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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.

Women in Architecture Part I

While conversations about the architectural greats center around figures such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, there are countless powerful women whose names are left out. At Optima, we’ve celebrated the contributions of everyone from Charlotte Perriand to Ray Eames — and today, we’re spotlighting a few more women in architecture you should know.

Sophia Hayden

Sophia Hayden was born in Santiago, Chile in 1868 and moved to Boston at age six. Hayden discovered her interest in architecture during high school and went on to be the first female graduate of the four-year program in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She graduated in 1890 with honors. After college, Hayden initially struggled to find work in the male-dominated world of architecture and settled for a position as a mechanical drawing instructor at a local high school.

Only a year later, at just 21, Hayden jumped at the opportunity to enter her design in a competition for the Women’s Building at Daniel Burnham’s 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Her design won the competition and Hayden was awarded $1,000, a tenth of what male architects earned for similar buildings.

Women’s building, 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Women’s building, 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

During construction, Hayden was micromanaged incessantly and had to make many compromises on her design. The stress of the situation led Hayden to a breakdown and she was placed in a sanitarium for an “extended period of rest.” After the incident, Hayden retired from architecture permanently. Her treatment and diagnosis of hysteria have much to tell us about the challenges women in architecture faced during this time.

Marion Mahony Griffin
Marion Mahony Griffin, photo courtesy of Places Journal

Marion Mahony Griffin

Marion Mahony Griffin was born in 1871 in Chicago, and at nine her family migrated to the suburb of Winnetka after the Great Chicago Fire. Watching a landscape consumed by growing suburban sprawl developed Mahony’s interest in architecture. She went on to graduate from MIT in 1894, becoming the second woman to do so after Hayden.

Artist's Studio (Section). Watercolour and ink by Marion Griffin 1894.
Artist’s Studio (Section). Watercolour and ink by Marion Griffin 1894.

After college, Mahony moved back to Chicago and became the first woman licensed to practice architecture in Illinois. She found work at her cousin’s architecture firm downtown alongside Frank Lloyd Wright. There, she created beautiful watercolor renderings of buildings and landscapes — a signature style which would later be attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright. Mahony worked alongside Wright for fifteen years, contributing greatly to his reputation and success to little recognition. She was also an original member of the Prairie School of architecture.

Fair Lane, Henry Ford’s Dearborn mansion, 1913-1915
Fair Lane, Henry Ford’s Dearborn mansion, 1913-1915

When Wright eloped to Europe, he offered Mahony his studio’s remaining commissions, but she declined. Mahony is even rumored to have said Wright’s habit of taking credit for things, including the Prairie School movement, are what led to the movement’s early death. Later in life, Mahony collaborated with ex-Wright employee, Prairie School member and her husband, Walter Burley Griffin. Throughout her career, Mahony brought to fruition many notable projects, including Henry Ford’s Dearborn mansion and the Gerald Mahony Residence in Elkhart, Indiana.

Stay tuned for more features on women in architecture.

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