Mitchell House: Corwin/Wright’s Coda?

© Photos and text Mark Hertzberg (2021) unless otherwise noted

Mitchell House 1895.jpgThe Mitchell House in 1895, from the Racine Headlight, a railroad publication. Courtesy Racine Public Library. Note the second and third floor porch railings in this photograph and the 1908 one.

Perhaps no house linked to Frank Lloyd Wright has generated as much give-and-take about its provenance as the Henry G. and Lily Mitchell House at 905 Main Street in Racine, Wisconsin. Note that I wrote “linked to” and not “designed by.” 

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Paul Hendrickson devotes four pages to the Mitchell House in Plagued by Fire (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019, pp. 75-78) in the context of his writing about Corwin and Wright’s close friendship and professional association:

“This is the greatest house Cecil Corwin will ever design…”

“Call it the Last Fine Building Moment of Cecil S. Corwin.” 

There is no documentation of Wright’s involvement – if any – in the design of the stately house, but there is much thought that Corwin likely designed the house in collaboration with Wright. A definitive answer to “Who Did What?” remains the proverbial “million dollar question” even after 20 years of sometimes contentious discussion. The lack of documentation means that the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation is unable to ascribe any of its design to Wright.

John Eifler, a well-known Wright restoration architect who grew up in Racine and practices in Chicago, in 2001 was one of the first to suggest Wright’s influence on the design. He told me in an interview in 2003 that “It was Corwin and Wright who did that job together. I imagine that it was Corwin who was responsible for presenting the thing to his client because he probably got the job through his Dad.” (The Mitchells were members of the First Presbyterian Church in Racine. Corwin’s father, the Rev. Eli Corwin, was the pastor of the church from 1880 -1888). “This collaborative thing that happens between architects happens a lot. It’s a collaboration, I think between two people, two young architects.”

His conclusions were bolstered this summer with the discovery of a 1908 photograph of the house. The photograph is in a photo album that also included 1908 photos of Wright’s nearby Hardy House [scroll down at the end of this article to see a post with those photos]. The album pages were acquired for the Organic Architecture + Design archives to ensure their preservation and accessibility for research. I will give more history about the sometimes contentious history of the house before I get to Eifler’s reaction to the 1908 photograph .

1908 Mitchell House OA+D toned.jpgCourtesy of, and copyright by, Organic Architecture + Design (2021). All rights reserved.

In terms of official records, the house was designed by Cecil Corwin in 1894. It was so stated in the April 15 Chicago Inter Ocean newspaper and in the March issue of the Journal of the Inland Architect. This was the year after Wright left Adler & Sullivan, so he no longer had any reason to hide his work. In fact, his Bagley House is listed in his name a few lines below the Mitchell House listing in the Inland Architect.

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In addition, Corwin’s proposal to remodel Herbert and Flora Miles’s house in Racine in 1899 shows a mini-Mitchell House grafted onto the existing house (the remodeling commission passed on to Wright in 1901 but was not realized).

Miles Existing? Wright.jpgCorwin’s 1899 proposal to remodel the Miles House. Copied by the author at the McCormick Library of Special Collections at Northwestern University.

The “Who Did What” intensified in 2002 when William Allin Storrer visited the house on July 12. He photographed it extensively and declared it to be by Wright in a story in the Racine Journal Times and in stories that ran in USA Today and on the Associated Press news wire. Storrer was quoted as saying “Maybe it (the design) is only 75 percent Wright’s, but it’s still Wright. If it’s 51 percent, it’s still Wright’s.” He included the house in a subsequent edition of his The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright: A Complete Catalogue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017). 

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Storrer once speculated that Wright may have designed the house as a gift to Corwin to thank him for letting Wright use his name on his “bootleg houses.” Those were houses that Wright surreptitiously designed while at Adler & Sullivan because his contract forbade him from taking on private commissions. 

As the discussion about the provenance of the house intensified, I asked Edgar Tafel about the house on April 7, 2003. Tafel, one of the original Taliesin Fellowship apprentices (1932 – 1941) told me, “On the very first trip to Racine (in 1936 for the SC Johnson Administration Building) we came down Main Street. In all the times I was there, we came down the Main Street, any number of times. He never mentioned anything about any house other than the Hardy House (four blocks south of the Mitchell House).

Fast forward to May and June 2021 after Eric O’Malley [of OA+D] emailed the 1908 photo to Eifler:

Eric sent the photograph to me as well, and when I saw the railings on the second and third floor, as well as the little bit of ornament adjacent to the dormer I became even more convinced of Wright’s involvement.  Most architects of the period would have interrupted the continuous rail with newel posts, or intermediate supports – I believe only FLW would have run the curved rail continuously.  I have also attached a stair photo from the Goodrich House in Oak Park (1896), with identically shaped balusters.” (Email to me June 17).

Goodrich House.jpgThe stairs in the Goodrich House, courtesy of John Eifler

For comparison, my 2002 photo of the stairs in the Mitchell House:

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And, in a follow-up email on June 21: (interspersed with more of my 2002 photos of Mitchell and 2019 photo of the Blossom House, left, and McArthur House, and a vintage photo of Blossom and McArthur, courtesy of John Eifler):

“1. the Bagley House in Hinsdale and the McArthur House in Hyde Park both utilize Gambrel Roofs and date from the same period.

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2. The Front Porch is similar to that on the Blossom House from one or two years before.  The continuous railing on top of the porch matches Blossom, as do the shapes of the “pickets”.

3. The trim on the interior of the Mitchell House has many similarities with Blossom and Charnley – for example, the window and door heads all align with the picture rail, there is no trim where the wall meets the ceiling.

4. The Art Glass in the south facing study of Mitchell is similar to some of the art glass in the living room of the Charnley House and McArthur.

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5. The wood used in the study is Santo Dominco Mahogany, a favorite of Wright (and Sullivan) and matches the Charnley Hs. Dining Room.”

Eifler elaborated in a followup email July 7: “It [an old photo of the Blossom House] shows a front porch on the Blossom House that is very similar to Mitchell – most notably it shows a railing on the second floor is continuous, with no intermediate supports, which is very unusual, and a continuous string of “pickets” or balusters, that are uniquely shaped with spheres, matching the 1896 Goodrich House in Oak Park by Wright.  Finally, the first floor of the porch is capped by a narrow projecting eave, or cornice (in classical terms) which projects out over the frieze – the proportions of which are unique, I think, to Wright.”

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Tim Samuelson, the City of Chicago’s Cultural Historian (and a dear friend of Paul Hendrickson’s…Plagued is dedicated to him), offers his thoughtful perspective, as well.

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“As we all know from Wright’s autobiographical accounts, Cecil Corwin was a close and valued friend. We also know that they shared room 1501 in Adler & Sullivan’s Schiller Building to conduct their respective architectural practices. The room 1501 was very small – essentially 12′ x 12′.  It’s possible that they also occupied the connecting room 1502 which didn’t have corridor access, but even with that, it was pretty close quarters. (1502 could have been an used by the tenant of adjoining room1505 and had nothing to do with Wright and Corwin at all). (Floor plan courtesy of Tim Samuelson)

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“The Mitchell House indeed displays many elements characteristic of Wright’s work of the period. But at the same time, there are many aspects that do not.” (I am breaking up Samuelson’s comments with some of my 2001 and 2002 photos of the Mitchell House)

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“In my personal opinion, what you see is a matter of personal and professional osmosis between two architects sharing the same space.  Would they look over each other’s drafting boards and make comments and suggestions?  Sure!  Would Wright sometimes help Corwin with difficult design issues?  Of course!

“On the basis of Wright’s autobiographical writings, Corwin recognized and admired Wright’s unusual architectural gifts. Sharing the same space and personal camaraderie, Corwin would have learned from Wright and naturally tried to emulate aspects of his work.  And for a substantial commission on the main street of Corwin’s home town, he naturally would have welcomed comments and help from an admired colleague literally close at hand to create the best design possible.

“In such a closely shared environment between friends, it’s conversely possible that Corwin might have commented and critiqued Wright’s own work. We’ll never really know, but it’s a reasonable possibility.

“There’s always the temptation to skew perspectives to advocate the presence of a “lost” Wright work. But as a result, Cecil Corwin’s presence as a competent architect and a creative person gets lost. Sadly, it’s the story of his life.”

And,  Robert Hartmann, a friend of mine who is an architectural designer and Wright scholar in Racine, weighs in, as well: “The existence of the 1908 photo offers new evidence that the Mitchell house is a  unique one-off collaborative effort between Cecil Corwin and Frank Lloyd Wright. A dichotomy design with the more inventive parts of the house (the porch, and first floor interior detailing) either attributed to Wright or Wright’s influence on Corwin. Cecil Corwin never-the-less produced a masterful house that should be celebrated on its own merits and testifies to the close friendship between the two architects.”

Let us turn to Paul Hendrickson again, and we realize that Wright was concurrently designing his masterpiece Winslow House and Corwin was on the verge of moving to New York and to some measure of architectural obscurity. 

And so, there we have it. We will likely never know exactly who did what, but let us give Cecil Corwin his due for having designed a notable house, likely with help from his good friend Frank Lloyd Wright. 

This collaboration was not only a professional collaboration. It was also arguably the coda of their one-time close relationship (Hendrickson has a rich history of their relationship, elaborating on what Wright wrote in An Autobiography). 

The “Who Did What?” debate will continue with some discounting Wright’s possible involvement, absent documentation to the contrary (Tafel’s remarks keep reverberating in my mind), and others agreeing with the perspectives offered above.

Game on!

https://www.oadarchives.com

I appreciate the willingness of the Pettinger family, stewards of the Mitchell House, to allow me time to set up lights and photograph their home in 2001 and 2002.

— 30 —

(Scroll down for earlier posts on this website, including the 1908 Hardy House photographs)

Revisiting Drennan’s “Death in a Prairie House”

Contemporary photos of Taliesin and text © Mark Hertzberg (2021)

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The late Prof. William R. Drennan’s 2007 Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders (Madison: Terrace Books) is again a topic of discussion on Facebook’s “The Wright Attitude” group. The book has many fans, as evinced by its continuing sales in Frank Lloyd Wright gift shops, 14 years later. 

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A group member recently posted about excitement about having bought the book. Other group members wrote how much they liked the book. I was sent a review copy of the book when it was published. I read it eagerly, and did, indeed review it on my website, but, likely to the consternation of the author and publisher, I panned it. I was taken to task about my review by one of Prof. Drennan’s acquaintances, but I stand by my critique now, 14 years later. After I commented on the Facebook thread that the book is replete with inaccuracies, I was asked to elaborate on my assertion. That is the genesis of this article.

I sent my 2007 review to a Wright scholar before posting this update. I wanted to get a sense whether it was a fair review, considering that Prof. Drennan has died and cannot defend his work. I was told it is an accurate review. In fact, it was pointed out that I missed a significant shortcoming in the book, Prof. Drennan relying on inaccurate floor plans of Taliesin I, rather than Wright’s own, so that his positioning of the victims at the time of the massacre is inaccurate.

The scholar wrote me of having summarized inaccuracies in a 14-page memo between the printing of the hard and soft cover editions. Evidently some changes were made, but not many. The scholar wrote me last night about one of the points raised:

“The biggest and most notable was that Prof. Drennan didn’t understand Taliesin I. He had the book, Wright Studies, V. 1, in the bibliography but it was obvious the guy hadn’t actually read that book, particularly Anthony Alofsin’s essay on Taliesin I, in which Alofsin identified what he thought was the most accurate Taliesin I floor plan. Prof. Drennan relied on the plan that Storrer created, and the drawing created for In the Nature of Materials. Neither of them showed a garden (with a parapet – just to the south of the living quarters.”

Because the book keeps on selling and presumably is taken as fact by many readers, I am reprinting my review below. 

I was taken aback that a manuscript from a university professor, with many supporting end notes, had so many shortcomings. I am still taken aback by its popularity given its shortcomings. I have one new observation. Sloppy writing and sloppy editing, which should have addressed the sloppy writing, weaken the book significantly. As a journalist it drives me batty that Prof. Drennan did not follow common style of using a person’s full name on first reference and last name only on subsequent references. Wright is referred to alternately as Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank (!), Frank Wright (!), and Wright. Julian Carlton is referred to as both Carlton and Julian. Wright’s partner at Taliesin is Mamah Borthwick Cheney, and then Mamah Cheney and Mamah. One of the victims of the attack is alternately Herbert Fritz and Herb Fritz. In 2007 I did not catch that Prof. Drennan also misspelled Alfonso Iannelli’s name (as Ianelli).

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***

The 2007 review, with slight revisions:

Death in a Prairie House tells a riveting crime story, although the certain motive for the crime still remains a mystery. Prof. Drennan’s account of the brutal attacks weaves together conflicting eyewitness accounts and contemporary newspaper stories. Julian Carlton massacred Mamah Borthwick, Frank Lloyd Wright’s lover; her two children; and four others at Taliesin on August 15, 1914.  Carlton, who was a servant at Taliesin, drank muriatic acid as searchers closed in on his hiding place after the murders. He died in jail several weeks later, before he could be tried, so there has never been a definitive record of what happened, and why. There still is not.

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Literally the first half of the book (84 pages) takes the reader through Wright’s parents’ unhappy marriage, and divorce; and then through Wright’s escape from his work and his own marriage, when he and Borthwick went to Europe in 1909. These chapters of Wright’s life set the stage for the building of Taliesin for readers who know little about Wright; they are familiar for readers who have pored through any number of other books about the him. 

Prof. Drennan writes in the Prologue about the “outrage” in Spring Green that Wright’s paramour was living in his “love cottage.”  He ends the Prologue asking, “What could Frank Lloyd Wright have been thinking?”  I expect that kind of question from a television news anchor, but not from a scholar at the beginning of a book. Readers can form such questions on their own, rather than have them spelled out for them. The book is extensively footnoted (168 pages of narrative are followed by 35 pages of end notes), but it is weakened by conjecture and by errors. 

Prof. Drennan asserts that Wright designed the Charnley House in Chicago. That is subject to speculation, with many scholars of the opinion that Wright was executing Louis Sullivan’s ideas, rather than his own. Prof. Drennan incorrectly writes in a photo caption that Richard Bok’s “Flower in the Crannied Wall” sculpture at Taliesin was executed by Alphonso Iannelli at Midway Gardens. On the last page, he writes that Wright’s daughter, Iovanna, had his body disinterred from its grave at Taliesin, cremated, and his ashes mixed in with those of Olgivanna Wright, his third wife, at Taliesin West, in Arizona. That did happen, but it was done as one of the dying Olgivanna’s last wishes, according to her physician, not on Iovanna’s whim, as the author implies. Prof. Drennan relies heavily on Brendan Gill’s biography of Wright (Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright, New York: De Capo Press: 1998), a book that some Wright scholars say is based on too much speculation. 

Although Ed Gein (said to be the inspiration for the character of Norman Bates in Psycho) and Jeffrey Dahmer are better known and notorious mass murders in Wisconsin, Prof. Drennan opines that Carlton’s killings were more significant in the annals of Wisconsin crime. When he finally begins his account of the murders, it is with the admonition that “so much remains a mystery; there are no definitive answers to motive, logistics, time.”  He writes, on page 101, regarding a suggested timeline of the murders [and inaccurately perpetuates the myth that Carlton was serving soup], “And yet it must be true.” However, he hedges in the next sentence, “Or at least something like it must be true…” 

Not only are the three dozen pages of endnotes are cumbersome to read but there are no indicators in the text that send you to the end notes. Prof. Drennan writes in one on page 189 that since writing the narrative, he has reason to believe that he may not be correct in his description of some of the layout of the house. Why didn’t he correct the manuscript rather than cast doubt on his writing in an endnote that takes up more than a full page?

Prof. Drennan sometimes introduces facts and ideas without explaining their context. For example, on page 35 we are introduced to William Winslow. The reader does not learn for another page that Wright’s first realized independent commission, the spectacular Winslow House, was built for his “neighbor” Winslow [and were they really “neighbors?”]. The reader is never told what an important house the Winslow House is. Prof. Drennan does not explain Wright’s ideas about the Prairie style until page 38, several pages after we have been told about his new style of architecture. He gives us the pronunciation of “Mamah” and “Cheney” only on page 41, 34 pages after we first read her name. He does not acknowledge that she dropped her married name in favor of her maiden name (Borthwick) except in a single photo caption. We are told that Wright learned of the murders in a phone call from “Frank Roth in Madison.” We never learn who Frank Roth was, or why he was charged with calling Wright with the news.

There is a paucity of illustrations. The book, most notably, does not include floor plans of the house which would help the reader visualize where the murders took place, as Carlton laid his hatchet into his victim’s skulls. A photograph of the living room at Taliesin refers to the “Wrightian” hearth. That implies that it is in the style of “Wright.” Who, but Wright, would have designed it? There are hard-to-read reproductions of newspaper accounts of the massacre and fire, but no photographs of the ruins of the house.

Prof. Drennan’s thesis is that Wright’s work became “markedly (and understandably) more insular, more labyrinthine, even more fortress-like” after the fire and murders at Taliesin. Therefore, he continues, “the slaughter at Taliesin may well have exerted a significant influence on American residential design throughout the remainder of the twentieth century.”  It is a dramatic theory, but it is not accurate. 

Wright did not abandon the Prairie-style because of the murders. He wrote in his Autobiography that he was frustrated by both his work and marriage, when he closed a chapter in his career in 1909 and left for Europe. Wright had published a short article, “A Fireproof [my emphasis] House for $5000” in the Ladies Home Journal in 1907, seven years before Carlton burned Taliesin down. Many of the homes he designed after the murders did not have prominent front doors, as Prof. Drennan points out, but neither did many of the ones he designed before the murders. 

Prof. Drennan describes the Freeman House, a concrete block home designed in Los Angeles in 1924 as “aggressively vertical, thumbing its nose at Emerson’s old hunger for the horizontal line.” The site for the Freeman House allows for nothing but an “aggressively vertical” design. The concrete used in the five Los Angeles homes represented an evolution in Wright’s design work, not a reaction to the crimes. He designed his landmark concrete Unity Temple and the brick Larkin Administration Building a decade before the fire and murders at Taliesin. They are as fortress-like from the outside, and fireproof, as Prof. Drennan asserts Wright’s post-1914 designs became. Finally, the Usonian homes designed after the 1930s, as well as Fallingwater and Wingspread, are no less organic and inviting than Wright’s Prairie-style work.

Should there still be any doubt about whether or not Wright significantly changed his designs after August 15, 1914, consider that when he rebuilt the smoldering Taliesin, he again used stucco and wood. In fact, the studio at Taliesin II (as Wright’s rebuilt home was referred to), burned down again, in 1925.

Death in a Prairie House succeeds in giving the reader probably every possible scenario of the massacre to consider. It falls short of its promise in other respects.

***

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***

Looking over the book in 2021 I credit Prof. Drennan for giving readers the possibility that Julian Carlton was from Alabama, not Barbados as was often written, until Paul Hendrickson painstakingly documented that Carlton was from Alabama in his 2019 book Plagued by Fire. 

The original poster on The Wright Attitude wrote: “…even though I’m sure it’s puffery, it was in the biography/architecture/true crime category so who could resist?” And then, “Is it lurid? I kinda hope so.” Yes, Prof. Drennan’s book is wildly popular. I know how hard it is to write and research a book about historic events. As an author I do not like to denigrate another author’s work, but my advice is still to spend your money on any number of other books about August 15, 1914, that awful summer day at Taliesin.

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Unity Temple – A Visual Interpretation

(c) Mark Hertzberg (2020)

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Many people define Frank Lloyd Wright’s career by his residential architecture and how it often embraced the surrounding landscape. His public buildings are no less important. In contrast to his residential architecture, they turn to the inside, sheltering the worshippers or workers inside from the noise and grit of the neighborhood.

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I was invited to photograph Unity Temple in Oak Park a year ago by Heidi Ruehle, Executive Director of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, at the annual Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy conference. I took her up on her invitation this week. I purposely did not look at other photographs of the building – especially the contemporary ones in Robert McCarter’s monograph for Phaidon’s Architecure in Detail series (1997) before my own photographic exploration of the building. Details of  books about Unity Temple are in a bibliography at the conclusion of this article.

Before you look at how I saw Unity Temple, consider Paul Hendrickson’s words in his book “Plagued by Fire:” “No single piece of Wright architecture moves me more. . . .In a way it’s like emerging from the tunnels of an old ballpark and feeling overwhelmed by the sight of the perfect napkin of clipped sunlit green before you. Only it’s as if the ‘diamond’ has somehow been suspended in air.”

Made of poured concrete, and built between 1906 and 1908, Unity Temple stands in striking contrast to the typical church of the day. The commission for Unity Temple came because Unity Church, its predecessor building (1872) burned down in 1905 after its steeple was stuck by lightning (historic photos courtesy of Unity Temple Restoration Foundation):

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Oh, what a stir Mr. Wright’s church made! Consider that when First United Church of Oak Park built its new home across the street from Unity Temple in 1918, two years after its first home burned down, it chose a traditional ecclesiastical design:

Unity Temple 025.jpgFirst United, framed by Unity Temple’s concrete walls

Wright’s powerful, non-traditional design surely startled congregants when they came to Unity Temple for the first time. Unitarian Universalists challenge many of society’s accepted norms, so why shouldn’t their church challenge traditional architecture? The lack of fenestration – except for clerestory windows – gives no hint of what lies inside.

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As congregants walk in the “front” door, on what would traditionally be considered the side of the building, they read words that embody the Unitarian ideal: For the worship of God [the temple] and the service of man [the fellowship hall]:

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It is indeed a “path of discovery” or “compression and release” to repeat oft-used phrases to describe entry into Wright buildings.Wright brings us into a foyer with a low ceiling. Unity House, a fellowship hall and Sunday school space, is clearly visible to our right.

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The church itself is to our left – but we cannot see the sanctuary. We first go into a narrow hallway, turn, and then up several steps into the sanctuary. Hendrickson’s baseball analogy is vivid. This is the view before we ascend to the sanctuary:

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Or, on a visit like mine, Ruehle will open the doors hidden in a panel behind the pulpit, through which congregants leave after services, and let us peek in:

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Panoramic phone-camera photos show the sanctuary before we explore the architecture in greater detail:

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Although we are attracted to the building’s architecture – it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019 –  we must not forget that the building was designed as a house of worship:

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The minister’s lectern, and the view from the pulpit:

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The stucco walls and wood trim draw one’s eyes up to the ceiling and light fixtures:

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I am gobsmacked by the intricate detail in the hanging and wiring of the lights:

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And then the sun made the ceiling glow:

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Unity House: A fireplace is opposite us as we enter the hall. Ruehle explains that there was supposed to be a mural around the lower part. I told her that it reminded me a bit of the front of the Winslow House (which I was going to photograph that afternoon):

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A sign in one of the classrooms upstairs speaks as much to Wright’s landmark design as it does to the students!

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Unity Temple Restoration Foundation Web Site:

https://www.utrf.org

@flwunitytemple

Bibliography…and I urge you to try a local bookshop before reflexively ordering from the Big A:

Hendrickson, Paul, Plagued by Fire (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019).

McCarter, Robert: Unity Temple – Frank Lloyd Wright – Architecture in Detail Series (London: Phaidon Press, 1997).

Siry, Joseph M.: Unity Temple – Frank Lloyd Wright and Architecture for Liberal Religion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Sokol, David: The Noble Room – The Inspired Conception and Tumultuous Creation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple (Top Five Books, 2008).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading the only known Photograph of Julian Carlton

© Mark Hertzberg 2020

Look at the photo without reading the caption below it. It is a portrait of a young African-American man, seemingly deep in thought. He merited having his photo on the front page of the Dodgeville Chronicle on August 21, 1914, not a small accomplishment for an African-American man 106 years ago.

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Not a small accomplishment until one reads the caption below it: “Julian Carlton, Slayer of Seven.” This is not the photo of say, a self-effacing young man who the townspeople are rightfully proud of. It is a portrait of a man who has committed a monstrous act: he butchered seven people, including children, as he lay waste to Frank Lloyd Wright’s beloved home, Taliesin. It is surprising that the pejorative “Negro” as in “Negro Slayer of Seven” is missing from the photo caption, although he is described as “a negro chef” in the story, just above.

Various motives has been ascribed to his heinous act. Had he just been fired from his employ? Was he seeking revenge for racist statements leveled at him? We will never know, for he swallowed hydrochloric acid before he was found hiding in a boiler. He died 53 days later, before he could come to trial. He never revealed his motive.

I am a photojournalist, and I cannot look at the photo without thinking about the man – certainly not a woman, not in 1914 – who took the photo. I wonder about the circumstances under which it was taken. Carlton is seated in a high back chair. It looks like he is wearing a striped shirt: is it a jail uniform? We see someone over his right shoulder looking at him (or the photographer). This makes me think that Carlton is seated in the front of a courtroom in Dodgeville, the Iowa County seat, hearing the charges against him: seven murder charges, two of assault with intent to kill, and one of arson. Perhaps the courtroom was filled to capacity, and the crowd spilled into the hallway that summer day. Were there large ceiling fans whirring, were using handheld cardboard fans?

I wonder about what the photographer thought as he snapped the photo. Courtroom photography was my specialty in my 37-year newspaper career. I came face-to-face with probably more than 100 men and women accused of crimes serious enough to merit, like Carlton, a photo on the front page of the local newspaper. I photographed them at some of the most vulnerable times in their life. I knew some of them. It was not my place to speak to them. They generally ignored me. Only a handful tried to hide their face from me, usually unsuccessfully. One flipped me off. Another, a former co-worker, called me a “vulture.” I ignored him. His father told him to be quiet.

Who assigned the photograph of Carlton? What did the photographer think as he pressed the shutter? Who was he: Was he the editor of the newspaper? Was he an experienced photographer for whom this was another routine photo assignment, or was it a nervous cub reporter given an important assignment? Was he the owner of a local photo studio pressed into service for the newspaper, or was he a high school student known to own a camera and easily available on an August day? How many sheets of film or frames of roll film were exposed? Was this a one-shot-and-we’re-done photo, or was this the best of the lot? Did he realize the historic importance of this single image, that it would be important even a century later? Did Carlton try to evade the lens at any point? We will likely never know.

Photographic technology was quite different in 1914 than today. Many indoor photos were two dimensional, lit by the harsh light of flash powder (flash bulbs had yet to be invented). It is somewhat unusual to see an indoor photo from the time taken by natural light. The left side of Carlton’s face is lit, probably by window light. The films of the day were less suited for taking indoor pictures by natural light than they are today. The photographer who guessed what camera settings to use and the person who printed the photograph were skilled: the side of Carlton’s face is not washed out, and we have good detail in the shadow side, the front of his visage. We can read the face of the spectator over his shoulder.

A few weeks ago I was just a couple of feet away from a woman accused of a horrific murder in 1999, and then dumping her victim’s corpse on a rural road, as she was made her initial court appearance. We first encountered each other in the jail hallway. She looked at me, but did not react. We did not communicate. I did my job, to record this long-time fugitive, and went home to edit and send the pictures to my editors. It was over with – the waiting and the photography – in about a half hour. Is that how it was for a photographer for the Dodgeville Chronicle 106 years ago?

(Note: I wondered if the photo was originally taken for the larger Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, or possibly shared between the two newspapers, no matter who assigned it. After a search of the grainy State Journal archives it seems that the photo appeared only in the Dodgeville Chronicle. It is perhaps surprising that the State Journal did not use a photo: its editor and president, Richard Lloyd Jones, was Wright’s first cousin. Jones, a virulent racist, met Wright at the train station in Spring Green when Wright and Edwin Cheney arrived from Chicago after learning of the massacre at Taliesin. The photograph, a meticulously researched biography of Carlton, and Jones’s story and connection to the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 are in Paul Hendrickson’s 2019 book about Wright, Plagued by Fire.)

An Advance Peek at “Plagued by Fire”

© Mark Hertzberg 2019

Santa Claus brought Paul Hendrickson and Frank Lloyd Wright together in 1953 when he left a maroon J.C. Higgins 3-speed for nine-year-old Paul under the family Christmas tree in Kankakee, Illinois. The bike was not hidden under a blanket, Hendrickson recalls. It was uncovered, “dominating the spray of presents,” there for him to see as he came down the stairs in the morning.

It was chilly that day, with temperatures averaging 30-degrees, the wind gusting to almost 20 mph, hardly conducive to riding far (if at all) on his shiny new bike. When winter gave way to spring three months later, the boy hung his soft brown leather Spalding baseball mitt – he thinks maybe an Eddie Mathews model – on the handlebars of his bike and pedaled away, headed for the ball diamonds in nearby Riverview Park (now known as Cobb Park).

Five blocks south of Hendrickson’s boyhood home, just before he had to swing southeast to get to the park, well, there they were: Wright’s Bradley and Hickox houses. There were other nearby houses with Prairie-style elements (including his family’s rented house), but none as striking as the two Wright-designed homes. The boy often paused on his way to the park to take them in.

Bradley House 010.jpgFrank Lloyd Wright’s Bradley House, Kankakee, Illinois

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Hickox House 010.jpgThe Bradley House, left, and the Hickox House

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Hickox House 001.jpgThe Hickox House

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This October, almost 66 years after Santa delivered that new bike, Hendrickson’s latest book, a ground-breaking biography of the architect whose work impressed a little boy in ways he did not yet understand, will be published. Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright tells Wright’s story like no other book has. Its genesis was simple, Hendrickson wrote me in an email, “This book started in my imagination…when I was riding past it [the Bradley House] on my J.C. Higgins 3-speed.” 

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I have just finished reading a bound proof of the book (disclaimer: Hendrickson and I have become friends since he began researching certain aspects of Wright’s life and career). I will write about the book in this essay without telling you anything specific about its revelations and interpretations of Wright’s life because that was the condition of my being able to write about it. 

Hendrickson’s goal was to humanize the often-demonized Wright. The book will not be out for another six months but it has rattled the sensibilities of a few Wright devotees, judging from their comments in “The Wright Attitude” Facebook group. They were reacting to the publisher’s advance blurb at: 

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/240133/plagued-by-fire-by-paul-hendrickson/?fbclid=IwAR1hJrTqhlIsM3t28DPcIi59A3OvhKwIlCjMOGJ4reoTnb5yxwLiaKLg0To

Some commenters were upset by “And this, we see, is the Wright of many other neglected aspects of his story: his close, and perhaps romantic, relationship with friend and early mentor Cecil Corwin; the eerie, unmistakable role of fires in his life; the connection between the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 and the murder of his mistress, her two children, and four others at his beloved Wisconsin home by a black servant gone mad.”

Hendrickson does not stab wildly in the dark to reach his conclusions. His conclusions – and sometimes he writes that we will never know the answer to one particularly intriguing question or another – are not unsubstantiated. He meticulously outlines the facts he has uncovered (perhaps inconvenient facts for some people). His research is unimpeachable. I have already told you that I won’t spill the beans. You will have to wait until you are near the end of the book for some of the pieces of Hendrickson’s take on Wright’s life to fall in place for you, but they will. I smiled and nodded when I reached those points of understanding.

The colloquialism “gumshoe” refers to detectives, sometimes private eyes. Hendrickson does not wear a tan trench coat and fedora in the style of 1950s film noire detectives, but I thought of him as a gumshoe when I read how he left no stone unturned in his research. He outlines for his readers how he came to understand facts about Wright in his narrative, rather than forcing the reader constantly turn to cumbersome endnotes. Still, his 45-page “Essay on Sources” at the end of the book is as important as the narrative itself. Hendrickson drove untold hundreds (or even thousands) of miles, walked every inch of ground in places that were important to write Wright’s story, dug through voluminous archive files, often finding rare documents that no previous Wright scholar had seen. What was the weather like when Wright left Madison to announce himself to Chicago? Just ask Hendrickson. You get the idea.

Hendrickson was not content to parrot oft-repeated anecdotes about Wright’s life if  he was unable to verify them for himself. His research took him on multiple trips to Wisconsin, Illinois, Arizona, and New York. That was to be expected. It also took him to some unexpected places in those states, as well as to unexpected states that shall remain nameless in this essay.

Working in his third floor office at home, a baseball-style cap perched on his head, Hendrickson, a former writer for the Washington Post, has taken a clean sheet of drafting paper in his computer and redefined Wright as more layered and more human than many people have previously thought. Of course Hendrickson had to start from what Wright had written about himself and what others have written about him (Hendrickson’s bibliography is four pages of single-space type) just as Wright often drew from his work-to-date when he began a new commission. 

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Photo (c) Cecilia Hendrickson

Take any story you have heard about Frank Lloyd Wright and cast it aside if it does not stand up to Hendrickson’s painstaking primary research. His word images (poetry-in-complete sentences) tumbled from the keyboard for his silver desktop Mac the way designs are said to have tumbled out of Wright’s sleeve.

Hendrickson built his narrative from both the 1933 and 1942 editions of Wright’s An Autobiography (among dozens of other books and interviews). It is well known that Wright did not get it right in many parts of his self-telling about himself. Hendrickson explains those failings, including writing about “the Wright who was haunted by his father, about whom he told the greatest lie of his life.” (from Hendrickson’s publisher’s advance publicity). What was that “greatest lie?” You will have to read the book to find out.

After Hendrickson returned from research trips he hunkered down in his third floor loft writing atelier, between the English classes he teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. He keeps folder files in a bookcase and in piles on the floor. “I try to keep things fairly clean and ordered,” he wrote me when I asked him to describe how he writes. He kept various biographies, including the two editions of An Autobiography on his large green-glass writing desk with a spiral-ringed index nearby. Two Wright placemats which he considers “talismans” are on the desk, as well. 

His screen saver is a picture of Fallingwater. There is Wright artwork on the walls, “including a photograph of the B. Harley Bradley in Kankakee.” Why that house? Because that is where Hendrickson’s Wright adventures started forming in his imagination 66 years ago as he rode past it on his way to the park and yet another game of catch. 

Note added April 11: A commenter on Facebook squirms at the mention of Wright’s affection to Cecil Corwin (and I am not divulging what conclusion, if any, Hendrickson reaches about that). I have asked him why a man’s affection for another man, or a woman’s affection for another woman, no matter what form that affection takes, should make us uncomfortable. Does that person squirm about Wright’s physical affection for Mamah Borthwick or for Olgivanna before their marriage? I think not.

Many people have pre-ordered Hendrickson’s book on-line from the Seattle behemoth that is Amazon. I urge you to instead order the book from your closest local bookshop. We have to do all we can to keep our local booksellers in business. If you don’t have a bookshop near you, you can pre-order from the publisher. That will do more to help authors than ordering from the Big A.

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