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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.

The Legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright

Modernism wouldn’t be the discipline it is today without the greats that defined it. A name well-known throughout the world, Frank Lloyd Wright is heralded as the “greatest American architect of all time” by the American Institute of Architects. His contributions to architecture have touched all of us at Optima and countless others, leaving behind a monumental legacy.

The Life of Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright was born in Richard Center, Wisconsin on June 8, 1867 to a preacher father and teacher mother. His young life was spent travelling for his father’s ministry position, and his parents’ divorce when he was 18 set his family back even further financially. To help out, Wright worked at the same university at which he was studying: University of Wisconsin. Despite his commitment to his family, Wright’s dream of becoming an architect pulled him away from school when he left Madison two years later to move to Chicago.

Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, Illinois
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, Illinois

In Chicago, Wright tried working for two different firms before landing at Adler and Sullivan, where he worked under Modernist master Louis Sullivan for six years. At 22, Wright married Catherine Lee Tobin and entered into a five-year-contract with Sullivan in exchange for the loan money Wright would need to build him and his wife their home in Oak Park, a Chicago suburb. Tempted by the need to provide for his family, Wright took on independent residential commissions even though it violated his contract with Sullivan. When Sullivan found out, the two parted ways and did not repair their relationship until twenty years later. It was this separation, however, that pushed Wright out on his own and allowed him to grow his prolific independent career.

Falling Water, 1964, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Falling Water, 1964, Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Work of Frank Lloyd Wright

After his separation from Sullivan, Wright started his own firm in 1893. Wright’s career spanned an impressive seven decades, a time period over which he developed his distinctive point of view and style. Wright saw architects as the poets of their time — an artistic historian of sorts. He believed in creating structures that lived in harmony with the natural world, a point of view which he called “organic architecture.”

Wright brought American design to the forefront and was the leader of the Prairie School movement, a distinctly American midwestern style. Hallmarks of Prairie School design include low-pitched roofs, overhanging eaves and open floor plans. These expansive residences mirrored the endless landscape of the Midwestern prairies, and employed materials such as wood to further integrate the manmade with its environment. 

Ennis House, 1924, Frank Lloyd Wright — a Textile style/Mayan Revival home
Ennis House, 1924, Frank Lloyd Wright — a Textile style/Mayan Revival home

Later in his career, Wright also worked in the textile style out West, as well as pioneering a new dichotomy with his 60-house Usonian series. The Usonian homes were another way Wright carved out a language that was distinctly American, uninfluenced by any international predecessors. These homes were marked by their flat roofs and cantilevered overhanging — which became the source of the term “carport.” While out West, Wright also established Taliesin West and other structures near the greater Phoenix area, some of which are close to our Optima communities in Arizona. Just as we’re inspired by the desert scape, Wright was similarly enchanted with the surrounding foliage and existing architecture. 

Cedar Rock (Lowell Walter House), 1948, Frank Lloyd Wright — a Usonian house
Cedar Rock (Lowell Walter House), 1948, Frank Lloyd Wright — a Usonian house

With his 70-year career, 500+ completed projects and numerous accolades, this is only the tip of the iceberg in the legacy left behind by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is all these contributions and more that will forever cement Wright as a master of American architecture.

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