Frank Lloyd Wright's bedroom. Photo by Maynard Parker, Huntington Library-Parker Collection.

Anna to her son

Color photo taken in 1955 in Wright’s bedroom at Taliesin. There’s a framed photo on his desk, near the barrel chair.
It shows his aunts (Jennie and Nell Lloyd Jones) on the left, and his mother on the right.

Anna, as in Anna Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother. This post is about Anna in general, but also whether or not she ever lived at Taliesin.

Although, I won’t give a deep analysis on how the architect felt about his mother, or vice versa.

Anna (first named Hannah) Lloyd Jones was born in Wales in 1838 and died in Oconomowoc in eastern Wisconsin in 1923. Wright wrote about her in his autobiography, saying that:

“…. Although she believed Education the direct manifestation of God…, Sister Anna loved—Beauty.

Soon she became a teacher in the countryside, riding a horse over the hills and through the woods to and from her school each day.”

Frank Lloyd Wright. An Autobiography in Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings, volume 2: 1930-32. Edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, introduction by Kenneth Frampton (1992; Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York City, 1992), 108.

Anna’s choices:

She made choices that had a strong effect on her son’s career. In 1876 she went to the Centennial Exposition and discovered the Froebel Gifts.

I wrote about them when I gave history of Hillside on the Taliesin estate.

The Froebel Gifts were an essential part of the new kindergarten method of teaching, and Anna took classes on how to teach her children to use them. They’ll affect Wright’s designs and, he wrote later that, “The smooth shapely maple blocks” of the Gifts, would “never afterward” leave his fingers. “[S]o form,” he wrote, “became feeling….” [Frank Lloyd Wright, 111.]

The first summer the family moved back in Wisconsin (1878, the year Wright turned 11) and lived in Madison. Anna sent her son 45 miles west, to “The Valley” outside of Spring Green where her family lived. Wright lived and worked at Uncle James Lloyd Jones’s farm. As I wrote in “Wright and Nature”, the architect vividly wrote about his memories in The Valley. He wrote that life in The Valley taught him “how to add tired to tired and add tired.” And that he was to learn,

“that the secret of all the human styles in architecture was the same that gave character to the trees.”
Frank Lloyd Wright. An Autobiography in Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings, 126.

Yet,

In spite of these good things, I’m ambivalent about Anna. Did she follow him around too much? Did she put him on too much of a pedestal that leaked into how he felt about himself? Was she abusive to her step-daughter Lizzie?

Why am I bringing this up now? I’m bringing her up because, when we went to Arizona last month,

I read some of her letters.

In December, I read transcriptions of some letters to I look for those things about Wright’s mother as she lived at Taliesin.

Here‘s I wrote about that trip.

I did this because, while I’ve been told over the years that she lived at his home, I wanted to check. That’s because being told things doesn’t always make them true. After all, when I gave tours I was told by a visitor that “my guide at [another Wright site] said that Wright had designed Taliesin with a room for both his wife and his mistress.”

In reply I [HOPE] I said: “His wife and his partner, Mamah Borthwick?” … coz you have to use that vocabulary in order to change the narrative … “No, I’m sorry I don’t remember seeing that in any of Taliesin’s drawings….”

Regardless,

In her biography on the architect, author Meryle Secrest mentioned Anna living at Taliesin. Secrest wrote that Wright contacted his sisters (Jane and Maginel) about the problems that caused. But Secrest didn’t quote from the letters. Given how people can misread and misunderstand, I wanted to check. 

So, in December,

At Taliesin West, I got a chance to look at some of the letters that Anna wrote to her son after he started Taliesin. I read some of what she wrote while he was in Japan working on the Imperial Hotel. And I made notes that do show that she was living at Taliesin while he was away from his home. Of course the problem with that is, when she and her son lived at the house, there was no reason for Anna to write him.

And unfortunately,

I’ve not found anything written by Anna where she described exactly in which room at Taliesin she lived, or what built-ins the room had, or what colors were plastered on which colors.

No, unfortunately, when she wrote to her son, Anna sounded like a normal human. She didn’t write like she was writing for some historian a century later. I mean, really: she wrote to her son and his companion, Miriam Noel, on March 16, 1917 that she was had been found on the floor “in the hall from my room”, but still didn’t mention which was “my” room.1

Grumble grumble….

Yet, in that letter on March 16, Anna did write something interesting. She told her son to allow a new draftsman at Taliesin to live, instead, “in the house on the hill….”

I know what that means

The “house on the hill” is the part of Taliesin that had a kitchen, storage rooms, and the larger dining room.2 The photo below shows this area at Taliesin. It’s a postcard that former apprentice Edgar Tafel owned. He said it was taken 1917-18:

Photograph of Taliesin Hill Wing, in snow.

The apartment that Anna mentioned was on the left in the photograph. The kitchen was at the base of the chimney on the right. Today, if you were to walk past this, you wouldn’t be able to see the room that held the kitchen.

(besides, you can’t walk there because it’s private property and people live there)

But you wouldn’t be able to easily see the room with the old kitchen because Wright added a dining room, blocking most of that view. Sometime after this photo was taken, Wright would add the dining room that he walked out of in 1925 to see the fire at his house (read my post about the fire, here).

First published January 8, 2022
Image screen-grab at the top of this post is by Maynard L. Parker, photographer. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California, from the webpage below:
https://hdl.huntington.org/digital/collection/p15150coll5/id/10269

This photograph on his desk is one of the only ones that Wright had in his home.


Notes:

1 The letter was written March 16, 1917, but I couldn’t find the microfiche number for it.

2 This is where knowing the building well helps out. I read this letter that Olgivanna wrote to Maginel in May 1932. It’s published in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Monona Terrace: The Enduring Power of a Civic Vision, by David V. Mollenhoff and Mary Jane Hamilton (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1999), 82. In the letter Olgivanna wrote:

We are in desperate condition. The Sechrests have shut us out of the hill – nailed all the doors leading to their part, dining rooms, kitchens, storerooms, waiting for money we owe them (three months salary)…. We are cooking and eating in the kitchen below.

I instantly knew what being shut “out of the hill” and what “eating in the kitchen below” meant. The “hill” being the kitchen and dining room on the hill that I talked about above. Eating in “the kitchen below” meant the kitchen in the main living quarters. They weren’t the full-time kitchen any longer and they were “below” because the other kitchen was on the hill.

Looking across the Taliesin valley, with the building at Mid-ground

Wright and nature:

Looking (plan) north at Taliesin in the background in The Valley of Wright’s family.
I took this photograph in April 2015.

“Frank Lloyd Wright loved nature” is something a lot of us know (if you didn’t know that until now, just look like you’re thinking deeply about it and the Frankophiles won’t notice).

However, he didn’t always write straightforward statements on how he felt about it.

In fact:

I can’t find evidence that Wright said or wrote this quote currently associated with him:

“study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”

Despite how great this quote is—Frank Lloyd Wright saying to pay attention to nature!! —its origin appears to be Carla Lind’s introduction to her book, The Wright Style: Recreating the Spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright.1

She wrote that “Wright told his apprentices” to “study nature…” But I’ve found no proof that those very words ever came out of his mouth or flowed from his pen. If Lind had not written that in quotation marks, I don’t think we’d see it everywhere.

I have come to the conclusion that the quote is like if I wrote, “Frank Lloyd Wright always said, ‘I love having pancakes on Saturdays.'”2

Anyways,

I’ve been searching Wright’s statements on nature to explain how he thought about it.

In fact, in 1957, Wright told interviewer Mike Wallace on television that,

“I attend the greatest of all churches.

I put a capital N on Nature, and call it my church.”

But, while it’s not a deep secret, you have to dig into Wright’s writings to find an explanation from him on what he loved about nature.

That’s why, in this post, I’ll explore Wright’s thoughts and feelings a bit more.

An example of Wright speaking about nature:

Because when you’re talking about Wright, “nature” doesn’t mean flowers, trees, or sunsets. Wright really meant the underlying geometry in nature. Here’s what he wrote in 1912 in a small book, The Japanese Print: An Interpretation:

Using this word “Nature” in the Japanese sense I do not of course mean that outward aspect that strikes the eye as a visual image of a scene…, but that inner harmony which penetrates the outward form… – what Plato called… the ‘eternal idea of the thing.’

The Japanese Print: An Interpretation, by Frank Lloyd Wright. From Frank Lloyd Wright: Collected Writings, volume 1 (1894-1930). Edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, introduction by Kenneth Frampton (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York City, 1992), 118.

In 1932, he wrote that:

When I say “Nature,” I mean structure seen as a matter of complete design within the thing itself, nature—pattern, that is….

An Autobiography, by Frank Lloyd Wright. In Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings: 1930-32, volume 2. Edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, introduction by Kenneth Frampton (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York City, 1992), 371.

His ideas on nature came in his childhood:

The young Wright was thrown into nature when he was sent out to “The” “Valley” in Southwestern Wisconsin to work on his Uncle James’ farm.

Yup: this area was known to the Lloyd Jones family as The Valley. With capital letters.3

Wright was there every summer from the year that he turned eleven until the year he turned eighteen.

This area, a spot of land south of the village of Spring Green, was settled and farmed in the 1860s by Wright’s maternal grandparents, Richard and Mallie Lloyd Jones. This was followed by their children (Wright’s aunts and uncles) living or working there. You can find out about the family by going to the website http://www.unitychapel.org/

The Valley in his writing:

It was important enough that Wright opened his autobiography with a story taking place in it.

A light blanket of snow fresh-fallen over sloping fields, gleaming in the morning sun. Clusters of pod-topped weeds woven of bronze here and there sprinkling the spotless expanse of white. Dark sprays of slender metallic straight lines, tipped with quivering dots. Pattern to the eye of the sun, as the sun spread delicate network of more pattern in blue shadows on the white beneath.

Frank Lloyd Wright. An Autobiography in Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings: 1930-32, volume 2. Edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, introduction by Kenneth Frampton (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York City, 1992), 104.

Referring to himself as “the boy”, he wrote about the link of his experiences to his feelings on nature and architecture:

And the trees stood in it all like various, beautiful buildings, of more different kinds than all the architectures of the world. And the boy was some day to learn that the secret of all the human styles in architecture was the same that gave character to the trees.

Frank Lloyd Wright. An Autobiography in Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings: 1930-32, volume 2, 123.

Looking up the hill in early spring at Taliesin's Lower Parking Court

What’s above is a photograph of Taliesin, as the building seems to rise from the hill.
This was taken by me in March, 2008 looking up at Taliesin’s Lower Parking Court.

Family connections:

Furthermore, the family of Wright’s mother, the Lloyd Joneses, was really important to Wright. During those summers, Wright stayed with “Uncle James” Lloyd Jones.4

The Lloyd Jones family was Unitarian and very interested in Ralph Waldo Emerson and poet Walt Whitman. Historian William Cronon, from the University of Wisconsin wrote that:

The… popular view today is that romantics like Emerson or Thoreau, or… Wright, celebrated the beauty of nature in a literal sense much as many modern environmentalists do…. In fact, raw nature was… less compelling for most nineteenth century romantics that it is for modern nature-lovers. The romantics regarded plants and animals… as the outward manifestations of an all-encompassing spiritual unity whose name was God.

“Inconstant Unity: The Passion of Frank Lloyd Wright,” by William Cronon (8-30), in Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect, ed. Terence Riley, with Peter Reed (Museum of Modern Art, New York City, 1994), 13.

So nature, God, and underlying geometry. And geometry goes into architecture. It’s all linked. Only took me about two years to really start to understand it.

First published, October 20, 2021.
I took the photographs seen in this post.


1 I wrote one of her publishers asking if she could get back to me on this statement. I want to ask her where that quote came from. They didn’t have her contact info, so I wrote her in care of another former publisher. I’ll change this if I can ask her where she got that.

2 He was NOT devoted to pancakes. I understand that he liked steel-cut oats.

3 And, even though most of the Lloyd Jones descendants are settled throughout the world, they all know what they’re talking about when they say, “The Valley”. The Valley, by the way, is now known as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Estate.

4 You can now rent Uncle James’ farmstead: http://www.aldebaranfarm.us/

Although if that’s not available you can also rent nearby Aunt Margaret’s house. Her house is just across the road from Wright’s Hillside School building.

Cover of the Wisconsin magazine of History, Volume 50, Number 2, Winter, 1967

“Keiran: don’t try to correct the Internet”

That’s what a former boyfriend once told me. I believe that came after I’d spent feverish, anxious hours trying to change every incorrect utterance online to Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth date: June 8, 1867. What was wrong? People wrote (and still sometimes write) incorrectly that he was born on June 8, 1869.

What can I say? It was the 1990s and the World Wide Web was this new, awesome wonder. I thought I could send out the correct information, leading to an avalanche of facts, truth, and scintillating, heartfelt dialog.

Or something like that.

Regardless—what’s this deal about 1869?

While Frank Lloyd Wright is responsible for a number of things in the world—

like, did you know he invented the wall-hung toilet? Ok, that knowledge isn’t up there in trivia contests like, “Who was the father of the man who invented Lincoln Logs?”, but knowledge about who invented the wall-hung-toilet might be good for something one day.

—he’s also responsible for people believing he was two years younger than he actually was. He wrote about it and mentioned it in interviews so that, by the time he died in 1959, everyone thought he’d been born in 1869. Wright’s obituary from The New York Times (linked to in the last sentence), stated the architect died on April 10, 1959 at age 89; in reality, he was 91. That’s some deep stuff when the Paper of Record has it wrong.

This got in the paper even though his sister, Jane Porter (he designed her and her husband’s home), was born—when?—1869. She was born in late April. Catholic twins aren’t even born that closely together.1

Wright’s lie/falsehood/untruth was not dispensed with until 1967, 8 years after his death.

That’s why his birth year is incorrect if you see his original grave site at Unity Chapel in Wisconsin. The marker was made before they figured out the truth.

One scholar and finding the truth:

In honor of Wright’s birthday, I’ll relate the info from an article by scholar Thomas Hines, who uncovered the truth. Hines wrote the article on his findings in the Wisconsin Magazine of History, in Volume 50, number 2, Winter 1967, 109-119. 

The article is “Frank Lloyd Wright—The Madison Years: Records versus Recollections”. In it, Hines detailed how we all got things wrong about Wright’s education, age, and his parents’ divorce. And that’s because,

[t]he chief source of such misinformation has been Frank Lloyd Wright, himself.
Thomas Hines. “Frank Lloyd Wright—The Madison Years: Records versus Recollections,” 109.

Hines gave three pieces of evidence for Wright’s birth year being 1867:

1. The 1880 United States Census, which,

lists the names and ages of the family of William C. Wright and his wife Anna, giving the age of a son, Frank, as being thirteen. If Frank was thirteen in 1880, he would, therefore, have been born in 1867, not 1869.
Hines, 110.

2. One of the schools that Wright attended (the “old” Madison High School, now Central High School):

Wright’s name appears… once in the surviving records of his high school. In the oldest volume… in the school’s collection… Wright’s name appears near the end of the book, with his father’s name, his address, 804 E. Gorham and his birth date, ‘June 8, 1867.’
Hines, 110.

3. His parents divorce records. The records record that:

the parties hereto have three children… whose names and ages are as followed: Frank L. Wright, 17 years old, June 8, 1884; Mary Jane Wright [Jane Porter], 15 years old, April 26, 1884; Margaret Ellen Wright [Maginel Wright Enright Barney], 7 years old, June 19, 1884.” Listed by his father, under oath, as being seventeen on June 8, 1884, Frank Lloyd Wright would, therefore, have been born on June 8, 1867.
Hines, 111.

Why did the architect lie?

We don’t know.

Biographer Meryle Secrest posited that,

the new birth year of 1869 did not come into use until November 1925.2  Conceivably, the immanent arrival of his seventh child3 and the fact that Olgivanna was so much younger were the precipitating factors. However, a year later, when the idea of incorporating himself came to him, it would have occurred to the prudent side of his nature that it was far easier to sell shares on the future of a man still in his fifties than on one who is almost sixty.
Meryl Secrest. Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography (1992; HarperPerennial, HarperCollins, New York City, 1993), 334.

Hines on Wright’s “embellishments”:

The piece by Hines addresses not just Wright’s lie about his age, but also the architect’s lies about his education, and his parents’ divorce. In sum: Wright’s recollections did not match the factual records.

In the end, Hines speculated on why Wright altered the facts:

[S]lowly over the years, Wright’s unique creative nature demanded and conceived for himself a persona, a mythic personality surrounded by a partially mythic world; that indeed he had no conception of objective “truth” as most people define it, but that he determined the truth of all things by the degree to which such things supported or contradicted the “truths” of his own world. A family situation and an education as he described them seemed, therefore, more appropriate and acceptable as an introduction to his life than the real situations had been.
Hines, 119.

So, 8 years after his death, people began to realize what Wright meant when saying, “The truth is more important than the facts.”

Addendum: Update on the date:

After publishing this blog, one of my subscribers, who is the Administrator for Historic Studies at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, gave me information on their understanding of Wright’s change of his birth year. She wrote that:

Mrs. Wright told people that Mr. Wright had always given that date as the date HIS mother gave him, and she took it as truth.
On June 21,1967 Mrs. Wright responded to a letter from Catherine Baxter4 who was annoyed by the false birth day given for Mr. Wright:

“Dear Catherine, I fulfilled my promise to you and spoke of your father’s mixed dates as you will find in these articles…”

Originally published on June 1, 2021.
Updated June 4, 2021.


Notes:

1 I knew two brothers in my class in grade school who were born 10 months apart. Until I heard about their birthdays, I’d assumed they were fraternal twins. I hadn’t learned the term “Catholic twins” until much later, but it was Catholic school. Hence, I also had two classmates with at least 7 siblings a piece.

2 In an article in the Madison newspaper, The Capital Times, on November 17, 1925.

3 Iovanna Lloyd Wright, December 2, 1925-September 7, 2015.

4 Catherine Baxter (1894-1979) was third child and first girl born in the marriage of Frank and Catherine Lloyd Wright (Wright’s first wife).