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Paul Sprague Paul E. Sprague is a professor emeritus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His studies in architectural history have included extensive research on the careers of Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Burley Griffin, and Marion Mahony Griffin. Sprague is also the co-author of Two American Architects in India, Walter B. Griffin and Marion M. Griffin 1935 - 1937.

QUESTION: What was Louis Sullivan's message to architects at the turn of the century?

PAUL SPRAGUE: Louis Sullivan's message was to develop individual styles of architecture not derived from past architecture.

QUESTION: Why did this new movement take place in Chicago?

PAUL SPRAGUE: They didn't have much background, much baggage to carry around like the people on the East Coast who wanted to be like Europe. Well, I suppose they wanted to be like Europe in Chicago but somehow they were raw and they could think for themselves.

QUESTION: So Chicago was a logical place?

PAUL SPRAGUE: It was a possible place to find some clients who would be willing to build it, that was the thing. Most of the architects in Chicago weren't doing this, you know. It was first Louis Sullivan, then his student Frank Lloyd Wright, then Wright's student, colleague, whatever you want to call it, Griffin, and then a number of others. George Elmslie who worked for Sullivan and had been with Wright in the Silsbey office, and a number of others, but basically you can count them on the fingers of both hands.

QUESTION: Compare Griffin's and Wright's clients?

PAUL SPRAGUE: Wright's early clients from this period, actually just before Griffin went to work for him, were people that his family knew; he knew from the churches he belonged to, which was the one in Oak Park and the one his Uncle ran in Chicago; and neighbors. These were the people who came to him. And some of those actually built his houses. They tended to be relatively well-to-do. His houses weren't inexpensive although he was interested in low cost housing, and he did design a number of houses for his first patron, Charles Roberts; some of which were built in Oak Park in the 1890's. Griffin's clients, well, one of his first was his brother. He designed in 1906 a house that was not built until 1909 in Edwardsville. His brother probably came in to give him a hand. And he had another commission for a landscape for Northern Illinois University. And those two things probably got him started. And he got a commission for Harry Peters in Chicago. And I don't know how he got that commission. And then we find him working most often for developers, which is something Wright would never do because they were not interested in quality so much. But Griffin had a way where he was able to convince these developers to build these strange houses that he was designing. I mean it was almost like a spiritual message he was bringing to them. And one developer in Winnetka that owned a lot of land actually built one of these strange houses in 1910 that we call Solid Rock. And eventually this developer got burned because nobody wanted to live in it. And then Griffin convinced Temple and some others to buy a piece of property just north of there, do a whole 35 house development north of there. And Griffin designed a house for himself there. And one of them was built; it looks a little different now but there was actually one house built. So, Griffin had to think in terms of reducing the cost and one of those ways was not to have all of those artistic details that Wright would included in his houses, and to try to use the materials that could be used inexpensively in concrete. But he wasn't just thinking of building for the common man, he had to.

QUESTION: What was the significance of the L-shaped plan?

PAUL SPRAGUE: The main significance of that kind of plan, having the living room extend into the dining room around a fireplace with the kitchen in the other corner,is that it was a house with a flowing space; a large space that could be built at small size and inexpensively. The first of these that Griffin had anything to do with was for a friend of Frank Lloyd Wright's, (Mr.) Robie, built in Madison in 1903. It is the incipient plan. The fireplace is not in the corner but just to the left of the corner. As it got developed by Griffin, and then Wright, you would come inside opposite the L. In this case, he came in right into the L.This house is full of little Griffin things; it even had a roof garden on top, something Griffin used extensively later and Wright never used. We have evidence that Griffin actually went to Madison to supervise the construction so it is probable that Wright just gave most of this to Griffin without paying too much attention. And the L-shaped floor plan starts there and then it appears again in 1906. Wright does not come up with this concept until 1907 in house he did for Ladies Home Journal in reinforced concrete. And after that, Wright used it a couple times but most of these other guys picked up on that because it was the perfect solution to this problem. First, you have to realize that Griffin invented it and then it became significant in a small sort of way because it could be directed to someone that was less affluent.

QUESTION: Why is the Carter house significant?

PAUL SPRAGUE: It is significant in Griffin's career mainly because it is a very nice house; very well detailed and has nice materials and so forth. It is, however, a kind of summary of his early work and at the same times it has many elements that are reminiscent of Wright. So that is why it is significant because it is so reminiscent in some way of Wright. And that is why it is not so terribly significant. However, if you look at the house in detail,there are many elements which, visual elements, that Wright never did much with. One was these open gables. Griffin liked these corner piers and they appeared in that house. Griffin also had this particular kind of interest that had to do with involving the house with nature and organic qualities; of pushing a room out of the main body of the house and surrounding it by a porch. And that occurs on that house. This kind of thing, for all the organic nonsense that Wright hands out, this kind of thing never seems to interest him. Otherwise, the fireplace looks like Wright, and the interlocking spaces and so forth look like Wright. You come in at grade like Wright.The window details are Griffin's. Griffin like to use wooden mullions which have a strong, more masculine, quality. Wright liked the art glass that Marion Mahony designed for him and occasionally other people in the office.

QUESTION: When comparing Griffin and Wright, is Wright the better designer?

PAUL SPRAGUE: One of the great difficulties in any of the arts is to explain why a particular building or work of art is aesthetically more pleasing than another. Comparing Wright to anyone - Sullivan, Griffin, whoever - is difficult to do unless you have some building right there that you can contrast. The truth is that Wright had many, many more ideas than Griffin and his teacher Sullivan. And he could work out plans and details and artistic formula more easily and more effectively than Griffin or Sullivan or anyone else. And he has been recognized for that. He has an international reputation. Probably one of the 20 or 30 most famous architects in the world. Unless we took two examples and compared them side by side and then you would be begging a lot of questions like is Wright's artistic interior better than one that is rather barren like Griffin's? Or is that a different point of view and how well could Wright do one like that, which he never he did? But none-the-less, the general consensus is, and is likely to remain, that Wright was a better designer than Griffin. And that's o.k. I don't think Griffin ever suggested to anyone that he was a better designer than Wright. What Wright did was suggest that Griffin was a terrible designer. And that's only because Wright would build up these animosities to people for other reasons and then they could do no right, if you pardon the pun.

QUESTION: What were Griffin's greatest strengths as an architect?

PAUL SPRAGUE: Let 's go out to Mason City, the Melson House. That is a perfect example because Wright made a design for that house on the same site, it's a perfectly ordinary Wright house: two story living room, dining room on the left, porch on the right, some things behind, sat on the edge of the cliff and two stories of glass. Wright went to Europe, Melson got tired of Wright for one reason or another, he went to Marion Mahony, who was now finishing Wright's commissions. Marion made a redesign for that house and it's more or less Wright, but a little more clunky in various ways. Well, nothing happened and then in 1911, she married Griffin. Melson comes back again and now they want to develop this whole valley. And he says, "Why don't you let Walter take a look at it. He's a landscape architect too." And so he designs the most organic house in the whole world! If you are talking about Wright as an organic architect can you believe this thing? I mean stand down there at the creek and you look at the living rock and you wonder, where does the house start? It goes up and up and up and then it's get bold and has these incredible pieces of masonry sticking out until you can't tell where the surface of the house is. You don't know where it is. And then he's got these incredible keystones of reinforced concrete at the top. Now where have you ever seen a house like this in the whole world? Is this better than Wright? Well, the plan is the same L-shaped plan, but dramatic? The thing really speaks! It is so unusual you can't imagine. The people who just bought it and restored it wanted to live in this place. I talked to the woman who lived there before. She said to me one day, "Mr. Sprague, people come down to my house, knock on my door and say where do they keep the animals?" So who could design something like that and get someone to build it? It was just quite amazing. And put it up against any of Wright's houses up to that period. Now it may not be finished the same way that Wright might finish it, if he had ever thought of it. The closest he gets to this kind of design is with Midway Gardens where he puts a lot of concrete ornament over a building that looks a lot like his other buildings except for that, and then in various other buildings he did in the 20's. And so that one really speaks. And Griffin did some other buildings at this time, like that library down in Anna, Illinois. Which really if you take a picture - I take a picture and show it to my students - of all these houses and suddenly this strange thing sitting there. But it is a wonderful building. This one has great space inside but this is like living rock. In fact, at Mason City when Griffin came back for the last visit before he went to Australia and the building was finished, he climbed the whole way up. And I've tried that. It is kind of scary. But he's it integrated into nature; you don't know where the living rock stops and the house begins. And this is the kind of architect he was. Well, how is it better or worse than Wright? It is hard to say, but certainly it was different. And that is what people have not given Griffin credit for. He went beyond Wright and he developed his own manner in this rather aboriginal style,. This thing is back not in the historic past but prehistoric past!

QUESTION: What do you like about the Blythe House?

PAUL SPRAGUE: Well, the Blythe House is a very interesting residence for a number of reasons. First of all, it wasn't designed for Mason City. If he was an organic architect, then it should have been designed for the site. But he designed it for his friend, the developer Temple. When Temple didn't build it - we don't know why - the idea was still there. It was a good idea. Now, what Wright did and what Griffin did in this particular case, they took an already existing building that was perfectly great and he oriented it to the new site and he made a few changes. The original house had a drive-through garage. And that was not possible on the Blythe site so he stopped it and turned it into a garage. But basically he got and it to work fine. There are wonderful areas of glass that look out on the flatlands before you get to the river. This house was built of reinforced concrete. Now reinforced concrete or the materials don't necessarily drive the architect. If Griffin had an idea that he got from Sullivan, that he also got from Wright, that in order to achieve a new style the simplification of form would be a good way to begin from which you could then elaborate. In Sullivan's case between 1887 and 1890, he designed buildings with almost no ornament on them. Sullivan was doing cubist buildings. Sullivan was seeing what he could do with the naked building, then he returned his ornament. Wright picked this up and that really becomes the basis for Wright's style; not all these Prairie things and long low roofs. But it is the geometry, simple geometry of Wright's work which he achieved in different ways. It is easier in brick, harder in framed buildings. Wright finally achieves it in stucco. And Griffin profited from these things. Then Griffin got this idea of using reinforced concrete. Probably no earlier than Wright got the idea. Wright used it first aesthetically in Unity Temple. That building he had designed in brick and stone and steel. And then in early 1906 he changed it to reinforced concrete because it would be cheaper and would look the same. So in Griffin's case, he was actually able to bring reinforced concrete to small residences. And another interesting thing about the Blythe House is that he brings it here. He brings it to this house, and it's fireproof and supposedly cheaper. And this maybe gives him a means to accentuate that simple geometry to which he then adds these ornamental details which then look like medieval Mexican architecture or something like that. Though if you look at them carefully they are just geometric forms that you could have whipped up without really thinking about the consequences for historians. And the third thing about that house that I find of interest is that Robert McCoy, an orthopedic surgeon, bought it and has written about it and preserved it. And so it has brought all these good things together.


 

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