. This is the second discovery of a newly documented Wright ASBH home this year. The other is in Shorewood, a suburb of Milwaukee. The house is an ASBH Series AA model.
Linda McQuillen purchased the house in 1989. The entry is on the left side, as visitors approach the house. The porch to the left and the room to the right (built as an open porch, enclosed by a subsequent owner) are 1924 and 1927 non-Wright additions. The house was painstakingly documented by Madison-based Wright scholar Mary Jane Hamilton over two decades with assistance from many sources, including Mike Lilek. Lilek has overseen the restoration of Wright in Wisconsin’s ASBH properties on W. Burnham Street in Milwaukee and led the documentation of the Shorewood house with the assistance of other Wright scholars.
Hamilton explains that only the right hand built-in hutch in the diminutive dining room is original. The room was originally the kitchen. The hutch at left is in place of an original door.
The original hutch has doors with the same leaded-glass pentagon seen in many windows of the house.
The dining room leads to the living room. The fireplace at the left side of the living room is not original.
The sun room from one of the 1920s additions is now an office, south of the living room.
A basement crawl space below the addition shows the original and added foundation walls.
Part of the authentication of the house as ASBH comes from the joists being 24″ apart, as was customary in the ASBH homes, as opposed the conventional 16″ measurement.
There are three bedrooms upstairs. Two are shown in their entirety, the third is depicted by the narrow broom closet.
The entrance to the house, on the south side, away from the street, has one of Wright’s characteristic wood screens outside the door. The front door knob and lock are original to the house.
The east side, with its 1920s porch addition, off the master bedroom:
This is a view of the house from the street. the door is on the left or south side:
McQuillen is interviewed by journalist Doug Wahl of Madison’s Channel 3 television station.
(c) Mark Hertzberg 2015
Dixie Legler Guerrero remarked “Everyone I know in Wisconsin is here!” as she surveyed the auditorium at Monona Terrace in Madison Tuesday evening September 1 for the premiere Wisconsin screening of “Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey.” Guerrero (1917-2012) was Wright’s favorite photographer. The auditorium was filled for the screening which was part of Monona Terrace’s Wright Design lecture series. The screening was also sponsored by Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin wrightinwisconsin.org
Guerrero’s work is on permanent display at Monona Terrace:
Guerrero and Dixie Legler Guerrero at the annual Wright birthday dinner at Taliesin in 2011 and 2012:
The show, part of PBS’ American Masters series, airs Friday September 18 nationwide.
(c) 2015: Mark Hertzberg, Georgia Lloyd Jones Snoke, Kenneth Snoke, Unity Chapel, and Thomas A. Heinz, A.I.A.
There has been much speculation about the origin of “Penwern,” the name given to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fred B. Jones house and estate on Delavan Lake, Wisconsin (1900-1903). The most popular thought, that “penwern” is Gaelic for “great house” is erroneous. The word is Welsh or Cornish, and does not mean “great house.” It can mean “at the head of the field” or “at the head of the alder tree.” But it is more likely, as Wright scholar John (Jack) Holzhueter points out, that Wright took the opportunity of having designed a home for an American client named Jones to honor his mother’s family, also named Jones, although not related to Fred B. Jones. Georgia Lloyd Jones Snoke, Wright’s first cousin, twice-removed, visited the (Wright) Jones family Pen-y-wern near Llandysul, Wales in 2004. She offers this lovely perspective on the connection between the two Penwerns. Many thanks to John (Jack) Holzhueter for the introduction to Mrs. Snoke.
By Georgia Lloyd Jones Snoke, descended from Richard and Mallie’s seventh child, Jenkin.
Photos by Kenneth Snoke (Penwern – Wales cottage), Thomas A. Heinz, A.I.A. (plaque, courtesy of Unity Chapel (family portraits) and Mark Hertzberg (Penwern – Delavan Lake)
There is a “Penwern” on Lake Delavan in Wisconsin. Elegant. Exquisite. Unmistakably luxurious.
There is a “Penwern” in Wales. Sturdy. Spare. Uncompromisingly protective against time, the elements, the poverty of place.
Could these two be connected by a grandson’s filial nod to a grandmother he barely remembered but whose impact he witnessed lifelong?
The grandson was Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the greatest architects known to man.
The grandmother, was Mary (Mallie) Thomas James, born in 1807 at Penwern, Llandysul, Wales. She lived at Penwern until her marriage to farmer, hatter, dreamer, dare-er Richard Jones.
The young girl who grew up in Penwern lived a life with few options. She was a farmer’s daughter, a Unitarian within the small circle of Unitarians that was known to the rest of Wales as “the Black Spot” of heresy. On an adjacent farm a young man with a parallel upbringing cast his eye on the growing girl. It was a surprise to no one when they wed, set up house together, became parents to an increasing brood of hungry children.
Times were hard. Food was scarce. Opportunities were limited. In a far away land called America it seemed that things might be better—if not for them, then for their children.
Richard was in his mid-40’s and they were already parents of seven children, the last a babe in arms, when Richard decided to brave the waves and emigrate to America. It was to be a total break. There would be no return trip. Their good-byes were forever. Their future unknown.
Other siblings had gone before. After a hazardous journey and the loss of one child to diphtheria, Richard’s bereaved family and his brother Jenkin were reunited in Wisconsin. A year later, Jenkin died of malaria, leaving Richard’s family distraught and destitute, but in the America they had sought, an America where four more children were born and the family slowly, with great effort, endured, survived, and began in a small way to prosper.
Some 150 years later, on a gray rain-threatened day in Wales, my ankles deep in the muck of a cow path, I looked at the cold stone building before me, the Welsh Penwern of now, and imagined the emotions my great great grandmother “Mallie” must have felt, looking upon her ancestral home for the last time.
What courage it must have taken to leave the world and people she knew—no matter how hard the life—to embark on a journey into the unknown.
The story is told that their last evening at home Mallie went out and gathered flower seedlings. When they settled in Wisconsin, the seeds were planted and, with each subsequent move, the progeny of those seeds moved with them.
It was from the gentle Mallie that the stories of Wales were imprinted on the children and grandchildren. There were the tales of the two oldest boys, then but small children, sent out to watch the flocks of sheep and protect them from the wolves that prowled the hillsides, and of Richard, the hat maker, whose production of the tall conical hats worn by Welsh women augmented their meager farming funds.
For the remainder of her life, Mallie spoke only Welsh. She was illiterate in writing—signing her marriage certificate with an “x”—and yet on her death bed she recited from memory her grandfather’s translation of Gray’s Elegy.
She, far more than Richard, kept the stream of “cumry” (cousinship) alive in the children’s minds—so much so that at least four of them made trips to Wales during their lifetimes.
Why did Frank Lloyd Wright suggest the name of Penwern for a Wisconsin home so elegant, so lavish, so unlike its Welsh predecessor? I can only guess it was to honor his grandmother. He was but a toddler when Mallie died (1870) but throughout his growing years he would have heard her stories, lauded the bravery that brought her to these shores, witnessed the loving, aching sense of loss from those she left behind.
Had Mallie stayed in Wales, insisted on the known over the unknown, fled from the hardships she knew were ahead of her how different would have been the lives of those generations yet to come. Would there, could there have been an architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, without her brave plunge into the future? Instead, her legacy lives on in the lives of her American descendants and in the opportunities her sacrifices provided for those willing to experiment, dream, dare, create anew. I like to think that the name “Penwern”, superimposed on an extraordinary American estate, is a bow of homage from a grateful grandson.
Photos and text (c) Mark Hertzberg
Sean Malone, the president and chief executive officer of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, will leave his position in February, after four years. He had been at least the sixth CEO in a decade when he began his tenure in 2012. His departure came as a surprise to outsiders.
Malone at the annual Wright birthday dinner at Taliesin, June 6, 2012
Malone and the Foundation said in a press release that the position requires someone at Taliesin West in Scottsdale full-time. Malone has been dividing his time between Scottsdale and his home near Milwaukee, and wants to stay in Wisconsin for family reasons. He told me in 2012 that he did not foresee problems operating from Milwaukee because he would be traveling widely raising money for the Foundation, something he could easily do from Milwaukee.
There are three parts to this retrospective: My photo history of Sean during his tenure, my April, 2012 profile of him, written as he began his stewardship of the Foundation, and then, after you read the profile, highlights of our conversation July 13, 2015 when I asked him to reflect on his stewardship of the Foundation. I chose to let his 2015 words speak for themselves, rather than interpret them. He used one phrase repeatedly during our conversation, that looking back at his stewardship was taking a view “from 30,000 feet.”
Malone tours the Thomas P. Hardy House in Racine, March 21, 2012 before our conversation which led to this profile of him when he began working at the Foundation:
The black Toyota Prius quietly rolls to a stop. Sean Malone, 42, steps out, a white straw hat on his head, an iPhone in his hand. Meet the new president and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
Malone, who comes from Ten Chimneys Foundation in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, breaks the mold of what many people may have expected in the new head of the Foundation.
Architect? No. Professor of architecture of art history? No. Seen many Wright buildings before taking the position? No. Steeped in years of Frank Lloyd Wright? No. Lives at or near Taliesin? No. Lives at or near Taliesin West? No.
Bright? Yes. Affable? Yes. Thoughtful? Yes. Articulate? Yes. Successful record with Ten Chimneys? Yes. Enthusiastic about his new job? Yes. Confident that he is the right person to help the Foundation overcome its challenges and negative publicity? Yes.
It is clear why T-West would want Malone: he has a stellar record as a director of a non-profit organization. On the other hand, one might wonder why someone with no traditional background in the World of Wright would want to step into what has been somewhat of a revolving door at Taliesin West.
Malone tours Wright’s American System-Built homes on W. Burnham Street in Milwaukee with Robert Hartmann, then-president of Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin and board member Ron Scherubel April 18, 2012:
Malone talks about his interest in Wright, “I have always been moved by his body of work. Because I am not an architect, I was not in a position that I could explain what it was that moved me. I found it invigorating. It’s just beautiful, balanced, intentional work, and so I started from a point of engagement with his art. The other piece that really excited me and brought me into the organization was the potential for the body of work and the philosophy of Frank Lloyd Wright to inspire me.”
Malone’s tour of the Grant House in Iowa during the 2012 Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy tour is interrupted by a phone call:
There is much more substance to his vision about his new role than what some may fancy for him. His responsibilities are more than overseeing the preservation of Taliesin and Taliesin West, overseeing the Foundation’s architecture school, and racking in big bucks in donations, grants, and souvenir sales to fund the whole kit and caboodle.
Malone says that the Foundation’s “biggest challenge” is “to decide what the next decade or two will be about.” That is not a particularly startling answer. What is more interesting is the next series of questions he poses, and the way he answers those questions.
Malone welcomes conferees to Taliesin West October 29, 2014 during the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy annual conference:
First, he asks, “Who do we exist to serve? That is a loaded question. It underlines my opinion that we exist to serve…it is something I believe all non-profits should do. That is what attracted me to the Foundation.
“Who do we serve directly? People who visit the two national landmarks we own, our publications…but also the people we exist to serve through indirect means. If we are inspiring people who are professionals who are part of the built environment, more than just architecture, our ability to inspire them, is not just about them, it is about what they then go and do.
“I am a real believer in both direct impact and indirect impact. Directly, I want to inspire architects and student architects, all people involved with the built environment (including writers, photographers, and city planners). All of them, if we inspire them, change peoples’ lives. If you take a look at the direct and indirect impact (of the Foundation on people), it’s global.
Then Malone asks, “What are the deep meaningful needs of those individuals and communities? Once we define who we exist to serve, what are their needs? Sometimes it is things they do not know they want yet. It is about needs, not wants. It has to be (something) unmet. If someone is doing it adequately, I don’t want to do it.”
Finally, Malone says he want to know, “Which of those needs do we agree we are uniquely positioned to meet, better than anyone in the world or that no one in the world can do at all?”
Asking those questions, having “conversations” with people, is key to Malone’s approach to his new position. “That is the lens through which I look at the role of a non-profit. I don’t think that articulation is completely new or earth-shattering.”
While most non-profits might end up with a list of only two or three challenges that answer those questions, Malone has no illusion that there will not be many “opportunities” that the Foundation could take on. He has no doubt that there could be a daunting list of goals that some may offer as priorities. Malone wants to pare such a list down. “What is particularly exciting for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation…that is a big part of why I wanted to make this move and a big part of why I am so energized about the work that we are going to accomplish in the coming years.
Malone asks more questions. “Why do you think of his body of work and philosophies? Why do you think it is going to be relevant ten years from now. Why do you think it is going to be relevant a hundred years from now. Those are the questions I am asking people.”
He has a degree in business from the University of Wisconsin, but Malone sees his work as being more than just a dollars-and-cents guy charged with keeping the troubled Foundation solvent. “The idea of how we live our lives has been an important part of my career, because I think it matters. i think people find it relevant, and that we as humans have the opportunity to make that a decision…I think his (Wright’s) work has something very meaningful to say about our ability to choose the life we are going to live, to live an intentionally lived life, and that is a powerful thing. That is one of the handful of truly universal challenges…the sense that we don’t have to choose between being great one thing or another. We don’t have to choose between deep relationships with family and friends and connections with the nature around us. You can live an integrated life.”
Malone believes that one must do more than just read the plethora of biographies of Frank Lloyd Wright to understand him. One has to experience his work. “To get a sense of the universal truths, you don’t read a biography of Shakespeare, you read Shakespeare, and that is what draws me to the body of work of Frank Lloyd Wright. That is his legacy.”
It is surprising to some that Malone continues to live in Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee, rather than move to Scottsdale or even to Spring Green. “I think that it is reflective of an organization that is no longer Arizona-centric.” He has full confidence in the people who oversee Taliesin and Taliesin West, without feeling the need to be on site full-time.
“My job is to make sure that both are able to be successful in their day-to-day operations, both in public programs, like the tours, and in education, like the school of architecture, but the mission of the organization is, at the very least, national, so I think it makes sense that the CEO isn’t the on-site person at either place. We have very talented staff members. We didn’t need another COO in Scottsdale.”
He spends a bit more than half his time traveling. He anticipates that he will be traveling less frequently to Taliesin West as time goes on, instead traveling more across the country to raise money for the Foundation, “Great things cost money, part of my job is to connect people with those activities. It’s the donors who make it really happen. It’s my job to steward that investment. It’s my job to make sure their donation is well spent and makes an impact.”
Malone finishes the interview with a reminder of who he believes the Foundation must not lose sight of, “We exist to serve, and only succeed because of the public.” Some people will certainly deem Sean Malone’s tenure a success if he retains his position – he is at least the sixth CEO in a decade. Others will consider his tenure a success if the Foundation’s finances are stabilized. Malone himself has a broader goal. He drives a Prius. It is reasonable to think that he will be satisfied only with results that will be harder to measure: that he is able to bring stability to the Foundation so that Wright’s work can continue to influence people to live Wright’s architecture, to better their lives and their communities.
Malone Reflects On His Stewardship, July 13, 2015:
A collaborative effort: I am extremely proud of what the Foundation has accomplished in this time. It’s the Foundation that has accomplished it. All great things happen because groups of civic volunteers and advocates get together and make it happen.
The very significant increase in contributions comes from people coming together with clarity about the mission. This is something that is very exciting to me. I hope everybody connected with the Foundation is proud of it. It is something in which I take great pride.
I asked him if there was anything he feels has been left undone: I don’t look at it that way.
This organization has grown in capacity and reach, and the number and quality of its advocates to be able to continue moving forward. What’s exciting when you look at it from 30,000 feet, the organization is going in a great direction in multiple fronts, in every aspect of what its supposed to do.
On the “uncertainty” about the future of the School of Architecture: I feel like we have multiple constituencies working together …
On the preservation of both Taliesin and Taliesin West: We just competed the first ever in-depth comprehensive preservation master plan that talks about what needs to be restored, at what level, and why. That’s not easy…Sixteen months of impressive research (about Taliesin West) thoughtfully put together…the cornerstone is done and that’s very exciting. Similarly good, last year we spend three times as much on the preservation of the two Taliesins as the year before I came. We went from about $1million to $3 million, and that’s not because the needs went up, but because there was a real investment in making this happen. That’s the 30,000 foot view of preservation. This organization embracing its responsibility to preserve the two Taliesins for generations to come.
On the sale of the archives to the Avery Library and to the Museum of Modern Art: That collaboration has been extraordinarily successful. We are already seeing everything affiliated with those archives taking the next step in terms of the preservation of those archives, the access to scholars, the quality of digital capture and in terms of public access, not just scholarly access. There was a remarkably well received exhibit at MOMA in 2014 and in 2017 there will be a very large exhibition as part of a celebration of Wright’s sesquicentennial; that’s another bright spot.
On public tours of Taliesin West: We’ve really overhauled and significantly increased visitor satisfaction of that tour, reducing tour size, continuing education with docents, and the opportunity to purchase tickets in advance (Before) you would come and sit and hope you got in eventually. Now 50-90% of tours are purchased in advance, depending on the week.
We are also in the process of doing a comprehensive evaluation of the tours and interpretive planning projects. What people expect and what they are going away with. What is it we want people to take away with them?
If you have 100,000 people touring, it’s not having a cash cow, but an obligation, an opportunity to inspire. How are we connecting this experience to peoples’ lives?
Programmatically, those are the bright spots from 30,000 feet.
The organization: Then there is the capacity, the institutional side of things. I am proud of the board, staff, and donors about the evolution of the Foundation as an increasingly world class non-profit.
It was a family business when it started…the Fellowship, him and his wife. It had its era, but the organization is really focused on what is its impact. It is focused on being a professional. organization, that we have the discipline to make sure that when donors contribute that their philanthropic investment yields the best public impact.
In Arizona it is rewarding to see the development of the Taliesin Board of Stewards, local leaders embracing the critical importance and impact of Taliesin West in a way that we’ve never had that community engagement. That’s certainly important in terms of contributions and support, but it’s also the best opportunity for us to make sure we are serving our community. Having this group of Arizona leaders talk to us about the needs of tourism and residents, and connecting this international icon to an understanding of what Phoenix and the Greater Valley community is…It’s very much a symbiotic relationship. We can’t accomplish what they point us toward without support.
He is excited about the solar energy at Taliesin West, but does not take credit for it: The ball started before I came in.
On fund raising: We are changing the philosophy of the gifts program, making sure we are interacting with donors the way they want to be interacted with. Donors don’t want perks, they believe in the organization in which (they are investing). Instead of you get this many mugs, tickets, t-shirts…it’s all about engagement…here are ways for you to have more insider opportunities…not us taking a chunk of the money you gave and giving you trinkets. We have had an increase in people giving and in the average. gift size. We nearly tripled annual giving. That is really powerful and really rewarding. I certainly believe that is not about me, that is about the importance of this organization and the mission. Nobody gives to something they don’t believe in. I am very proud of the increased level of giving. It speaks to the promising future of the organization. Our preservation needs are significant. There is more work to do, it is critical work…it is exciting work and rewarding work.
In closing: I will continue to be a huge advocate for and fan of this organization, and working toward its success.
(c) Mark Hertzberg
When I talk to school children about Frank Lloyd Wright’s work I sometimes tell them that the only “computer” he had to work with was the one between his ears. I try to explain that he had a gift for knowing what light would do at different times of the day and of the year to illuminate and help keep a room warm before the days of electricity as we know it.
I stopped at the Hardy House late this afternoon and again saw his intuition projected on the stairs and entryway wall. The patterns are from the seven windows in the entryway. I credit Robert McCarter for pointing out that the floor plan of the house is articulated in these windows: the public spaces (two-story living room and the dining room below) are the square in the middle…bisected by a rectangle that includes the bedrooms at each end of the house (at left and right). He makes this point in “Frank Lloyd Wright” London: Phaidon Press, Ltd., 1997.
Text and photos (c) 2015 Mark Hertzberg, unless noted.
Frank Lloyd Wright designed semi-circular outer porch walls for Penwern, the Fred B. Jones House on Delavan Lake, Wisconsin (1900-1903), but the walls were either built straight or modified from his plans early in the life of the house. Jones is shown near the straight east porch wall in an undated photograph. The house was completed in 1901; he died in 1933.
The east and west (side) porches now have semi-circular outer walls, as indicated on Wright’s drawings for the house. (The drawings can be viewed on Penwern’s magnificent website, www.penwern.com ) Sue and John Major, stewards of Penwern since 1994, commissioned master builder Bill Orkild to rebuild the side porches to Wright’s plan this spring. The work was completed just a week ago. The outer wall of the front porch, facing the lake, was changed from straight to semi-circular by John O’Shea, the fourth owner of the house, between 1989 and 1994. The front porch is on the right side of the first photo below:
The semi-circular design brings a unified design element back to the house because it echoes the dramatic arch over the front porch and the arched porte-cochere.
Orkild photographed the east porch during reconstruction:
He also fashioned the diamond-shape accents shown on Wright’s drawings.
The next question for the Majors to ponder with Orkild is whether the walls on the insides of the porch are load-bearing. The walls are not shown on Wright’s plans. Removing them would allow for more dramatic vistas to the east and west from the front porch. It is possible that the porches were screened in with these walls after Jones lived in the house to shelter himself and his visitors from mosquitoes.