Fact Checking

September 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

In this political season, we’ve all learned that we can’t believe everything we read. I was aware of that concept when I was writing Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House, so much of my time was spent checking the research of others for accuracy.I continue to find new information and am constantly trying to separate facts from myths or theories. For example, I discovered in the book I am currently reading, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Art of Japan by Julia Meech, two tidbits to possibly add to my interpretation of the Dana-Thomas House for visitors.

Rose Harmon, Volunteer Coordinator, “stores” a print

In Chapter 1 Meech describes the Wright-designed print tables that are found in the Dana-Thomas House (see “Displaying Art Prints in the Wright Way”). Then she writes, “The table folds up into a slim but stable container for storage of valuable large prints.” I had never heard that before, so I looked closely at the folded table in the gallery. Much to my surprise, there is a nice pocket that could be used to store prints. One more example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s genius to share with visitors!

In the next chapter Meech makes the case that the Darwin Martin House (designed in the same period as Susan’s Lawrence House) is a microcosm of Wright’s early interest in the Japanese aesthetic. Since many of the examples she cites in the Martin House are also found in the Dana-Thomas House, I can easily understand her arguments. One of the characteristics of Wright’s architecture that she compares to Japanese architecture is the lack of walls. Delineated only by bands of molding and ceiling height changes, the reception area, dining room, and breakfast nook of the Dana-Thomas House flow together with no other dividers. The rooms in Japanese buildings are often only defined by beams of wood (kamoi) attached to columns just above head level. Opaque doors of paper (fusuma) which slide on tracks (shikii) create partitions to separate the rooms. Meech implies that the drapes that hang between rooms in the Martin House (as they do in the Dana-Thomas House) are Wright’s adaptation of the fusuma.

Maybe the current political environment is making me more skeptical, but I am having trouble accepting that theory. The analogy between the heavy drapes we see in the early photos of the Lawrence House and the delicate fusuma eludes me. I’m going to continue to tell our visitors that the drapes were for temperature control until I find convincing facts to the contrary. Unlike some of our current politicos, I like fact checking.

a. kamoi b. fusuma c. shikii

Susan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Taliesin Fellowship

September 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

1933 Brochure reprinted 2003 by Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

The Taliesin Fellowship welcomed its first students in October, 1932. As conceived by Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife Olgivanna, the Fellowship was a school for architecture and the allied arts based on apprentice training. Shirley and Myron Marty, co-authors of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship, describe the Wrights’ unconventional intentions in this succinct way:

In a rural Wisconsin setting, free of the curricular and geographical constraints of colleges and universities, they [apprentices] would learn by doing.

Throughout her life Susan was interested in progressive educational concepts. Most notably she generously supported with her time and money the Hillside Home School of Wright’s aunts (see Chapter 16 of Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House). Consequently, the following excerpt from a letter she wrote to Wright on August 17, 1933, is not surprising:

[I] am desirous of running up to Spring Green for a day to see what you are doing there. I saw a very major report in a paper article of some work or project you were working out there. It caught my interest so thought I would like to give it a look over.

In his response to Susan dated August 21, 1933, Wright’s inner salesman emerged. He opened the letter by assuring her that she would approve of the venture because it is a way to salvage what Susan and her mother encouraged “years and years and years ago.” Presumably he was referring to his genius. Wright’s next paragraph wistfully regrets that there is little of the Lawrence fortune left. If  only  Susan had some money, she could build a cottage at Taliesin on waterfront hillside property for $1200 and watch the Fellowship grow first hand while investing what talents and money she could afford.

Since Susan was struggling to overcome enormous debts at that time, Wright didn’t make a sale. However, he made a Friend of the Fellowship. In  a December, 1933, brochure promoting the Taliesin Fellowship, 137 names are listed as “Friends of the Fellowship.” These are individuals who endorsed the revolutionary educational concept. It is a 1933 who’s who. The list includes such notables as Jane Addams, Chicago; Albert Einstein, Princeton; Buckminster Fuller, Bridgeport, Connecticut; Jens Jensen, Chicago; John Dewey, New York; Edna St. Vincent Millay, New York; Georgia O’Keeffe, New York; Dorothy Parker, New York; and Suzan Lawrence, Springfield, Illinois. I hope Susan gained some satisfaction with the inclusion of her (misspelled) name on that elite list at a low point in her life.

Susan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Japanese Prints

September 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

While I was thinking of wood block prints last week, I was reminded of a transaction between Susan and Frank Lloyd Wright that wasn’t as satisfactory as the building of the Lawrence House was. The inventory of Susan’s possessions taken in preparation for the 1943 auction lists “one collection of Japanese prints.” I suspect those were the prints I refer to in Chapter 16 in Susan Lawrence: The Enigma in the Wright House:

Despite the fact that [Susan] felt that [Frank Lloyd Wright’s] aunts lacked good business sense, she gave many gifts and loans to them over the years [to maintain their Hillside Home School]. When the school closed, Frank Lloyd Wright bought it for $1 and assumed financial responsibility. At the time of the closing, Susan held a note with $2,000 principal and $1,400 interest due on it. Wright offered a settlement that was considerably less and sent her some art prints presumably in payment.

In response, Susan wrote a letter on December 22, 1916, to Frank Lloyd Wright. In part it read:

I hardly thought you would class me with the others [ investors] by offering me 50 percent. It hurt and surprised me…The prints came tonight. I am going east in three weeks. I will take them to Boston and have Spaulding look them over and give me an estimate on them.

Susan was referring to William Stuart Spaulding who, with his wife and brother, held at that time the most extensive collection of Japanese prints in the country.

Woman Running to Take In Clothes During a Summer Shower (1765)
by Harunobu

Some of Susan’s prints “came home” in 2007 when the Barker family returned to the site five prints which members of the family obtained in 1943 (The prints are currently in storage). Three of them are originals by the famous and popular print artist Suzuki Harunobu. The other two are inexpensive reproductions made for the 20th century tourist trade according to Linda Suits, former curator of the Historic Sites Division of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. I can’t help wondering if Susan was once more “hurt and disappointed” after Spaulding’s appraisal of the prints Wright sent her as payment.

West Meets East in the Dana-Thomas House Gallery

September 5, 2012 § 1 Comment

Mid-Autumn Day

Last week I led a tour through the Dana-Thomas House with eight students from the Ashikaga (Japan) Institute of Technology and their instructor, Dr. Shinji Masuda, who served as interpreter for those who did not speak English. When we got to the gallery, the Americans on the tour and I were treated to an impromptu cultural lesson. Dai Song Han, a Chinese student, was drawn to one of the woodblock prints we have currently displayed on a print table. He identified it as a Chinese print. He interpreted the title on the print as “Mid-Autumn Day.” He went on to explain that Mid-Autumn Day is a major holiday in China which falls on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar (September 30 this year). The young student excitedly told me that the print is very old and very expensive.

Dr. Masuda then explained the other print on display. It is one of a series by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1859), a very prolific Japanese artist. He created several series showing images along the 53 stopping places or stations on the Tokaido Road, a main highway linking Edo (modern Tokyo) and Kyoto. The print we have on display is entitled “Rokugo Ferry Crossing.” It is an image from Kawasaki, the second station on the road, and was originally published in 1833-1834.

This incident piqued my curiosity. Are these prints originals or reproductions? Did they belong to Susan or were they donations to the site? If they were Susan’s, did she get them from Frank Lloyd Wright? Regina Albanese, Executive Director of the Dana-Thomas House Foundation, told me that the Hirodhige print was a 1990 donation to the site from Donald Hoffmann, author of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana House. When I contacted him, Hoffmann answered some of my questions:

Yes, the Hiroshige print is an original, and I bought it probably in the 1970s from what was then an annual sales show at the Nelson Gallery of Art here in Kansas City (now called the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art). The state of Illinois was acquiring the Dana house about the time I was researching the Robie house and acquired a photograph of the interior showing a Japanese print somewhat like my Hiroshige that I would guess Wright gave to Mrs. Robie. That gave me the idea of donating the Hiroshige to the Dana house–not because Susan ever owned the same view, but because it was the kind of thing Wright gave to clients.

I am still trying to verify the artist and origin of “Mid-Autumn Day.” I suspect it is a reproduction, but I will continue to dig. Stay tuned.

Rokugo Ferry Crossing

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