It was a Saturday afternoon that August at Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s sprawling bucolic estate near Spring Green, Wisconsin. The year was 914. Wright himself, by then a highly sought after architect, was away in Chicago at work on another commission.
His mistress, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, and her two children John, 12, and Martha, 8, had just sat down for their midday meal. Julian Carlton, the household cook, served the family their soup.
As Mamah lifted her spoon, Carlton came behind her and split open her skull with an axe.
He swung around the table and killed the boy with a single blow.
The little girl ran. Carlton caught up with her and delivered four savage strikes to her tiny head.
Elsewhere, in another dining area, seven workers of the Wright household were sitting down for their lunch. Carlton served the men their soup and walked out. Suddenly the men noticed liquid pouring into the room from under the locked doors. Before they recognized the gasoline, the room was ablaze. Carlton waited outside with axe in hand. Only one man survived.
Taliesin and nearly all of its inhabitants were reduced to ashes. It would not be the last fire at the historic estate during Wright’s lifetime.
The motive for the horrifying crime is still a mystery. Before rescuers arrived, Carlton swallowed acid, hung on for seven more days and died without uttering a word.
Revenge? Madness? We’ll never know. Some said it was heavenly retribution for the house of sin that Wright kept.
Mama Borthwick Cheney was the wife of Wright’s client when they met. When Mamah divorced, Wright abandoned his own family to live with her in Europe. The couple returned to the States where Wright built Taliesin and Mamah moved in with her children.
The Godfather of Modernism
Frank Lloyd Wright was a true larger-than-life character. His long and dramatic career was filled with tragedies and triumphs. He may be the only architect that most people can cite by name.
Thursday, June 8th would have been his 150th birthday. The Museum of Modern Art in New York opens a retrospective on Monday, June 12th, an event he may well have despised.
With his hats, his cape, and later, that imperious cane, Wright cut a dramatic figure. By all accounts he was cantankerous, opinionated, and had an unwavering confidence in his abilities. However difficult, it’s testimony to his stubborn personality that enabled him to build 532 buildings from over 1,000 designs. By any measure, his is an astonishing oeuvre.
As you might expect, Wright was a polarizing figure who himself was a mass of contradictions. He was very much the establishment patrician, and yet his private life was often scandalous. He was always the unrepentant elitist although he imagined the affordable mass-produced home as early as 1917. Wright firmly believed that architecture must be rooted in the nature it occupied and so he despised the chaotic skyline of Manhattan. Nevertheless, he tried to build a mile-high skyscraper in the middle of the island. Toward the end of his life, he abandoned his rigid geometries to create the wonderfully whimsical spiral-shaped Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue.
Wright’s Lasting Los Angeles Legacy
There is no question that Los Angeles would not be the mid-century architecture capital without the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright. Not only did Wright blaze the trail with his artistic vision, he also was personally responsible for bringing Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra to California, two of the most important artists to shape the Hollywood Hills. Wright was in the midst of another stormy relationship with a patron, oil heiress Aline Barnsdall, over her new house on Olive Hill in Los Feliz. As they clashed, Wright left California to build his Tokyo Hotel and brought in the younger Schindler and Neutra to fill in for his absence. Through Wright’s celebrity and social connections, Neutra and Schindler were able to launch their careers in Los Angeles. From there, the modernist architectural aesthetic, later known as mid-century, was born.
Frank Lloyd Wright first caught public attention with his Prairie Style homes. Their wide footprints, low-slung rooflines, and lack of ornamentation echoed the midwestern prairie horizon where they were built. In many ways, the design predicted similar geometric patterns in the mid-century homes that followed. It was a radical departure from the decorative faux classical style borrowed from Europe.
Wright was continually stretching the boundaries of taste and engineering. With his cantilevered buildings, Wright proved that structures could exist on lots previously thought unbuildable. Falling Water in Pennsylvania remains one of the stunning architectural achievements in the 20th century.
Not surprisingly, Wright had wide ranging artistic influences himself. Among other interests, he was an avid dealer in Japanese art. When he arrived in Los Angeles, he built a series of homes with Mayan block style. The blocks were actually cast sand bricks with designs meant to invoke Mayan temples. It was not the only time Wright lifted inspiration from indigenous people. Back in the midwest, Wright once proposed community buildings based on Native American teepees. To his critics, these structures were merely shallow imitation with little interest in the culture that spawned them. And it is also true that Wright’s textile-block homes have been notoriously delicate and wholly unsuitable for earthquake country.
Yet most remain intact today, albeit with a little upkeep now and then.
Samuel Freeman House, 1923
After suffering badly in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the Samuel Freeman House was donated to the USC School of Architecture. The school has undertaken restoring the historic property. The work on the house is ongoing. Parts of the structure can be seen peeking out overlooking Highland Boulevard and Franklin Boulevard. Probably the best way to grab a glimpse of the Freeman House is by taking the little known Hike to the Hollywood Bowl
Storer House, 1923
The second of three textile block houses (others being the Freeman House and the Ennis House), this property on Hollywood Boulevard off the Sunset Strip was fully restored by movie producer Joel Silvers. Today, the home is under private ownership.
The Ennis House may be the most famous of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollywood Hills homes. Not only does it sit prominently overlooking Los Feliz, the home was famously used as the residence of Harrison Ford’s character in the futuristic movie Blade Runner. Like the others textile block homes, the Ennis House did not fare well after the 1994 earthquake. It was condemned shortly afterward. The non-profit which owned the property at the time struggled to keep up with the massive restoration costs. After struggling for years, the foundation eventually sold the home to supermarket magnate Ron Burkle. Occasionally, public tours are available. Keep an eye out as they sell out lightening fast.
(Copy and paste "https://www.youtube.com/embed/U–5hNWjHKJI“ to your browser to see an amazing drone video of the Hollyhock House as you’ve never seen it before.)
After a years-long restoration project, the Hollyhock House in Barnsdall Art Park is now the reigning grand dame of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollywood Hills homes. The house is open for public tours.