Monday, August 10, 2015

Did John H. Howe design any Frank Lloyd Wright houses?

John H. Howe created a Usonian design for the Bryant and Marjorie Denniston house
in Newton, Iowa (1958), with a combination of grand and intimate spaces
that pinwheel around a hearth. This house is said to be similar enough to a few
Frank Lloyd Wright-designed houses that questions have been asked whether
Howe in fact designed any constructions attributed to Wright.
Image credit: William Byrne Olexy, courtesy of Modern House Productions. 

Principal of Quigley Architects and former president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy

At 19 years old, the architect John H. Howe became a founding member of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin Fellowship—a group of 23 apprentices that lived with the famed architect at his estate near Spring Green, Wisconsin. Howe earned a reputation as "the pencil in Wright's hand," and as such it's no surprise that speculation has spread over whether Howe designed any structures traditionally attributed to Wright. This is a provocative question that dogged Jane King Hession and me as we researched Howe's architectural career, first at Wright's side at Taliesin for more than a quarter century and eventually on his own for another quarter of a century. If only it were an easy one for us to answer!

One of our goals in researching our book was to illuminate Howe's role at Taliesin. Certain questions had to be addressed.

How did Howe assist Wright?
How were projects designed, developed, and presented?
Who did what on which projects?
How were these beautiful drawings made?
What was the working method?

Howe was direct in answering the questions in interviews late in his life, insisting he never designed anything during the Taliesin Fellowship, for designs were Wright's exclusive arena. Instead, he maintained, all he did was translate Wright's initial schematic designs into more developed drawings. From these more mature drawings, working drawings (the "blueprints" from which builders build) followed, with Wright fully engaged at all stages. Howe went so far as to correct an interviewer who assumed Wright was a feeble presence in the studio in the final years by insisting that Wright was fully engaged to the end.

We have wondered if Howe was merely continuing to be the "consummate apprentice," as he was known, when he asserts that all the creative work was Wright's. Was Howe overly modest? Was he fearful of the wrath of Wright's widow, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, with whom he had notoriously difficult relations? Whatever the case, even Howe's widow, Lu Sparks Howe, maintained the "party line" that her husband had no part in designing anything during Wright's lifetime. So, few insights came from either of the Howes.

Addressing the rumors

Nevertheless, rumors have long persisted about who might have really designed any number of houses from the 1950s. The rumors started with assertions by former Taliesin apprentices who worked in the drafting studios at that time. Houses mentioned include the Charles F. Glore House in Lake Forest, Illinois (1951) and the Paul Olfelt House in St. Louis Park, Minnesota (1958), both of which display a similar lightness to an executed Howe design (Bryant and Marjorie Denniston House, Newton, Iowa (1958)) with their vaulted roofs seeming to float above delicate window walls.

Can these rumors be substantiated? We have not found direct evidence, though we have not pored over the drawing files, either (which are now archived at the Avery Architectural Library at Columbia University in New York). Examination of these should shed light on how the design came about—and whether those initial sketches are in Wright's hand or not.

Interior shots of the Denniston house with its vaulted ceiling
and delicate floor-to-ceiling glass wall.
Images credit: William Byrne Olexy, courtesy of Modern House Productions

The topic of how Wright's Usonian houses came into being is addressed by former Taliesin apprentice Curtis Bessinger in his book, Working with Mr. Wright. Bessinger indicates one method was for Howe and Wright to confer about which previous project might be adapted as a starting point for the new design. Often Howe or another senior apprentice would take the lead in creating the new design. Specifically, Bessinger mentions the creation of the Howard and Helen Anthony House in Benton Harbor, Michigan (1949), which he adapted from an earlier Wright cottage scheme. These adaptations came naturally to senior apprentices, who were intimately versed in the Wrightian compositional vocabulary and building grammar.

Though architectural designs and completed buildings are often presented in the press as the heroic creation of a single genius, the reality of architectural production is one of diligent work by an integrated team. That was certainly true at Wright's Taliesin studios. By Wright's death in 1959, Howe oversaw a studio of 25 individuals that were working on a similar number of projects. What is undeniable is that architecture is the byproduct of intense collaboration between many contributing entities.

A practicing architect's insight

My own experience as a practicing architect bears this out. On some past projects, I was clearly the lead designer; on others, I delegated the task to another. An additional category exists, too, where it is difficult to pin down who did what, with the fluidity of the design and the collaborative process. Thus, attribution is shared or has to be more nuanced.

It is not difficult to imagine similar occurrences in the drafting studios at Taliesin. I suspect the sharing of design responsibility, if it occurred at Taliesin, was similar to the sharing I've mentioned in my career: a product of the pressure of time to get new projects moving in the midst of the other workload. In short, it was expedient. The 1950s (which Wright entered at the age of 82) were an incredibly busy time for Wright. He was involved with several major projects (among them, Price Tower in Oklahoma, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Marin County Civic Center in California, and Plan for Great Baghdad), travel between three residences and abroad, and writing competed with the Usonian houses.

Sharing some of that load seems plausible. Howe employed a number of strategies to keep the workflow moving expeditiously. He tried to schedule review sessions for finished projects at times when other engagements forced them to be short. He even revealed to a later client that he had mastered Wright's initialing of red square signature blocks, which signified his approval. How often, if ever, he may have bypassed Wright is unknown.

On one occasion, Wright asked the apprentices to design textile block houses for the box projects (design activities demonstrating apprentices' creative abilities), for Wright envisioned them as a promising solution to the housing crisis facing America immediately after World War II. Did any of these apprentice designs become Usonian Automatics, or the seeds of them? Or was Howe's birthday box projects of 1949 (presented to Wright on his 80th birthday), which impressed Wright greatly, a progenitor of these? Further investigation is needed, to be sure. This sort of focus on a common design topic is a frequent feature of many an architecture school studio curriculum, past and present.

On the whole, my research with Jane King Hession has been inconclusive in regard to Howe or any other apprentices designing outright Frank Lloyd Wright houses, or other structures for that matter. It makes for intriguing speculation, though. In all likelihood, it may have happened. Clearly, more research needs to be done to arrive at a more definitive answer. Knowing how architectural offices work, it would be naive to automatically assume it did not happen, even in a studio environment with a single undisputed master.


Tim Quigley, AIA, and Jane King Hession are co-authors of John H. Howe, Architect: From Taliesin Apprentice to Master of Organic Design. Quigley is principal of Quigley Architects and taught architectural studio and history courses for twenty years at the University of Minnesota and Ball State University. He is a former president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, vice president of the Minnesota chapter of Docomomo, and president of the advisory board of the Goldstein Museum of Design at the University of Minnesota. Hession, an architectural historian and curator specializing in modernism, is a founding partner of Modern House Productions; coauthor of Frank Lloyd Wright in New York: The Plaza Years, 1954-1959 and Ralph Rapson: Sixty Years of Modern Design; and a former president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy.

"A first-rate and engaging story. This book not only brings attention to the legacy of organic architecture as embodied in John H. Howe’s work, but also reinvigorates the discussion of creating buildings in harmony with the nature of our planet."
—Louis Wiehle, co-founder of Wiehle-Carr Architects and apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin

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