Frank Lloyd Wright Turns Down Offer of a Life Time, Alters Course of Chicago Architecture
William Winslow was an entrepreneur of sorts, and he had faith in the young architect he commissioned to build his River Forest home. The Winslow House would later be considered by architectural historians to be the first early Prairie House. With its low hip roof and broad overhanging eaves, the Winslow House completely broke from historicism. The recessed frieze, ornamented in a Sullivanesque manner, is placed just beneath the eaves and provides the viewer with the illusion of a floating roof. Though not well received by most River Foresters and Oak Parkers, Winslow greatly enjoyed his house, and it would prove to be a precedent of Wright’s great Prairie Houses.
The Winslow House commission bred a lasting friendship between Winslow and Wright, and Chauncey Williams, whom Wright would build a house for a few blocks away in River Forest.
Williams and Winslow began a printing press in the basement of Winslow’s new Wright designed home, and Wright collaborated with the two on the printing design of The House Beautiful.
Not long after Frank Lloyd Wright designed the William Winslow House in 1894, did he find himself at a dinner party across the street from said residence at the home of Ed Waller. Waller was a wealthy real estate developer and a good friend and client of many of Chicago’s prominent architects. A friend of Winslow’s, Waller arranged to have the Winslows and the Wrights, Frank and Kitty, over for dinner. Waller would later commission Wright for several apartment developments and the Midway Gardens. Also in attendance at the dinner party was Daniel Burnham, master planner of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the most highly regarded architect in the Midwest, if not the entire nation.
Wright was not made aware of Waller’s intentions when he and Kitty accepted the invitation for dinner. After the meal, Waller invited Frank Lloyd Wright and Daniel Burnham into Waller’s library, where Wright was surprised to see Waller lock the door.
Daniel Burnham was then still in need of design partner. His previous partner, John Wellborn Root, had passed away in 1891 of pneumonia at the age of 41, during the planning of Chicago’s World’s Fair. Despite the loss of his partner, Daniel Burnham’s Fair was an outlandish success, and Burnham was vaulted to celebrity status. Still without a partner, Daniel Burnham offered to send Frank Lloyd Wright to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts for four years, all expenses paid. Following that, two years of study in Rome. Back in Chicago, Burnham would provide for Wright’s family. Upon return, Wright would be made Burnham’s new partner. It was an architect’s once in a lifetime opportunity.
But Wright turned it down. The room full of men were shocked, Wright himself included. The offer would bring unimaginable success, but Wright knew it wasn’t his path. He explained to the men that Louis Sullivan, his former employer whom he lovingly referred to as Liebermeister (my dear master), spoiled the Beaux-Arts for him. Wright’s entire architectural theory would later amount to the antithesis of the Beaux-Arts with the rejection of historical reference. How could he accept the offer, knowing he would be living a falsehood contrary to his nature?
Undoubtedly, Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the few Chicago architects that would turn down such an offer, but it was a decision that altered his own course of architecture as well as that of Chicago. It is difficult to imagine a single act altering the course of an entire city’s architecture, but let’s take a retrospective look at the reality.
Daniel Burnham never found a partner equivalent to John Root following Root’s untimely demise. Charles Atwood came close, having designed the Palace of Fine Arts for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, later converted to the original home of the Field Museum, and finally the Museum of Science and Industry. Atwood was also chiefly responsible for Daniel Burnham & Co.’s Reliance Building (completed 1895) and Fisher Building (completed 1896). Alas, Atwood also died before the age of 50, in 1896.
Daniel Burnham passed away tragically in an automobile accident in 1912 at the age of 65. His successor firm, Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White continued Burnham’s Beaux-Arts legacy. Their renowned architectural roster includes the Wrigley Building, the Merchandise Mart, and the Shedd Aquarium, among other notable structures.
The question, then, is how would Frank Lloyd Wright have acted as principal designer of Daniel Burnham & Co? Would the firm’s name have been Burnham & Wright? Daniel Burnham clearly saw the potential in this twenty something architect, though his request for Wright to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts indicates Burnham’s neoclassic intentions for Wright. It is unlikely that Wright would have suppressed his architectural hunger and created neoclassical structures, if he had even made it through the Beaux-Arts program. Wright dropped out of the University of Wisconsin to become a Chicago architect in 1887, and his predecessor Louis Sullivan had dropped out of the Beaux-Arts program years earlier.
Let us assume that Wright successfully completed the education sponsored by Daniel Burnham. He would have returned to Chicago by the turn of the century, the same time his work was actually maturing into the fully developed Prairie Style in Oak Park. The New School of the Middle West, as he called what would later be known as the Prairie School, was Wright’s architectural coming of age. None of that would have been realized for Wright, and he would have been stuck designing buildings that he hated, which is why he turned down Burnham’s offer in the first place.
After Burnham’s death, would Wright have taken over as the successor firm? Would we have seen the likes of the Wrigley, Shedd Aquarium, and Merchandise Mart buildings? And what buildings did we miss out on that could have been realized through the firm of Burnham & Wright? Would Wright have gone on to become one of the three most influential architects of the Twentieth Century (Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe were the other two)? Would Wright have designed Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum? Would we have seen the Robie House come to fruition? Probably not. With that said, it seems that Wright made the right decision.