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: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mature Prairie Style


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
One of the Twin Cities area's three Frank Lloyd Wright houses, the Francis W. Little/Raymond V. Stevenson house at Deephaven, was sold in 1972 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when its owners determined to build a smaller house on the site. The great living room is now the dramatic terminus to the Metropolitan's new American Wing. The bedroom hallway was purchased by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and other rooms have been or are in the process of being purchased by other museums around the country. Thus, the sad destruction of an outstanding example of the work of America's best known and perhaps greatest domestic designer will ironically become more accessible to more Americans. To experience a Wright interior is to know more about the American spirit, eloquently analyzed by Vincent Scully as the contradiction between mobility, "flight . . . 'getting away'" and "rootedness and security."1Early in 1908, Francis W. and Mary Trimble Little commissioned their second house from Frank Lloyd Wright: this one to be a summer home on Lake Minnetonka, ultimately named "Northome." The first house, begun in 1902, was in Peoria, Illinois, where Little owned a utilities company and practiced law. It was a large and stately home (figure 1) composed of simple masses of light brick organized around a central axis visually articulated by Wright's Prairie House "signature," a massive chimney core. The family was well pleased with this house, simpler yet in many details very similar to the much-publicized Susan Laurence Dana house in Springfield, of the same year. While the scheme for ornament in the Dana house was elaborate, windows, murals and sculptural details deriving from a variety of plant forms, the exterior of the Little house was quietly restrained, its leaded-glass windows consisting of little more than vertical grilles. Inside, however, over the living room fireplace, was a mural of sumac branches and leaves (the motif of the Dana house dining room), done in oranges, yellows and reds on a gold background. The Littles, like many other Wright clients, were "strong-minded, straight-thinking individuals who knew what they wanted," and were especially concerned with the quality of light in their houses.2But 1908 was the beginning of a difficult period in Wright's life and career, and work on the second Little house would not begin in earnest for another four years. In the interim, Wright's mastery of the horizontal Prairie House, evidenced in the masterpieces, The Coonley house (1908) and the Robie house (1909), and his bold designs for the non-domestic Larkin Company Administration Building (1904) and Unity Temple (1906) had brought him world-wide acclaim. Professionally, he had achieved the culmination of forms and ideas he had been developing since before the turn of the century; it was a time begging for a visible break. In An Autobiography, Wright confessed that, "The absorbing, consuming phase of my experience as an architect ended about 1909."3 Personally, too, his life demanded change; he left his wife of nineteen years and his six children to work in Europe on the publication of his work by the Wasmuth Company in Berlin. He took with him Mamah Cheney, the wife of a former client, for whom (along with her two children) he began, upon their return in 1911, the great Taliesin. In Europe, Wright became acutely aware of changing styles in the visual arts, and his natural architect's taste for abstraction, already expressed in the powerful project for the Yahara Boat Club (1902) and the Gale house (1909), was newly confirmed. "I clearly saw my trusty T-square and aspiring triangle as means to the . . . end I had in view," he wrote, in reference to his major commission following the European self-exile—the Midway Gardens in Chicago, begun in the fall of 1913.4 Finally, in 1914, came the call to Tokyo to design the Imperial Hotel, a project that would occupy Wright almost fully for six years and firmly establish his standing as an international architect. Through all of this, the Littles remained Wright's friends, supporters (Little was to finance the distribution in America of the Wasmuth publication), and determined clients. Their home would contain elements of all these events and currents (many of them contradictory) in the life of their architect.Northome was to nestle, like Wright's Taliesin, into small hills on the shore of Lake Minnetonka. Unlike Taliesin, however, the view was in one direction, so a longitudinal plan was adopted. In the Husser house (1899), overlooking Lake Michigan, Wright raised the formal living areas to the second floor to maximize the view. At Northome, he arranged the living areas in an uninterrupted 250 foot horizontal, extending from the crest of one hillock to that of another, and artfully tucked the kitchen and dining room under this "bridge."5 In plan, the Little house (figure 2) is remarkably like the Robie (figure 3), though reversed, both being penultimate examples of Prairie House zoning and massing.6 Thus, the Littles' house reflected Wright's fully developed thinking in terms of articulated function. The formal living room, which functioned primarily as a music room for the music-loving Littles (Mrs. Little studied piano under Franz Liszt), is separated from private family areas by a massive fireplace core. The hallway acquired by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts was entered through glazed double doors from the west vestibule serving the winter living room, library, first bedroom and stairway down to the kitchen/dining area. The hallway's windows faced Lake Minnetonka, and the window-seat shown in figure 10 was contained in the hallway portion further west, just outside the master bedroom.7An early exterior elevation (figure 4), in contradiction to the progressive plan, shows a somewhat startlingly classical or Sullivanesque arcade running the length of the living room.8 This drawing must pre-date the summer and fall of 1912, when construction was actually underway, and may have been the cause of Little's letter to Wright, dated February 6, 1912, in which he wrote:Why not recognize frankly that the difference between us is fundamental and that it isn't in you to get the kind of house we want. You have made a very strong but unsuccessful effort to persuade us to like and accept something we don't like and don't want.9 Perhaps the similarity in lakeshore siting led the distracted Wright to a ready repetition of this aspect of the Husser house from thirteen years earlier.Little's letter of November 5, 1913, referred to a different problem, but is nonetheless indicative of the clients' frustration combined with empathy for their architect friend. He wrote:Have you lost interest in architecture or merely in the house? Something must be done soon or we must stop and wait for you to come to life.Whether or not this arcade is the part of the design to which Little in his February letter objected, it must be pointed out that Wright regularly recalled favorite motifs from earlier projects, invoking them later in programmatically and stylistically questionable contexts. Often the result was an unparalleled richness, as in the Imperial Hotel, a veritable compendium of Wright's ornament of the preceding twenty years. At any rate, the arcade was abandoned in favor of a band of twelve squared lights recessed and spaced over twelve vertical sash windows on the two long sides of the living room (figure 5). The great living/music room (figure 6), 55 x 35 feet, was the most striking space in the Little house, "the most spacious domestic interior Wright had ever designed. . . ."10 The angles of the coved ceiling reflected the roof line and culminated in leaded-glass panels lighted from above (thus, not true sky lights). There are precedents for these panels in Unity Temple, the Coonley house, the Robert W. Evans house (1908), the Thurber Art Gallery (1909) and, more importantly, Wright's own Oak Park home and studio (under construction and redesign from 1885). The windows in Wright's early houses consisted only of geometric designs in lead and clear glass. There materials often took the form of simple diamond-shaped panes, as in the very influential project for Ladies Home Journal, "A Home in a Prairie Town" (1901). Elaborate ceiling grille patterns were transformed by Wright into text borders for W. C. Gannett's The House Beautiful, printed in William H. Winslow's basement printshop during the winter of 1896-1897. Here they function solely as frames for the words and illustrate the difference between Wright's thinking about windows and the Victorian attitude toward stained glass. For Wright, an ornamented window was a frame for the view, not a substitute for a painting. The degree to which he was committed to the view and the actual design of the frame, however, underwent many changes during his career.One of Wright's favorite literary classics was the mythic Tales of the Arabian Nights. They and other Eastern tales of earthly paradise are filled with references to jeweled trees, vines and arbors, symbols (in gardens of pleasure) of the structure of the universe-a trunk at the center, bearing fruits of stars and planets. The seventeenth-century French traveler, Tavernier, saw the golden gem-bearing tree made for the great Mogul's palace at Agra, ". . . a kind of latticework of emeralds and rubies that should have represented to the life grapes when they are green and when they begin to grow red . . . ."11 Such a jewel tree is also described in the story of Aladdin, a character so important to Wright that Aladdin, his bottle and genie were the subjects of a large mural over the fireplace in Wright's Oak Park living room! Wright loved the earth and related to the organic world in a profound way. He naturally came to use colored panes (in the Bradley and Hickox houses of 1900) and plant forms (as in the Dana and the first Little houses) in his windows, which are, after all, mere screens through which sunlight and patterns of shade filter into a house, and through which an interior communicates with its real context. Thus, Wright made the animated opulence of nature a constant in the lives of those who lived in his houses.The windows for the Little house did not come easily. The Little/Wright correspondence indicates that Wright's first designs were rather elaborate. In a letter dated September 24, 1913, Little wrote:
Frankly the design looks stiff, formal and complicated and a very large amount of light is cut off. And I do not like green glass.12
In exasperation, Little subsequently wrote:
You don't get what we want. Probably we have in mind at least in a vague way your designs of 8 or 10 years ago-the Thomas house or Miss Dana's say-While you are reaching for something different.13
While his early designs for the exterior elevation (figure 4) may have been curiously retardataire, Wright was indeed reaching for something different in these windows! Between the gamut of the chevron designs seen first in the Bradley and Hickox houses (and again in the Robie house) and the almost painterly abstracted balloon shapes of the Coonley Playhouse windows (1912), Wright more often involved a fairly rigid geometry of verticals and colored panes clustered toward the top and sides of each light. Such windows are found in the Dana and Frank Thomas (1901) houses, and are, presumably, the windows to which Mr. Little referred.That same fall (1913), Wright had become involved in the conception and design of the Chicago Midway Gardens, which in his autobiography he called "A Tale of the Architectural 'Arabian Nights.'" It was to be an entertainment center combining the sensory pleasures of European sidewalk cafés or biergärten with a program of high-quality entertainment ranging from dance bands to Anna Pavlova. Ed Waller, the Garden's impresario, described his idea to Wright, "I see people up on balconies and all around over the tops of the buildings. Light, color, music, movement-a gay place!"14 Aladdin (Wright) would rub his magic lamp and design such a place.I meant to get back to first principles-pure form in everything; weave a masonry-fabric in beautiful pattern in genuine materials and good construction, bring painting and sculpture in to heighten and carry all still further into the realm of the Lamp in the same Spirit. A synthesis of all the Arts . . . . Meanwhile the straight line, square, triangle and circle I had learned to play with in Kindergarten were set to work in this developing sense of abstraction, by now my habit . . . .15How does one represent "gaiety" in abstract terms? A major ornamental theme in the Midway Gardens was a falling cascade of triangles, the visual equivalent of a ripple of laughter. The motif is seen in figure 7 in light fixtures, furniture, tablecloths, and glassware, and in figure 8 (an interior of the dining room), in relief and three-dimensional sculpture and the leaded-glass windows.16It is curious that the Little, who requested glass designs that were "very quiet and simple," should approve the designs we see in both figure 6 and, schematically reduced, in figure 9 derived from Wright's version of an Arabian pleasure garden!17 Certain alterations, of course, were made. Most important, Wright included only white, some opaque sandblasted pieces, and one small red square (his signature) in each major bank of windows. He thought the design "delicate." In fact, the scale of ornament in the Little windows is much reduced, allowing for large uninterrupted sheets of plate glass. Each window at the clerestory level of the living room is a complete version of the decorative scheme. In the sash windows below, however, Wright sought to create the effect of one great "picture window," thus yielding to the creative imagination of his clients, who wanted a "decorative screen and frame that allows for, but does not compete with, a view of the surrounding lake."18 The complete design is repeated on either end, an asymmetrical "frame," in the next light toward the center, and the most open version (center light in figure 9) is repeated in the eight lights in between.The festive character of both the Midway Gardens and the Little house glass is primarily due to the dancing white triangles. When seen from outside against a darkened interior, they give the effect of aspen leaves twirling in the breeze. This imagery is totally appropriate to the setting on Lake Minnetonka. Further, the major glass motif, seen in its sash window variation on either end of figure 9 was determined exclusively by the plan and structural program of the Little house. For Wright, ornament, in the largest sense, had not only to be part of the fabric of the structure (as opposed to something that was "tacked on"), but had also to grow out of the unique logic of each building.19 Integral ornament is simply structure-pattern made visibly articulate and seen in the building as it is seen articulate in the structure of the trees or a lily of the fields.The Little house, being essentially one room wide, is a single, very long line, offset just beyond the great chimney core. This broken axis is the basis for the major glass motif, seen at either end of figure 9. It is the plan that is "mirrored" to create a complete and symmetrical frame.The hallway (figure 10) acquired by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts measures 18 x 5-1/2 feet and contains ten tall windows, two small interior windows and two pairs of leaded-glass French doors. Nine of the tall windows measure 44 x 14-1/4 inches and the tenth, closest to the library vestibule (east end), measures 44 x 9-1/4 inches. The museum's ten windows are part of a continuous band of eighteen which lighted the entire bedroom hallway (the other eight lights are half as long), and their composition, therefore, completes a larger scheme. The unique narrow window contains a complex symmetrical design with triangles and verticals bunched in the center of the top half. The next window is a variation on the symmetrical end-panels shown in figure 9. The next, an asymmetrical panel, is almost an exact duplicate of the second from the ends in the master schema (figure 9). The fourth through tenth windows are all slightly altered versions of the center light in figure 9. This band, beginning with such decorative elaboration, is continued in the next half of the hallway in a series of five simple windows (again related to the center light in figure 9), and culminates in one asymmetrical and a final pair of elaborated symmetrical designs. The complete composition can be diagrammed as ABCDEDEDEDFGFGHII. It is an extremely subtle scheme that shuns cliché and predictability. The small windows adjacent to each pair of French doors are more or less unique, freer adaptations of the vertical/triangle vocabulary of the major motif. Finally, the French doors at either end of the hallway are a "mirrored," slightly altered version of the light second from the ends in figure 9. Throughout the house, screens were mounted inside the window frames, so that windows could swing open to the outside. Again, the festive character of the patterns of white triangles was most effective when a number of windows were opened. They must have expressed beautifully the inviting atmosphere which the Littles, who frequently presented musical entertainment for friends, wished to convey.The intricacy of the windows is a marvel to see at close range. As in true stained-glass windows, these are reinforced with heavy lead mullions. The mullions are worked into the design, itself completely rectilinear, and thus are expressed simply as heavier lines. The problem of structure versus design must plague all leaded-window designers. Wright, a superb designer, was always able through the subtle shift in axis of a major line to make the window strong while enriching its intellectual quality. Yes, these windows are fascinating intellectual, as well as visual, games! Like the best abstract painting of the early '60s, their elegant richness is the result of deliberately limited means. Their modernity is echoed in the method of their manufacture: electro-glazing.20 Though Wright is often characterized as a romantic who specified natural materials that were worked laboriously by hand, he was, in fact, a proponent of new industrial materials and processes, and frequently a pioneer, as in the areas of domestic heating and lighting. In a speech of March, 1901, entitled, "The Art and Craft of the Machine," Wright made clear his conviction that ugly industrially produced objects were the fault of insensitive designers, not the materials or processes employed.Multitudes of processes are expectantly awaiting the sympathetic interpretation of the master mind . . . . Electro-glazing, shunned because too cleanly [sic] and delicate for the clumsy hand of the traditional designer, who depends upon the mass and blur of leading to conceal his lack of touch.21In addition to the fine glass in the hallway, one finds the sensitivity to materials and detailing that are Wright's hallmark. The woodwork of bleached oak includes, in addition to the usual door and window frames and baseboards, wall and ceiling stripping which not only further articulates the structure but also creates a serene sense of rhythm and scale in this space. Wright used these wood strips perhaps first out of a love for Japanese architecture, but, more significantly, because they were practical. The studs behind any plastered wall as well as the lath above a plastered ceiling will, over a period of time, reveal their pattern on the plastered surface. The vertical rhythm of the strips is repeated in oak grilles at the top of the wall opposite the windows (affording ventilation to the bedroom behind that wall) and in a screen or very delicate verticals at the base of the window seat. Wright often used such grilles to cover unsightly radiators. In another effort to avoid the effects of age, soil and damage, Wright tinted the actual plaster of his walls. In the Little house all plaster was tinted a warm beige; it was never meant to be painted. A cabinet at the eastern end of the hallway (near the end in figure 10) is enclosed by three flat oak doors, unadorned except for a cut-out design of three squares repeated at the top and bottom edges of each door. A simple opaque white glass triangle (how contemporary it looks!) forms the light fixture at either end of the hallway.The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is fortunate to have added to its collection this fine example of the domestic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. The Francis W. Little house exemplified Wright's major achievements in siting, zone planning, the sensitive use of a variety of materials, and the integration of ornament. Our new acquisition represents his legacy, one that has affected the environment of all Americans.Kathryn C. Johnson is Supervisor of Classes and Special Events in the Education Division of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. She has taught art history at Lakewood State Junior College and The College of St. Catherine. While her field of specialization is architectural history (she is currently researching Twin Cities commercial buildings and the oeuvre of Minneapolis architect, Harry Wild Jones), she was written on a wide range of subjects, contributing the introductory essay to the Fakes and Forgeries catalog, published by the museum in 1973.Endnotes
  1. Vincent Scully, Jr., Frank Lloyd Wright (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1960), p. 21.
  2. Leonard K. Eaton, Two Chicago Architects and Their Clients: Frank Lloyd Wright and Howard Van Doren Shaw (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1969), p. 61.
  3. Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1943), p. 162.
  4. Wright, op. cit., p. 180.
  5. In the preface to the Wasmuth publication of his work, Ausgefuhrte Bauten und Entwurfe, Wright stated simply, "The horizontal line is the line of domesticity." This essay (titled, "The Sovereignty of the Individual") is reprinted in Edgar Kaufmann and Ben Raeburn, Frank Lloyd Wright: Writings and Buildings (New York: World Publishing Company, 1960), pp. 84-106.
  6. The long horizontal roof spans in both the Robie and Little houses were made possible by the use of steel I-beams, first suggested to Wright by Mr. Robie, a bicycle manufacturer with many friends in the construction business. This may have been the first use of welded structural steel in an American house. See Eaton, op. cit., p. 132.
  7. Figure 2 is not an "as-built" drawing and consequently does not reflect minor changes made during construction.
  8. Arcades with textured upper surfaces are found in the fireplace vestibule of Wright's Winslow house (1893) and the exteriors of the Isidor Heller house (1897) and the aforementioned Husser house (1899).
  9. I am indebted to Morrison Heckscher, Assistant Curator of the American Wing, Metropolitan Museum of Art, for making available to me transcripts of a portion of the Wright-Little correspondence, especially those letters which discuss the design of the leaded-glass windows and doors.
  10. Henry-Russell Hitchcock, In the Nature of Materials (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1942), notes to figs. 199-200B.
  11. W. R. Lethaby, Architecture, Mysticism and Myth (London: Percival and Co., 1892), p. 102. Lethaby responded to this description, "Thus adorned, the gate of sunrise must have surpassed all imagination and splendour, as the rising sun shone on the precious metal."
    I wish to thank Professor Leonard K. Eaton, College of Architecture and Urban Planning, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, for suggesting Lethaby as an important source regarding late nineteenth-century stained glass.
  12. Wright's response of November 3, 1913, indicates that green and yellow were suggested-a likely choice given the wooded setting of Northome.
  13. Letter of November 5, 1913.
  14. Wright, An Autobiography, p. 176.
  15. Wright, op. cit., pp. 190, 191.
  16. Unfortunately, no better photograph of these windows exists; the Gardens was demolished in 1923, a victim of the economy and Prohibition.
  17. Mr. Little's wishes were expressed in his letter of November 5, 1913.
  18. Morrison Heckscher and Elizabeth G. Miller, An Architect and His Client: Frank Lloyd Wright and Francis W. Little (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1973), unnumbered.
  19. Frank Lloyd Wright, The Natural House (New York: Horizon Press, 1954), p. 65.
  20. In electro-glazing, cut pieces of glass with metal wires in between them were lowered into an electrolytic bath. Through a chemical process, these wires built up into supporting rods and securing channels for the glass. The glass for the Little house was made by the Temple Art Glass Co., Chicago.
  21. E. Kaufmann and B. Raeburn, op. cit., p. 67.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. The Francis W. Little house, Peoria, Illinois, 1903.
    (Photo: Henry-Russell Hitchcock, In the Nature of Materials,
    New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1942.)
  2. Plan of the Francis W. Little house, Northome
    Deephaven, Minnesota, 1912-1914
    (Photo: Hitchcock)
  3. Plan of the Frederick C. Robie house, Chicago, Illinois, 1909
    (Photo: Hitchcock)
  4. Preliminary perspective drawing, Northome
    (Photo: Hitchcock)
  5. Exterior of living room wing (south side), Northome
    (Photo: Hitchcock)
  6. Interior of living room, Northome
    (Photo: Hitchcock)
  7. Drawing for dining room furniture, Midway Gardens, Chicago, Illinois, 1913-1914
    (Photo: Hitchcock)
  8. Interior of dining room, Midway Gardens
    (Photo: Hitchcock)
  9. Reduced schema for living room windows, Northome
    (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum)
  10. Interior of bedroom wing hallway, Northome
    The David Draper Dayton Fund, 72.11
    (Photo: Hitchcock)
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Source: Kathryn C. Johnson, "Frank Lloyd Wright's Mature Prairie Style," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 61 (1974): 54-65.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009