© Mark Hertzberg (2023)
How many books about Frank Lloyd Wright are enough, or too many?
When I ordered a copy of Jonathan Adams’s new book, Frank Lloyd Wright – The Architecture of Defiance (The University of Wales Press: Cardiff, 2023), I thought of something the late Sam Johnson, then Chairman Emeritus of SC Johnson, said to me when I showed him my “Wright in Racine” photo presentation and told him my idea for a book about Wright’s built and unbuilt work in Racine. Sam’s father, H.F. Johnson Jr. had commissioned Wright to design the SC Johnson buildings and Wingspread, among others, and Sam grew up in Wingspread. My heart sank when he said, “The world does not need another book about Frank Lloyd Wright.” Then he added, “But it does need a book about his work in Racine.”
I do not feel the need to read, much less own, every single book about Wright. So, does the World of Wright need yet another book about him? I would posit that it does need this one. Adams’s book is one of five Wright books I know of being published this year. It is the third in a series of books commissioned in 2016 by the Royal Society of Architects in Wales, exploring the architecture of Wales. It shines a bright light on Wright’s Welsh roots, and the family he grew from.
Much of the Wright history in the book is familiar to those of us in America who have had dozens of books about Wright at our disposal. We are not the primary audience for this book. Forget about the familiar people you correspond with in America about Wright and see at Wright conferences, because Defiance was commissioned and published in Wales, 5500 miles east of Taliesin. Taliesin is, of course, a Welsh word, an homage to Wright’s maternal ancestry in Wales. Wright also gave Welsh names to the Bradley House (Glenlloyd) in Kankakee, Illinois, and to the Fred B. Jones estate (Penwern) on Delavan Lake, Wisconsin. The latter is particularly important to me; we will get to that shortly.
Many people can recite their Wright knowledge backwards, forward, and inside out, but how much do they know about what may have made Wright what he was? What do we know other than the old saws about his character flaws? We know that Wright’s mother, Anna (nee Hannah) came from Wales as a child with her parents, Mallie and Richard Lloyd Jones. Adams takes us in great detail through their arduous eight month journey from their Welsh homestead to Ixonia, Wisconsin. Their voyage and her pioneer life in Wisconsin molded her, and shaped who she would be as Wright’s mother.
Last year Mary Rogers sent me a copy of her great-grandmother Elizabeth Wright Heller’s book The Architect’s Sister – The Story of My Life (Brushy Creek Publishing Co.: Iowa City, 2019). Heller’s father was William Carey Wright, making her Frank Lloyd Wright’s half-sister. Heller writes about how her step-mother Anna Wright physically and emotionally abused her. She lived it, but Adams has a different take. Georgia Lloyd Jones Snoke, Wright’s first cousin, twice removed, offers this perspective, “The way Jonathan explored that portion of Anna’s life made Anna more, not less, human. To have achieved a prestigious teaching degree (at immense emotional and intellectual expense) and to have given it up for a mismatched marriage would have caused a brilliant and ambitious woman more than a little angst. Just how she took it out on her step children is—at best— questionable.” Heller’s recollections were written decades after they happened and long after Anna died. Is the truth with the person who lived it, recalling it years later, or not?
Snoke and I began corresponding with Adams two years ago because he was including Penwern in his book. I had relied on speculation from Wright scholar Jack Holzhueter in my book about Penwern that Wright had persuaded his American client Jones to name his estate after Pen-y-Wern, the Wright ancestral home in Wales (Frank Lloyd Wright’s Penwern: A Summer Estate – Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Madison, 2019). Snoke had kindly given me photos for the book that her husband, Kenneth Snoke, had taken of what they thought was Pen-y-Wern during one of the trips to Wales.
Adams contributes several important facts to our understanding of the Wisconsin Penwern. First, he documents a trip that Anna Wright and her daughter Maginel made to the ancestral home in 1900, concurrent with the design of Penwern. While there is no piece of paper that ties together the names Pen-y-Wern and Penwern, their visit adds significant weight to Holzhueter’s speculation about the origin of Penwern’s name. Second, he found documentation that there had been marshes near Delavan Lake. While I had written that “Penwern” can mean “at the head of the alder tree” and there were alder trees near the lake, Adams writes that, more accurately, the word means “above the marsh.”
And, finally, he documented that the Pen-y-Wern that the Snokes visited 20 years ago is not the one that Richard Lloyd and Mallie Jones emigrated from. He sent us a photo of the actual cottage, long since demolished. The photograph, taken from Chester Lloyd Jones’s 1938 book, Youngest Son, shows marshland below the cottage.
Mallie Jones, Courtesy of Georgia Lloyd Jones Snoke
The book jumps around chronologically, which perplexes me, but I did not let that become an obstacle to my reading. While the book is thoroughly and impressively researched and footnoted, I wish to set the record straight on two small points regarding Penwern. Adams names the steward of the estate as Frederick Jones. His name was Fred B. Jones, not Frederick. And, Adams speculates that Ward W. Willits (of Wright’s Willits House in Highland Park, Illinois) was an early visitor to Penwern. Willits and Jones worked together and I have placed Willits on Delavan Lake in 1895 and speculated that he suggested that Jones build his summer “cottage” there five years later, but his name was never mentioned in the extensive newspaper records of visitors to Penwern.
There are two ways to think of the title of Heller’s book. It is literally true. But it can be thought of as misleading, because there is scant reference to Wright himself. She was, literally, his half-sister, but while she writes about her apparently single visit to Taliesin, and about her father, and Wright’s and the family’s itinerant life while he was alive, the book is more her interesting life story than about Frank Lloyd Wright.
I am an avid bicyclist. Bicyclists often joke that if “X” is the number of bicycles one owns, “X + 1” is the ideal number of bicycles to own. Jonathan Adams’s book is worth a “+1” in the canon of Wright literature.
Scroll up for an updated reconsidered post about Heller’s book
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