Marion Mahony was for some fifteen years (1895-1909) Frank Lloyd Wright's first and closest associate during the early Prairie moment in his extraordinary career. In 1911 she married another former Wright employee, Walter Burley Griffin (thus in almost mid-career accepting the name Marion Mahony Griffin), and set out on a practice -- joint in complex ways -- leading from Chicago to Australia (1914-35) and India (1935-37) before, with Walter's untimely death in 1937, folding back on Chicago (1938-61). As one of the first women in architecture, and as one at the pivot point of the formulation of international modern design, she is the subject of vivid interest, but her exact position and contribution are frustratingly difficult to define.
Paul Kruty observed years ago that Wright's earliest assistants were the most impressive in training and accomplishment, starting with his very first, Marion Mahony. The facts of Mahony's career are clear and have always drawn puzzled attention. She had been born into a Chicago family of progressive ambitions and links -- most especially to her cousin, the architect Dwight Perkins. She became the second woman in the United State to earn a professional degree in architecture, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1894, and the first to pass the Illinois licensing examination, in 1898, which was itself the earliest such examination instituted in the country. In Chicago after MIT, she worked in Perkin's office for a year before becoming Wright's first (and for some years only, as Kruty points out) assistant, working first in Chicago's "Loop" and then, after 1898, at Wright's studio in Oak Park. When Wright left his wife and went to Europe with Mrs. Mamah Borthwick Cheney in 1909, Mahony (taking the side of Wright's wife in the fracas) finished his ongoing work in the office of Herman Von Holst at Steinway Hall. She had already designed at least three buildings in her own right before 1909 -- the Church of All Souls in Evanston (1901), the William Burke house in Three Rivers, MI (1908), and a competition project for a concrete house (1909) -- and now she designed at least nine more that can be identified from photographs, drawings, and architectural club exhibitions: most of them quite large, four of them actually built. All are in a version of the Wright Prairie vocabulary, which Griffin was in the process of abandoning with his Marshall house of 1910, but are angular and over scaled, as in the three executed Millikin Place houses in Decatur, IL (1909-12). A spreading house shown at the Pittsburgh Architectural Club exhibition of 1912 bends oddly on a ridge top at sixty degrees. The David Amberg house in Grand Rapids, MI, is executed in orange brick with red sandstone fittings and abstract sgraffito patterning in the stucco of the gables. The most extraordinary of these projects was a mansion for henry Ford (1912), inherited from Wright, withdrawn by legal agreement in 1915, and ultimately executed in castellated style by the architect William H. Van Tine. These designs were more Wrightian than Griffin's contemporary work, but one must remember that during this time Von Holst's practice was functioning as a continuation of Wright's studio.
In Steinway Hall, Mahony remade the acquaintance of Wright's old employee Walter Burley Griffin, and on 29 June 1911 she married him. Later that year the two worked up a brilliant competition project for planning Australia's new capital city, Canberra, won the competition, and moved to Australia in 1914 after an initial visit and a tour of Europe, displaying their work in Marion's renderings in Melbourne, Paris, and Lyon. During their first decade in Australia they produced an extraordinary series of designs, from the layout of Canberra itself to Newman College and the interiors of the Cafe Australia and the Capitol Theatre, all in Melbourne. Then during the 1920s, they developed a stretch of Sydney Harbor as an ideal suburb, Castlecrag, and lived in bohemian style surrounded by like-minded Australians -- Mahony temporarily retreating from architecture to community work, especially local theater productions. In 1924 they returned briefly to Chicago, and in 1930 Mahony returned there again by herself, Griffin eventually joining her in 1932 and bringing her back to Castlecrag. In Chicago she left behind her mural at the Armstrong School, "Fairies Feeding the Herons". With the onset of the Depression, opportunities in British India drew first Griffin and then Mahony to Lucknow for two years of intense work before Griffin's untimely death in 1937. Mahony, now sixty-seven, withdrew first to Castlecrag and then in 1938 to Chicago, where she enjoyed a productive old age, drawing several projects for progressive friends and writing a massive biography of her husband, "The Magic of America," (available on-line: before dying in 1961.
From this story have devolved tow questions: (1) What exactly did Marion do in the offices of Wright, Von Holst and Griffin? (2) Was her work artistically consistent on some level, or was she merely a helper? Mahony gave an easy answer to the first question herself soon after her arrival in Australia: "My specialty is, I suppose, what is called presentation work." But an answer to the second question is more difficult, because the "presentation work" to which she refers so mildly was among the most extraordinary of her time. Her contribution lay in what she made of this medium, raising the broader question: Was her presentation drawing manner important for the architecture so drawn?
Mahony's career constituted the point at which the progressive, feminist qualities of Wright's enterprise -- his studio in the new suburbs, in the same building with his wife's kindergarten -- snap into active artistic practice, or almost do. As a number of writers have observed, Mahony is the whole projects' guilty conscience. In many ways she still confined herself to a traditional feminine role, drawing rather than designing: doing "presentation work." But she drew in such a way as to attract attention -- and at this very moment, architecture was becoming a matter of drawing. So one asks again: what seeped from Mahony's drawings into Wright's and Griffin's conceptions? What really was going on in the Oak Park studio, in Steinway Hall, on the top floor of the Monroe Building, and in Castlecrag?
Mahony, as a woman in a man's profession, sought a relationship with an enabling male practitioner: first Perkins, then Wright and then Griffin. The relationship with Wright was exhilarating, but in the end disastrous. The relationship with Griffin was quieter, if geographically adventurous, but finally led only to Castlecrag -- where at least there was a theater. Then cam the lightning struck in Lucknow, with all the renderings now at the Avery Library -- followed by emptiness. This all was Mahony's effort to realize herself in spite of her situation. It would have been amazing if she had entirely broken free.
adapted from an article by David Van Zanten