GREAT ARCHITECTURE REQUIRES A PARTICULAR CHEMISTRY BETWEEN ARCHITECT AND CLIENT.
On June 27, 1932, Nancy Willey wrote a letter to Frank Lloyd Wright via Longman’s, Green and Co, the publisher of his newly minted “An Autobiography”. The Willeys were the first of a number of young, educated, middle class couples to respond to Wright’s heroic retelling of his life, up to that point. In her letter, Nancy praised his autobiography proclaiming, “It is one of those books that make ideas grow”. She noted that they wanted to build a house “for about eight thousand dollars” and asked “What do you think are the chances of my being able to have a—creation of art?”. She goes on to describe the humble, city lot they purchased, in glowing terms and delivers the coup de grâce when, she suggests that he may not want to take on “anything so trivial that was also not near to you”, but perhaps he could offer the name of “an architect you respect in Minneapolis or Vienna”. Since Wright was a man who spent his entire career dedicated to the creation of a uniquely American architecture, it is certain that he would have objected to any European architect building so much as a birdhouse on American soil. Even had he not been without paying clients for years due to the Great Depression, Nancy’s final comment alone would likely have assured he accept the commission. Wright’s prompt and eloquent response to her was “Nothing is trivial because it is not big. And if I can be of any service to you neither the distance nor the “smallness” of the proposed home would prevent me from giving you what help an architect could give you.”
The Willey House is the second of two schemes Wright designed for the Willeys. The first, a two story plan, proved too expensive to build. No amount of effort could bring the house within budget. Wright even suggested they build only the ground floor initially, the second story later. In a November 26, 1933 letter to Wright, Nancy expresses her frustration with “I do not want a seventeen thousand dollar house, even at twelve or ten thousand dollars. I want an eight to ten thousand dollar house at eight to ten thousand dollars. Can I have it?” Wright concedes with “Dear Nancy Willey: We’ll try again. It seems the simplest way.” By December 13th Eugene Masselink, acting as Wright’s secretary, invited her to Taliesin to review sketches of the new scheme.
NOVEMBER 21, 1934
Color photography © Matt Schmitt Photography