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Women in Architecture: Isabel Roberts

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re spotlighting one of America’s most overlooked architects. As one of only two women in the original Prairie School, Isabel Roberts immediately became an inspiration for women architects in the early 20th century. Learn more about her riveting life and career below: 

The Life of Isabel Roberts

Isabel Roberts was born on March 7, 1871, in Mexico, Missouri. Her parents were natives of the eastern coast; her father was a mechanic from Utica, New York, and her mother was from Prince Edward Island, Canada. Growing up, Roberts and her family moved often; traveling from Missouri to Providence, Rhode Island, to South Bend, Indiana. 

The Isabel Roberts House, by Frank Lloyd Wright Studio, 1908

At 18 years old, Roberts moved to New York City, where she studied architecture at the Atelier Masqueray-Chambers from 1899-1901. The atelier was the first in the nation to teach architecture with the principles used by École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Architects Emmanuel Louis Masqueray and Walter B. Chambers founded the school to forge more rewarding educational and professional opportunities for women in architecture at the time. 

Notable Works and Achievements  

In 1901 after completing school at the Atelier Masqueray-Chambers, Roberts moved to Illinois to take a position under Frank Lloyd Wright in his Oak Park office. She worked with Wright alongside a team of six others, which included Marion Mahony Griffin, the only other woman in the group that would become known as the Prairie School. 

Eola Park Bandshell, Ryan and Roberts, 1924

Roberts’ impact while working for Wright is commonly underestimated as she contributed her design expertise to various projects, primarily after he left Oak Park for Europe in 1909. Some of her most notable projects include K.C. DeRhodes House in South Bend, Indiana – a commission for a friend of the Roberts family – the Laura Gale House in Oak Park and the Stohr Arcade Building in Chicago. 

St. Cloud Veterans Memorial Library, Ryan and Roberts, 1923

Commissioned by Isabel’s mother, Mary, the Isabel Roberts House in River Forest, Illinois, was another of Roberts’ illustrious designs with Wright. Completed in 1908, the home’s intricate arrangement contained a warm brick hearth at its core and utilized a mixture of half-story levels to connect living areas. The Prairie School design featured other innovative additions for the time, including a vaulted ceiling, diamond-paned windows and a grand octagonal balcony.

A Brief History of the Attached Garage

For those tireless fans of Frank Lloyd Wright — unarguably one of the greatest architects of the 20th century — we are delighted to shine a light on one of his innovations that rarely attracts attention. It’s the attached garage.

In a brilliant process of cultural sleuthing, conceptual artist Olivia Erlanger and architect Luis Ortega Govela embarked on a project that culminated in the 2018 publication of Garage by MIT Press. With elegance, wit and panache, the authors tell this tale of Robie House, completed in 1910:

“In the quiet darkness of South Woodlawn Avenue, Frank Lloyd Wright molded and adapted the American home for the automobile. The small rectangular windows of Wright’s Robie House cast rectilinear shadows across the sidewalk. In the moonlight, the red hydrangeas lining the second-floor balcony appeared black, to be identified only by their smell. With no “front” or “back,” the building looms, imperious and totemic. To the pedestrian it looks like a Japanese woodblock puzzle: the riddle of how to enter, or exit, persists until one encounters an oversized gate leading to a three-car garage. The Robie House is known by many as the cornerstone of modernism, but its status as the first home with an attached garage seems to have been forgotten. The garage struck architectural academics as so banal that it became nothing more than a footnote in Wright’s illustrious history.

The garage was invented to domesticate the car. At the end of the nineteenth century, the car made its entrance into the stage of history to replace the horse. Initially it was a temperamental machine, and people were reluctant to incorporate it into their daily lives. The machine had yet to develop the technology necessary to be used regularly, so it was mostly kept in the stable, next to the other animals. Yet at the same time the car needed so much upkeep that mostly they were stored in communal parking lots where the first auto mechanics would constantly be preparing cars for the type of local roads that existed at the time.

Following the completion of Robie House, Wright was commissioned by Emma Martin to design an attached garage for her Oak Park home in his characteristic Prairie style

If the human entrance to the house was secretive, the one designed for the machine was not. Inside the yard, the garage doors dominate the space. It is here that the garage claims its rightful position on the front of the plot with a direct and easy connection to the street. If we go by Wright’s poetic hand, in 1910 the garage was symbolically integrated into the familial structure. This relationship between home and garage, family and car, would not reappear in architecture until the early 1920s, making the Robie House a premonition of the future.”

For a deeper dive into the history of the garage as a space of creativity (think tech start-ups and musicians), grab a copy of Garage and make time to visit Robie House. Enjoy!

The Ennis House: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Most Documented Work

From Taliesin and Taliesin West to his home and studio in Chicago, Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic architectural contributions continue to remain beloved treasures of modernism. And while many of the buildings attract tourists from across the world, one home, in particular, separates itself as his most documented property, and whether you know it or not, you’ve probably seen it yourself. 

Built in 1924, the Ennis House was only the second home Wright built in California. Situated in the Los Feliz neighborhood, Wright embraced the Mayan Revival style of the time and area, utilizing 27,000 concrete molds in a block construction to create the famous house. Along with the custom textile block design, Ennis House features a tall loggia spine and grand pool on its northern terrace, one of the house’s most glamorous features. 

The Ennis House pool and loggia

Although the house was built as a residence for Charles and Mabel Ennis, its exotic design immediately attracted the eyes of Hollywood filmmakers. In 1933 it was used as a shooting location for the first time, but it wasn’t until 1959 that it acquired unnatural recognition for the time as the exterior facade for the B movie House on Haunted Hill. The home remained a popular destination for films for decades, showcasing its impressive interior for the 1975 film, The Day of the Locust

Ennis House’s custom designed textile blocks used in Blade Runner (1982)

However, in 1982 the home reached new levels of fame after appearing in Blade Runner. While it was only actually filmed for one exterior scene, the director was so entranced by the textile blocks that casts of them were created for sets elsewhere in the movie. The tall ceilings from the cathedral-like dining room and fireplaces were also popularly used in films thanks to their haunting nature. 

The modernist interior of Ennis House filmed for The Day of The Locust, 1975

Since 1933, features from the iconic house have made appearances in more than 80 films, alongside various commercials, magazine covers and music videos. The Ennis House is designated a city, state and national landmark and added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1976. It remains privately owned today, but thanks to its inspiring and timeless architectural design, it remains a desired location for anyone looking to capture the perfect shot.

How Arcosanti is Still Evolving Today

Although 50 years old, Paolo Soleri’s visionary planned city, Arcosanti, is still thriving today. For the last five decades, the magnificent community exhibited the best of Soleri’s philosophy, fusing architecture and ecology and providing a home for many educational resources. However, currently the famed property is entering a new era, pushing the boundaries of Soleri’s philosophy further than ever. 

Liz Martin-Malikian, CEO of Arcosanti under the Cosanti Foundation states that while the community’s first half-century focused on Soleri’s vision, the next half-century will focus on the collective. Not only does the community aim to unearth more behind arcology, but they also plan to collaborate and partner with various groups, including local Indigenous populations. 

Shiro, a shelter by TSOA student, Micehle Yeels

Many of Arcosanti’s resources are provided to students of The School of Architecture, a crucial feature of the community. One of the key programs constantly bringing new life to the planned city is The Shelter Program. The capstone design project encourages students to design and build single-occupancy structures for future students throughout the community. 

While preserving Arcosanti’s historic past, Martin-Malikian is embracing the future by decoding Soleri’s philosophy of arcology – starting by reframing the community’s vision around its cultural landscape. Along with debuting a Cosanti Indigenous Residency, a new Indigenous co-design program provides a new opportunity to combine sustainability with passive and culturally diverse designs. 

Biopod 1, a shelter by TSOA student, Soloman Edelmen

Arcosanti has always existed as a hub for innovation and inspiration. And today, with a spotlight on collective, the planned city is preparing to embrace its regional heritage more than ever before. To explore more about Arcosanti, and stay up to date on their events and programming, head to their website here.

Wilmette Architecture Spotlight: Bahai’ Temple

Chicago has earned its place on the architectural map thanks to the countless architects who helped fill the city with unique designs. Not to be outdone, the Chicago suburb and home to Optima Verdana, Wilmette, also boasts a myriad of architectural wonders itself, from houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to a Prairie-style ‘L’ station still in use. Today, we’re taking a closer look at the architectural history behind Wilmette’s iconic Baha’i House of Worship. 

Plans to construct a Baháʼí temple in the United States began in 1903. At the time, only one other temple existed throughout the rest of the world in Turkmenistan. Baháʼí’s presence in and around Chicago made it the perfect city to build in, but leaders in the religion wanted to build in a quaint community outside of the city and eventually, they decided on Wilmette to harbor the temple. 

Constructing the dome of the Baha’i House of Worship, Wilmette

In 1907, individual Baháʼí contributors purchased two lots alongside Lake Michigan. Groundbreaking on the nearly 7-acre site began in 1912, but construction on the building didn’t start until eight years later, in 1920. The community chose Canadian architect Louis Bourgeois – a collaborator of Louis Sullivan – to design the temple. 

Bourgeois’ design drew inspiration from Baháʼís’ belief of unity and was chosen due to its diverse inclusion of architectural styles. The most prominent architectural styles include Neoclassic, Gothic, Renaissance, Romanesque and Islamic arabesque. The temple’s superstructure was completed in 1931, and construction on the building’s entire exteriors finished in 1943. However, the interior had yet to be designed. 

Designers had a difficult time choosing what material to use throughout the design, debating between granite, limestone, terra cotta and aluminum before deciding on concrete made of cement, quartz and other natural stone. Many intricate details are carved into the concrete drape across the exterior facade. Along with its lush gardens and fountains the temple’s most brilliant feature is its 72-foot-wide dome. The temple features nine dome sections and nine interior alcoves, symbolizing completion. 

An interior view from the top of the dome featuring the intricate Islamic arabesque design

More than 3,500 people attended the dedication of the temple in 1953 following the completion of its construction. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and is continuously voted one of the most must-see places in the country. 

Today, Wilmette’s Baháʼí’ House of Worship is the oldest standing temple of Baháʼí and the only in North America. To learn more about the architectural wonder and visit it yourself, head to the website here

How Prairie School Architecture Influenced Wilmette’s Gillson Park

Offering more than 60 acres of breathtaking lakefront views and an array of thrilling activities on and off of its beaches, Wilmette’s Gillson Park is a local treasure. Located less than two miles from Optima Verdana, future residents will have access to one of the city’s oldest and most beloved stretches of public land. Today, we’re exploring the fascinating history behind Gillson Park. 

Nearly as old as the village itself, Wilmette’s Gillson Park was established in 1908 as Washington Park. The land sitting directly on Lake Michigan was originally used as a depot where clay from the North Shore Channel was placed after excavation. After becoming the first president of the Wilmette Park District that same year, Louis K. Gillson began devising how he could make the most out of Wilmette’s vast greenspace. 

Until 1915, the land existed merely as a plot of blue clay. However, in 1917, under Gillson’s leadership, the Wilmette Park District began its ambitious project to transform the area into a recreational hotspot. Shortly after, the Park Board hired landscape architect and engineer, Benjamin Gage, to elevate the park’s design. 

An architectural drawing of Gillon Park’s 1937 redesign by C.D. Wagstaff and Robert Everly, Courtesy of Wilmette Historical Museum

Following extensive additions contributed by Gage in the 1920s — as well as doubling the park’s size — the Park Board began to search for architects who would help conceive a new, sweeping plan for the greenspace. And, in the mid-1930s, they hired landscape architects C.D. Wagstaff and Robert Everly to lead the project. 

Their sweeping design proposal helped transform the once clay-filled plot into a vibrant landscape with a host of recreational features. Wagstaff and Everly were also heavily inspired by the prominent Prairie School architecture that dominated the area, and specifically by the work of landscape architect, Jens Jensen. 

Construction of the Wallace Bowl in Gillson Park, 1937, Courtesy of the Wilmette Historical Museum

There were numerous prairie-style elements added to the park, including stratified stone walls and steps, a stone council ring, curvilinear roadways and paths, and a host of informal gardens. The architectural team also designed one of the park’s most iconic spaces, the Wallace Bowl, which is a large open-air amphitheater situated in the park. 

Today, the Wilmette Park District is still home to the Prairie-style elements contributed by Wagstaff and Everly and remains a greenspace treasured by all of the village’s residents. To explore more of the park’s history or discover the various recreational activities, visit their website here.

A Guide to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Studios Part 2: Taliesin West

While Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin was the first of his residences and studios, Taliesin West, a monumental exploration of Wright’s unique approach to organic architecture, is arguably Wright’s most intimate creation. 

Following the completion of Taliesin, where Wright lived and worked for nearly 30 years, the famed architect became interested in relocating to a warmer climate. In 1935, he purchased 495 acres of stunning Sonoran Desert below McDowell Mountain just outside of Scottsdale. Taliesin West brought extraordinary life to Arizona’s then-desolate desert, and, after nearly nine decades, the complex continues to advance Wright’s legacy and his iconic designs. 

Similar to Taliesin, Taliesin West drew great inspiration from its brilliant surroundings. While working with a group of apprentices throughout the construction process, Wright took advantage of the unique materials found in the surrounding landscapes. Using a mixture of local rocks, cement and desert sand, Wright and his team created, often by hand, what many describe as “desert masonry” to help structure the campus.

The complex is situated with various unique architectural elements that accentuate its deep-rooted connection to nature. Translucent canvas (now plastic) once covered the roof of many rooms within Taliesin West, creating an illusory linkage to the warm outdoors. Other features include lofty redwood beams accenting the building’s cold structure. 

Throughout Wright’s life, the campus served as both a winter home and a desert studio. While Taliesin West never experienced any misfortunes, unlike its sibling complex Taliesin, the space did experience numerous renovations throughout the period from 1937 to 1959 when Wright lived and worked there. Some of the renovations included the addition of a drafting studio, dining hall,  workshop, three theaters, Wright’s office and living quarters, and the residences for his apprentices and staff. Various decorative walkways, gardens, terraces, and pools acted as both luxuries to the property and connections to each larger structure. 

Taliesin West interior
The Garden Room found inside of Taliesin West, Courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

Today,Taliesin West serves as the headquarters for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and, until 2020, was the winter home for The School of Architecture at Taliesin. The inspiring architecture was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1974, was recognized as a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1982 and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019.

Found just a short drive from the heart of Scottsdale, Taliesin West offers the perfect trip for anyone seeking to explore one of Arizona’s most exciting works of architecture. The complex hosts a variety of events and programs throughout the year and presents visitors with numerous tours that can be discovered on their website here.  

A Guide to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Studios Part 1: Taliesin

Frequently referred to as the father of American modernism through his establishment of the Prairie School of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright gifted the world with many culturally-significant designs, forever leaving his stamp on American architecture. Many of Wright’s designs are widely celebrated and remain standing today, including Taliesin, one of his most iconic works that altered his life and the lives of those around him while serving as his studio.

The archetype of Prairie School architecture was built in 1911 by Wright after he had left Oak Park, Illinois to return to his family’s land in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Derived from Welsh mythology, Taliesin was an ancient poet, whose name means radiant brow. Wright built the exemplary estate in a Wisconsin River valley into the brow of his favorite hill from boyhood, hence its name. 

During the process of designing Taliesin, Wright drew inspiration from the patterns and rhythms of his surroundings. He became inspired by the thought of living among his ancestry and the nature that surrounded him as he embodied the idea of organic architecture within his design. Wright refined visions from his previous Prairie School designs, including a lush courtyard and open floor plan, and used local limestone and sand from the Wisconsin River to invite the outdoors indoors — a radical idea at the time. 

Throughout the estate’s history, it suffered a number of accidents, including two fires that sparked Wright to complete two renovations on Taliesin. The first of which, Taliesin II, was completed in 1915 after arson had destroyed one-third of the house, including Wright’s living quarters. The redesign was nearly identical to the architecture in Taliesin I, excluding its new observation deck and, in an attempt to make the estate completely self-sufficient, Wright’s hydroelectric generator. 

Taliesin, Photographed in 1913 before the first of its two fires, Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society

Following another destructive fire in 1925, Wright was forced once again to pour new life into Taliesin and went to develop the third rendition of the estate, Taliesin III. Through the devastation, Wright remained committed to his passion for thoughtful architecture and brought a breath of fresh air to the bare structure that surrounded him. While living at Taliesin III Wright also designed some of his more renowned work, including Fallingwater, the headquarters for S.C. Johnson and Jacobs I (the Herberg Jacobs House).

Beginning in 1932, Wright established the Taliesin Fellowship and hosted 50 apprentices at Taliesin on an annual basis, giving them the opportunity to work for him for a lengthy period of time and experience his intensive working environment. Today, the estate is in the hands of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, and the fellowship uses the neighboring Hillside School as its home base. The esteemed property was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1976. 

Located just a few hours outside of Chicago, the Taliesen estate is the perfect day trip for anyone who appreciates breathtaking architecture and offers visitors a variety of tours designed for every level of interest, which can be booked on their website here

Women in Architecture: Marion Mahony Griffin

Often unrecognized for her immense contributions to the Prairie School, Marion Mahony Griffin was a leader in the architectural world for many years, paving the way for the countless women who followed her. Today, as part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re exploring the inception of the iconic architect and designer and where her extensive experience led her. 

The Life of Marion Mahony Griffin

A Chicago native, Mahony was born in 1871 to Jeremiah Mahoney, a journalist, and Clara Hamilton, a teacher. After the tragic events of the Great Chicago Fire, in which her family’s house was destroyed, her family relocated to the Chicago suburb of Winnetka where she spent the majority of her childhood. Inspired by how rapidly the landscape around her was changing — and encouraged by her cousin Dwight Perkins, an American architect — Mahony was drawn to the idea of furthering her education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Mahoney graduated from MIT in 1894 and was only the second woman to receive an architecture degree from the school (after the World’s Columbian Exposision’s Women’s building designer, Sophia Hayden). She soon moved back to Chicago where she became the first woman in modern history to sit for, and be granted, an architectural license in the United States, benefiting from the fact that Illinois was the first state in America to allow women to hold licenses.

Ward W. Willits House, Highland Park, Illinois, 1902, One of the numerous intricate watercolor renderings Mahony created for Wright during her employment, Courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation
Ward W. Willits House, Highland Park, Illinois, 1902, One of the numerous intricate watercolor renderings Mahony created for Wright during her employment, Courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

While in Chicago, Mahony spent two years working with her cousin Dwight Perkins at his studio in Steinway Hall (which Perkins also designed), where a diverse crowd of innovative artists and architects from the Prairie School could always be found. Soon after she left her cousin’s firm, she discovered another young Chicago architect also working in the building, Frank Lloyd Wright. Hired as Wright’s first employee, Mahony worked on and off with him for the next 14 years and became a significant contributor to his practice. 

Ward W. Willits House, Highland Park, Illinois, 1902, One of the numerous intricate watercolor renderings Mahony created for Wright during her employment, Courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

J. C. Blythe House, 1913, One of the eight Prairie style homes designed and built in Rock Crest – Rock Glen Historic District, Mason City, Iowa
J. C. Blythe House, 1913, One of the eight Prairie style homes designed and built in Rock Crest – Rock Glen Historic District, Mason City, Iowa

Career and Achievements

While working for Wright, Mohony provided intricate architectural renderings for his designs, becoming an essential participant in his work and leaving her without credit — a recurring theme throughout her career. Today, the renderings are acknowledged as her creations and she is recognized as one of the greatest architectural illustrators. 

Mahony completed numerous independent projects while working for Wright including Evanston’s All Souls Unitarian Church. The intimate church featured an abundance of alluring stained glass in its skylights, windows and numerous other light fixtures. 

Eventually, Mahony left Wright’s studio to work with her husband, Walter Burley Griffin, a fellow architect and leading member of the Prairie School. Together, Griffin and Mahony created their most renowned work, the design of Prairie School residences in Mason City, Iowa, Rock Crest – Rock Glen. The nationally-recognized historic district features eight elaborate Prairie School homes that surround the city’s Willow Creek. 

Melbourne’s Capitol Theatre, Marion Mahony Griffin, 1924
Melbourne’s Capitol Theatre, Marion Mahony Griffin, 1924

In 1914 the couple relocated to Australia, where Mahony’s watercolor renderings of Griffin’s design were chosen as the plan for the country’s new capital, Canberra. In Australia, Mahony’s commission’s increased dramatically. One of her final and most well-known works is Melbourne’s Capitol Theatre. The theatre’s opulent decor and avant-garde ceilings and walls were designed to invoke a crystalline cave, and showed a new side of Mahony’s architectural gifts.

Today, Mahony’s extensive experience and portfolio speak for themselves, and she is finally recognized as a trailblazer for architecture and design, and as an original member of the Prairie School.

John Lloyd Wright and the Story of Lincoln Logs

If John Lloyd Wright’s name sounds familiar, it’s because his father, Frank Lloyd Wright, is an icon in the architecture world. But his son left his legacy with something more playful; John was the original inventor behind Lincoln Logs, a childhood toy many cherish fondly. So how did the son of an architect come to invent one of the most well-known toys in America? Today, we dive into John Lloyd Wright and the story of Lincoln Logs, and an interesting piece of architecture trivia. 

John grew up in Oak Park, Illinois in a home designed by his father, now known as the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio. He was immersed in the world of architecture from a young age, but his childhood was far from perfect. After Frank Lloyd Wright abandoned his wife and children, the two became estranged and their relationship never fully recovered. However, John decided to pave his own way, determined to get out of his father’s shadow. 

In his early years of practice, John worked on the West Coast and the Midwest before agreeing to work with Frank on Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel in Japan. The two were faced with the challenge of building a structure that could withstand the frequent earthquakes of Japan, and their original design used a system of interlocking timber beams to let the hotel to sway but not collapse. Before the hotel was even constructed, father and son once again parted ways, this time over a dispute concerning John’s salary.

Vintage Lincoln Logs print ad

Now out of work, John turned his attention to his passions and hobbies, including toy design and invention. Taking inspiration from the plans of the Imperial Hotel, he perfected the idea for Lincoln Logs in 1916. Using notched pieces of wood for the miniature logs allowed the toys to withstand playtime instead of earthquakes. Wright received a patent in 1920, eventually selling it as Lincoln Logs grew in popularity. 

After his years dedicated to Lincoln Logs, John returned back to the world of architecture, designing a handful of buildings and homes in the Midwest. John’s legacy in the world of toy design is one that has spanned decades, with Lincoln Logs inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1999. More than 100 years after their inception, Lincoln Logs are still a toy well-loved by generations — and potential young architects.

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