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Sam Hall Kaplan

Wright Legacy Stirs Controversy

August 30, 1987

"Mr. Wright would have loved it," said Charles Montooth of Taliesin Associated Architects and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, reviewing the latest litany of controversies surrounding the legacy of his mentor.

"When there were no controversies, Mr. Wright would stir them up with some calculated comments," Montooth recalled in a recent interview. He indicated it was one of the ways Wright kept his name and designs before the public in becoming America's greatest architect.

And now, nearly 30 years after Wright's death in 1959, controversies again are being stirred in his name. The current ones include the limited sale by the foundation of a selection of his drawings and the development of a cluster of custom homes in Scottsdale, Ariz., on land adjacent to Taliesin West, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and a national landmark.

Controversial also has been a proposed addition to Wright's singular design of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and the continuing embrace of all things Frank Lloyd Wright by Thomas Monaghan, owner of Domino's Pizza.

Monaghan, who describes himself as "the world's most successful pizza entrepreneur," owns several houses and parts of houses and more than 300 pieces of furnishings, fixtures and artworks designed by Wright.

Most recently, he founded the National Center for the Study of Frank Lloyd Wright on the grounds of the 1,500-acre Domino's Farm in Ann Arbor, Mich., home of the pizza company. He also had his corporate headquarters there built in a rambling Prairie style that mimics a Wright design.

Monaghan's efforts have generated some sneers in architectural circles. Though perhaps too ego-involved and too close to the blatant commercialism of his company, the obviously dedicated and sincere effort by Monaghan to save fragments of Wright's design legacy and make them available to scholars and the public is quite commendable.

Architectural preservation needs all the friends it can get, and Monaghan is definitely a friend. Certainly, if he were alive, Wright would embrace Monaghan as a client.

As for the design of the Guggenheim expansion, an initial scheme unveiled in 1985 by the New York architectural firm of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates of New York, prompted a hue and cry from preservationists, among others. They felt it denigrated the Wright masterpiece--and it did.

After nearly three years of debate and redesign, a new scheme has been proposed by Gwathmey Siegel that is more modest in size and more respectful of the original. It was described in a statement by the museum as "a background building--similar in shape, mass, volume and placement to the structure Frank Lloyd Wright contemplated for the site."

And while the connection and circulation between the new and original appears awkward, Wright's vision of the museum happily seems to have prevailed.

More complicated is the issue involving the foundation offering for sale an estimated 200 choice Wright drawings and documents from the 20,000 or so in its archives. So far, about 30 have been sold for a total of $2.5 million.

"No one wanted to sell them," explained Wright scholar and archivist Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer. "We only did so to start an endowment fund to maintain the archives. Of course, if someone wants to endow the archives. . . ."

The hard economic fact of the Wright Foundation is that it takes funds to maintain the landmark Taliesin facilities in Scottsdale and in Spring Green, Wis., including the Wright archives, and the architecture school, where 30 to 35 students pursue an innovative curriculum based upon a combination of work and study.

"Just as Mr. Wright said, buildings should be designed to serve people, not the architect; schools should be designed to serve students, not faculties," commented William Wesley Peters, chairman of the foundation and longtime Taliesin associate. This refreshing concept that stresses an apprenticeship program has made it a struggle for the school to gain accreditation.

Much of the economic burden of the various endeavors in memory of Wright falls upon the design firm of Taliesin Associated Architects, which is composed mostly of former apprentices to Wright. "That is a lot to ask of an architectural firm," commented Richard Carney, who heads the foundation.

"It is apparent to us that if we are to perpetuate the ideas and principles of Mr. Wright and make this a viable organization that will be thriving 100 years from now, we are going to have to be more aggressive raising funds," Carney added. He said this includes a licensing program to reproduce Wright's many designs for furniture and furnishings, as well as the architecture firm pursuing more projects.

Over the years the firm has turned out a considerable number of projects, much of them in the spirit of the so-called organic style that Wright pursued in his later years. The result is that the firm has been criticized for both mimicking and not mimicking Wright.

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