Wright by Women

A new film reveals that the great architect (and notorious womanizer) was surprisingly progressive when it came to hiring women associates.

I’ll admit that I’m often guilty of writing off women’s lives before the 1960s as little more than marriage and childbirth, save for the rare anomaly. How bracing then to learn that anomalies were the norm at Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio, starting in 1895 when he hired Marion Mahony as his first associate (she subsequently became the world’s first officially licensed female architect). Mahoney and five of the 100 women that worked with Wright are the subject of the short film A Girl is a Fellow Here (a phrase Wright is known to have used), which premiered last night at the Guggenheim. The film’s genesis was the moment when the director, Beverly Willis, discovered that Isabella Roberts, who has always been listed as a bookkeeper for the Imperial Hotel, in Tokyo, was actually an architect. It quickly became apparent that Frank Lloyd Wright, whose personal relationships with women were famously rather scandalous, was a progressive employer.

Lois Davidson Gottlieb, who worked at Taliesin from 1948 to 1949, was on hand for last night’s event and remembers the man kindly. “He asked me to fix a window that needed repair, and he wanted to change it a bit,” she said. “I told him I had an idea and asked him to come and see what I had been working on. He said, ‘That’s a wonderful idea. I’m jealous that I didn’t think of it myself.’ That’s a wonderful thing for a 20-year-old to hear from an 80-year-old who thinks he’s the world’s greatest architect.” Gottlieb, whose family wanted her to go to a “proper” school, left Taliesin to get her architecture degree at Harvard. “After working for Mr. Wright, it was a tremendous letdown. He could, as they used to say, shake ideas out of his sleeve. At Taliesin, architecture was about how to make life better for your clients, for everybody. At Harvard, they were just making drawings for the drawing department. They didn’t do anything to the rooms themselves.”

The film is peppered with gender issues–stories about how women pitched hay and men cooked. But what one takes away from it is the amazing legacy of architecture that these 100 Taliesin fellows have left behind. As Eleanore Pettersen says in the film, “It was a beautiful life.”

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