Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright

By Paul Hendrickson

Alfred A. Knopf | 2019 (soft cover: 2020)

Reviewed by Michael Moreau

image paul hendricksen

You enter Fallingwater by way of a trail from the parking lot and in the fall when I was there the red maples and golden oaks shimmered in the light looking to a Southern Californian like something out of an animated cartoon, giving truth to the maxim that you must visit the Eastern states in the fall. It’s a short walk and when the cantilevered ochre and Cherokee red structure emerges all at once in your sightline witnesses have said that people have burst into tears.

The man who designed Fallingwater was Frank Lloyd Wright and he was and is so ubiquitous in this country and in much of the world that no matter where you live you probably aren’t far from one of his creations. He outlived most of the world-class architects he competed with and sometimes railed against—born two years after the Civil War he lived into the age of television, a medium that often gave him a platform and which he deftly learned to use to his advantage.

When he died at 91 in 1959 he had designed more than 1,000 buildings and astoundingly, as Paul Hendrickson tells it in his magnificent new book Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright his plans were executed over three centuries, with buildings from his designs going up as recently as 2007.

There was a time when nearly everyone knew something about Wright, in part because he seemed to permeate the media. Maybe they had heard that his buildings tended to leak or maybe they had heard something about the worst day of his life: August 15, 1914. That day was almost exactly the middle of his long life but it was so horrific and inexplicable and, in some ways, emblematic of his whole life, that Hendrickson uses it as the centerpiece of this meticulously researched and beautifully written book.

Hendrickson is drawn to central themes in his biographies, finding a thread in a life that leans toward tying it together in ways we may not have seen before. He did this deftly in Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost (2011), spinning the story of the writer’s life around the two decades that he kept his boat Pilar at Key West in Florida and Havana Harbor in Cuba. In his current book (released in soft cover this fall) he chronicles the great successes and tragic losses in Wright’s life—losses often connected with fire.

In August of 1914 Woodrow Wilson was president. The U.S. had yet to enter World War I. Wright had a thriving architecture business mostly centered around Chicago, but he had built his work studio and house for his mistress and her children he called Taliesin, Welsh for “shining brow,” outside of Madison, Wisconsin. He was doing business in Chicago the day that Julian Carlton, a young man who worked at Taliesin, killed Wright’s mistress, Mamah Cheney, three of her children and three houseguests.

He used a hand axe for the bloody murders, then set the house on fire. No one knows the motive for the murders. Carlton starved himself to death in a jail cell awaiting trial. Hendrickson probably does more than any other researcher to find a back life for Carlton. But he remains mostly a mystery. Wright would rebuild Taliesin over the coming years and it would burn again. And there would be more. In a late interview he said “I’ve been plagued by fire all my life.”

For perspective, Wright, born in Racine, Wisconsin, built his first house and opened his architecture office, after apprenticing with the father of the skyscraper, Louis Sullivan, in 1893 in Oak Park, Illinois, outside Chicago. He was 26. In 1899 Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park. They were practically neighbors. Both would indelibly change the way we look at their respective art forms. Both were schooled in European masters but were intent on forging a new American style. Wright consumed and rejected the dominant Beaux Arts school; Hemingway revered Turgenev and Chekhov but found his own native voice.

To oversimplify, for Hemingway there was his iceberg theory—basically that less is more in writing. It is that 80 percent under the sea which isn’t directly told that informs a story—and for Wright it was organic architecture: a building had to grow out of the soil surrounding it in harmony with the nature of the setting and with the people inhabiting it. For both, the more you could leave out the stronger the work. Both looked outside their artform for inspiration.

For Hemingway it was the French Impressionists, particularly Cezanne; Wright would say that the greatest architect was Beethoven, who he said his father—a sometime composer—created an “edifice of sound.” He was particularly fond of the Eroica (3rd symphony) which he would play on the piano in the burning embers of Taliesin.

In reading Hendrickson, I found it astonishing that Wright was active nearly throughout Hemingway’s entire life. He died in 1959, Hemingway in 1961. It could be said that Hemingway’s artistic prime was just a small pocket of time—20 odd years—within the 70-year working life of the great architect.

(I want to say here that Paul Hendrickson’s biographies of these two seminal American artists are indispensable for those who want to know how they grew into and expanded their respective crafts while also humanizing the two whose public personas tended to alienate many people.)

One of Wright’s most prolific periods surprisingly spanned the Great Depression. And two of his greatest works are emblematic of his relationships with clients who once hitched to his vision put up with delays and cost overruns that doubled and tripled the original estimates for the projects. Sometimes those costs and delays were because Wright was attempting to do things with land and materials for which the nascent technologies were not yet developed. His S.C. Johnson building, completed in 1934, was said in Life Magazine to owe nothing to “foreign inspiration, different from anything ever built in the world before.” (The foreign inspiration that Wright rebelled against at that time was that of the Bauhaus school, led by Mies van der Rohe, which gave the country the massive glass cubes we now think of as modern architecture.)

Popularly known as the Johnson Wax administration building, Wright’s was commissioned for the building that would stand at the middle of the plant. Herbert F. Johnson was a humane executive with an artistic bent who had sought out Wright just as the Depression hit. Johnson kept his workers employed throughout the devastating first years of the period that at its peak saw nearly 25 percent unemployment.

His chemists came up with a product known as “Glo-Coat” which nearly every home in America used to wax its floors. The original estimate for the building was $200,000 but as with so many Wright buildings that was no more than a wildly understated guestimate. By the time it was completed in 1939 it had run up to ten times as much ($2.1 million). Life Magazine called the end result a work of “genuine American architecture, owing nothing to foreign inspirations, different from anything ever built in the world before.” Hendrickson: “The world beat a path to Racine to see what he’d made, and it still does. What you find on the outside is a curvilinear, streamlined, red-brick face, looking vaguely like some Art Deco moon station…. When I saw it for the first time, the experience surpassed expectations. Such a vaulted grace, in an American workspace. … It almost felt like a diorama—of galactic proportions.”

Running in parallel time with the Johnson Wax building, 500 miles away in Bear Run, 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar J. Kaufman had land in with creek running through it on which he wanted to construct a vacation home. On December 18, 1934 Wright and Kaufman met for the first time at the site. “I have heard it figuratively said that the greatest service any architect can provide for his client comes in the first fifteen minutes of standing at the site,” Hendrickson writes. “He sees something that people with normal eyes cannot see.”

What Wright saw was a house built right over the stream, breaking down the separation between the house and the water, making them all one. What resulted was a multi-cantilevered structure that the New York Times called “a house that summed up the twentieth century and then thrust it forward still further.”

Hendrickson describes its “three layers of concrete terraces leaping out into space. In effect, the house, like the stream over top of which she hangs, is her own cascading thing of terraces and balconies, if not quite pure projections into thin mountain oxygenated mist, then appearing so.” It is a miracle to see. It is a UNESCO World Heritage protected site.

Hendrickson spent eight years on this book, conducting scores of interviews—delighted to find early in his research that though Wright was born in 1967 there were still people alive who knew him or who worked in or lived in his creations. His sources included the plentitude of writing about and by Wright. He visited scores of Wright buildings, many of them several times. What he has created is not a conventional biography. He acknowledges that there are several of those, some quite good.

“Rather,” he writes, “this book is meant to be a kind of synecdoche, with selected pockets of a life standing for the oceanic whole of that life.” That life still remains largely mysterious. “You can never get to the end of the knowing.”

Just days before he died, in his last interview in April of 1959, Wright said great art in architecture wouldn’t exist “unless it possessed a spiritual quality. If there were no spiritual quality in architecture, it would just be plain lumber.”

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