Photos and text (c) Mark Hertzberg
Architect Charles Montooth, an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright and a longtime member of the Taliesin Associated Architects, died December 31 in Spring Green. He was 94.
I got to know Charles and Minerva Montooth when researching my book Wright in Racine in 2003. I profiled him a year later when he was designing yet another addition to The Prairie School in Wind Point, near Racine. He had designed the original semi-circular school building in 1964 and its subsequent additions. The last addition he worked on, an expansion of the HF Johnson Athletic Center, was designed with Floyd Hamblen. The photo above was taken as he arrived for a meeting Thursday October 16, 2003 at the school to discuss plans for the addition.
Charles and Minerva graciously invited Cindy and me to join in dinners at Taliesin every year. I photographed Charles in September 2004 on the birdwalk during the reception before we went to Hillside School for dinner:
The photos below were taken when Charles was honored in September, 2005, when the addition to the field house opened. The photos are followed by a feature story I wrote for The Journal Times newspaper, where I worked at the time:
The buildings at center and right comprise the addition to the original field house building.
Minerva and Charles Montooth await the start of the dedication ceremony.
Charles is greeted by Sandy Freres, the school’s longtime athletic director.
Charles and Imogene (Gene) Johnson, one of the founders of the school.
The campus is shown in an aerial photo from 2009. The original school building was a semi-circular portion of the circular building at lower left.
Charles acknowledges applause during the dedication ceremony in 2005.
March 06, 2004 • By Mark Hertzberg – The Journal Times
WIND POINT – The sister of the Shah of Iran, Shams Pahlavi, was just going to have to wait to have her Pearl Palace built because architect Charles Montooth of Taliesin Associated Architects in Spring Green had a more urgent commission in Racine.
“Proceed with the Johnsons, never mind the Princess,” were Montooth’s ironclad instructions from Olgivanna Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow and president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which oversaw the architecture firm.
Willy Hilpert and Imogene “Gene” Johnson had started thinking about opening a private school in Racine in 1963. They sensed a need for a college preparatory school that emphasized small class sizes, individual attention, and that offered foreign language instruction to elementary school students. The idea spread quickly after presentations at Wingspread the next spring.
Montooth, 83, who designed the original school building in 1965 and all 10 subsequent additions to the school, is now the design architect for a 25,000-square-foot addition to the north side of the H.F. Johnson Athletic Center, built in 1969. The addition will be a focal point of the Taliesin-designed campus for visitors.
The new building includes an elevated four-lane indoor running track, basketball courts, a weight room, and a dance studio/multipurpose room. A dramatic two-story atrium will link the existing field house and the addition. The $14 million facility will be used by local recreational sports leagues, including the Racine Parochial Athletic League, as well as by Prairie students. Construction will begin in a month, and is expected to be completed in the fall of 2005, to help mark the school’s 40th anniversary. Bukacek Construction is the general contractor and the Zimmerman Design Group is the engineering architectural firm.
Montooth began his career as an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright in 1945 and has spent most of his career at Taliesin, as an apprentice and an architect, most recently with Taliesin Associated Architects, the firm formed after Wright’s death in 1959. He had once taught high school music and history, and had ideas about what a school should look like.
The first proposed home for the school was the large house at 2300 Washington Ave., which is now the home of Renquist Associates Inc. The plan was to start with grades 1-6, and then build on a 25-acre site in Wind Point as the school grew, a grade at a time.
The plan to convert the former Sidley home into a school and meet building codes proved too difficult, so planners of the school had to start over again, looking for architects to design a campus on their land west of Lighthouse Drive, north of Three Mile Road. When Montooth was hired as the architect, he was told the school had to be ready in time for the 1965-66 school year.
Two Milwaukee architects, as well as Montooth and Wes Peters from Taliesin, had submitted proposals.
“The plans were different, day and night,” said Gene Johnson. The Milwaukee architects had designed buildings with rectangular rooms “like every other school,” she said. The Taliesin proposal was in sharp contrast to those ideas, a series of flowing curves which spread out across the campus.
Montooth recalls the hectic demands of The Prairie School commission, over a leisurely lunch, after making yet another of his weekly three-hour drives from Spring Green to discuss plans for the new field house.
“I remember Gene coming once to Arizona (to Taliesin West, the architects’ winter home in Scottsdale) with the headmaster, and they wanted a plan,” Montooth said. “They had me working at night in the drafting studio which had a canvas roof, and I remember the wind blowing, the flaps blowing.”
Johnson said that while Montooth’s final plan was attractive, and fit the school’s philosophy of doing away with a traditional, box-like building with box-like classrooms, it was more expensive than the fledgling school could afford. Montooth and Peters didn’t want to lose the commission, so they proposed starting with a modest semicircle, then gradually adding on to the building.
The construction deadline was a nightmare. No faculty had been hired yet, but the school had to be finished in 80 days. Construction started May 25, 1965, with a center stake on the Wind Point campus site.
Montooth says he admired the teamwork of contractor Bud Nelson’s crews. Concrete floors were poured literally just behind plumbers and electricians who were laying pipes in gravel under the floors. The building was finished in 77 days, three ahead of schedule, despite heavy rains in August which left the site and construction equipment mired in mud.
Sam Johnson had said he would eat his hat if they met the deadline, and 20 years later, he happily bit into a hat-shaped cake at a school anniversary celebration, just as he had in 1965.
Gene Johnson said there was never any question of having any architect other than Montooth work on the school’s additions.
“It’s been easy to add on to and keep the same architect,” she said. “Prairie is very consistent throughout.
“He did such a beautiful job on the buildings originally, and we wanted the same kind of architecture. We would stop at a hallway and we would have to add on to the hallway and so we had to choose Charles.
“We were very pleased with what he did. I don’t think that thought (of hiring another architect) ever entered our mind; it was always Charles, because his designs were so much better than anybody else’s.”
The buildings blended well with the landscape, a concept that was important to Wright’s former apprentices, she said.
“Other architects seemed to think in straight lines, whereas Charles was always curved and it was beautiful the way it fit into the surroundings and other buildings,” she said. “It adds so much to the building; it gives a flowing feeling.”
She laughs 39 years later as she recalls a detail of the rush to begin construction.
“We were so anxious to get started we forgot to get our work permit,” she said. “We got fined $100.”
Montooth said he is reluctant to “hog” publicity, insisting that he is only part of a larger team. There is no shortage of praise for him, however, from team members.
Headmaster Mark Murphy fondly remembers when the Upper School addition was being planned. Montooth vividly described his vision for the addition at a board meeting, Murphy said: “In his mind’s eye he was touring us through the building.”
His ideas came alive for the board. “It was as if we were right behind him,” Murphy said.
As for the Pearl Palace, it was finally designed by Wes Peters, and is now known as the Morvarid Palace. The Persian Morning Daily calls it one of the nation’s “most prominent contemporary architectural monuments.”