Art historian Kristen Patzer Umphrey from the History Center at Courthouse Square in Berrien Springs, talked about Wright Wednesday evening for the third installment of The Museum at Southwestern Michigan College's spring lecture series. (The Daily News/John Eby)
Art historian Kristen Patzer Umphrey from the History Center at Courthouse Square in Berrien Springs, talked about Wright Wednesday evening for the third installment of The Museum at Southwestern Michigan College's spring lecture series. (The Daily News/John Eby)

Archived Story

Frank Lloyd Wright left his mark on Berrien

Published 8:50am Thursday, April 8, 2010

Dowagiac Daily News

In a 70-year career which built his reputation as America’s most notable architect, Frank Lloyd Wright designed half a dozen Berrien County houses and public buildings such as New York City’s Upper East Side Solomon R. Guggenheim art museum, which turned 50 in October 2009.

His last project, which opened six months after his death, is possibly his most recognizable.

It took 15 years to design, 700 sketches and six entire sets of drawings. Revered today, at the time it was controversial for its spiral contrast to the typical boxy Manhattan building.
Wright was said to like the negative attention and predicted it would make the Metropolitan Museum of Art look like a “Protestant barn.”

Ironically, today the building itself is regarded as the most important piece of the Guggenheim’s art collection.

Wright designed a home in Benton Harbor and two in St. Joseph.

His earliest, the 1949 Howard and Helen Anthony house, was built for the engineer who owned the Heath kit company with Everglades cypress and Wisconsin stone, with a cedar-shingled roof.

It was inspired by parallelograms and is on the right bank of the St. Joseph River. It was one of the only homes Wright designed with a “vehicle courtyard.”

Interior walls don’t go all the way to the ceiling for a feeling of openness, which can be disconcerting to those who value privacy.

Anthony, who died in a plane crash had been a neighbor of “Cardinal Charlie” Gill growing up.

In 1950, Wright again focused on the Twin Cities to design the Dr. Ina Moriss Harper house at 207 Sunnybank near Lakeshore Drive.

She was a pediatrician who read about Wright in House Beautiful magazine. The living room is windows to drink in the view of Lake Michigan. Its steep pitch reflects sunlight when it’s setting low.

The carport has been removed in favor of a garage. She only lived there two years. As she stood at a pharmacy counter in Grand Rapids, a car crashed through the plate glass window and killed her.

The Carl Shultz house was built in St. Joseph in 1957 – the last building Wright designed in Michigan.

It was erected on a hillside overlooking a ravine from its terrace. It sits on Highland Court on the left bank of the St. Joseph River. The industrialist founded LECO Corp. with George Krasl. It couples low ceilings with a long 76-foot hallway. It even has a crawlspace.

There were also three in the Grand Beach-Union Pier area, but one was torn down about five years ago and the other two have been substantially altered.

Wright, born June 8, 1867, right after the Civil War in Wisconsin, was almost 92 when he died on April 9, 1959.

He created controversy even in death when his third wife had him exhumed in 1985, cremated and sent to Arizona, though his Wisconsin gravestone remains.

His mother taught school and decorated his nursery with English cathedral engravings.
In 1876, she visited the Philadelphia centennial exhibition, bringing him a set of geometric building blocks whose forms would appear in his work.

Wright’s parents divorced in 1881 when he was 14. His given middle name was Lincoln. He took Lloyd, his mother’s family name, as well as full financial responsibility for his mother and two sisters and claimed he never saw his father again.

Wright attended Madison High School in Wisconsin, but did not graduate. At 15, he was admitted as a special student to the University of Wisconsin and took engineering classes, but again did not graduate.

Art historian Kristen Patzer Umphrey from the History Center at Courthouse Square in Berrien Springs, talked about Wright Wednesday evening for the third installment of The Museum at Southwestern Michigan College’s spring lecture series, which concludes May 5, when Jim Ellis of Niles speaks on “100 Years of the Boy Scouts: 1910-2010.”
Director Steve Arseneau said the museum will be opening an exhibit in May on treasures from the Kingsbury-Ritter auction.

Umphrey, who has been with Berrien County Historical Association for four years, manages the museum store.

At its annual meeting April 27, Director Frances Porter Snyder and Curator Bob Myers will be presenting a program on Theodore Roosevelt.

“TR will also be our special guest at our signature event Oct. 28″ at Lake Michigan College.

Wright completed 500 works, including 90 public buildings.

“The rest were residential,” she said, including the 1908 Meyer May house for a clothier in Grand Rapids; and the 1908 Robie house in Hyde Park on the University of Chicago campus.

Continuous bands of glass windows emphasize the horizontal, plus Wright used longer Roman bricks and two different colors of mortar. Wright designed 174 custom windows for the three-story Robie house with 9,062 square feet and four fireplace chimneys rising through the center.

A lifelong Unitarian, Wright also designed concrete Oak Park Unity Temple between 1905 and 1908 after it burned in 1904. He put in skylights instead of lower windows to avoid street noise.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2009 named Unity Temple one of America’s 11 most endangered historic places. It is the only surviving public building from his prairie period.

Besides being an architect, Wright was an author of more than 20 books, an interior designer, a teacher and a lecturer.

“And, as we know, he often made headlines for his turbulent personal life and financial troubles,” Umphrey said, such as the ax murder of his mistress which ended the first act of his career.

At 20, Wright left Wisconsin for Chicago, still rebuilding from the 1881 fire.

He became an apprentice to Louis Sullivan, “who was very rebellious and revolutionary in his approach to architecture,” Umphrey said. “This had a great influence on Wright, who became Sullivan’s chief draftsman. At 23, Wright began designing all of the residential work. He borrowed $5,000 from his boss and bought land in Oak Park, Ill. There he built the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio, where he and his first wife and six children lived for 20 years. Sullivan fired Wright in 1893 because he was building homes behind his back under an assumed name. ‘Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.’ ”

By 1901, at the age of 34, Wright had completed more than 50 projects, giving birth to what became known as the Prairie School of Architecture.

Wright’s prairie style is an attempt at a purely North American style influenced by the Midwest and free of European influence.

“Prairie is due to the horizontality of the buildings,” Umphrey said, “which mimic the wide, flat, treeless landscapes of the prairie. Indicative of the style are broad, overhanging eaves – cantilevering – low ceiling heights, geometric floor plans, integrated windows and doors and natural materials. Also, he believed there should be a prominent hearth and several fireplaces. Most important to him was how the structure integrated with the natural world surrounding it – ‘organic architecture.’ Interiors of these homes had fewer rooms to create an open feeling. They also reflect his passion for Japanese art and design. He supposedly hated cities and believed every detail must be carefully planned to achieve this harmony. He designed everything inside,” from lighting and flooring to the furniture. He liked built-in furniture, autumnal hues and focusing on the dining room.

In 1909, after 20 years of Oak Park married life, Wright ran off with his mistress to Europe for a year. The scandal prevented his return to Illinois, so he convinced his mother to buy him property in Spring Green, Wis., where he built his next studio, Taliesin. At 50, his career began to slow.

He spent most of the early to mid-1920s in Tokyo, where he worked on the earthquake-proof Imperial Hotel, which Herb Phillipson stayed at in the 1970s for $11, and in California.

“His personal and financial lives were in turmoil,” Umphrey related.

On April 15, 1914, while Wright was away working in Chicago, a male servant set Taliesin on fire, then murdered seven people with an ax, including Wright’s mistress and her two children.

During the nine-year period from 1925 to 1934, Wright saw just five commissions, but in 1935, at age 68, he entered into the productive second act of his career.

“He received the commission that changed everything and sparked his second career” – building Falling Water, a country home in Mill Run, Pa., for the Kaufmann family, who owned a Pittsburgh department store.

Umphrey said, “He worked another 25 years and produced 200 buildings. Part of the home was built over a rocky waterfall in the side of a steep hill. In 1991, the members of the American Institute of Architects named this house the best all-time work of American architecture. Falling Water is the archetypal example of organic architecture. He surveyed the topography – every boulder, every tree – and planned the home around these elements. Sandstone boulders anchor this house above a 20-foot drop. Layered sandstone on the property was his inspiration for the overhanging decks. He chose Cherokee red metal window frames throughout the house for emphasis.”

Falling Waters’ interior was designed for an outdoor feeling.

“Water falling can be heard at all times,” she said. “The hearth is made from boulders found on the site. The floors are polished, but the stones are not to give the impression of rocks protruding from the stream. He left a natural boulder inside that drips water. The bedrooms are very small with low ceilings, which was calculated on his part to encourage spending time on the deck.”

By the fireplace hangs something that looks like a red beachball. It is a warming vessel that swings into the fire to warm wine.

Kaufmanns used Falling Water as their weekend retreat from 1937 until 1963. In 1964, their son donated the house and 1,543 acres to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. It operates as a public museum which attracts 120,000 visitors each year.

While working on Falling Water, Wright hatched his concept for affordable United States of North America (USONA) dwellings – one L-shaped story, no attic, no basement, low roofs, open floor plans, tiny kitchens incorporated into the living area. Wright coined the term “carport.”

Kentuck Knob is near Falling Water, but she also showed the Lewis Goddard house in Plymouth, Mich., the 1949 Robert and Rae Levin house in Kalamazoo; the 1948 multi-level brick and cypress Curtis Meyer house in Galesburg, where the roof encircled a tree; and the 1952 William and Mary Palmer House in Ann Arbor. A San Franciscan bought it last year and it is available for rent. It is based on his interest in triangles. Three wings come off the main entrance.

“These were not the easiest homes to live in,” said the 5-foot-4 Umphrey. “They had low ceilings and made people feel claustrophobic. Clients disliked the small kitchens and complained about them, but Wright didn’t care. He didn’t think the kitchen was important. He basically said, ‘Get over it.’ The flat roofs often leaked. People weren’t thrilled about that. And the lack of storage space and not having a garage were frustrating as well.”

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