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'Plagued By Fire' Finds The Lost Humanity Of Frank Lloyd Wright

Even if you’re not into architecture, you probably know Frank Lloyd Wright’s name. But despite being one of the most famous architects of the 20th century, and despite all of the books written about him and his work, the man himself remains a mystery. Even his autobiography was embellished and historians admit they can never truly verify fact from fiction.

"[Frank Lloyd Wright's] life is so difficult to get down," notes author and journalist Paul Hendrickson. "It has been trailed by so many distortions and mistruths, starting with everything Wright did himself."

One thing that Hendrickson thinks has been left out of all previous accounts of Frank Lloyd Wright is his humanity. Even though Wright was extremely arrogant and egotistical, "I contend, you scrape all that away, you cannot go away from looking at these buildings without appreciating there is a fundamental soulfulness at work," says Hendrickson.

His new book, Plagued By Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright, is "in some ways is a search for [Wright's] humanity," a sympathetic search for the man who was haunted by his buildings and their fates as much as he was made famous for them.

Credit Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives
Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin home in Spring Green, Wis. was set ablaze on August 15, 1914 by a servant gone mad after he brutally attacked and killed Wright's mistress, her two children, and four others.

One event that was particularly traumatizing for Wright was the fire at his Taliesin home in Spring Green, Wis. 

On Aug. 15, 1914, a servant brutally attacked and killed Wright's mistress, her two children, and four others who were staying or working in his home. Only two people survived and Wright was in Chicago, Ill. during the time of the tragedy.

"That event for a century and more has remained in some ways at the heart of ... Frank Lloyd Wright's preposturously complicated tortured life," says Hendrickson.

Looking deeper into Wright's life came "organically" to Hendrickson. He grew up in Kankakee, Ill. where two of Wright's houses were built. And Hendrickson lived within block of the B Hardley Bradley house — a house that remained ingrained in his memory.

"I, as a 9 year-old in 1953 ... would sail past that house on my way to the ball park ... Something was pulling me in a simultaneously scarring me about [that house]," he recalls. "But because I'm a slow learner, it only took six and a half decades to loop around and find me as a storytelling project."

Credit James Caulfield © 2018
Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple can be found in Oak Park, Ill.

Wright designed buildings for himself and to please his own personal vision of how Americans should live in their homes, but Hendrickson contends there was always a part of Wright that remained a small town boy with rural, agrarian values — especially since the vast majority of his work was domestic.

"I do feel there's a worthy impulse that has to be looked at when you want to create dignified human shelters for ordinary Americans," says Hendrickson. "What is not to admire there? What is not to defend there in terms of someone's humanity?"

While Hendrickson knew very little about Wright before diving into his research for the book, he says he would never spend seven years trying to write about someone he didn't like. Hendrickson hopes that through his book readers will find a new perspective on Wright and his work, even though "there's a lot you have to forgive in Frank Lloyd Wright."

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.