Marion Mahony: A Pioneering Woman Architect

The Pioneering Marion Mahony:

Women make up only a small proportion of the architecture profession today. A century ago they were hardly represented at all. Which makes Marion Mahony, the first woman to obtain an architecture license in Illinois, seem all the more remarkable. Marion Mahony was the second woman ever to graduate from the architectural program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After graduation in 1894, she immediately began working with her cousin, architect Dwight Perkins in Chicago. The first woman to take an architectural license in Illinois, and one of the first, if not the first, to receive her license in the United States, she has played an important historical role in American Architecture, although one that has been unjustifiably neglected. Mahony came to work in Oak Park early in her career, at the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright. An important collaborator on some of the most renowned buildings designed during Wright’s Prairie School period, she was also responsible for some of the finest decorative designs, art glass and furniture coming from Wright’s studio, and the Prairie School at large. Most of the beautiful, now-famous, architectural presentation drawings and water colors that helped Wright promote his practice, his building designs and his career, were drawn or painted by Mahony.

Biographic Notes:

Marion Lucy Mahony was born in Chicago in 1871 and grew up in nearby Winnetka, where her family had moved after the great Chicago fire. She became fascinated by landscape as the area around her family’s home was being carved up into suburbs. She received her architecture training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After returning to Chicago, she went to work for her cousin Dwight Perkins in a studio designed by Perkins and shared by several architects, including Wright. In 1895 Mahony became Wright’s first employee. Barry Byrne, who came to work in the studio in 1902, reminisced in several articles after Wright’s death about the informal design competitions among that architect’s employees. He recalled that Mahony won most of them and that Wright filed away her drawings for future use, chastising anyone who referred to them as “Miss Mahony’s designs.” In 1909 Wright left his wife for a client’s wife, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, with whom he fled to Europe. The scandal caused an uproar. Wright’s Oak Park studio closed its doors, leaving his draftsmen and his clients in limbo. Before his departure, Wright had searched for someone to finish his outstanding commissions, but none of his former employees were willing. Wright finally convinced an associate from Steinway Hall, Herman Von Holst to take the job. Von Holst realized that he needed someone with a better understanding of Wright’s design concepts to please Wright’s clients. So he promptly hired Marion Mahony to finish the designs. Mahony worked with several other Wright employees to complete the firm’s commissions. In her later years, Mahoney took on few commissions and did virtually nothing to enhance her reputation. In the United States a few works attributed solely to Mahony survive, including a mural in the George B. Armstrong elementary school in Chicago, and several private homes in Decatur, Ill. (The Decatur houses are the subject of a new book, Marion Mahony and Millikin Place: Creating a Prairie School Masterpiece, published by the Walter Burley Griffin Society of America as part of its continuing effort to assess her contribution.)

Marion Mahony: A Pioneering Architect:

By 1908, Mahoney had been working for Frank Lloyd Wright for a decade. She had developed a smooth, free flowing style of rendering derived partly from Japanese woodblock prints, with lush vegetation flowing in and around floor plans and elevations. Her masterly compositions also made the buildings appear irresistibly romantic.

Mahony’s drawings, retraced in ink, formed much of what came to be known as The Wasmuth Portfolio, a compendium of Wright’s designs published in Germany in 1910. The portfolio established him as America’s reigning architectural genius, and it also influenced European Modernists like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.

Some have said that the specifics of Marion’s life fell victim to the primary scholarly effort to establish and fix the canon of “great men” whose genius-personalities, buildings and texts would become central to the story of architecture.

That Mahony spent her most productive years in Australia, where she and her husband designed a plan for the new city of Canberra in 1911, has also lowered her profile in the United States. But the Australians take Mahony as seriously as we take Frank Lloyd Wright.

One of those Australians, Christopher Vernon of the University of Western Australia, has written extensively of Mahony’s talent as a designer. Mr. Van Zanten goes so far as to say that Mahony, after Wright and Louis Sullivan, was “the third great progressive designer of turn-of-the-century Chicago.”

Wright, who more than most architects cultivated the image of the lone genius, never acknowledged Mahony’s contributions. Still, it is generally accepted that the rendering style through which Frank Lloyd Wright became known was Marion Mahony’s.

Marion Mahony: The Works of a Pioneering Woman Architect

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2 Responses to “Marion Mahony: A Pioneering Woman Architect”

  1. Katie Says:

    Are there any of Mahony’s house drawings available for purchasing or for viewing?

  2. Women Architects, Feminism, And Radical Education Praxis « Like a Whisper Says:

    […] Marion Mahoney […]

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