Rediscovering a Heroine of Chicago Architecture
Published in The New York Times
January 20, 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 www.artic.edu/magicofamerica. 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 associate 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.