By Jennifer Young

Fallingwater, the Guggenheim, Taliesin…

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s early 20th century homes and buildings remain as innovative today as they were when he designed them. Wright was a devotee of the Prairie School of architecture, an aesthetic characterized by horizontal lines, flat roofs, and craftsman-worthy construction.

His chief aim when building was to create organic architecture that was integrated with its landscape and environment for a more harmonious state of living. Born in Wisconsin in 1867 , Wright became one of the most esteemed architects in American history. More than 400 of his creations still stand today and many can be toured and have been conferred with landmark status.


While Wright’s works are celebrated around the world, the man himself is not without some tarnish to his reputation. Scholars, associates, and some people who were closely acquainted with Wright have called him “controlling,” “narcissistic,” “a dandy,” and “adulterous.” Architecture critic and writer Ada Louis Hustable called Wright “melodramatic” and “full of lies.” There are also numerous allegations of non-payment to contractors who worked on Wright’s constructions. Wright was known to justify his failure to pay his builders because he believed they were lucky to be part of his ventures.

Wright’s personal life was fraught with scandals. In 1903 while designing a home for his client, he abandoned his wife Catherine and their children and ran off with his client’s wife, Mamah Cheney. She left her husband and two children behind. The pair ran off to Europe but returned to Wright’s Wisconsin retreat, Taliesin, in 1911. Though essentially estranged from her children, Cheney received a visit from her son and daughter at Taliesin while Wright was in Chicago. During this visit, a member of Wright’s house staff set the house on fire and hacked Cheney, her children, and other servants to death.

JOURNAL TIMES, 10/8/1914

A lifelong Unitarian, Wright appeared to be devastated by Cheney’s loss, but he was finally able to obtain a divorce from his wife and marry Miriam Noel, who referred to Wright as “Lord of my waking dreams,” the following year. The marriage was brief and the divorce proceedings included his accusations that she was a morphine addict while she alleged that he beat her. While awaiting his divorce from Noel, he contrived to attract another wife and mother—Olga Hinzenberg—to his rebuilt Taliesin home. Hinzenberg, roughly 30 years his junior, bore him his seventh child. His wife Catherine was mother to his other six children.

Of course, Wright is hardly the first illustrious personage, artist, or genius for that matter to achieve professional greatness while leading a largely corrupt personal life. Picasso was known to have countless abusive relationships with women and no one seems to object to owning or even admiring his work. One can visit Wright’s most compelling architectural works , noting their graceful harmony with the environment and pay no heed to the craftsmen who were not paid what they were promised.

In stark contrast to the seamlessly integrated indoor and outdoor spaces are Wright’s builders who devoted their time, believing their pay would put food on the table for their children. And there, in spite of the interconnected carriage houses, conservatories, and pergolas is Edwin Cheney, husband of Mamah, and his lifelong grief for the brutal losses of his children John and Martha.