The Invisible Architect 

We know her ravishing renderings helped make Frank Lloyd Wright and other Prairie School architects make their mark. But Marion Mahony's other contributions to the movement are still being revealed more than 40 years after her death.

Kevin Howells was shoveling snow in front of his new house in Rogers Park when some neighbors rumbling by in a silver SUV stopped to ask whether he knew about the celebrated architect who had lived there. He had to admit he didn't.

Actually, Howells's house, on the 1900 block of West Estes, was once home to two architects: Walter Burley Griffin and his wife, Marion Mahony. But while Griffin is readily acknowledged as a luminary of the Prairie style, Mahony's role in the movement has been vigorously debated for decades. Some scholars say she was denied proper credit for her part in designing some of the most important pieces of the period--the Robie House, Unity Temple--while others, including her former boss Frank Lloyd Wright, characterize her only as a "capable assistant."

Yet at least one thing is certain, as an exhibition that opens Friday at the Block Museum of Art shows: "She did the drawings people think of when they think of Frank Lloyd Wright," says curator Debora Wood. "We can speculate till time's end what impact she had on the architecture--we know she did the art."

Mahony grew up in Winnetka, where her family took refuge after the Great Chicago Fire. "Always a tomboy," she wrote in an unpublished autobiography, "The Magic of America," she took daily walks to the lakeshore through the brush and flora. In her teens Mahony spent long hours "absorbing the scientific fundaments of our time." A family friend arranged to send her to MIT, where in 1894 she became the second woman to graduate from the architecture program. Her thesis, "The House and Studio of a Painter," articulates design elements that would become hallmarks of the Prairie style--"rooms freely communicating with each other," lit by large groups of windows, with a workspace attached to the same axis as the house and courtyard. "My thought has been to arrange a convenient and elegant home for an artist who, if not great, is at any rate very fashionable," she wrote.

At the time female architects were few and obscure, and their designs were primarily collaborative efforts. Sophia Hayden, who graduated four years ahead of Mahony, couldn't find a job until she won the competition to design the Women's Building for the World's Columbian Exposition. She was paid a fraction of what her male colleagues made, saw little of her vision come to fruition, and collapsed under the pressure. "The newspapers wrote that she had a nervous breakdown. She didn't complete any projects after that," says Jennifer Masengarb, an education specialist at the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

Mahony had a smoother entry into the business. The week after graduation she began working as a "cub draftsman" for her cousin, fellow MIT grad Dwight Perkins, helping with interior details for Steinway Hall, an 11-story edifice Perkins was designing on Van Buren. Perkins moved his own practice into the building when it was done and was soon joined by an old MIT pal, Robert Spencer. Spencer brought in his close friend Wright, who'd parted ways with Louis Sullivan a few years earlier. Walter Burley Griffin joined the group in 1899.

When business slowed and Perkins could no longer afford Mahony's $6 a week salary, Wright hired her to work with him at his new Oak Park studio. She had a talent for freehand drawing and for setting buildings in harmony with nature--another hallmark of the Prairie style. On at least one occasion, recalled architect Barry Byrne, who got his start under Wright, her work was declared superior to the master's.

The two worked together for 14 years, but it was a volatile relationship. She later claimed he'd taken credit for her work on the Dana-Thomas House in Oak Park and for many of her drawings in the Wasmuth Portfolio, which launched his international reputation when it was published in Germany in 1910. Her time at the drafting table resulted in just one solo commission, for the Church of All Souls in Evanston, run by a family friend. The September 1912 issue of the prestigious Western Architect featured its exterior stonework, tall gable roof, and skylights, but by 1960 All Souls had been razed for a parking lot.

As Wright prepared to go to Europe with his mistress in 1909, he asked Mahony to continue designing for his clients. For reasons that have never been ascertained, she refused. Wright then turned to Herman von Holst, who turned to Mahony--who agreed to help him "on a definite arrangement that I should have control of the designing." Prairie School scholars credit Mahony with both designing and rendering the Robert and Adolph Mueller houses in Decatur during this time. Although Wright had done little more than secure the commissions, writes Elizabeth Birmingham, a Mahony biographer and professor at North Dakota State University, "after he returned from Europe, he took credit for them and exhibited them under his name."

Griffin, who by this time had his own practice at Steinway Hall, handled the landscape design on the Mueller project as a favor to Mahony. In "The Magic of America," she writes, "I was first swept off my feet by my delight in his achievements in my profession, then through a common bond of interests in nature and intellectual pursuits, and then with the man himself. It was by no means a case of love at first sight, but it was a madness when it struck."

The two married in 1911 and moved to the house on Estes. Less than a year later, Mahony's renderings helped Griffin win the international competition to design Canberra, the new capital city of Australia. The entry was under his name, but American colleagues widely understood that while the planning concepts were Griffin's, the presentation drawings that so ideally set the city within the native flora came from her hand.

Mahony's adoration for her husband precluded her from demanding her share of the credit. She continued to sketch for him in Australia, but began to reserve more of her monograms for paintings that reflected her fascination with the native plant life. In the essay that accompanies the Mahony exhibition catalog, professor Christopher Vernon of the University of Western Australia writes "It led her to invent a highly personal genre of botanical illustration that she titled 'Forest Portraits.'" Yet later on she would reveal in "The Magic of America" and to architectural historians that she had hardly retired. As Mark Peisch, who interviewed Mahony extensively, wrote in the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects in 1982, "Although her specific contribution to the husband-wife teamwork is not adequately documented, it can be considered major."

Bureaucratic interference and World War I would throttle their hopes of executing the Canberra plan. A formal government inquiry found politicians had deliberately withheld "necessary information and assistance" from Griffin, who also suffered for his Yankee status. Still, the two stayed in Australia. They built a college in Melbourne and a utopian hillside suburb where they lived outside Sydney. A succession of young architects helped them run their business. "Mrs. Griffin had a great ability and a rare capacity to understand and help develop others and their ideas," writes Queensland architect James Birrell in his 1964 biography of Griffin.

During the Depression they turned to industrial design, mainly in Sydney, creating municipal incinerators that, in the words of Peisch, gave "powerful form and remarkable beauty to a structure whose purpose was neither inviting nor aesthetically challenging." Major commissions in India followed, and as Gri°n created exhibition buildings, a university library, and maharajah palaces, he reached a new apex in his career. Mahony stayed in Australia to run their practice but left it in the hands of proteges after surmising her husband needed a bit of help. "Mrs. Griffin follows her man," she wrote to him. Eight months later, Griffin fell from a scaffold while working on the library. He died a week after the accident, in February 1937.

Afterward a devastated Mahony would turn down job offers in both Australia and India, staying only long enough to finish pressing commissions.

When Mahony returned to the house on Estes at the end of 1938, America had largely forgotten about both of the Griffins. The few visitors who came to talk architecture all wanted to know about Frank Lloyd Wright, whose recently completed Fallingwater had made him a press darling.

Mahony accepted planning projects for towns in Texas and New Hampshire, but her client died before those could be executed. She was asked to address the Illinois Society of Architects shortly after her return, but she only wanted to talk about anthroposophy, a religious system that she and her husband had adopted while abroad.

Mahony found solace in writing "The Magic of America," a 1,100-page autobiographical manuscript she called "my sort of biography of Walt." Organized into four parts, detailing battles the couple faced personally and professionally in India, Canberra, Sydney, and Chicago, her prose failed to draw the attention she'd hoped for.

She asked William Purcell, whom she considered Griffin's closest friend from their days in the Oak Park studio, for feedback, explaining that she wanted to get "Walter's Architecture and Town Planning concepts before the general public by hook or by crook." Purcell could only offer measured encouragement: "Yes indeed--here is a treasure of great interest to architects." But he noted she hadn't yet "built this material so that a reader unfamiliar with the issues could see its significance."

No publisher ever came forward. As she neared 80, Mahony finally arranged to deposit copies at the New-York Historical Society and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Not long afterward Mahony called Thomas M. Folds, the chair of the art department at Northwestern, and said she had some drawings to show him. Visiting her home, Folds encountered an array of tall artworks on drafting linen--not just presentation drawings for houses in America that Mahony had rendered in ink, her preferred drawing medium, but also her "Forest Portraits," which depict locales in Tasmania and New South Wales that Mahony painted during a 1917 respite from the disappointments of the Canberra project. In all, Mahony would donate 120 pieces to Northwestern. She gave 350 more to the Art Institute before she died in 1961.

In the years since their deaths, recognition of the Griffins has gradually increased. In 1981 the city named a string of Griffin homes Walter Burley Gri°n Place. John Notz, a Prairie School historian and trustee of Graceland Cemetery, arranged to have Mahony's cremated remains moved from an unmarked grave to a columbarium that now bears a plaque with her name and one of her flower renderings.

Many of the pieces she bequeathed to Northwestern will be displayed at the Block Museum as part of Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature, the first exhibition to make Mahony the main attraction. The show emphasizes Mahony the artist over Mahony the architect; it's the first public showing of the "Forest Portraits," and there's also a section devoted to "Fairies Feeding the Herons," a mural Mahony painted at the Armstrong School in 1931, when she returned to Chicago during a brief separation from Walter in Australia.

While for years getting access to "The Magic of America" required visiting one of the holding venues, Art Institute officials are working to publish it, at least online, in the face of budget cuts. The Block, meanwhile, has borrowed portions of it for the exhibition. "She was one of the first women out there practicing architecture," says Wood. "It gives people a feel for what that was like."

Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature

When: Through Sun 12/4: Tue 10 AM-5 PM, Wed-Fri 10 AM-8 PM, Sat-Sun Noon-5 PM, closed Mon

Where: Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Dr., Evanston

Price: Free

Info: 847-491-4000,

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/collection of Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, Mati Maldre/University of Illinois Press, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art.


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