Janice Pregliasco is an architect at the Terra Design Group of Mill Valley California. She first learned about Marion Mahony Griffin at the Art Institute of Chicago. Her interest in Marion as a pioneer for women in architecture lead her across America and to Australia. She is a lecturer and author of the biography The Life and Work of Marion Mahony Griffin.
QUESTION: How would you describe Marion in the context of other women of her time period?
JANICE PREGLIASCO: She stood out in several ways. One way is that her cousin, Dwight Perkins, described her as the most bohemian person he had ever met. So, she had a lot, she was very dramatic, expressive. She had a mean wit and she dressed much differently than other women of her time. She wore pants years or maybe decades before other women did. By 1930 she was wearing turbans a lot and very colorful clothes.
QUESTION: Can you tell me about Marion's childhood home?
JANICE PREGLIASCO: Well, before her father died, it was a very social household and there were parties every week. And their friends would come up, take the train up from Chicago, and the parties would start Friday night and end Sunday evening. After her father's death when they spent more time in their West Side of Chicago home, her aunt and her grandmother came to live with them. So, it was a trio of matriarchs running the household. Her mother was an art teacher; her aunt was a music teacher. And every night of the week was given over to some art form. Thursday nights were drama nights. And other nights were poetry nights where they would study poetry. Other nights were dance nights and discussions about art, and weekend art lessons. So the house was constantly filled with people either taking lessons or dramatic readings or poetry, or things like that.
QUESTION: Do you think Marion has characteristics of her mother?
JANICE PREGLIASCO: Yes, she admired her mother a lot. And from other reports it seems like her mother's greatest characteristic is how she ran everything so perfectly yet always stayed in the background. That was Marion's model for being a woman and a married woman is staying in the background and making sure everything ran smoothly. I mean, think of it, her mother raised five children as a widow and was a principal of a Chicago school so she was a very accomplished woman for the 19th century.
QUESTION: Did Marion's father commit suicide?
JANICE PREGLIASCO: Well, it's, yes, in one way she calls it a suicide and in other parts of her biography she doesn't call it a suicide. So, that's rather debatable. He died of an overdose of laudanum which is opium mixed in alcohol and, I guess, was a very, a common thing to take back then, kind of like aspirin is now. But, he was also a drinker. So, her mother had a lot to keep together. Her father was her first hero. He was also a very interesting man. He wrote poetry. He was a journalist; edited a couple of magazines as well as being a school principal. And, of course, he died when she was 12 or 13. That's a very impressionable age, too. And, you can see it in the rest of her life when she's looking for men as heroes. Well, her first hero was her cousin, Dwight Perkins. She followed him to MIT and architecture school. After she graduated and she went to work for Frank Lloyd Wright, he became her architectural hero. I find it interesting that even though she was a friend with Walter Burley Griffin when they worked together in the studio, she didn't fall in love with him until after Wright left for Europe and he was out of the picture. There was, I think, a vacuum there for an architectural hero, a man to look up to.
QUESTION: Was Marion a mental equal to Wright in the studio?
JANICE PREGLIASCO: Yes, by descriptions from other people in the studio she, at the time, at the turn of the century, was the only one in the studio who could verbally match wits with him. They both had that Irish temperament and love of verbal sparring. And according to people in the studio, he used her frequently to refine his ideas, especially before his lecture on the Arts and Crafts and the Machine, his famous lecture at the Hull House in 1901.
QUESTION: Why did Marion have such an erratic schedule at Wright's studio?
JANICE PREGLIASCO: First of all, we don't know how erratic it was. The way Wright's studio was set up, he encouraged them to have their own projects. And so when any member got a project on their own that they had to focus on they would step out of working for a few months, concentrate on their own projects and maybe come back later. Almost all of the apprentices had done that at one time or another. I know she stepped out early in the century when she was working on the church in Evanston. She took time out from the studio to work on that project.
QUESTION: Did Wright see that as a rebellious act?
JANICE PREGLIASCO: Oh, no, no. In fact, if you look back, the reason he split with Sullivan was over moonlighted work. So he made sure when he set up the studio that that wasn't going to be a problem. In fact, there are letters by other apprentices that he actually encouraged them to get their own projects and things like that. And, it worked out for him too because architectural practice is very erratic and so during slow periods if the people there could be employed on their own projects, so much the better.
QUESTION: Did Marion have a more important role in the office than Griffin?
JANICE PREGLIASCO: I don't know if I would characterize it as more important. I mean, she was, Griffin worked there for a few years, two or three years. Marion was there for fourteen years. Marion was more in charge of designs, refining the designs of the interior of the prairie homes, and, in some aspects, even the plans of the prairie homes. Walter, from all descriptions, was the practical man of the office. He was in charge of the jobs that were under construction, in charge of specifications. And he had some client contact.
QUESTION: Do you think Wright valued one more than the other?
JANICE PREGLIASCO: Oh, Wright always placed value on design. There is a story late in his life where he went to somebody's architectural office and they said, "Well, actually, our work here is about 5 percent design and 95 percent this other stuff." And, he said, "Show me the 5 percent."
QUESTION: What about his attitude toward his employees - did he want everything to be his idea?
JANICE PREGLIASCO: Yes, there was reports that any reference to quote Ms. Mahony's designs in front of Wright or within his hearing got a stir, retort from Wright. I don't know if that's much different from a lot of architectural offices. I mean the work that comes out of the office goes under the name of the office and not under the individual designers.
QUESTION: Do you think Marion felt any bitterness at the time?
JANICE PREGLIASCO: No, I never sensed that from any of her writings. Her only bitterness towards Wright came later after the studio closed and after he came back and started railing against his former students, as he called them referred to them, as stealing from him. Then she got very upset because they weren't. He was setting himself up as a student-teacher relationship and that was not their relationship at all. Wright was only four years older than Marion. And Marion was much better educated as an architect than Wright. Wright only had a year or so at the University of Wisconsin. Marion had a bachelor's from MIT, which was then the premiere architectural school in the United States. So, it was much more of a collegial type relationship than a master/student. And she knew how much of the aspects of the Prairie School she developed. And, to have him claim to everything and then knock anything that they had done since his time as being unworthy really riled her.
QUESTION: In 1911, Griffin started developing his own style. How much do you credit this to Marion's influence?
JANICE PREGLIASCO: Well, I think a lot. I mean she started working in his office around 1910, and that's where you notice a stylistic shift. That's where she came in and started designing a lot of the projects. And, you also notice a big increase in the number of projects after 1910 and 1911 and that was due to two reasons. Some of it was former clients who would have gone to Wright but since Wright was out of the country came over to Marion, and sometimes Marion referred them over to Walter. And, especially after their marriage, a lot of friends from her mother's social circle became clients, Walter's clients.
QUESTION: How do you see their roles in Griffin's office? Did they share the work equally?
JANICE PREGLIASCO: I think they really were a partnership. I don't see Walter as being just the head and Marion the entire design behind the scenes because they really had a lot of back and forth input into their designs. From all reports, their discussions back and forth over design really meshed together. On the other hand, Marion was the one at the drawing table 12 hours a day while Walter was out in meetings, or meeting with clients. Again, his was a more practical bent; she was more the person at the drawing table, coming up with the ideas. But that's a natural division in any architectural office, too. I think Barry Byrne's comment that his respect for Marion as a designer but he didn't respect Walter as a designer goes back to kind of like how they functioned in Frank Lloyd Wright's studio. Walter met with clients, was good at the practical aspects. He was really interested in construction and siting. That's where his strengths were. Marion was the one who refined the ideas, developed the plans and a lot of the details that went into the buildings.
QUESTION: Could you say what is an influence of Marion's or Walter's specifically?
JANICE PREGLIASCO: I guess we can talk about the Melson House because the client actually came to Marion first. He was a client of Frank Lloyd Wright's who did a pinwheel plan house for him at a site but he didn't really like it and he came back to Marion after Frank Lloyd Wright had left the country. And, Marion turned the project over. She said you really should talk to this guy, Griffin, who is upstairs. So she gave the project over to him. And then I think they spent a week and they went to Mason City. And, they saw the site, which was right on a cliff over Willow Creek. And I think it was Griffin who said, "Of course we have to build right up from the cliff." Now, in Frank Lloyd Wright's previous design, he had set the house back from the cliff and it was more like a one-story spreading house. Walter saw immediately that they needed to grow up from the cliff and be sited at the edge of the cliff. And that's the most dramatic aspect of that house. In terms of the use of the rough stone, that's something that I haven't found in Griffin's earlier work. However, in Marion's first independent building, the All Souls Church in Evanston, she used the rough-cut limestone. So she did have experience using that. So that may have been, the use of that material, may have been her contribution.
QUESTION: Was she in charge of the window design?
JANICE PREGLIASCO: I think definitely she was the one in charge of the window design. Her nickname for the client, Mr. Melson, was "Don Melancholio", old sad face. And, if you look closely at the window designs, it's an abstract of a man with a very long face in the window designs, which I find quite funny. She spoke a lot about the house. I get from her autobiography when she speaks in detail about a house. It is something that she had a very close association with, design-wise. And, she talks about being able to lean over the balcony to pick berries from the bushes outside the window on a cliff face. And, that intimate contact with nature is what she strove for in her work.