Celebrating Charles Montooth

(c) Mark Hertzberg, photographs with permission of the Montooth family

Montooth Celebration

The sky was overcast when Charles Montooth was buried at Unity Chapel, across Highway 23 from Taliesin, Saturday January 3, but the mood was anything but dour. Family and friends had gathered to celebrate his life more than to mourn. Charles was buried in a simple pine coffin near where Frank Lloyd Wright was buried in 1959. Eugene Masselink and John (Jack) Howe are buried nearby, as well.

Montooth Celebration

Jaimie Kimber, who worked with Charles, arranged poinsettias on the coffin.

Montooth Celebration

Montooth Celebration

Montooth Celebration

The burial service was followed by a two-hour gathering in Mr. Wright’s studio at Taliesin. More than a half dozen relatives and friends shared memories of Charles as Minerva listened.

Montooth Celebration

The first to speak was Andrew Montooth, Charles and Minerva’s son:

Montooth Celebration

Linda Marquardt and Caroline Hamblen played the cello and violin, respectively:

Montooth Celebration

Montooth Celebration

Montooth CelebrationMontooth CelebrationMontooth Celebration

Jonathan Lipman, left, chats with Jack Holzhueter:

Montooth Celebration

Lipman was one of the first students at Montooth’s Prairie School in Wind Point (Racine). He shared these thoughts in a note to Minerva and Saturday at Taliesin:

Charles meant a great deal to me dating to the autumn of 1965. Charles, of course, had been hired by Sam Johnson to design a new prep school in Racine. If my memory is right Charles was given 90 days to design the school, get its permits, and get it built and furnished before the first day of classes in early September. Sam declared that if Charles pulled that off he would eat his hat. And so, at the opening ceremony, in the completed building, a large hat was wheeled out and presented to Sam to eat. Fortunately, it was made of cake, and after taking a bite Sam shared it with everyone.

I started at the Prairie School that first semester and graduated from it (in 1971). I can testify that Charles’ achievement in speed was not his greatest achievement in designing Prairie. Each morning, as we came around the corner of Three Mile Road to Lighthouse Drive and I saw the building, my heart soared. It’s an unusual emotion in a sometimes surly adolescent but I identified it at the time. Charles, under conditions of the greatest of speed, created great poetry, an environment that nourished learning, and that stirred this heart. 

Knowing of my desire to become an architect, when I was 13, headmaster Jack Mitchell permitted me to interview Charles for the school paper. I was nervous and unsure; Charles was simple and straight, and he treated me as an equal. I remember asking him what “Taliesin” meant, and he kindly told me. It probably wasn’t much of an article but perhaps it set me on a course of writing about Wright’s work… And this was a course in my life that was hugely nourishing.

We stayed in touch, and in the 90’s he was asked to propose to design a new community at the Amana Colonies. He asked me to joint venture with him, and that meant a great deal.

We last visited when I had an architectural intern; we drove to Taliesin so I could show him this magical place, and Charles kindly received us and spent an hour catching up. I have no doubt that the experience imprinted on my intern, who now has a successful career himself.

The Prairie School was decisive in my decision to become an architect; it showed me the power of architecture to move souls and improve the world. This is an inspiration that I will carry always.

 I have been commissioned to photograph The Prairie School this year for a book celebrating the school’s 50th anniversary. My assignment specifically includes a charge to highlight Charles’ architecture (see the preceding article). The story of Sam Johnson eating his hat after Charles met the seemingly impossible construction deadline is such a part of the school’s history that I end this article with a photo I took for the Racine Journal Times of Sam eating a hat cake in 1985 at a ceremony marking the school’s 20th anniversary:



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