Photographs showing "Octagon" and "Cube" at Frank Lloyd Wright's Midway Gardens. Taken from the book The Life-Work of the American Architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Missing Wright

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Three photographs of statues at Midway Gardens, by Frank Lloyd Wright. The statues represent “attributes of geometry”1. The two photos on the left show the Octagon statue, and the one of the right shows “cube”. I took this photo from my copy of the “Wendingen”.

No: not missing the man, Frank Lloyd Wright.

I’m talking about missing the building designed by Wright.

in other words:

Which destroyed Wright building would you like to see?

The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy says that ONE in every FIVE buildings he designed has been destroyed.2

Therefore, some Frankophiles play the game that they imagine which destroyed Wright building they want to walk through. So, it’s a chance to visit your favorite Wright buildings IN YOUR MIND.

Although, really, unless we live there or work there, most of us only have our minds as the vehicles to visit our favorite Wright buildings.
            It’s a minor compulsion. We can deal with it if we want to.3

On that question

there are those who will vote for Taliesin 1 as their favorite destroyed Wright building. That is: his home, Taliesin, from 1911-1914.

btw, you can find Taliesin I in my blog here and at this link here, among posts of mine.

But, I am not one of them.

I mean: I do not think that Taliesin I was the “best” Taliesin.

That’s because I see Taliesin as a manifestation of Wright’s mental and artistic process, from the time he started it until the last day he saw it.4

Although, I have thought differently about Taliesin II in the last year or so. That was partially inspired by my thinking about Taliesin’s “unfinished wing” (like I wrote in the post of that title).

So, with Taliesin out of the running, which building do I wish I could see?

Midway Gardens

I have come to this conclusion recently. That is because I am currently reading Frank Lloyd Wright, The Lost Years: 1910-1922.4 This book from 1993 was by author, architect and architectural historian Anthony Alofsin. He developed it from his doctoral dissertation.

My husband gave me the book as a gift, so I’ve been underlining a lot and writing notes in order to maintain an understanding of what I’ve read.

Don’t worry, I’ve been underlining in pencil, so I’m not carrying on in some sacrilegious defacement. Although, I often keep my space in books by turning down the corners of pages.
I don’t know why I perform this mutilation. I guess you’ll have to deal with it.

What was Midway Gardens?

Edward C. Waller, Jr. commissioned Wright to design Midway Gardens as an entertainment, eating and drinking establishment in Chicago. It took up one square city block and was constructed next to the Midway Plaisance park in Chicago’s South Side. Waller wanted it opened as long as possible in the Midwest, so it had a summer garden (outside), and a winter garden (inside).

Waller intended it to be a venue where people could spend an entire evening. They could eat dinner and drink, as well as dance. That’s why it had a band-shell for live music.

How it got started:

Midway Gardens came about because Edward Waller, Jr. (whose father commissioned Wright) approached Wright with an idea to create an entertainment establishment similar to the beer gardens he had seen in Germany. My research for this post told me that beer gardens emerged in Germany in the 18th Century. The website TripSavvy says that:

Maximilian I, Bavaria’s first king, … signed a royal decree that allowed brewers to sell beer, but not food. People compromised, enjoying the best beers direct from the brewer and bringing a picnic. Thus, the tradition of the biergarten was born.
https://www.tripsavvy.com/what-to-expect-at-german-biergarten-1519627

Beer gardens were sites where the whole family could gather for hours and see friends. Waller approached Wright on this at an interesting point: Wright had been in Europe with Mamah Borthwick in 1909-1910, absorbing a lot of ideas. So, this commission came in 1913 and gave him the chance to weave these ideas into a project.

With this commission,

Wright took all he had seen and learned in Europe. He designs something massive

Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York), #1401.087

Drawing from The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York), drawing 1401.087.

The drawing above is most of the winter garden.

and all-encompassing

Drawings. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). Drawing of a cashier booth and cigar counter at Midway Gardens.

Drawing from The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York), drawing 1401.156.

I mean: the drawings above show both a ticket counter and cigar booth. Totally out of control, man!

Midway also had:

Light fixtures, stained glass designs, and a mural called “City by the Sea”.

He also designed these geometric concrete blocks suggesting movement that were veneered on the building’s exterior:

Concrete block from Midway Gardens. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

Additionally, he designed concrete figures embodying the spirit of architecture, and platonic shapes (which, if you didn’t know, were also just fine to look at). Two of these statues are in the three photos at the top of this post.

And then there were the vertical concrete figures known as “Sprites”, which people still really like.

One appears in the photo below, taken at Taliesin West.  When I went to study there, I often took tours after working all week. I took the photo below while on one of them. It shows one of the sprites outside of the Garden Room at Taliesin West:

Photograph by Keiran Murphy of the exterior of the Garden Room at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West.

The sprites at Taliesin West are painted, like you see above. Several guides on my Taliesin West tours told the story that Wright had the sprites there, and that his daughter, Iovanna, went to him and said, “Daddy, I want to paint the statues,” and the paint on the Taliesin West spites is the result.

This story, in my opinion, might fall under what I call “the telephone game of tour guiding.”

I don’t know when the sprites came to Taliesin West, but I was told Wright bought the land in Feb. 1938. That would mean that Iovanna was 12 years old. “Daddy, I want to paint the statues” makes her sound like she was 5. So, I believe the story might be conflated a little bit. On the other hand, there were plenty of children growing up at T-West so maybe that’s what happened.
/Frankophile out

Wright also designed the restaurant’s plates, beer steins, and cigarette holders. This artifact page in at Steinerag.com/flw/index.htm has a great selection of them.5

Midway, in short, was awesome

A whole lotta gesamtkunstwerk goin on.

I mean:

it was a a total work of art.

I don’t speak or read German; but, like some German words, it crams a lot of meaning into one word.

This  is a video of a pretty cool model of Midway Gardens in the program known as SketchUp. It’s a 3-D modeling program and takes you all around the building so you can see the size of it and how it all relates together.

And Douglas Steiner (of Steinerag) wrote on the Midway Gardens design, below:

There are many classic Wright details. The basic material[s] are brick and patterned concrete blocks. There are cantilevered and trellised roof overhangs and cantilevered balconies, decoratively designed metal fascia cornices. Horizontal lines, columns, hidden entries, horizontal rows of leaded glass windows and rows of leaded glass doors that open outward, vases, light trees, pedestal bases and sculptures, many, many sculptures.

Steiner copyright from 2008.

Unfortunately, fate killed it.

First of all:

Its grand opening was June 27, 1914.

That was the day before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Which led to World War I.

Those of you who have read me for awhile know I have an interest in World War I. In part because I believe it’s “the Worst Mistake We’ve Ever Made as a Species“.

Then, there were money problems.

Even I know that restaurants can bleed money.

But, while the first two summer seasons went well, there were still bills from before the establishment opened. In 1916, Edelweiss Brewery bought Midway Gardens, and it became the “Edelweiss Gardens.”

The Gardens limped through World War I, but finally,

there was Prohibition.

While overall I think it was a good thing that we in the United States kicked our habit of drinking, you know, like a liter of hard liquor a day, it sentenced Midway Gardens to history.

Here’s Wright in his autobiography regarding the Gardens’ downfall:

The Edelweiss Brewing Company [bought] the Gardens for a song…. The Edelweiss… hired someone to come in, painted the concrete, stencil the plain surfaces, and add obnoxious features out of balance. The whole effect was cheapened to suit hearty Bourgeois “taste.” … Where had been integral materials, there was raw red, dead white, and bad blue paint….

 And then the “affliction” fell. The Nation went dry.

 That was the final blow….

 [T]he Midway Gardens sunk to the level of the “beer-garden” without the beer….

 “They” painted the chaste white concrete sculpture in more irrelevant gaudy colors, stenciled more cheap ornament on top of the integral ornament, wrecked the line and mass of the whole—until all semblance of the original harmony utterly vanished. Yes, a distinguished woman dragged down to the level of the prostitute is now its true parallel.
Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography (Longmans, Green and Company, London, New York, Toronto, 1932), 187.

However:

even though fate doomed Midway Gardens from the start, what Wright designed is still glorious. Even if only in our minds.

Here are some resources:

And a great page on Midway Gardens from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

And the link to Frank Lloyd Wright and Midway Gardens, the book by Paul Kruty.

 

First published on March 5, 2023.
I took this photo from The Life-Work of the American Architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1965; Santpoort, Holland: C. A. Mees, 1925), by Frank Lloyd Wright, H. Th. Wijdeveld, ed.
The “Life-Work” is the book publication of seven issues of Wendingen magazine that were published in 1924-25. Wendingen magazine was published in the Netherlands from 1918-32. Because of the link to the magazine, people refer to it as “the Wendingen”.


Notes:

1 Frank Lloyd Wright: The Lost Years, 1910-1922: A Study of Influence, by Anthony Alofsin (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992), 143.

2 The Building Conservancy determined that number in the late 1980s. Since then, with a few exceptions, they’ve successfully splashed daylight on endangered Wright buildings.

3 Nooo – after all, I can sleep without my blanket.

4 Not that there aren’t Taliesin details I’d like to see, along with those things I really wish he had not changed (as I wrote about here).

5 Douglas Steiner writes these pages. Sometimes I’ll check on items because he explains things really well.

Looking toward Taliesin from the grounds of Unity Chapel

“This book is going to be big”

Reading Time: 4 minutes

This photograph is looking from the Unity Chapel cemetery, which is the private cemetery of the Lloyd Jones family. Frank Lloyd Wright received permission to bury Mamah Borthwick here. You can see Wright’s home, Taliesin, against the hill.

I wrote that in an email to Taliesin Preservation‘s Programs Director, as well as its Bookstore Manager.

Then I continued:

“I don’t mean big in ‘our’ little Wrightworld. I mean big in the real world.”

It was May 2007 and I had just read about the release of an upcoming book, Loving Frank. Written by Nancy Horan, it is a book of historical fiction with Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick as the main characters.

As August 15 (and the anniversary of Taliesin’s 1914 fire) comes up this weekend, I thought I would write about Loving Frank, and my thoughts on it when it came out.

My first encounter with tales of this upcoming book included newspaper titles with headlines like this:

“They were the Brangelina of their time…”

It catches the eye, you can say that. That sentence, in the Courier Journal newspaper (Lexington, KY), came from Ballantine publisher Libby McGuire, speaking about Wright and Borthwick’s scandalous love affair that made the national news in 1909-1910… 1911-12… and 1914.

And everyone at Taliesin (and all Wright sites) totally wants Brad Pitt (fan of architecture that he is) to take notice and come around.

You’ve seen the photo of Brangelina at Fallingwater, right?

So, in talking about that upcoming book through the summer in 2007, I would jokingly say, “I can’t wait to see the ending!”

Yes, it’s black humor, but what are you going to do?

I mean, I worked at a place where seven people were murdered on August 15, 1914 by servant Julian Carlton in an unknown and unknowable butchering with an axe, and fire (of the seven lives lost, only one died from his burns).

And the summer was full of listening to radio programs with guests discussing Wright and Borthwick. Looking it up, I wrote this in my own journal at that time:

I’m getting tired of reading that Mamah Borthwick is seen as a “footnote” in Wright’s life; or “not dealt with at all,” or “brushed over” or, perhaps, “not dealt with because people feel squeamish,” or that, “she’s not seen as very important.”

I continued:

It’s not that way for me…,  but I get tired of it….

I realize I may be taking this personally.

Me taking something personally? Really? Nah!

But the book came out, which I dutifully purchased. I expected to hate it. Perhaps my view of Loving Frank was reading the word “Brangelina” in relation to Wright and Borthwick.

Perhaps they would be called “Wrightwick”? “Framah”?

The word “Borght”, though, is cute. A Hungarian soup that Björk would eat.

Therefore, I held my breath as I read Nancy Horan’s book. I wanted to hate it, silently checking its facts. And yet I remember, early on, my old boyfriend walking through our living room, asking me what I thought.

By that time I had read, perhaps, up to page 50.

“Well, I don’t want to throw it against the wall,”

I replied.

And, over one hundred pages in, I became impressed by the research done by the author.

For example, in Chapter 21, Wright and Borthwick (who have left their families) are in Berlin, Germany. They have been discovered there by a reporter from the United States; which is true. And upon their discovery, Loving Frank tells the story of how the two became front page news in papers across America. This is also true.

After being discovered, the two leave the hotel and get breakfast. Wright says, “I want to take a little detour over to Darmstadt to see Olbrich, if we can. I’m told his work is worth seeing. Then on to Paris.”1

“Oh my God—she’s read Alofsin,” I said out loud.

I think I even put the book down in amazement.

While in Germany with Mamah Borthwick, Frank Lloyd Wright visited the work of Austrian architect, Joseph Olbrich. In fact, Wright was said to be “The American Olbrich”.

But, then there’s my mention of Alofsin. “Alofsin” refers to Anthony Alofsin. I wrote about him in my post on “Post-It Notes on Taliesin Drawings”. Alofsin wrote a seminal book in Wright scholarship: Frank Lloyd Wright: The Lost Years, 1910-1922: A Study of Influence.2

Alofsin worked on tracing Wright’s movements in Europe

It sounds simple, but it’s not. Wright wasn’t in touch with many people and his movements had to be dug up by Alofsin through Wright’s correspondence (which had recently been indexed3) and Wright’s later statements. So, until Alofsin’s work, Wright’s time in Europe in 1909-1910, was mostly a big hole. 

Returning to Loving Frank

The book sold so well that it inspired a special “Loving Frank Tour” at Taliesin. The first of these tours was done with Nancy Horan, in September 2008 (links on a press release and a poster for the tour are here and here). I was her contact on it, and created the timeline, etc, for the tour. It combined my touring and talking portion, where I told people what they would have seen in 1911.

Then I brought them to Taliesin’s living room, where they met Nancy, who was seated. She then read from the book.

She donated her time to Taliesin Preservation, did a public reading at the end of the day, and did a book signing. Regardless of all that, I found her to be delightful, sincere, and touched by Taliesin. 

And, again, I don’t know when, or if, the Loving Frank movie is going to come out, but if he wants to know, both myself, and Nancy Horan’s friend (who came out to Taliesin with her) thought that actor Brendan Fraser should play William Weston (Wright’s real-life carpenter who survived the 1914 fire/murders).

Of course, August 15 is still this coming Sunday.

I took this trip down Memory Lane as more-or-less a distraction from the approaching date. If you want to read my serious take on that day, read here.

For other photographs of the first Taliesin, and its devastation after the 1914 fire, you can get Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin: Illustrated by Vintage Postcards, by Randolph C. Henning; and Building Taliesin: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home of Love and Loss, by Ron McCrea.

Originally published August 13, 2021
I took the photograph at the top of this page on August 15, 2005.


1 Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan (Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, New York, 2007), 125.

2 University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992.

3 Frank Lloyd Wright: An Index to the Taliesin Correspondence is a 5-volume set that was edited under the direction of Alofsin and published in 1988. It’s available at larger libraries.