so long, frank lloyd wright
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So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright
April, 2009, Page 212
Photo courtesy of The Frank Lloyd Wright Archives
Frank Lloyd Wright, circa 1945
Fifty years after his death, the whereabouts of Wright’s ashes are a mystery, but his legacy as America’s greatest architect is alive and well.
Somewhere among the well-kept grounds and well-preserved buildings at Taliesin West, the ashes of famed U.S. architect Frank Lloyd Wright are strewn – shrouded in the same controversy and secrecy that dogged him during his life.
As the story goes, Wright’s remains were brought to his desert home from his native Wisconsin at the request of his third wife when she passed away in 1985. Her dying wish was to have her ashes and his scattered in a memorial garden on the Scottsdale property.
To do so, loyalists snuck to his gravesite, exhumed Wright’s body, then cremated him quickly and quietly, some 26 years after his death in 1959 at age 91. The gravesite was left a mess, and the coroner was pledged to secrecy.
The move elicited an outcry from the Wisconsin State Legislature and others, including native Wisconsin journalist Karl E. Meyer, who likened it to “uprooting Jefferson from Monticello for reburial in Beverly Hills.” Some of Wright’s relatives described the act as “grave robbing” and “vandalism.”
But despite the furor, the deed was done.
Now 50 years after his death, the mystery continues. Taliesin West officials remain steadfastly close-mouthed about the final resting spot of Mr. Wright, as they called him then and still do so today. They say they don’t want visitors to hunt for his grave and possibly damage the site.
“We don’t talk about that,” says Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, a long-time associate and head of the Wright archives.
Yet there is much to say about the man, claimed to be America’s greatest architect, as a huge exhibit is unveiled next month at his masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of both Wright’s death and the museum itself.
A handful of people who knew Wright still live at Taliesin West and are able to offer a rare glimpse into the architect’s professional and personal life as well as his legacy. So can scholars, who continue to study and interpret his work. And his grandson, an architect in California, has his own perspective on what Wright would have thought of his beloved Taliesin today.
Photo courtesy Greg Obeirne
A young and eager Cornelia Brierly came to Arizona with Wright in 1934, before there even was a Taliesin West. She joined what was known as “the fellowship” – a training program founded by Wright for young architects. At the time, there was only one campus: Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Built by Wright beginning in 1911, the 800-acre property was a living laboratory where Wright and his apprentices could experiment with elements of design.
But Wisconsin winters were brutal, so by the next spring, Wright, Brierly and the other students were in sunny Chandler, staying in a former polo stable while they drafted plans for a second campus.
Wright first glimpsed Arizona’s landscape in 1928, when he came to Phoenix to consult on designs for the Arizona Biltmore Resort at the request of Albert Chase McArthur, an architect himself who wanted to incorporate Wright’s textured concrete block system into the hotel. At the time, Wright already was an accomplished architect, having made a name in the field with such projects as the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Midway Gardens in Chicago and the Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, New York.
A decade later, Wright had chosen his winter home in a 640-acre plot he described as “a look over the rim of the world.” He called it Taliesin West.
Brierly, now 95, says that while Taliesin West was being built, she slept in a sleeping bag on the desert floor and later in tents. She fondly remembers that the plans for the building were created on a drafting table in a desert wash, drawn on butcher paper and changed constantly.
Like the original Taliesin, the western campus evolved with every new idea and experiment – some successful, some not. Brierly jokingly tells of the shelter she helped build with her own hands that soon was roofless thanks to a mighty storm. Those were simpler times, she says, when working together was more the norm than it is today.
“Mr. Wright was so interested and excited about all the things that we were doing,” says Brierly, who still lives on campus in a cozy apartment. “His sense of adventure was incredible, and he loved every minute of it.
“Here was this virgin territory where he could start to build something that fitted in with the land.... He wanted to keep the desert just as intact as possible.”
She says she learned a lifetime of lessons from Wright – about how architecture was life, about a sense of beauty and about living with grace.
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