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Marion Mahony Griffin

Rediscovering a Heroine of Chicago Architecture

Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation
Marion Mahony’s rendering of a house by Frank Lloyd Wright. More Photos >

January 1, 2008

If women are underrepresented in the architecture profession in 2008, a century ago they were hardly represented at all.

Which makes Marion Mahony, the first woman to obtain an architecture license in Illinois, seem all the more remarkable. By 1908, she had been working for Frank Lloyd Wright for a decade.

Mahony (pronounced MAH-nee) had developed a fluid style of rendering derived partly from Japanese woodblock prints, with lush vegetation flowing in and around floor plans and elevations. Her masterly compositions also made the buildings appear irresistibly romantic.

Mahony’s drawings, retraced in ink, formed much of what came to be known as the Wasmuth Portfolio, a compendium of Wright’s designs published in Germany in 1910. The portfolio not only established him as America’s reigning architectural genius but also influenced European Modernists like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.

“She did the drawings people think of when they think of Frank Lloyd Wright,” said Debora Wood, who organized a show of Mahony’s work at Northwestern University in 2005.

If Mahony — often known by her married name, Marion Mahony Griffin — has remained a relative unknown, scholars are hoping to change that as part of a larger process of raising the profile of women in the profession retrospectively.

Until a few months ago, anyone longing to read Mahony’s memoir, “The Magic of America,” had to visit the Art Institute of Chicago or the New-York Historical Society, where Mahony, unable to find a publisher, deposited copies of the manuscript before her death in 1961. Each consists of 1,400 typed pages and nearly 700 illustrations, making the book at once too unwieldy — and too precious — for general distribution.

But in August the Art Institute made a facsimile of the manuscript available at The work is now as easy to navigate as a blog, and it shares some of a blog’s characteristics, including enthusiastic attention to personal grievances.

The broader effort to devote more attention to female architects has also focused attention on Lilly Reich, who worked in Germany with Mies; Aino Aalto, who worked in Finland with her husband, Alvar; and more recently, Denise Scott Brown, the Philadelphia architect who many say was cheated when her husband and partner, Robert Venturi, was awarded the Pritzker Prize on his own in 1991.

Among Mahony’s champions is Elizabeth Birmingham, an assistant professor of English at North Dakota State University in Fargo. “The specifics of Marion’s life fell victim to the primary scholarly effort to establish and fix the canon of ‘great men’ whose genius-personalities, buildings and texts would become central to the story of architecture,” she wrote in a dissertation.

Ms. Birmingham points out that architectural historians who acknowledge Mahony have tended to focus on her relationships with men and on her physical appearance, often in unflattering terms. (She was frequently described as homely, though Brendan Gill, in “Many Masks,” his 1987 biography of Wright, called her a “gaunt, beaky beauty.”)

That Mahony spent her most productive years in Australia, where she and her husband designed a plan for the new city of Canberra in 1911, has also lowered her profile in the United States. But “the Australians take Mahony as seriously as we take Frank Lloyd Wright,” said David Van Zanten, a professor of art history at Northwestern University.

One of those Australians, Christopher Vernon of the University of Western Australia, has written extensively of Mahony’s talent as a designer. Mr. Van Zanten goes so far as to say that Mahony, after Wright and Louis Sullivan, was “the third great progressive designer of turn-of-the-century Chicago.”

But in determining her contribution to American architecture, there is no more confounding figure than Mahony herself. In 1911 she married Walter Burley Griffin, a Prairie School architect five years her junior, and began devoting the bulk of her efforts toward furthering his career.

That required both beautiful renderings and — any time his talent was questioned — self-effacement. That self-effacement may also have served the purposes of Wright, who more than most architects cultivated the image of the lone genius; he never acknowledged Mahony’s contributions and dismissed her and her husband as imitators.

Photo: Avery Library, Columbia University
Mahony's drawing for a house in Mason City, Iowa in 1912.

Still, said Paul Kruty, an architectural historian at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, “It is generally accepted that the rendering style through which Frank Lloyd Wright became known was Marion Mahony’s.”

In her manuscript Mahony depicts herself as indissolubly fused with her husband. The memoir is divided into four sections, each casting the couple as champions of a cause. “The Emperial Battle” describes Griffin’s final project, a library for the Indian city of Lucknow; “The Federal Battle” focuses on their largely failed efforts to see Canberra built as they envisioned it; and “The Civic Battle” describes Castlecrag, a planned community near Sydney that the couple designed.

The final section is “The Individual Battle,” which describes the couple’s struggles within American society. Mahony rails against class structure, imperialism, environmental degradation and of course Wright, whom she never names but refers to as “a cancer sore” who “originated very little but spent most of his time claiming everything and swiping everything.”

Marion Lucy Mahony was born in Chicago in 1871 and grew up in nearby Winnetka, where her family moved after the great Chicago fire. She became fascinated by landscape as the area surrounding her family’s home was carved up into suburbs.

She received her architecture training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Back in Chicago, she went to work for her cousin Dwight Perkins in a studio designed by Perkins and shared by several architects, including Wright. In 1895 Mahony became Wright’s first employee.

Marion Mahony after graduating from M.I.T. in 1894.

Barry Byrne, who came to work in the studio in 1902, reminisced in several articles after Wright’s death about the informal design competitions among that architect’s employees. He recalled that Mahony won most of them and that Wright filed away her drawings for future use, chastising anyone who referred to them as “Miss Mahony’s designs.”

In 1909 Wright left his wife for a client’s wife, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, with whom he fled to Europe. Mahony worked with several other Wright employees to complete the firm’s commissions, but soon focused her attention on her husband-to-be, whom she had met in Wright’s studio.

Around the time they married, in 1911, Mahony persuaded Griffin to enter the competition to design Canberra, and she created 14 huge presentation drawings in ink on satin in which the rugged Australian landscape seemingly embraced her husband’s buildings. The drawings, which seemed to capture the essence of Australia — a place she had never been — were instrumental in the judges choice of Griffin.

Photo: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art
An ink-on-silk drawing by Mahony of eucalyptus.

They moved to Australia in 1914. Only small parts of the plan for Canberra were executed, but the Griffins won acclaim for several other buildings there. Mahony also became renowned for her ravishing paintings of local flora, many of which were published in 2005 in “Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature.”

In 1936 she joined her husband in Lucknow, where he was designing a university library. After he died there in 1937, she returned to Australia, settled her affairs and moved home to Chicago.

Photo: Avery Library/Columbia University
"Pioneer Press Building" (1936) in Lucknow, India.

Although she lived another 24 years, she took on few commissions and did virtually nothing to enhance her reputation. The one time she addressed the Illinois Society of Architects, she made no mention of her work, instead lecturing the crowd on anthroposophy, a philosophy of spiritual knowledge developed by Rudolf Steiner.

In the United States a few works attributed solely to Mahony survive, including a mural in the George B. Armstrong elementary school in Chicago, and several private homes in Decatur, Ill. (The Decatur houses are the subject of a new book, “Marion Mahony and Millikin Place: Creating a Prairie School Masterpiece,” published by the Walter Burley Griffin Society of America as part of its continuing effort to assess her contribution.)

There is no doubt that Wright would have been an important architect with or without Mahony. It’s harder to say how Walter Burley Griffin would have been received without his wife.

Harder still is knowing how Mahony would have fared without either of them.

Photo: Avery Library/Columbia University
Her rendering of a building in India by her husband, Walter Burley Griffin.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
Frank Lloyd Wright's Right-Hand Woman
by Lynn Becker

An exhibition at the Block Museum brings the work and career of Marion Mahony, the first woman to be licensed as an architect, out of the shadow of her collaborators Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Burley Griffin.

Frank Lloyd Wright's first employee was woman. This, in itself, is not particularly remarkable. What is surprising is that the woman was not a secretary or housekeeper, but someone who would soon become the world's first licensed architect, Marion Mahony. It was 1895. Wright, twenty-eight, had only recently set up his own practice, after being fired by Louis Sullivan for taking on outside commissions on the sly. Mahony, herself, had recently been dismissed from the employ of her cousin, Chicago architect Dwight Perkins, during an economic downturn.

It can be argued that it was Mahony's distinctive renderings that created the public face that helped Wright's work command attention throughout the world. It could be speculated that Wright's work, itself, was influenced by Mahony's role in the spirited exchanges of ideas that went on in his studio, yet she is one a series of pioneering women architects and designers who have disappeared into the deep shadow of their male associates - Lill Reich in that of Mies van der Rohe, Aino Aalto in that of Alvar Aalto, and Mahony, in that of both Wright and her husband Walter Burley Griffin. Observes Jeanne Gang, part of a very different and more indelible generation of women architects, “They seem to get erased.”

Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature helps put Mahony back in the picture. The exhibition, at Northwestern University's Mary and Leigh Block Museum through December 4th [2005], includes over two dozen of Mahony's works, from her time with Wright, to her work with her husband, and a series from her remarkable Forest Portraits of Australian landscape.

According to an invaluable dissertation by North Dakota State University Professor Elizabeth Birmingham, Mahony was born in 1871 - her autobiography describes escaping the Great Fire in a clothesbasket - to a mother who was the daughter of a New Hampshire doctor and an Irish-born father from whom the young Marion stole pocket change. Birmingham describes him as a “poet, journalist and educator,” and probably an alcoholic, perhaps even an addict, dying from a overdose of laudanum, a popular opium-based painkiller, when Marion was eleven.

Mahony was only the second woman to graduate from MIT. She was also the first woman at MIT to appear on stage, portraying two of Shakespeare's most eloquent heroines: Portia in The Merchant of Venice who disguises herself as a male to argue against Shylock in a Venetian court, where she beats the men at their own game, and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, a woman who could hold her own in any conversation, much as Marion was one of the few who could counter Wright's opinionated bluster.

Wright set up his offices in Steinway Hall, a new building designed by Dwight Perkins, with Mahony's assistance in creating renderings, at 64 East Van Buren, in the shadow of the soaring Auditorium Building tower where Sullivan kept his offices with Dankmar Adler. Steinway Hall became a magnet for young architects. There was Wright. Perkins moved his own offices to the 11th floor. In the attic above, he set up drafting space for a group of architects that would include Walter Burley Griffin, the Pond Brothers, and Myron Hunt. It could be said that this was aviary where the Prairie School of Architecture was hatched.

Marion Mahony's skills as a draftsman made her indispensable to Wright, and as the practice expanded and added bodies, as an administrator, as well. Historian H. Allen Brooks, in his book The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and His Midwest Contemporaries, relates that her presence in Wright's office “was irregular - whether or reasons of health or merely inclination - yet her services were always in demand.” Since Mahony didn't have a telephone, Barry Byrne, another early Wright associate who went on to his own distinguished career as an architect, had the job of tracking her down and bringing her in.

Brooks recounts Byrne's description of Mahony as “a thin, angular, shallow-skinned person with a beak of a nose . . . She had a fragile frame and walked as though she were falling forward. She was a good actress, talkative, and when around Wright there was a real sparkle.” Byrne welcomed Mahony's appearance, “because it promised an amusing day.” Wright's son John remembered finding Mahony“so ugly, and her laugh so boisterous that I was afraid of her. Later, after seeing and appreciating her beautiful drawings, I thought she was beautiful.”

It was a time when Chicago architects were in thrall to Japonisme, the late 19th-century obsession with art and culture from Japan. It's influence touched fashion, popular culture and music (Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado was first staged in 1885), as well as French impressionist painters such as Monet, Degas and Van Gogh, who painted his own version of two woodprints by the Japanese master Hiroshige.

Wright was a major collector of classic Japanese woodprints, and, like many of his colleagues, a serial visitor to the Ho-o-den, a half-scale reproduction of an ancient Uji temple that was the real-life Mikado's presentation to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Its simplicity and flowing space were qualities that came to characterize Wright's work.

According to Christopher Vernon, who writes of the Giraffe's' work in Australia for the Block exhibition's catalogue, it was another architect, Birch Burdette Long, who brought the Japanese style to the renderings used to depict Wright's buildings. It was Mahony, however, who perfected it. Birmingham describes Mahony's style as “influenced by the sparse detail, continuous line, and skewed perspective and dramatic space of Japanese prints.” The other key element was the increasing importance of landscape, part of the march to an “organic” architecture. Just as Romantic painters were drawn to depicting classical ruins overgrown with vegetation, Mahony's renderings placed buildings within a rich landscape, “sometimes cascading over the floor plans” in her later works.

The renderings also took on a standardized layout: Perspective at the top, floor and ground plans in the middle and a sectional elevation at the bottom. They drew on her MIT training - sepia outlines with light color washes.

Scholar Paul Kruty has made a detailed analysis of the development of the Mahony style of rendering. It contrasted sharply with the "bland professionalism" then popular, in which buildings were rendered with a sort of flat super-realism that ignored the effects of light and reduced the landscape to undetailed splotches.

In creating a new style of architectural rendering, Mahony drew on what she learned at MIT, especially the Beaux Arts tradition of the analytique, a page of close-up drawings of the individual architectural details that defined a building's character. Kruty pegs the emergence of the Mahony style to the 1906 rendering of Wright's K.C DeRhodes House in South Bend, Indiana. Depth is expressed through line width; the foliage, richly detailed, provides a frame and focus for the house, itself. Wright knew she was on to something, He took his own pencil to her rendering to write, “drawn by Mahony after FLW and Hiroshige.” It was a technique that came to used by the draftsmen of countless other Prairie School architects for years to come.

Brooks quotes Barry Byrne, “"She was the most talented member of Frank Lloyd Wright's staff ... Mr. Wright would occasionally sit at Marion's board and work on her drawings, and I recall one hilarious occasion when his work ruined the drawing. . . . Andrew Willatzen, an outspoken member of the staff, loudly proclaimed that Marion Mahony was Wright's superior as a draftsman. As a matter of fact, she was. Wright took the statement of her superiority equably.” In the judgment of critic Reyner Banham, “She was the greatest architectural delineator of her generation,” ranking higher not only than Wright, but also above such European masters as Adolf Loos in Vienna, and Edwin Lutyens in Britain.

(SIDEBAR: Loos may not really have been such a great draftsman. Read Loos Scholar Professor John Maciuika's account here.)

Mahony did the presentation drawings for Wright's great masterpiece, Unity Temple. 'Marion Mahony has been doing great work”, observed a contemporary. “the Unity perspectives are hers.” According to Brooks, Mahony contributed at least half of the renderings in the 1910 Wasmuth Portfolio, the book of Wright's work that spread his fame like wildfire throughout Europe. Mahony's distinctive monogram, however, somehow came to be deleted when the drawings were retraced for the publication.

Unlike Sullivan, Wright permitted his employees to take on side jobs, but the works created entirely by Mahony are few. For the Church of All Souls in Evanston, built in 1903 and demolished in 1960, Mahony revised her original, more radical octagonal design to gracefully meet the client's demand for something Gothic with a limestone exterior whose climbing ivy made the church, in the words of writer Jay Pridmore, “appear to be part of the natural landscape.” When Wright ran off to Europe in 1909 with the wife of a client, it was Mahony who eventually wound up taking his sketches and completing commissions for homes like the Adolph Mueller House in Decatur, Illinois.

Still, it's Mahony's association with her husband, Walter Burley Griffin, that is probably best remembered today. Six years his senior, Mahony fell in love and married Griffin in 1911, when they both worked in Wright's office. Shortly after, Mahony urged Walter to enter a recently-announced competition to design a new Australian capitol in Canberra. It would be the turning point for both of their lives.

Next: Marion Mahony Griffin in Australia and Beyond

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© Copyright 2005 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.