Frank Lloyd Wright's drawings emerge from the archives after 15 years

The return of the Wasmuth Portfolio

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By Jeanette Fields

Contributing Reporter

Editor's note: Frank Lloyd Wright was more than a master architect. He could also draw. The proof will be on display at the Oak Park Public Library from Sunday, Oct. 9 through Tuesday, Oct. 11 when an original "Wasmuth Portfolio" will be exhibited to celebrate the centennial of its publication.

The library's portfolio, one of only a dozen or so originals remaining, was last available for public viewing in 1996. Jeanette Fields, Wednesday Journal's longtime architecture columnist, wrote about the event in our Nov. 13, 1996 issue. Here is an edited, and slightly expanded, version:

The Wasmuth Portfolios were the most important publication of the early modern movement," said Wilbert Hasbrouck, architect and Frank Lloyd Wright authority, in 1996. "The Wasmuth folios are possibly the most important documents I've ever seen."

This intriguing saga is tinged with romance, struggle, turmoil and ambiguities.

According to Anthony Alofsin, author of Frank Lloyd Wright: The Lost Years 1910-22, conventional wisdom holds that Wright peaked as a Prairie School architect around 1910, then declined for the next 20 years, following the Mamah Cheney scandal and tragedy, followed by a comeback in the 1930s. The decades between came to be known as Wright's "lost years."

By early 1909, Frank was looking for a pretext to make his first trip to Europe. His friend, C.R. Ashbee, had been encouraging the young architect to visit London for years, and Wright was eager to see the latest developments in Germany and Austria. He knew of Ernst Wasmuth, a German publisher of books on art and architecture, through two Germans who had visited him in his Oak Park studio: architect Bruno Mohring and Kuno Francke, a German philosopher teaching at Harvard. Francke established the contact with Wasmuth, who intended to produce a complete folio of all Wright's work to that date.

Wright's hidden agenda included turning over his Oak Park studio to associates so he and his lover, Mamah Cheney, could spend a year abroad. This would provide him the opportunity to work on the Wasmuth and allow Mamah, who was fluent in several languages, to translate the works of Ellen Keyes, a noted feminist author. He left behind his wife and six children.

The Wasmuth prints covered Wright's projects from 1893 to 1909 and consisted of a total of 100 plates prepared from drawings made at Wright's studio in Oak Park. They were redrawn in Europe and included 70 buildings and projects, with perspective drawings, plans, sections, interiors and exteriors. Many local structures were included, such as Wright's Home & Studio, Unity Temple, the Winslow house, the Chauncey Williams house and the Edwin Cheney residence.

Drawn by Wright and his assistants, the lithographs were magnificently reproduced in brown, gray and bronze inks on gray and white papers and tissues, including Japanese stock. Today the folios are collector's items.

One of the library's choicest items is the leather-bound presentation copy of the 1910 Wasmuth edition, which Wright gave to his son, John. Only 25 copies were printed, gold embossed, on Japanese paper. The manuscript suffered some water damage from a fire at John's home. The inscription reads, "To John, from father, who hopes to approve his son's studies and executed buildings some day."

For many years it was assumed that the Wasmuth portfolios, officially titled, Ausgefuhrte Bauten und Entwurfe von Frank Lloyd Wright ("Studies and Executed Buildings") had a tremendous influence on European architects. This assumption was probably rooted in Wright's autobiography. According to Alofsin, a faculty member at the University of Texas who was the first scholar to have access to Wright's archives in over 40 years, this is not exactly the case.

"Wright never intended this publication for European audiences, but rather as a primer of new American architecture to be sold primarily in the U.S.A."

The publication, Alofsin said, was fraught with problems. Most of the drawings had to be redrawn. Son Lloyd and architect Taylor Wooley brought them to Fiesole, Italy, where they were reworked. The pace was slow and Wright was strapped for cash. He paid for the books in installments with cash covered by loans from Darwin Martin, his perennial benefactor.

Wright's exact whereabouts in Europe during this period were vague. After he and Mamah were "discovered" by a Tribune reporter, registered as "Mr. and Mrs. Frank Lloyd Wright" in the Adlon Hotel in Berlin, they went undercover. Mamah left for Sweden to translate for Key. She rejoined him in Fiesole and when the project was over, they went traveling.

During their travels, Wright had the opportunity to see firsthand the monuments of Roman, medieval and Gothic architecture and contemporary art and design. He saw the capitals of Europe — London, Berlin, Vienna and Paris and other cities en route. He saw the craft objects, furniture, murals, textiles and sculpture that he could have known previously only from illustrations.

According to Lloyd Wright, his father spent a long time studying the Petit Palais in Paris. The plan of the building and the ornamental patterns of the floors were a tour de force in the controlled manipulation of geometry and color. The Baptistry of San Giovanni in Florence, meanwhile, with its white and green marbles, intrigued Wright with its design motif of a rotated square.

All of this provided the artistic inspiration that allowed his practice to enter a rich, experimental period upon his return from Europe.

But that homecoming was a little rocky. Wright was beset with problems — from financial to personal. On the day he arrived in Oak Park, reportedly, "he slumped in the car seat to avoid being recognized." At the Sunday service at First Presbyterian Church, he was singled out from the pulpit for adultery. He even had a falling out with Herman Von Holst, who had taken over the Studio when Wright left.

In April 1911, he bought 31 acres in Spring Green, Wis., to build Taliesin. His mother put up the money after he gave her the erroneous impression that he was building a cottage for her.

In 1943, allied bombs destroyed the venerable Wasmuth publishing house, including the original Wright copies, correspondence and printing stocks. After the war, the publishing firm was rebuilt and grandson Ernst established a new company, the Wasmuth Museum Shops, in Berlin in 1993.

Robert Weinberg, a partner of Graphic Conservation Company, oversaw the conservation project on the library's Wasmuth, made possible with a $6,000 challenge grant from the Graham Foundation and donations from the Friends of the Oak Park Public Library, the Rotary Club of Oak Park and River Forest, the Helen M. Harrison Foundation, the Susan and Robert Winslow Foundation and individual contributions from local residents.

In 1969, head librarian Barbara Ballinger worked with John Lloyd Wright in Del Mar, Calif. on the acquisition of his Wasmuth folios for the library. John wrote, "I would like to see you have the original two-volume Wasmuth Monograph ... this item is scarce as well as exceedingly important, being one of the few deluxe editions on Japanese paper in existence. I would very much like to have this permanently located in Oak Park where the work originated."

Ballinger said, "He made it possible for us to acquire this material by donating half of its appraised value." The Rotary Club of Oak Park contributed the other half as a gift to the Oak Park community in recognition of the club's 40th anniversary.

And now the Wasmuth will be displayed in public, a rare treat for architecture buffs and Wright aficionados.

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