Girl Talk: Marion Mahony Griffin, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Oak Park Studio

The extraordinary career of a pioneering woman architect.

Marion Mahony, soon after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1894.

The Frank Lloyd Wright scholar Leonard K. Eaton, one of the few specialists to have looked at the architect’s work in relation to the economic, social and cultural status of his clients, emphasized the contributions of middle-class “men of business” like Edwin Cheney, Darwin Martin and Frederick C. Robie to the success of Wright’s early practice; yet it is clear that Wright’s women clients played a formative role in shaping the new approach to domesticity that is arguably his most outstanding contribution to 20th-century architecture. 1 Both as heads of households in their own right and as the wives of prominent patrons of architecture, clients like Susan Lawrence Dana, Queene Ferry Coonley, Mamah Borthwick Cheney and Aline Barnsdall — to say nothing of Wright’s own family, including his wife Catherine, his mother Anna, and his aunts Nell and Jane Lloyd Jones — not only provided him with opportunities and financial resources to build many of his most important and highly visible early houses, but also served as active participants in the redefinitions of family life, education, religion, and domestic ritual that inspired and shaped these projects.

No doubt Wright’s reputation as a progressive architect and insider within Chicago-area reform circles drew these clients to his Oak Park practice, thanks to his family ties to liberal Unitarianism, his affiliation with such institutions as Hull House and the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society, and his decision to make his own home something of a model laboratory for early childhood education — to name only a few of his many connections to this milieu. Yet it is also significant that between 1895 and 1909 Wright’s studio was distinguished by the presence, albeit only intermittent after 1903, of the architect Marion Mahony, a designer, teacher and illustrator whose progressive credentials equaled and even exceeded Wright’s own. 2 The unusual overlap between Mahony’s own feminist predilections, her close association with Chicago’s reform circles, and the interests and connections she shared with Wright’s family, clients and friends raises important questions about the origins and implementation of Wright’s evolving philosophy of domesticity and family life. Although scant evidence has come to light on which to base any new claims for Mahony’s authorship on specific projects, there are nonetheless a surprising number of circumstantial details, reexamined here, that suggest that Mahony served not only as close family friend and professional associate in Wright’s Oak Park home and studio during the years leading up to his departure for Europe in 1909 — a break that launched him and his lover Mamah Borthwick Cheney on a journey deep into a far more radical world of feminist reform than his Oak Park circle could have imagined — but also that Mahony’s liberal values and distinctive approach to architectural representation and interior design, honed within the aesthetic and cultural milieu of women’s reform circles in Chicago, contributed a look and character to Wright’s early architectural designs that his women clients found familiar and appealing.

When we first hear Marion Mahony’s distinctive, passionate voice as it rises up from the pages of “The Magic of America,” the memoir and manifesto she compiled during the 1940s, we know immediately that we are in the presence of a force of nature, a woman of no uncertain opinions, a person possessed of deep convictions and profound spiritual experiences. 3 And from the very first pages we learn three important things about her: first, that she saw herself as an architect and a professional and conceived of her talent as an artistic gift to be integrated into a life filled with many other creative energies and interests; second, that she idolized her husband, the architect Walter Burley Griffin, and chose as the mission of her life to support, promote and memorialize his contributions to the field of architecture; and third, that she hated Frank Lloyd Wright with a blinding passion, and viewed him as having done irrevocable harm not only to herself and her husband but also to the architectural cause to which she had given her life — that of creating a progressive, democratic, modern American architecture.

Each of these components of Mahony’s identity is significant for our understanding of her life and work, and each shaped her career and her reputation among architects and historians. Indeed, although the first component represents a substantial milestone for women in architecture, it could be argued that the latter two played equal if not more significant roles in determining Mahony’s historical reputation, ultimately distorting our understanding not only of her contributions as an independent practitioner, but also of her influence on the male architects — notably Wright and Griffin — with whom she worked so closely during her long career. As we learn more about Mahony’s biography and activities, particularly in the first decade of her professional practice and association with Wright, she emerges as an architect of substantial creativity — one who was, moreover, both a pioneer among women in design and an important member of feminist reform circles. Mahony’s distinctive political outlook, shaped by her formative experiences as part of an influential group of feminists, religious reformers, artists and intellectuals who gathered around her mother, Clara Perkins Mahony — herself a pioneer in public education and a lifelong leader in the campaign for women’s rights — complemented and overlapped with Wright’s well-known views on domestic and educational reform. Indeed, though Wright would ultimately come to reject and publicly renounce his former association with Mahony and her husband, both of whom had worked closely with him at Oak Park, one might easily wonder whether Wright’s very public expressions of disdain and disrespect for his former assistants were fueled by insecurities and disappointments exacerbated by their earlier closeness.

Presentation drawing of Susan Lawrence Dana House, Springfield, Illinois. By Marion Mahony et. al. (for Frank Lloyd Wright). [From Wright’s Ausgefûhrte Bauten, 1911; courtesy of Laura Avey]

Early Influences

Marion Mahony was born in Chicago in 1871 to parents of modest means but rich ambition in the realms of art and education. Her father was a school teacher, poet and journalist. 4 Following his death in 1882, her mother became a school administrator whose distinguished tenure as principal of Chicago’s Komensky School brought her into contact with an important group of like-minded educators. The intellectual and artistic milieu created by and around her parents was clearly a formative influence on Mahony’s development. Moreover, as she makes clear in “The Magic of America,” Mahony’s childhood in Hubbard Woods, the rural North Shore community to which her family had moved in the 1870s, and her later life as a teenager living in Chicago were characterized by an unusual degree of freedom, offering her and her siblings the opportunity to explore the surrounding countryside and the burgeoning industrial city. 5 These experiences inspired a lifelong love of nature and a commitment to a nature-based American architecture in the tradition of Louis Sullivan, whose teachings she embraced. …

Mahony graduated from MIT with a degree in architecture in 1894, the second woman in the history of that institution to have done so. The following year, she joined the architectural practice of her cousin Dwight Perkins — himself a former MIT student, although he did not complete the degree — and began her on-the-job education in the practicalities and professional standards of her chosen field. Perkins had spent much of his childhood in and around the Mahony home, having lost his father at an early age, and Marion viewed him as an intimate member of her tight-knit family circle and someone with whom she shared her reforming ideals. During her time in his office, she considerably advanced her skills in drafting and design; in January 1898 she became the first woman licensed to practice architecture in Illinois. 6

This overview of Mahony’s early career is easy to rattle off from the comfortable distance of more than a century, and from the vantage point of historians who have benefited from a generation of feminist histories of architecture, but we should reemphasize here how extraordinary Mahony’s accomplishments were in her day. 7 In the late 19th century and much of the 20th, women architects were frequently viewed with contempt and suspicion, not only by fellow practitioners but also by members of the building trades and potential clients; their marginal status obviously limited their scope and effectiveness as practitioners. Moreover, very few established architects were willing to offer women the sorts of jobs or learning opportunities with which to make a professional start. In a field in which apprenticeship was the norm and professional contacts a necessity, this created almost insurmountable obstacles for women in the early stages of their careers.

The example of Sophia Hayden, the first woman graduate in architecture at MIT and a close contemporary of Mahony, is a case in point. As is now well known, Hayden’s professional career in the early 1890s was short-lived and tragic: having won the competition to design the Women’s Building at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, she confronted the challenges of this substantial project with little support from her male colleagues, whose work at the fair represented a who’s-who of American architecture, and with little guidance or assistance from fair officials. In the end, Hayden was forced — by ill health and what was described as “nervous exhaustion” — to abandon the project and even to leave the field of architecture entirely. Such a high visibility collapse by a woman architect was obviously not good for the fortunes of other women in architecture, and the widely circulated magazine American Architect and Building News seized on the example of the Women’s Building to editorialize against them: “If the building of which the women seem to be so proud … is to mark the physical ruin of its architect, it will be a much more telling argument against the wisdom of women entering this especial profession than anything else could be.” 8

We are able to look more closely at how these prejudices affected Marion Mahony’s early career thanks to an article about women’s professional struggles by the noted author Miles Franklin, a close friend of Mahony’s from the National Women’s Trade Union League, who would later rekindle their friendship in Australia. 9 The article, published in Life and Labor — the WTUL journal, edited by Franklin — in February 1914 focuses on the career of a little-known architect, Elisabeth Martini. Nevertheless, with the exception of a photograph of Martini herself, the piece is illustrated entirely with examples from Mahony’s work, notably the Mueller House in Decatur, Illinois, and the Church of All Souls in Evanston. These buildings are specifically credited to “Marion Mahony Griffin,” a “brilliant member of the profession,” but are not discussed in the text. Instead, Mahony is cited together with two other women practitioners as one of a small band of “pioneers in an old profession” who not only were able to surmount the substantial obstacles placed in their way as they attempted to enter the male-dominated world of architecture, but who also successfully passed the licensure examination in Illinois (Franklin notes that Mahony passed the first examination for architects ever held in the state) and embarked on notable careers.

Marion Mahony Griffin
F.P. Marshall Dwelling, Winnetka, Illinois, 1910 (not built). Walter Burley Griffin, architect; Marion Mahony Griffin, delineator. [Courtesy of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Gift of Marion Mahony Griffin, 1985.1.100]

The article makes it clear that the treatment of these professional women followed a now familiar pattern. One potential employer of Martini’s was reported to have exclaimed when he greeted her at his office (she had submitted her application using her first initials and last name only) that “we wouldn’t under any circumstances allow a woman in the drafting room!” Another told her that “when a requisition is sent in for a draftsman, a man is a man, in no case is he a woman.” 10 Despite this response, and a brief retreat from architecture to work as a typist and organizer at the Women’s Trade Union League in 1910–11, Franklin reports that “Miss Martini is enthusiastic about architecture as a profession for her sex, especially the designing of dwellings, in which branch she means to specialize.” Moreover, Franklin adds, although “being a full-fledged architect does not diminish the prejudice against a woman being engaged as a draftsman … not all men are so ruled by superstition that they have sought to block progress by sweeping back the waves.” One man who was not so ruled was Walter Burley Griffin, who, Franklin notes, was associated in practice with his wife and had recently won the competition for the “capital of the Australian Commonwealth” and “been engaged by the Commonwealth Government to superintend the growth of the new city.” 11

These contemporary observations remind us just how rare Mahony and her fellow women architects were in the profession during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and how difficult their lives must have been as they struggled to gain a solid professional footing. Nevertheless, Mahony’s position on this issue, as stated in “The Magic of America,” was that women should continue to enter the architectural profession, and that they should be willing to do so as equals of men, putting up with the same sacrifices and physical challenges as men did without expecting special concessions. According to Mahony, it didn’t matter whether an architect was a man or a woman, as long as she could do the job. 12 Such blunt talk was typical of her flinty personality and fierce commitment to equality, but in light of the struggles she went through and her accomplishments both as an individual and in partnership with men, it is clear that her professional life was shaped by her gender more than by any other factor.

“An architect and a collaborator”

Mahony was first and foremost an architect, but of a very particular sort: a collaborator in a field of individualists, a builder of communities and connections in an increasingly fragmented and competitive professional world. This self-representation is the basis of her second main theme in “The Magic of America”: being an architectural collaborator and comrade in arms with her husband was the foundation on which the second half of her career was built. Combining the professional with the personal in this way makes perfect sense when Mahony describes it in her own distinctive language: she writes that she was “first swept off [her] feet by [her] delight in his achievements in [her] profession, then through a common bond of interests in nature and intellectual pursuits and then with the man himself.” 13 This sequence of events, so candidly revealed, is entirely consistent with her liberal views and those of her social circle on questions of love, friendship and relationships — whether between men and women or between people of the same sex. In every case the most important concerns were character, integrity, democracy and truth to artistic expression. The search for individual fame and glory, of the sort that she unfailingly chastises Wright for pursuing, was unworthy of a truly evolved man or woman. Thus Mahony devoted the last years of her life to creating a work of history and autobiography intended to publicize Griffin’s accomplishments and demonstrate the originality of his life’s work, a career inextricably linked with her own. Her own voice and work as an individual artist was consistently suppressed in favor of his.

For Mahony, who was raised in a world that fostered gender equality and collaboration in a range of pursuits — from progressive educational philosophies that redefined the nature of teaching and learning, to shared household management and economic interdependence among family members and friends, to political activism in campaigns for women’s suffrage and improved working conditions — being an architect and a collaborator were not mutually exclusive conditions. On the contrary, they were the building blocks of her identity as a professional, as a social reformer, and as a woman. … During the years of her upbringing and education, women and their male supporters led the great movements of social reform collaboratively, creating the public face for many progressive organizations and initiatives. In later life Mahony viewed her reform mission as inherent in her design work with Griffin; at the outset of her career, I propose, she had made the same commitment to Wright through her contributions to his burgeoning young practice.

Looking at examples of Mahony’s architectural drawings from the early years — examples such as the K. C. DeRhodes House in South Bend, Indiana (1906), drawn for Wright, or the F. P. Marshall House (1910), a design of Walter Burley Griffin’s — one might convincingly argue that her greatest contribution to architecture was her ravishingly beautiful draftsmanship, and especially the unusual system of delineation that she perfected around 1910, which combined perspective, plan and section on one sheet. The originality, clarity and sheer graphic force of her images — in which buildings are bordered by flattened and highly stylized outlines of trees and flowers that both frame them and place them in suspension between the surface of the page and the deep fictive space of the drawing — clearly reflect her skill and originality as an artist and illustrator. Yet it is their unique contribution to the recording of complex three-dimensional architectural information, using the unlikely medium of pen and wash on a richly textured surface of colored fabric “with the careful outline of an etching and finished in transparent water-colors mixed with glue” — creating a combination of “plan, perspective, section, [and] decorative details worked together into a unified mural panel,” as Mahony puts it — that makes these drawings so significant in the history of architectural delineation. 14 Their status both as luxurious art objects — fine pieces that evoke the decorative qualities of the soft, Japanese-influenced women’s fashions of the time — and as precisely rendered drawings captures the distinctive mix of professional and private identities that are at the core of Mahony’s fascinating yet ambivalent career. …

Mahony’s earliest experiment with the middle-class domestic program, and especially her efforts to integrate public and private functions within one coordinated artistic composition, are tantalizing for historians because they offer evidence of her independent interest in this area before she joined Wright’s Oak Park studio. Moreover, [her MIT thesis, The House and Studio of a Painter] raises questions about her role in the studio, and suggests the possibility of a formative contribution to Wright’s development and thinking in [domestic architecture]. Our understanding of Mahony’s contribution clearly requires that we read between the lines of historical testimony and conventional evidence; if we limit ourselves to such things as signed drawings or other signs of individual authorship, much less Wright’s own testimony, we will never move beyond the familiar historical picture — formed by the conventional understanding of professional hierarchies and influences within the male-dominated profession — that has consistently placed Mahony in the role of a mere “assistant” and delineator. Indeed, to arrive at a more complex and accurate reading of the record, we have to strip away not only the animosity toward Wright that she expressed so vehemently in “The Magic of America,” but also our familiarity with the towering, heroic figure that Wright himself was to become. We must focus instead on a time when both architects’ careers and ideas were beginning to take shape, a period during which Wright was drawing on influences from a range of sources.

Oak Park Years

The years between the mid-1890s, when Wright established his Oak Park practice, and 1909, when he closed his office and left for Europe, were ones in which he grew and experimented with many ideological and visual themes that would ultimately reshape American architecture. Because Wright abandoned his wife and family and set off on an extended journey of work and study abroad in the company of Mamah Borthwick Cheney, his former client and neighbor, his role as an advocate for progressive reform in family life was not simply obscured but effectively erased from the record; it has been seriously reexamined only in recent years. 15 Moreover, Wright’s effectiveness as an advocate for women — and as a favorite among women clients — was seriously compromised by his actions and public reputation: in the context of his own family relationships, such a claim appears laughable to many observers. Nevertheless, new approaches to American domesticity were the focus of Wright’s attention during these years, and he dedicated himself to their theory and design in collaboration with two strong women — his wife and Mahony — among many others. Ironically, it was this openness to liberal ideas, and his commitment to a broad reform agenda, that ultimately drew Wright to Cheney, herself a teacher who had earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Michigan. Indeed, Cheney, together with Kitty Wright, had been a member of a progressive women’s study group in Oak Park, of the sort then popular among middle-class housewives, which focused on such issues as children’s education, art appreciation and literature. 16

During this period Mahony was an intimate member not only of Wright’s office but of his household as well, a close friend of his wife and a comrade in arms in creating and publicizing an entirely original approach to the American home. When that close-knit world — founded on passionately held beliefs and a sense of shared mission — came crashing to the ground, and those emotionally charged relationships abruptly ended, Wright and Mahony each blamed the other for the pain and loss that ensued, drifting into recrimination, name-calling and bitterness. This — and her loyalty to her husband, who hated Wright for his own reasons — form the context for Mahony’s frequent gibes at Wright in “The Magic of America.” Throughout that text she casts aspersions on Wright’s work and character, calling him a “cancer sore” in the body of the Chicago school, who “originated very little,” and blaming his “malicious vanity” for irredeemably delaying the progress of American architecture. 17 For his part, Wright never let go of his anger at either Mahony or Griffin, denouncing them in 1914 as unskilled hacks and plagiarists and calling their work “dead forms … grinning originalities for the sake of originality,” and “an endless string of hacked carcasses.” 18 Yet despite all these attempts to hide their disappointment with tough words, it seems clear that these architects’ mutual contempt in later years stemmed at least in part from their deep disappointment in the loss of their earlier friendship, and their failure to usher in the new world of ideas that they had struggled to create together.

That world had first begun to take shape in Wright’s Oak Park home and studio. 19 Starting with the house itself, constructed in 1889 soon after his marriage to the 18-year-old Catherine Tobin, Wright was intent on creating a laboratory in which to try out his ideas. Beginning with the example of the conventional shingle-style house, a type first encountered in the office of his first architect mentor, Joseph Lyman Silsbee, Wright simplified the shapes of the three-dimensional composition of his home to their essential building-block-like forms, creating an architecture of strong geometric shapes, clear lines and solid masses that tied the house to the ground. Wright would remain preoccupied with these design concepts — building block, module, ground line, site — for his entire career, and they quickly emerged around the turn of the century as his focal concerns as he developed and refined the Prairie-style homes that became his trademark architectural statements.

G.B. Cooley Dwelling, Monroe, Louisiana, 1910 (built 1926). Walter Burley Griffin, architect; Marion Mahony Griffin, delineator. [Courtesy of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Gift of Marion Mahony Griffin, 1985.1.112]

Equally important to Wright was the evolving program of the American single-family home, which would reflect its value as an environment for education and community within the family. Thus Wright and his wife were continually tinkering with the Oak Park house and its contents: the most significant changes were the addition of a large playroom at the back of the lot in 1895 and of an architectural studio, library, and office in 1898, facing the main thoroughfare to the north. The new playroom not only afforded Wright’s six children ample space to play, but also served as a space for the kindergarten classes Mrs. Wright offered for neighborhood children. Fitted out with a piano, and with tiered seating that could be used as either stage or seating when plays or musical productions were produced, the playroom, with its ample fireplace and high ceiling, also became a lively gathering place for adult parties and cultural evenings.

The playroom represented an important expression of the Wrights’ vision of how the American home could be transformed. As is well known, Wright’s mother Anna, who lived next door with Wright’s younger sister, and his aunts, who ran the progressive Hillside Home School in Spring Green, Wisconsin, were all active in the educational reform movement and took a particular interest in kindergartens and early childhood development. This no doubt influenced how the young architect — still in his twenties in the early 1890s — and his even younger wife approached their own home and family life. In this context of reformist zeal, the Wrights’ private world began to take shape as a testing ground for new ideas, both architectural and educational.

Wright’s most ambitious addition to the form and function of his home was the substantial studio complex itself, the main space of which was a large double-height work room with a balcony where draftsmen, artists, sculptors and even visiting artists — including Mahony’s sometime collaborator, the sculptor Richard Bock — found space to work on their projects. It was here that Marion Mahony came to work with Wright and his assistants, taking part in informal design competitions (which she frequently won); creating sketches, presentation drawings and designs for sculpture and furniture; and, most notably, talking all the while with Wright and the others in her eccentric, theatrical manner. One of the young draftsmen remarked upon her “mordant humor” and remembered that he particularly looked forward to the days on which Mahony was present because of the lively exchanges of conversation and ideas — the “sparkle,” as he called it — that passed between Wright and Mahony. 20 Although she was the senior member of the design team, whom Wright referred to in 1908 as “a capable assistant” of 11 years’ standing, Mahony occupied a very unconventional role, at times taking part in design projects, and at others apparently focusing on specific projects, notably her famous presentation drawings, on a contract basis. In 1902 and 1903 she even gave up architecture altogether and worked as a teacher. 21 Thus it would seem that, at least in the later period of her association with Wright’s studio, she came and went as she pleased.

Two projects created by Wright for women clients, both drawn by Mahony for publication in 1911 but designed and built much earlier, are particularly significant in this context: the Cheney House in Oak Park, built in 1904 for Edwin and Mamah Borthwick Cheney and their children, and the Susan Lawrence Dana House and gallery, built the same year in Springfield, Illinois. These can be viewed against the background of a handful of other projects in which women took the lead, including the Hillside Home School (1901–2), designed for Wright’s aunts, the Coonley House (1908), in Riverside, Illinois, and the Isabel Roberts House (1908) in River Forest. After leaving Oak Park in 1909, Wright also completed two more major projects for women clients: Taliesin (1911), his home and architectural studio in Spring Green, Wisconsin, built for Mamah Cheney and himself, and the Aline Barnsdall House and “Art-Theatre-Garden” (1919–23), an extensive multibuilding project that developed in part as a result of Wright’s ongoing connections with literary and feminist circles in Chicago. 22

As with other Wright buildings, it is extremely difficult to identify the contributions of any architects beside Wright himself. Nevertheless, as the work of [historian] Paul Kruty on Walter Burley Griffin suggests, there are strong affinities between Wright’s Cheney House and the characteristic type forms of domestic architecture that began to emerge through Griffin’s independent practice soon after his departure from Wright’s office. More strikingly, Wright’s Dana House bears a distinct resemblance to a number of projects Mahony completed in her own name in 1910 and 1911, while working in partnership with the architect Herman Von Holst in Chicago after Wright left Oak Park. 23 The flow of ideas cannot have only been in one direction, despite what Wright would have had us believe. Indeed, throughout “The Magic of America,” Mahony refers to her own contributions to the work of Wright’s studio, and to the high esteem Wright had for her work. (She reports that Wright had asked her to take over the office before he left for Europe — an offer she refused despite her later business partnership with Von Holst, who assumed responsibility for the practice.) Further evidence of her status as a respected independent professional comes from her later decision to retain “complete control of design” in the Mahony–Von Holst office, where she was responsible for designing the Amberg House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Robert and Adolph Mueller houses in Decatur, Illinois, and the Henry Ford House in Detroit. 24

Moreover, as noted above, a great deal of evidence suggests strong ideological and intellectual affinities between Mahony and Wright during the period in which the new domesticity of the Prairie House was conceptualized. Just as the home and studio were envisioned as a laboratory in which to test new ideas, combining the traditional functions of a suburban house with the more public functions of a kindergarten and an architect’s office — to the mutual benefit of both — so too were the relationships within the studio meant to be mutually enriching and collaborative. In his 1908 article “In the Cause of Architecture,” for example, Wright referred to the Oak Park studio as “our little university,” suggesting a free exchange of ideas about subjects of all kinds. Given the nature of Wright’s interests as manifested in his writings and lectures, and the sorts of questions Mahony returns to again and again in “The Magic of America,” one assumes that the topics they discussed included the arts, education, women’s rights, childhood, American democracy, individualism, the landscape of the Midwest, spirituality, domesticity — and of course the architecture of the home. 25

Marion Mahony and Catherine Tobin Wright, ca. 1895. Attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright. [Courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, Gift of Lloyd Wright, H&S H213]

“Capable assistant”

Certainly the relationship between Wright’s family and his “capable assistant” was unconventional. A photo of Mahony and Catherine Wright, taken by Wright himself, suggests an unusual closeness and intimacy. Mahony and her friend are shown in an informal, sentimental pose — one that focuses our attention on the beauty of the women, their easy familiarity and the directness of Kitty Wright’s gaze. From behind the camera, Wright clearly viewed both women in a highly intimate way, and both women appear comfortable with his role as the observer of their world. Although the photograph is an isolated scrap of evidence, it makes one wonder about the role Mahony played in creating the special artistic atmosphere of the Wright home and studio. (It was she, rather than either of the Wrights, who had prior experience of such a world, after all.) The home and studio were crafted by Wright not only as a place for family life and education, but also for the practice of architecture in, as he put it, “an environment that conspires to develop the best there is” in the person of the creative artist. 26 Wright’s photograph of his wife and Mahony bears the stamp of a new, feminized philosophy concerning the importance of the domestic sphere as a place of artistic and spiritual growth; it represents a hothouse world in which the boundaries between personal and professional life are clearly blurred. … 

By the time the playhouse was built, Wright had already left Oak Park with Mrs. Cheney. His relationships with Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin, to say nothing of his marriage to Catherine Wright, had dissolved into bitter acrimony. The story of the Wrights and their home and studio, of Marion Mahony and of the struggle to create a progressive American architecture, was not supposed to end the way it did. The alliances between these people were based on trust, and on a belief in a bright future for the studio under Wright’s charismatic leadership — a future that Wright destroyed in the fall of 1909 by leaving his family, closing the studio, and very publicly transferring his love, energy and vision for the future to a life shared with others. 27 The pain caused by his betrayal was made even harder to bear by the fact that Wright and the beautiful Mrs. Cheney were soon spouting phrases from the works of the Swedish feminist philosopher Ellen Key, which Cheney herself had translated. If Cheney wasn’t exactly an ardent feminist in Oak Park, she certainly became one once she took up with Wright and discovered Key, whose anti-marriage philosophy she and Wright found particularly inspiring. 28 But this also was not all it seemed at first: perhaps Mahony’s rage at Wright was compounded by the fact that Wright’s new feminist guru came out publicly against women’s suffrage and women’s work outside the home, supporting instead a philosophy that emphasized the importance of heterosexual passion as well as women’s special affinity for the domestic realm and the care of children. These ideas seemed to run counter to all that the Mahony circle believed in most fervently.

Worse still, Wright took little notice either of his wife or of his faithful assistant once he left town. Although the ever-loyal Mahony rallied around Kitty after Wright’s departure, and effectively continued the work of the Oak Park practice [through her collaboration with Von Holst], Wright — whom she referred to as “the absent architect” — “didn’t bother to answer anything that was sent over to him,” as she put it, and thus decisively abandoned her both as friend and as colleague. 29 The loss of Wright’s companionship clearly opened a huge, painful gap in her life, which her anger and her devotion to Burley Griffin would ultimately fill.

For Wright, Oak Park was only a stage in a long journey that would ultimately take him to Spring Green and inspire him to build Taliesin as a home and workshop for himself and Cheney, who wrote to Key in December 1911 that the house was “truly founded upon Ellen Key’s idea of love.” 30 For many of those who watched it take shape in the Wisconsin countryside, Taliesin seemed to represent a break from all Wright had known before. Yet viewed through the lens of the feminist activism that shaped so much of his work during the Oak Park years, Taliesin seems not so much a break but a culmination: a hybrid plan dedicated to work and community, a home and studio for artists based on principles of gender equality, a home embedded in and inspired by landscape, and a retreat inspired by the writings of the Welsh poet Taliesin and by his passionate Celtic understanding of the animate land. This sounds so much like Marion Mahony, both in her early career and in her later life in Australia, that it is difficult to believe she wasn’t a part of it, although we know very well that she was far removed from Wright and his practice by the time Taliesin was conceived and constructed.

Mamah Borthwick Cheney wrote excitedly to Key in the summer of 1914 to describe visits to Taliesin by school groups, Sunday school picnics on the estate grounds, and lively parties and receptions for the many artists and writers — including Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the editor of the Dial — who ventured out from Chicago. She was clearly proud of the artistic community she and Wright had created, and we can well imagine how easily Mahony would have fit into this milieu, filled as it was with the passionate pursuit of creativity and liberal ideals. Ironically, although she was no longer a presence in the architect’s life when Taliesin was built, it is certain that Mahony’s progressive, democratic example — as a feminist, artist, activist and intellectual — left a mark on Wright’s heart and mind that helped shape his vision for the future and for the community he hoped to create around him. So, too, did Mahony carry Wright and her Oak Park experience with her as she strove to invent a new fusion of the personal and professional in her life with Walter Burley Griffin and the other members of the Castlecrag community in Australia. Though both she and Wright would disavow their connection for the rest of their lives, it remains a cornerstone in both their careers — one that, despite their complaints, should not be forgotten by historians as we seek to create a more balanced and accurate account of the extraordinary richness of architectural creativity in and around Chicago in the first decade of the 20th century.

About the Series: Women in Architecture

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Editors' Note

“Girl Talk” is excerpted from Marion Mahony Reconsidered, edited by David Van Zanten and published recently by the University of Chicago Press. It appears here courtesy of the press and author.

  1. My knowledge of Marion Mahony Griffin’s life and career has been shaped by the scholarship of Griffin experts, particularly David Van Zanten, Anna Rubbo, James Weirick and Paul Kruty. The contributions of these scholars to the symposium “Marion Mahony Griffin Reconsidered,” held at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, in November 2005, further enlarged my understanding of her significance and unique contributions. I am grateful to all of them, and to the organizer of the symposium, Professor David Van Zanten, for inviting me to participate in this project. See Leonard K. Eaton, Two Chicago Architects and Their Clients: Frank Lloyd Wright and Howard Van Doren Shaw (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1969).
  2. For Wright’s philosophy as expressed through the Oak Park studio, see Gwendolyn Wright, “Architectural Practice and Social Vision in Wright’s Early Designs,” in Carol R. Bolon, Robert S. Nelson, and Linda Seidel, eds.,The Nature of Frank Lloyd Wright (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 98–124.
  3. A manuscript copy of “The Magic of America,” Mahony’s lengthy unpublished memoir and scrapbook (c. 1945), is in the collection of the New York Historical Society; it is also available on microfilm. An electronic facsimile, The Magic of America: Electronic Edition, which includes material taken from the above copies and from versions held by the Art Institute of Chicago, is available online. Citations in this chapter are to that edition. The manuscript was repaginated by its author at various times; my citations refer to numbers in the bottom right-hand corner of each page. A short summary of Mahony’s career can be found here.
  4. For Mahony’s early career, see James Weirick, “Marion Mahony at MIT,” Transition 25: 4 (1988), 49–54, and David Van Zanten, “The Early Work of Marion Mahony Griffin,” The Prairie School Review 3, no. 2 (1966), 5–23.
  5. See John K. Notz, Jr., “A Beginning, an End, and Another Beginning,” 4–10. Like her cousin Dwight Perkins, Mahony was active in the Chicago-based effort to preserve open space, and she remained a lifelong conservationist. For Perkins, see Eric Emmett Davis, Dwight Heald Perkins: Social Consciousness and Prairie School Architecture (Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago, 1989), and “Dwight Heald Perkins, 1894–1904: From the Chicago School to the Prairie School to Chicago’s Schools,” Threshold: Journal of the Chicago School of Architecture, The University of Illinois at Chicago 5/6 (Fall 1991): 24–33.
  6. See Paul Kruty, “Chicago 1900: The Griffins Come of Age,” in Anne Watson, ed., Beyond Architecture: Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin, America, Australia, India (Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing, 1998), 10–25, especially 17–18. For Perkins’s participation in the Griffins’ home life, see “The Magic of America,” vol. 4, 11:256. An important contribution to the scholarship on Mahony’s career, and to the historiography of the Prairie School as a whole, was made by Elizabeth Birmingham in “Erasing a Woman: The Canon, Absence, and Gender.” This article contains a great deal of information on Mahony’s early career and her participation in the radical architectural group at Chicago’s Steinway Hall, a subject discussed (without reference to Mahony) by H. Allen Brooks in “Steinway Hall, Architects and Dreams,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 22:3 (Oct. 1963), 171–75.
  7. An early and groundbreaking discussion of Mahony’s work was published by Susan Fondelier Berkon in Susana Torre, Women in American Architecture (New York: Whitney Library of American Architecture, 1977), 75–79.
  8. Quoted by Elisabeth Grossman and Lisa Reitzes, “Caught in the Crossfire: Women and Architectural Education, 1880–1910,” in Ellen Perry Berkeley, ed., Architecture: A Place for Women (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), 27–40.
  9. S. M. Franklin, “Elizabeth Martini, Architect: A Pioneer in an Old Profession,” Life and Labor, February 1914, 40–43. For Franklin, see Marjorie Barnard, Miles Franklin: The Story of a Famous Australian, 2nd edition (London: University of Queensland Press, 1988), and Jill Roe, ed., My Congenials: Miles Franklin and Friends in Letters(Pymble, Australia: State Library of New South Wales in association with Angus and Robertson, 1993). For Marini see also: Susan F. King, “Only Girl Architect Lonely,” Katerina Rüedi Ray and Charles Waldheim, eds., Chicago Architecture: Histories, Revisions, Alternatives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 129–42.
  10. “Martini,” 42.
  11. Ibid., 41.
  12. A similar position was taken by architect Minerva Parker Nichols in her reply to the American Architect and Building News editorial on Hayden’s work at the Women’s Building. See Grossman and Reitzes, “Caught in the Crossfire,” 32–33, and “A Woman on the Women’s Building,” American Architect and Building News 38 (10 December 1892), 169.
  13. “The Magic of America,” vol. 4, 7:157.
  14. The genesis of this approach to architectural drawing is described in “The Magic of America,” vol. 4, 12:286. Mahony improved her drawing skills in a school run by Emma Church, a former high school classmate (“The Magic of America,” vol. 4, 7:145–46). This school was probably the one singled out for praise by Wright in his 1918 speech on “Chicago Culture” (Collected Writings vol. 1, 1894–1930, 158).
  15. See, for example, Neil Levine, “The Story of Taliesin: Wright’s First Natural House,” in Narciso Menocal, ed.,Taliesin 1911–14, Wright Studies, vol. 1 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992), 2–27. This material was expanded in Levine’s The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), chapters 3 and 4.
  16. For Mamah Borthwick Cheney’s activities in Oak Park and her relationship with Catherine Wright, see Robert Sweeney, Frank Lloyd Wright: An Annotated Bibliography (Los Angeles: Hennessey and Ingalls, 1978), xxv; and Robert C. Twombly, Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and Architecture (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1979), 114. The most comprehensive biographical study of Mamah Borthwick (who dropped her married name after her divorce in 1911) is by Anne Nissen, From the Cheney House to Taliesin: Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick, unpublished MSAS thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1988. Borthwick was born in Iowa in 1869 and received her BA and MA degrees from the University of Michigan in 1892 and 1893. She taught high school courses in English, history and French in Port Huron, Michigan, and married Edwin Cheney in 1899. Wright designed a house for the Cheneys in Oak Park in 1903; the couple separated in 1909 and were granted a divorce on 5 August 1911 (Nissen, 12–16, 25–27, and passim).
  17. “The Magic of America,” vol. 4, 2:42 and 17:378.
  18. “In the Cause of Architecture (Second Paper),” Collected Writings, vol. 1, 126–37, especially 132.
  19. For Oak Park, see Elaine Harrington, Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, Oak Park (Stuttgart: Edition Axel Menges, 1996) and Ann Abernathy, The Oak Park Home and Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright (Oak Park: Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation, 1988).
  20. These comments were made by the architect Barry Byrne. See H. Allen Brooks, The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and His Midwest Contemporaries (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972), 79–80.
  21. Van Zanten, “Early Work,” n. 8.
  22. See Alice T. Friedman, Women and the Making of the Modern House (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998), introduction and chapter 1.
  23. For Griffin, and especially for an analysis of his drawings, see Paul Kruty, Walter Burley Griffin in America(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).
  24. “The Magic of America,” vol. 4, 6:126–28 and 12:275–78, 281.
  25. Collected Writings, vol. 1, 99–100.
  26. The quotation is from Wright’s 1898 announcement of his practice in Oak Park. See Gwendolyn Wright, “Architectural Practice,” 100.
  27. See Alice T. Friedman, “Frank Lloyd Wright and Feminism: Mamah Borthwick Cheney’s letters to Ellen Key,”Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 61, no. 2 (June 2002): 140–51.
  28. See Anthony Alofsin, Frank Lloyd Wright: The Lost Years, 1910–1922, A Study of Influence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
  29. “The Magic of America,” vol. 4, 1:172.
  30. Friedman, “Frank Lloyd Wright and Feminism,” 150.
Alice Friedman, “Girl Talk: Marion Mahony Griffin, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Oak Park Studio,” Places Journal, June 2011. Accessed 10 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • jonathan

    06.16.2011 at 20:42

    a great article about a truly talented, but generally unrecognised, unknown and often ignored. maestro behind the front of others.
    her graphics are brilliant, simple and innovative. her architecture contribution wonderful.
    more please.

  • Integraphix Creative Agency

    06.21.2011 at 17:48

    Wow. It's amazing that I've gone through design school (Interior, specifically) and have not heard about this.
    A. This is an absolutely beautiful post, wonderfully written and B. Awesome contribution to FLW! I absolutely had no idea. I agree with @Jonathan - more please.

  • 09.21.2012 at 00:31

    Oh my goodness. Marion Mahony is indeed the most wonderful of architects, but what a demeaning and bloviating testament to her talent and works this article is. Her work in this piece becomes first and foremost a symbol of her nascent present-day feminism as opposed to primary and crafted evidence of quality architecture, thereby further distancing it from the profession which she saw herself so much a part of. At the same time, what proof is there of " unusual intimacy" by looking at a photograph of her and Catherine Wright? Surely this picture is composed by Wright and speaks more to his intentions than the sitters. As presented in this text, analysis of this photograph is pure speculation masquerading as fact. What direct proof is there in this wordy and repetitive article that Mahony was a feminist cast in the lens of the feminism of the present? This is the most slippery type of ideological history that has more to do with explaining the frustrations of the present than illuminating the realities of the past. What in fact is unconventional about the relationship between Mahony and Wright is that she was a brilliant and talented women, who was able to create amazing work, and in fact was recognized in her time. This article almost pulls the veil back over her by suggesting the weakness of her position even as she celebrated the strengths of her convictions ad design without regard to her gender. I hope Places publishes more straight-forward and concise history and theory pieces in the future and drops the categorizing clap trap which diminishes contributions and demeans the intelligence of the protagonists.