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Photo of Brooks  H. Allen Brooks is professor emeritus in fine arts at University of Toronto. He conducted extensive interviews with Frank Lloyd Wright and Marion Mahony shortly before their deaths. He is the author of several books on architectural history including The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and His Midwest Contemporaries.

QUESTION: What kind of environment was Griffin walking into when he went to Steinway Hall in 1900?

H. ALLEN BROOKS: Steinway Hall was built by Dwight Perkins, the architect, and was completed in 1896, 1897. And Perkins got some of his friends to join him there and form a little coterie that included Robert Spencer, who was Frank Lloyd Wright's closest friend, and Frank Lloyd Wright himself. And Griffin joined this group two years later. They were on the top floor and they had a secretary in common. And then the floor above, by stairs, they had a big drafting room. And over the years Steinway Hall really changed in terms of the coterie that gathered there. And Griffin was there from 1899 to 1901. After graduating from the University of Illinois he went to Steinway Hall which was really the center, the growing center, of what we might call progressive architecture, particularly domestic architecture in the Chicago region. And, he stayed there for approximately two years before going to work for Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park. And that formed really the beginnings of the movement that later became known as the Prairie School. The group was very active socially together. They got together for lunch which included a broader spectrum of people in that area. The luncheon group was called The 18, and presumably consisted of 18 architects. And they were also very active, increasingly active, in the Chicago Architectural Club. And, by the early century, Frank Lloyd Wright was certainly the dominant figure within this coterie. And, in 1902, they really just controlled the annual exhibition of the Architectural Club at the Chicago Art Institute and they gave practically the whole booklet to Frank Lloyd Wright. This caused quite a reaction. The result being that this group had very little influence for the next several years in the Chicago Architectural Club exhibitions. It went conservative immediately after 1902. And, it wasn't until 1907 that they were able to exert their own influence and at that time Wright and the others had a fairly large spread at the Architectural Club exhibition.

QUESTION: What kind of influence did they want to exert?

H. ALLEN BROOKS: Well, all of them were tremendously impressed by and to varying degrees influenced by Louis Sullivan. There was no question that he was sort of the initial focus. The focus gradually changed to Wright as Wright reached maturity in his residential designs early in the century. But they all felt that something different should occur architecturally than had been true in America and in Chicago up to that time. They felt that there shouldn't be this emphasis on the past. They wanted to inject a new spirit into architecture, specifically in the Midwest. And unlike the East where British architecture had such influence and look at all the names of the towns and cities along the east coast whether you start with New London and Boston and New York, etc., etc., all the British ones then you can trace the change of attitude across indeed New York State. You come along to Rome, Ithaca, Syracuse, Attica on and on and on with these classical names - those towns that were founded in the late 1830's and 1840's and where architecture followed the example of Greece and Rome. And you get out to the Midwest where you have the Indian names but you also have these names that have no relationship to Europe or even to the East Coast. I love the little town, Jump River, for example. But the various names in the Midwest didn't have an European cultural background. And, I think that this says a good deal about the attitudes in the Midwest. You could break away from European traditions and start something new. And I think this is exactly what the group from Steinway Hall and The 18, and eventually the Prairie School, were seeking. It was an architecture not based on precedent but based more on what was out here.

QUESTION: Why was Chicago the center of all this activity?

H. ALLEN BROOKS: I think it centered in Chicago because the initial impetus certainly was the Chicago School, Louis Sullivan and the skyscraper architects. There certainly was very positive works going on in Minneapolis and St. Paul as well and in the West. And of course you must realize that at that time, Chicago was called the West, not the Midwest. That, in the West, which consisted of the principal cities being Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Paul, St. Louis and Toronto. Those were the cities that were covered for instance by the Inland Architect and the Western Architect. Those were the cities that they catered to in terms of their publication. And, I think going to this question of names and so on, I think it occurred here because the Midwest, as we call it today, was not feeling the same social pressures. It's very interesting to read the Ladies' Home Journal and such magazines about 1900. I remember one having something to do with the Russells moving to Chicago. A Boston family that comes to Chicago and finds that all the things they've learned about how you're supposed to think about things and have preconceived ideas - it doesn't work in Chicago. You can have your own ideas in Chicago. I think this has a great deal to do with why such a movement could take place here in the middle west.

QUESTION: Why was Sullivan the Godfather of this movement?

H. ALLEN BROOKS: Well, Sullivan was the Godfather of the movement, I think, because he was no doubt a brilliant designer. And, when you stop and think about it the solution to a high rise building that he devised, that is the first floor would be of one material and one treatment, that all the intervening floors would be the same treatment with vertical accents to emphasize height. All buildings beforehand had emphasized horizontality. This was the first to emphasize height and then to have a different treatment at the very top. And, then a very strong cornice at the top of the building. It's only the cornice that they dropped out. And, basically you look at practically every skyscraper built around the world from the 1890's up until really the late 1960's follows Sullivan's par tee, that is division. The only thing that later architects did they dropped the very strong cornice. They allowed the verticals to go right up. I mean just think of any Meis, Found or Oral building basically comes out of Louis Sullivan. So, there was this very powerful impetus in Chicago for architecture. Of course it was helped by having burned down in the Chicago Fire so that architects could come there - they saw a chance. And, then we see the need for residential architecture. Certain architects like Adler and Sullivan weren't basically interested in doing houses and therefore when an important client might offer them a great big skyscraper commission came along and said I also want you to do a house, of course they had to accept the commission for the house. And, of course that became Frank Lloyd Wright's main function in Louis Sullivan's office from the late '80's until '93 when he left. And, he would simply execute these commissions for Sullivan.


 

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