Editor’s note: This preview is excerpted from an article originally published by our friends at the Claremont Review of Books.
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Depending on who was asking and when, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) was given to saying that he was the greatest American architect alive, the greatest American architect ever, the greatest living architect in the world, or the world’s greatest architect plain and simple, past, present, and future. When his third wife, Olgivanna, chided him for declaring in a court case that he was supreme among American builders, he answered mildly, “But I was under oath.” The famously nettlesome Philip Johnson, at the time still an architecture critic, was willing to allow that Wright was “the greatest architect of the nineteenth century.” This gibe did happen to be true enough; but Wright was also indeed the greatest architect of the 20th century, as Johnson would acknowledge in due course, when Wright had died and Johnson himself was the celebrity architect of the hour.
Frank Lincoln Wright was born 150 years ago on June 8, 1867, in Richland Center, Wisconsin, though he would habitually take two years off his stated age, like Tennessee Williams, who said the time he spent working in a shoe store didn’t count. Wright’s middle name was changed, probably by his mother, in honor of her Lloyd Jones family—“the God-Almighty Joneses,” as Wright’s sister remembered them years later. His mother, Anna, had big plans for her son while he was still in the womb: intending that he would become an architect, she put up prints of English cathedrals in what would be the infant’s room. Wright’s biographer Brendan Gill, in Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright (1987), suspects strongly that Anna Lloyd Wright was pretty well out of her mind, though Meryle Secrest, in Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography (1992), treats her somewhat more generously as the architectural equivalent of the stage mother, and Ada Louise Huxtable, in Frank Lloyd Wright (2004), sees her as provoked to shrewish desperation by her husband’s perennial fecklessness.
But apart from a brief unpleasant interlude in snooty Massachusetts, Wright’s childhood and youth were those of a happy Wisconsin farmboy, who acquired lifelong habits of unrelenting work by learning to “add tired to tired,” as he later put it, and who exulted in the splendor of the natural world. In his solitary rambles in the wooded hills, as he dutifully rounded up the wandering cows for milking, one sees the origins of his architectural credo: the natural, organic, and integral—his favorite words to describe his work—are one, and they are sacred.