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.” 

MitchellExt MH FLW FLLW .jpg

MitchellExtMain MH FLW FLLW.jpg

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.

Mitchell Inland.jpg

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). 

Exterior Storrer.jpg

Storrer stairs.jpg

Storrer nook.jpg

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:

Mitchell Stairs.jpg

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.

Blossom McArthur 5.5.19 001.jpg

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.

Library.jpg

Living Room.jpg

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.”

Blossom-McArthur1890s.JPG

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.

RHM Iannelli Planning Meeting 004.jpgTim Samuelson, left, David Jameson, and Eric O’Malley in 2018.

“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)

Screen Shot 2021-07-07 at 3.46.51 PM.png

“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)

Peas Stairs detail.jpg

Reception room.jpg

Peas downstairs.jpg

Mitchell Peas Stairs .jpg

Mitchell mirror FLW FLLW mh.jpg

Mitchell closet FLW FLLW mh.jpg

Nook.jpg

“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)

Wright Galore in Elmhurst

(c) Mark Hertzberg (2020)

Elmhurst, Illinois is not the first Chicago suburb that comes to mind when devotees of Frank Lloyd Wright play “name that house and location.” It is no Glencoe, Highland Park, Oak Park, or River Forest. After all, it has only (!) one house designed by Wright, the F.B. Henderson House, a fine Prairie-style house designed in 1901. But playing the numbers game is no reason to pass up a visit to the city, west and slightly north of the Big Two, Oak Park and River Forest, especially on October 24.

Let’s start with some photos of the house, which was recently sold to new stewards:

Henderson House 10.4.20 001.jpg

Henderson House 10.4.20 002.jpg

Henderson House 10.4.20 011.jpg

Henderson House 10.4.20 016.jpg

October 24 is designated as “Frank Lloyd Wright Day” in Elmhurst. There will be two concurrent museum exhibitions to see. One, “Wright Before The ‘Lloyd,” opened at the Elmhurst Art Museum in September, and runs until February 14. It is curated by the incomparable source of Chicago architectural knowledge and artifacts, Tim Samuelson, the City of Chicago’s Cultural Historian. If the Smithsonian Institute is truly “America’s Attic,” as many people say, then Samuelson’s office and storage spaces are “Chicago’s attic” The second exhibition, “Frank Lloyd Wright: Architecture of the Interior,” opens at the Elmhurst History Museum on October 23, and runs through December 20. This is a national touring exhibition. The history museum showed its Wright-related chops with a fine exhibition, “In Her Own Right: Marion Mahony Griffin,” in 2016-2017.

“Before The ‘Lloyd'” focuses on Wright’s early career, before he formally replaced his given middle name, Lincoln, with “Lloyd,” in honor of his maternal family heritage. The artifacts come from Samuelson’s collection. Some – those from the Adler and Sullivan Schiller Building or Garrick Theater, and Wright’s Harlan House – were salvaged by the late Richard Nickel. [Samuelson asked me to clarify about the name: “There is some dispute about Wright’s middle name initially being “Lincoln”. It all depends on who you talk to.

“By the time of the exhibit’s theme, Wright definitely considered Lloyd his middle name.  There are some very early ink renderings where he signs them “Frank Ll Wright”.

“But when he went into architectural practice, he signed his drawings, press notices, etc. with the prosaic “Frank L. Wright”.  Just the initial. He never started signing drawings, press notices, etc with a full blown “Frank Lloyd Wright” until 1897-98. The exhibit is themed around a more modest period where he just used the initial “L” instead of writing out a more distinctive “Lloyd”.]

IMG_6016.jpeg

You doubtless have read about the Froebel gifts umpteen times, but you may have never seen them except in illustrations in books. Now you can:

IMG_6010.jpeg

How many of us thought of the game manufacturer Milton Bradley in any context other than “Chutes and Ladders” when we were children? Think again, they introduced the “gifts” to America in 1869.

IMG_6012.jpeg

There are artifacts and historic photos of the Charnley House (1891-1892) and the Rolson Rowhouses (1894), among others. I have seen the Charnley House and I have seen many photos of it, but this is the first time that its entrance made me think of Wright’s Winslow House entry (please use the comments link to tell me what you think!).

IMG_6018.jpeg

IMG_6019.jpeg

The floor plan, below, shows the layout of Adler and Sullivan’s offices when Wright worked there, showing how close Wright’s drafting space was to his “Leibermeister’s” office.

IMG_6017.jpeg

Samuelson is the curator of record, but he refuses to take sole credit for the exhibition’s artifacts. Quoting from an email he wrote me, “But Eric O’Malley has a big presence in the show. His computer and graphic design skills were what created the electronic re-draws of patterns gleaned from burned and shattered original fragments, and putting them in a format to facilitate laser-cut complete patterns as they appeared on the buildings.  Wisconsin wood finish master Stan John Zachara recreated original wood finishes perfectly.

IMG_6023.jpeg

“Much of Wright’s early ornamentation for exteriors was fret sawn wood, which weathers and deteriorated severely if not maintained.  And for those that were maintained with diligent painting have the patterns clogged to the point that it’s often no longer to discern the patterns.

“I chose to remove layered paint that compromised the design – and each piece was returned to its original color and finish.

“I never wanted to restore the pieces too much.  Repairs were made where damage compromised  the design, but I still maintained the effects of damage over time.”

This window is from the Rolson Rowhouses:

IMG_6021.jpeg

The two museums are architectural opposites. The History Museum is in the historic Glos Mansion (1893), designed the year Wright left Adler and Sullivan. The Art Museum is in a contemporary building  (1997) designed by DeStefano + Partners of Chicago. It complements an architectural bonus for visitors to the Wright exhibition, the McCormick House, designed in 1952 by Mies van der Rohe, and later moved to the museum campus.

For more information:

https://www.elmhurstartmuseum.org

https://elmhursthistory.org/