Frank Lloyd Wright's Right-Hand Woman
 -by Lynn Becker

An exhibition at the Block Museum brings the work and career of Marion Mahony , the first woman to be licensed as an architect, out of the shadow of her collaborators Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Burley Griffin.


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Frank Lloyd Wright's first employee was woman. Wright, twenty-eight, had only recently set up his own practice, after being fired by Louis Sullivan for taking on outside commissions on the sly when he hired Marion Mahony. Mahony's distinctive renderings created the public face that helped Wright's work command attention throughout the world. It could be speculated that Wright's work, itself, was influenced by Mahony's role in the spirited exchanges of ideas that went on in his studio, yet she is one a series of pioneering women architects and designers who have disappeared into the deep shadow of their male associates - Lill Reich in that of Mies van der Rohe, Aino Aalto in that of Alvar Aalto, and Mahony, in that of both Wright and her husband Walter Burley Griffin. Observes Jeanne Gang, part of a very different and more indelible generation of women architects, “They seem to get erased.”

Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature helps put Mahony back in the picture. The exhibition, at Northwestern University's Mary and Leigh Block Museum through December 4th, includes over two dozen of Mahony's works, from her time with Wright, to her work with her husband, and a series from her remarkable Forest Portraits of Australian landscape.

According to Professor Elizabeth Birmingham, Marion Mahony GriffenMahony was born in 1871 - her autobiography describes escaping the Great Fire in a clothesbasket - to a mother who was the daughter of a New Hampshire doctor and an Irish-born father from whom the young Marion stole pocket change. Birmingham describes him as a “poet, journalist and educator,” and probably an alcoholic, perhaps even an addict, dying from a overdose of laudanum, a popular opium-based painkiller, when Marion was eleven.

Mahony was only the second woman to graduate from MIT. She was also the first woman at MIT to appear on stage, portraying two of Shakespeare's most eloquent heroines: Portia in The Merchant of Venice who disguises herself as a male to argue against Shylock in a Venetian court, where she beats the men at their own game, and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, a woman who could hold her own in any conversation, much as Marion was one of the few who could counter Wright's opinionated bluster.

Wright set up his offices in Steinway Hall, a new building designed by Dwight Perkins, with Mahony's assistance in creating renderings, at 64 East Van Buren, in the shadow of the soaring Auditorium Building tower where Sullivan kept his offices with Dankmar Adler. Steinway Hall became a magnet for young architects. There was Wright. Perkins moved his own offices to the 11th floor. In the attic above, he set up drafting space for a group of architects that would include Walter Burley Griffin, the Pond Brothers, and Myron Hunt. It could be said that this was aviary where the Prairie School of Architecture was hatched.

Brooks recounts Byrne's description of Mahony as “a thin, angular, shallow-skinned person with a beak of a nose . . . She had a fragile frame and walked as though she were falling forward. She was a good actress, talkative, and when around Wright there was a real sparkle.” Wright's son John remembered finding Mahony“so ugly, and her laugh so boisterous that I was afraid of her. Later, after seeing and appreciating her beautiful drawings, I thought she was beautiful.”

It was a time when Chicago architects were in thrall to Japonisme, the late 19th-century obsession with art and culture from Japan. f two woodprints by the Japanese master Hiroshige.

Wright was a major collector of classic Japanese woodprints, and, like many of his colleagues, a serial visitor to the Ho-o-den, a half-scale reproduction of an ancient Uji temple that was the real-life Mikado's presentation to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Its simplicity and flowing space were qualities that came to characterize Wright's work.

According to Christopher Vernon, who writes of the Giraffe's' work in Australia for the Block exhibition's catalogue, it was another architect, Birch Burdette Long, who brought the Japanese style to the renderings used to depict Wright's buildings. It was Mahony, however, who perfected it. Birmingham describes Mahony's style as “influenced by the sparse detail, continuous line, and skewed perspective and dramatic space of Japanese prints.” The other key element was the increasing importance of landscape, part of the march to an “organic” architecture. Just as Romantic painters were drawn to depicting classical ruins overgrown with vegetation, Mahony's renderings placed buildings within a rich landscape, “sometimes cascading over the floor plans” in her later works.

The renderings also took on a standardized layout: Perspective at the top, floor and ground plans in the middle and a sectional elevation at the bottom. They drew on her MIT training - sepia outlines with light color washes.

Scholar Paul Kruty has made a detailed analysis of the development of the Mahony style of rendering. It contrasted sharply with the "bland professionalism" then popular, in which buildings were rendered with a sort of flat super-realism that ignored the effects of light and reduced the landscape to undetailed splotches.

In creating a new style of architectural rendering, Mahony drew on what she learned at MIT, especially the Beaux Arts tradition of the analytique, a page of close-up drawings of the individual architectural details that defined a building's character. Kruty pegs the emergence of the Mahony style to the 1906 rendering of Wright's K.C DeRhodes House in South Bend, Indiana. Depth is expressed through line width; the foliage, richly detailed, provides a frame and focus for the house, itself. Wright knew she was on to something, He took his own pencil to her rendering to write, “drawn by Mahony after FLW and Hiroshige.” It was a technique that came to used by the draftsmen of countless other Prairie School architects for years to come.

Brooks quotes Barry Byrne, “"She was the most talented member of Frank Lloyd Wright's staff ... Mr. Wright would occasionally sit at Marion's board and work on her drawings, and I recall one hilarious occasion when his work ruined the drawing. . . . Andrew Willatzen, an outspoken member of the staff, loudly proclaimed that Marion Mahony was Wright's superior as a draftsman. As a matter of fact, she was. Wright took the statement of her superiority equably.” In the judgment of critic Reyner Banham, “She was the greatest architectural delineator of her generation,” ranking higher not only than Wright, but also above such European masters as Adolf Loos in Vienna, and Edwin Lutyens in Britain. (SIDEBAR: Loos may not really have been such a great draftsman. Read Loos Scholar Professor John Maciuika's account here. )

Mahony did the presentation drawings for Wright's great masterpiece, Unity Temple. 'Marion Mahony has been doing great work”, observed a contemporary. “the Unity perspectives are hers.” According to Brooks, Mahony contributed at least half of the renderings in the 1910 Wasmuth Portfolio, the book of Wright's work that spread his fame like wildfire throughout Europe. Mahony's distinctive monogram, however, somehow came to be deleted when the drawings were retraced for the publication.

Unlike Sullivan, Wright permitted his employees to take on side jobs, but the works created entirely by Mahony are few. For the Church of All Souls in Evanston, built in 1903 and demolished in 1960, Mahony revised her original, more radical octagonal design to gracefully meet the client's demand for something Gothic with a limestone exterior whose climbing ivy made the church, in the words of writer Jay Pridmore, “appear to be part of the natural landscape.” When Wright ran off to Europe in 1909 with the wife of a client, it was Mahony who eventually wound up taking his sketches and completing commissions for homes like the Adolph Mueller House in Decatur, Illinois.

Still, it's Mahony's association with her husband, Walter Burley Griffin, that is probably best remembered today. Six years his senior, Mahony fell in love and married Griffin in 1911, when they both worked in Wright's office. Shortly after, Mahony urged Walter to enter a recently-announced competition to design a new Australian capitol in Canberra. It would be the turning point for both of their lives.

Marion Mahony Griffin had never set foot in Australia when she created the renderings for the Canberra competition. They consisted of fourteen huge drawings, each five feet by two-and-a-half feet in size, that were completely unlike the traditional renderings submitted by the other entrants. According to Birmingham, those drawings, based on the European landscape, depicted “a green city and a blue sky. Mahony Griffin's renderings captured the rich variety of ochres, golds, browns, and russets that comprise the Australian landscape neither of the Griffins had seen but for black-and-white photos.”

Out of 137 entrants, the unknown Griffins came up the winners. Critics speculated that it was the beauty of the drawings that clinched the decision. “It is quite possible,” sniffed one, “that the Board of Assessors may have been carried away with the mere charm of this display.” The entry was made in Walter's name, but when a critic enthused over the beauty of the renderings, the architect was quick to respond, “My wife did that.”

The couple would move to Australia in 1914. Marion was entranced by the indigenous plant life, and began sketching it almost upon their arrival. In 1918 she joined the wife of one their clients and two of her artist friends a sketching trip to Tasmania. Mahony's Forest Portraits were the result, and they are the core of the Block exhibition.

Mahony's understanding of the Australian landscape mirrors Murcutt's. “Nature itself,” she wrote, “accomplished the decorative character required, for many of the trees were so open in their foliage that the structural members - trunks and joints and branches - were always well in view.”

In Tasmania, she found the “color runs riot” and the bark of the Eucalyptus tree “completely red, so fiery that paint cannot reproduce it. It was like a flame shooting up to meet the setting sun.” Mahony especially captures this in the exhibit's striking Eucalyptus Urnigera Tasmania /Scarlet Bark, Sunset, where Mahony not only shows a landscape crimson with sunset, but transcends the traditional way of illustrating plants as isolated specimens in favor of depicting them intertwined into a rich ecosystem.

For the Forest Portraits, Mahony used the technique of the gel lithograph, which would begin by drawing with ferric salts on a tray of gelatin. The drawn areas of gel would harden. When a piece of silk was rolled against the gel, ink would stick of the hardened areas to produce a line drawing, to which color was then added with applied inks and dyes. To provide different hues for the backgrounds, different colors of silk - mauve, silver, or, for Eucalyptus Urnigera, red - were used.

Mahony's only personal architectural commission disintegrated into a bitter dispute. When even the lowest bids for the design came in above Mahony's estimate, the client refused to pay, and had the design built by someone else. Mahony sued for copyright infringement, and lost. She never practiced independently in Australia again. She was, however, instrumental in the Capitol Theater project in Melbourne. Her touch is visible in elements like the the theater's crowning touch, an incredible crystalline ceiling of 4,000 individual bulbs coursed in ornate plaster work. Mahony oversaw the construction of the theater, and spent much of her subsequent time in Australia managing the development of CastleCrag, the Sydney suburb which Griffin designed.

Although the Griffins made a living for themselves in Australia, their ambitious Canberra design, done in by politics, was never realized. Years into the Great Depression, Walter began to find India a lucrative source of commissions, and he moved there. The couple had separated, but in 1936 Marion also came to India, and affected a reconciliation. For the first time in 14 years, Walter noted, "Marion is back at the drawing board." The result was still one more stunning rendering - of Griffin's design for a library and museum for the Raja of Mahmudabad.

Marion was there when Walter died of complications from a ruptured gall bladder in 1937. Birmingham quotes a letter Marion wrote to her sister, “Then as his breath began to fail, I talked to him, told him what a wonderful life I had had with him, how he was beloved by everybody and suddenly he turned and fastened his eyes wide open and round on mine, startled and intense as if it had never occurred to him that he could die and they never left mine till he ceased breathing and I closed them.”

Mahony returned to Chicago in 1938, to a house at 1946 W. Estes in Rogers Park that she shared with her cousins, the Hayes's, and where she helped in the upbringing of a favorite niece. In the last years of her life, she drifted into dementia and died in 1961 at the age of 90, in Cook County Hospital. Having the last laugh, her remains were interred, not with husband Walter two continents away, but in the company of Burnham, Sullivan, Root, and Mies van der Rohe, in Chicago's architect's cemetery, Graceland. Originally placed in an inexpensive foot-square niche, admirers got the permission of Lawrence Perkins, Dwight's son, to move her ashes to a new granite columbarium. It was dedicated, with a new, simple marker embossed with the image of one of her floral drawings, in October of 1997. John K Notz, a Graceland trustee who was instrumental in creating the memorial, remembers that Australia sent flower arrangements of incredible beauty. A renewed awareness and respect for Marion Mahony's legacy was signaled by the unexpectedly large turnout, which included, according to one observer, a who's-who of the city's women architects.

Mahony never reconciled with Frank Lloyd Wright. According to scholar Alice Friedman, she "hated Frank Lloyd Wright with a blinding passion.." She had been a close friend of the wife Wright abandoned, and had to endure Wright's bitter denigration of the Griffins and their work - he labeled them "unskilled hacks and plagiarists."

Because so much of it took place - or was kept - behind the scenes, Marion Mahony's influence and authorship is still being debated. Mahony herself often downplayed her own role. "I had nothing to do with it," she told an interviewer about the plan of Canberra. She spent most of the last decades of her life writing the eight volumes of the unpublished The Magic of America, to "honor Walter's memory by perpetuating his genius in books."

But how did Marion Mahony see herself? The exhibition's reproduction of a striking mural she painted in 1931 for Chicago's George Armstrong School, where her sister was a teacher, may provide a clue. Mahony's description is straightforward: “A group of fairies high in a Birch tree, helping the mother Heron to feed the babies in her nest, the father Heron winging his way from a distance helped by other fairies to carry more supplies of fish.”

The execution of the two-panel mural is more intriguing. The right panel depicts a dark and barren landscape above which the father heron, isolated in the far corner, flies to the nest. The left panel is also dark, except for the huge birch tree at its center, brightly illuminated where everything else is in shadow. Its foliage spills forth in an astounding fertility of rich green leaves. In the nest, the mother heron feeds her young, assisted by three female fairies, completely nude, adorned only by wings with colors as brilliant as the glass mosaics of a Tiffany lamp.

Although fairies were acommon motif in the art and literature of the time - think 1904's Peter Pan, they seem to have possessed a more private, personal meening for Mahony. She used them in illustrations she made for books and advertising, and in a fanciful lecture she gave to the children of Armstrong School.

“All great beings have children and we human beings call these children of the angelic beings fairies,” she told the students. “The Fire Fairies built the fruits and seeds so that myriads of different kinds of trees and plants could come into the earth world. And it is as well that they did so, for the earth itself, the crystals, neither animal nor man can eat. Only the planets are smart enough to transform crystals into food and of course they could not do it if the fairies didn't show them how.”

Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature is on display in the Alsdorf Gallery of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art through December 4, 2005. The museum is located at 40 Arts Circle Drive on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Hours at 10:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. Wednesdays through Friday, Noon to 5:00 P.M. Saturdays and Sundays, and 10:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. on Tuesdays. Closed Mondays. 847/491-4000




Next: Marion Mahony Griffin in Australia and Beyond

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© Copyright 2005 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.