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100 Women Studied Under Frank Lloyd Wright
by Katy Purviance on 02/17/10 @ 10:21:56 pm
Categories: Architects | 1059 words | 1803 views

I just read this interview over at National Building Museum about the women architects who became “footnotes and endnotes” in the history of Taliesin West.

The Making of A Girl is a Fellow Here
Interview with Beverly Willis

What role did women play in the studios of legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright? According to archival research done by the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF), about 100 women architects and designers worked with Wright as fellows and architects. The short documentary “A Girl is Fellow Here”: 100 Women Architects in the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright focuses on six of these. Scholars claim that the film, produced by BWAF, “will forever change the way we see Wright.” The following is an interview with the film’s writer-director, Beverly Willis.

National Building Museum (NBM): Beverly, let’s first talk about the genesis of the film. How did the idea originate?
Beverly Willis:
The foundation’s goal is to expand historical knowledge and cultural recognition of women’s contributions to architecture. The foundation funds both public programs and scholarly research that focus on the women practitioners who have helped shape the American built environment. Producing films is, however, not typical of the foundation’s activities. But in this case, BWAF was presented at once with a great opportunity to sponsor a museum program and quite a challenge: The challenge was the dearth of information about women architects associated with Frank Lloyd Wright.

NBM Question: How does the BWAF put together a museum program?
The foundation’s typical approach to public museum programs is to find scholars, and ask them to make a presentation including images that can create a panel discussion. In this case, it was not possible. Despite the ton of material by and about Wright, we could not find Wright scholars to populate a panel to discuss the women architects in Wrights’ studio.

NBM: Were you already familiar with Wright—his work, scholarship?
Not really — but tucked in the back of my mind was this letter of reference written by Wright for Isabel Roberts, [which is preserved] in the national AIA archives in Washington, D.C.. I did know that historians called Isabel Roberts “Wright’s bookkeeper.” To me, it was so strange—knowing the existence of that letter and how it contradicted what was written in all the Wright history descriptions.

NBM: So you wondered why the history books referred to this woman as a bookkeeper, yet Wright wrote a letter recommending her as an architect? What did you do next?
I started reading books by the most prominent FLW scholars and found very few references to women architects or apprentices. I did find occasional names of women whose work was relegated to footnotes and endnotes.

NBM: What did you find next?
The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation sent me the Taliesin Fellowship list from its inception in 1932 to Wright’s death in 1959. I counted up the names of women then added up the fellows and staffers who worked with Wright prior to the 1932 fellowship. I was stunned—it totaled 100 women.

NBM: And how did you decide as an architect—not as a historian—based on the research, to structure the film?
I collected sentences from the endnotes and footnotes located in books written by prominent historians and found that this material could create a short narrative. I then located personal information about the women, some from obituaries, and merged personal information with images of their architecture found mostly in the women’s own archives. I wanted to know what these women did after their training with Wright, and if their architecture in their own firms had been influenced by him, and if so, how?

NBM: From these pieces of research, how did the narrative structure fall into place?
I decided on two phases of Wright’s career: 1895-1910 and 1932-1959. Phase one started when Wright first opened his own office in 1895. Marion Mahony joined him shortly afterwards. The office grew to about seven staffers—two of which were women—Mahony and Isabel Roberts. While the number of men varied from time to time, the two women stayed on until the office closed in 1910. Mahony and Roberts actually closed the office for Wright by finishing up his work. At the same time, Mahony was also designing her own commissions.

The second phase began in 1932 with the opening fellowship, which was initially populated with 20-25% women members. I then selected four women architects in addition to Mahony and Roberts whose designs I admired and where archival material about their buildings was available.

NBM: Where are the archives located? What was the response?
The images and oral histories primarily came from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation archive at Taliesin West, the International Archive of Women in Architecture at Virginia Tech, the archive of the American Institute of Architects, and from individual collections, articles, corporate documents, and university libraries across the U.S.—all were very responsive and helpful.

NBM: Do you think you’ve covered everything? Or is there more research to be done?
This represents just the tip of the iceberg. Yes, there is a lot more research to be done. For example, the other 94 women—but there are thousands of women architects across the country whose history is lost. We have more than 1500 women in BWAF’s on-line database called the Dynamic National Archive, which is accessed through our web site:

NBM: Let’s talk for a moment about your own distinguished career in architecture—you are an architect, and now an accidental historian. Is this a typical evolution?
I passionately believe that unless we recover the lost histories of the 20th century, including my own, designers and women architects will continue to be footnotes and endnotes to history. In my 59 years of practice, I have watched this happen. No matter the recognition and accolades received while alive, women architects’ histories are like chalk writing on the black board followed by an eraser.

NBM: It sounds like you’ve discovered some significant disconnects between secondary writings and primary sources?
Yes, these disconnects are actually what inspires the work of the foundation. The task of the BWAF is to see that women be put front and center, not relegated to the footnotes, within the narrative of architectural history.

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