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Walter Burley Griffin

Photo courtesy of State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

Walter Burley Griffin
By Paul Kruty
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Walter Burley Griffin (1876-1937) was born on 24 November 1876 in the Chicago suburb of Maywood, Illinois, the eldest of the four children of George Walter Griffin, an insurance agent, and Estelle Melvina Burley. Griffin, whose family moved to nearby Oak Park and to Elmhurst during his childhood, attended Oak Park High School. In 1899 he received a bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois in the architecture program instituted by Nathan Clifford Ricker that stressed a scientific and rational approach to the subject, with less emphasis on design and the historic styles. Returning to Chicago, for the next two years Griffin served as a draftsman in the offices of Dwight H. Perkins, Robert C. Spencer, Jr., and H. Webster Tomlinson, three among the handful of progressive Chicago architects who have come to be known as the Prairie School. Like Frank Lloyd Wright before him, Griffin came under the intoxicating spell of Louis H. Sullivan, whose call for a modern American architecture that was free from historic allusion was being answered by the architects for whom Griffin worked, and whose oration, "The Young Man in Architecture," delivered in June 1900, as Griffin recalled, completely changed the young architect's life.

In July 1901, Griffin passed the new Illinois licensing examination he was obliged to take before entering private practice, and began working for Frank Lloyd Wright in Wright's famous Oak Park studio. Although not an actual partner, Griffin soon had a greater role in all phases of Wright's practice than his associates. He was also project supervisor for some of Wright's most important buildings, including the Ward Willits house (1902) and the Larkin Administration Building (1904). Wright permitted Griffin to maintain a small independent practice, which included the campus plan for the State Normal school at Charleston, IL (1901), and the William Emery house, built in Elmhurst, IL, in 1903. In 1904, Griffin began to supply landscape plans for Wright's buildings, and for five months in 1905 he took charge of the entire office while Wright was in Japan.

Early in 1906, Griffin established his own practice. During the next seven years he produced more than one hundred projects, ranging from suburban estates to low-cost housing units. Beginning in 1909 these included an increasing number of landscape plans and schemes for subdivisions. His early buildings, including the houses for his brother Ralph (Edwardsville, IL, 1909), for Harry Peters (Chicago, 1906), and for Frederick Carter (Evanston, IL, 1910), are distinguished from the Prairie houses of Wright by their heavier massing, their greater emphasis on symmetry and verticality, their interlocking, multi-level interior spaces, their termination in gabled rather than hipped roofs, and their use of diamond forms. Griffin's double house for Mary Bovee (Evanston, 1907) in its abstracted rectilinear massing anticipated by two years Wright's famous house for Mrs. Walter Gale (Oak Park, 1909).

Stinson Memorial Library, Anna, IL

Photo by Mati Maldre

During 1910, when the Architectural Record still characterized Griffin's work as "strongly influenced by the success of Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright," his designs underwent a remarkable transformation. Bereft of overhanging eaves, buildings like the "Solid Rock" house for William Tempel (Winnetka, IL, 1911), were massive, flat-roofed and cubic, surmounted with roof gardens. Beginning in 1912, Griffin often added an expressive veneer of thick, rough-hewn coursed limestone in such buildings as the Joshua Melson house (Mason City, IA, 1912) and the Stinson Memorial Library (Anna, IL, 1912), two of his masterpieces.

Also in 1910, Griffin produced his first extant urban planning design. (Nothing survives of his reputed plan for an enlargement of Shanghai, China, of ca. 1905-06). Griffin, although mainly concerned with sub-division plans for suburban developments, including the Trier Center Neighborhood (Winnetka, 1912) where he planned to live himself, produced several campus plans as well, including the University of New Mexico (1913) and the Wisconsin State Normal School at Milwaukee (1914), and such complete new towns as Idalia, FL (1911) and Mossmain, MT (1915), all four of which remained projects.

On 29 June 1911, Griffin married the architect Marion Lucy Mahony, whom he had known for many years in Wright's office and who was then working for the Chicago architect, Herman V. von Holst. Mahony, a fiery, theatrical figure, was the perfect match for the obsessive if serene and even-tempered Griffin. Mahony, who was one of the century's most talented renderers, became Griffin's de facto business partner as well.

Shortly before the Griffins' marriage, the Australian government announced an international competition for the design of a capital city of 75,000 residents for the newly federated nation. Barely completed in time for the deadline in early 1912, Griffin's plan for Canberra was presented in the stunning renderings by Mahony. On 28 May 1912, Griffin's design was selected as the winner from among 137 entries. The young architect was suddenly thrust into the limelight, both in the professional and popular press. After a period of negotiation, the government offered to bring the winner to Australia for three months to inspect the Canberra site. An ecstatic Griffin embarked on 19 July 1913, leaving Mahony in charge of the Chicago practice. Griffin's letters home reveal how quickly he was enthralled by the Australian landscape.

Griffin's emerging prominence persuaded the University of Illinois to offer its famous alumnus the vacated position of head of the Department of Architecture. After a period of discussion, the actual offer was cabled to Melbourne in late September at the very moment that Griffin was negotiating with the Australian government for a three-year contract to oversee the actual construction of the new city. At the Canberra site Griffin had found that work already had begun which compromised his plan and he was anxious to rectify the situation. Tempting as the Illinois offer was, Griffin rejected it in order to remain overseas. He was soon embarked on a long, hard, and ultimately futile fight to save his capital plan. Griffin also received commissions for town plans, subdivisions, and one of his masterpieces, Newman College, the Catholic residential college of the University of Melbourne.

Refractory Dome at Newman College of the University of Melbourne

Photo by Mati Maldre

After years of professional abuse, Griffin resigned as Federal Capital Director in February 1921. For several reasons, including the closing of his Chicago office in 1917 after mismanagement by F. Barry Byrne, Griffin decided to remain in Australia, maintaining offices both in Melbourne, where the prospect of the commission for the Capitol Theater and office building loomed large, and in Sydney, where he had just acquired a substantial parcel of land which he intended to develop as Castlecrag, a planned community. His major works during years of financial hardship in the 1930s were an extraordinary group of garbage incinerators for local councils. He briefly returned to America in 1925 and again in 1932.

In September 1935, Griffin's design was accepted for a new library for Lucknow University in northwest India. In October, he agreed to travel to the site. Griffin was as exhilarated by the Subcontinent as he had been twenty years earlier by the Antipodes. He persuaded Marion to join him in May 1936. Commissions began to pour in, as the Griffins seemed to be reborn--Walter producing some of the most original designs of his career and Marion providing yet another set of ravishing renderings.

In February 1937, Griffin became ill after a banquet given by his benefactor, the Raja of Mahmudabad, and died of peritonitis several days later, on 11 February. His wife closed the office in India, leaving the Australian practice in the hands of Griffin's partner, Eric Nicholls, and returned to Chicago to write her memoirs.

Griffin stands as the third great member, after Sullivan and Wright, of the Chicago movement to create a decorated modern architecture for the twentieth century. His buildings, landscapes, and town plans record a lifetime's dedication to this goal.


The majority of the surviving drawings for Griffin's buildings, many of them executed by his wife Marion Mahony Griffin, are located in three American collections: the Avery Library at Columbia University, New York; the Block Gallery at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL; and the Art Institute of Chicago. Part of the holdings of the Block Gallery are reproduced in David T. Van Zanten's Walter Burley Griffin, Selected Drawings (1970).

The most important contemporary accounts of Griffin's American work are William G. Purcell's "Walter Burley Griffin, Progressive," Western Architect 18 (September 1912): 93-95, and Western Architect 19 (August 1913): 66-80 and 16 plates, which offered an entire issue devoted to Griffin. Others articles of note include "Some Houses by Walter Burley Griffin," Architectural Record 28 (October 1910): 307-10; and Robert C. Spencer, Jr.'s "The Suburban House," House Beautiful 14 (October 1908): 111-12.

Biographies of Griffin include James Birrell’s Walter Burley Griffin (1964) and Donald Leslie Johnson's The Architecture of Walter Burley Griffin (1977), which have been complemented with the posthumous publication of Peter Harrison's Walter Burley Griffin, Landscape Architect ([1977], 1995). The major exhibition of his work held in Sydney, Australia, produced a far-ranging catalog of essays by leading Griffin scholars, edited by Anne Watson, called Beyond Architecture: Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin—America, Australia, India (1998). Griffin's surviving American buildings are fully documented in photographs in Mati Maldre and Paul Kruty's Walter Burley Griffin in America (1995). The complete catalog of the Australian work appears in Jeff Turnbull and Peter Navaretti’s The Griffins in Australia and India (1998). See also, James Weirick, Anna Rubbo, and Conrad Hamann's Walter Burley Griffin, A Re-View (1988), the catalog to an exhibition held at Monash University in Australia; and Meredith Walker, Adrienne Kabos, and James Weirick's Building for Nature: Walter Burley Griffin and Castlecrag (1994). The most complete account of the India adventure appears in Paul Kruty and Paul E. Sprague’s Two American Architects in India: Walter B. Griffin and Marion M. Griffin, 1935-1937 (1998).

The Australian capital competition is fully explored in John Rep’s Canberra 1912: Plans and Planners of the Australian Capital Commission (1997). For the history of the city itself, see Paul Reid’s Canberra Following Griffin: A Design History of Australia’s National Capital (2002). See also, Christopher Vernon, ed., The Griffin Legacy: Canberra, the Nation’s Capital in the 21st Century (2004).

Among the many articles that have appeared on particular aspects of Griffin's American career are Robert E. McCoy's "Rock Crest/Rock Glen: Prairie School Planning in Iowa," Prairie School Review 5 no.3 (1968): 5-39; Paul E. Sprague's "Griffin Rediscovered in Beverly," Prairie School Review 10 no.1 (1973): 6-23; James Weirick's "Walter Burley Griffin, Landscape Architect," Landscape Australia (March 1988): 241-256; and Paul Kruty's "Walter Burley Griffin and the University of Illinois," Reflections 9 (1993): 34-41. For the role of Griffin in Wright’s office, see Paul Kruty’s “At Work in the Oak Park Studio,” Arris 14 (2003): 17-32. For a discussion of Griffin’s landscape architecture, see Christopher Vernon’s “Walter Burley Griffin, Landscape Architect,” in John Garner, ed., The Midwest in American Architecture (1991). Two books that provide additional information on Griffin and his milieu are Mark L. Peisch's The Chicago School of Architecture: Early Followers of Sullivan and Wright (1964) and H. Allen Brooks's The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and his Midwest Contemporaries (1972).

Marion Mahony Griffin

Photo courtesy of Art Institute of Chicago

Marion Lucy Mahony Griffin
By Paul Kruty
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Marion Lucy Mahony Griffin (1871-1961), architect and artist, was born on 14 Feb. 1871 in Chicago, Illinois, the second child and eldest daughter of the five surviving children of Jeremiah Mahony, a journalist from Cork, Ireland, and Clara Hamilton, a school teacher. Mahony grew up in Chicago and in what is now part of suburban Winnetka, Illinois. She showed a facility for drawing and an interest in art fostered by her mother. Following in the footsteps of her first cousin, Dwight H. Perkins, she studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which in 1894 she became the second woman to graduate. Her thesis project, "The house and studio of a painter," has been suggested as a prototype for the studio Frank Lloyd Wright built four years later adjacent to his suburban home. Returning to Chicago, Mahony drafted for Perkins for a year before beginning work in 1895 for Wright, then in his third year of independent practice. In 1898 she passed the new Illinois architects' licensing examination, the first such law in the nation, and became the first licensed woman architect in the country.

Beginning in 1898, Mahony commuted to Wright's new studio attached to his suburban Oak Park residence. She remained in his office on a regular basis until ca. 1904, and thereafter worked at irregular intervals until the studio was closed in 1909. Mahony thus found herself at the heart of the progressive movement to create a modern American style of architecture. Centered in Chicago and inspired by the charismatic figure of Louis H. Sullivan, this group of architects, which included Wright, Perkins, Robert C. Spencer, Jr., and Walter Burley Griffin, has come to be called the Prairie School. In Wright's office, Mahony designed furniture, glass, and decorative panels, including the fountain in his Susan L. Dana house (Springfield, Illinois, 1904). She also made presentation drawings intended for publication and for prospective clients. In 1906 she created a rendering style, partly based in Japanese prints, which became the hallmark of Wright's office for the next ten years. For Wright, Mahony produced several of the most famous architectural drawings of the twentieth century.

Because Wright allowed his employees to accept outside commissions, Mahony occasionally prepared plans after regular business hours. In 1903, she designed All Souls church for a family friend and mentor, the Rev. James Vilas Blake, which was built in modified form in 1904 in Evanston, Illinois. Its crisp forms and geometric ornament betrayed the influence of Wright, coupled with Mahony's own decorative sense. In 1905, she painted an altar mural for the church.

Records for Mahony's life between 1906 and 1909 are incomplete. By 1906, she was living in Elkhart, Indiana, in the house she remodeled that year for her brother Gerald's family, and she was working part-time as an independent architect. In 1908 she designed a house for William Burke in Three Rivers, Michigan, that, once again, was a variation of Wright's Prairie style. In that year she also entered a competition for a concrete house with a remarkable design that, with its rectilinear massing and cantilevered, flat roof, extended Wright’s forms invented for Unity Temple to a residence.

In September 1909 Wright turned over his practice to Hermann Von Holst, a Chicago colleague, and left for a yearlong European sojourn. Von Holst promptly hired Mahony to serve as chief designer for this work, which involved completing buildings under construction, finishing the design of other projects still on the drawing boards, and, in several cases, creating entire houses, including the Robert Mueller house in Decatur, Illinois, and the David Amberg house in Grand Rapids, Michigan, both of 1910. These are complex compositions derived from Wrightian forms, with characteristic ornamental designs that are Mahony's own wedded to sometimes unresolved arrangements.

Living Room Tent Ceiling Lights of the Adolph Mueller House, Decatur, IL
Designed by Marion Mahony

Photo by Mati Maldre

For three large houses on the private street that included the Robert Mueller house, Mahony convinced Von Holst to hire Chicago architect Walter Burley Griffin in 1910 to create a landscape plan. Griffin also lent a hand to the design of the Adolph Mueller house, and helped Mahony with the major project remaining: a mansion for Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, which Ford eventually chose not to build. Mahony had known Griffin in Wright's studio, where Griffin worked between 1901 and 1906; following their renewed acquaintance, in May 1911 Mahony and Griffin were married.

Joining Griffin's office, Mahony created a new presentation format that consisted of interior and exterior perspective views combined with floor plans united into a single design. She also developed a technique of lithographing these ink-on-linen images to satin-finished silk, to which she applied watercolor washes. While Mahony contributed to Griffin's work in much the same way she had to Wright's: designing architectural ornament and decorative art objects, she also became his sounding-board, similar to Griffin’s role in Wright’s office.

In May 1912, Griffin won the international competition for the new capital city of Australia, Canberra, partly on the strength of Mahony's renderings. In July 1913 he traveled to Australia for five months to consult on construction of the city. Mahony was left in charge of the Chicago office. While in Austalia, Griffin was offered a three-year contract to continue his work at Canberra. In spring 1914, the Griffins departed Chicago for Australia, making their home in Melbourne. Griffin's association with Canberra lasted until 1920, after which the couple decided to remain in Australia.

Mahony designed only one building in Australia under her own name, the Richard Reeves house, constructed in altered form in 1916 in East Malvern, near Melbourne. Her involvement in her husband's office varied through the years, but in general she devoted more and more time to artistic and social causes in Australia, to her deepening commitment to anthroposophy, and to the eccentric milieu of Griffin's planned suburb, Castlecrag, north of Sydney, where they moved in 1920. By the 1930s she had virtually abandoned architecture. However, she continued to work on the spectacular drawings for a series of Australian trees, printed on silk and watercolored, that she had begun in 1918.

The Griffins returned to the United States in 1925 and in 1932, when Mahony designed a mural for Chicago's George Armstrong public school.

In 1935 Griffin designed the library for the University of Lucknow, India, and traveled in October to the site. Other commissions followed rapidly and in June 1936, Mahony joined her husband. She managed the office, made working drawings, and drew watercolor perspectives of Griffin's final buildings. Once again, she created a rendering style that matched the magnificence of the architecture it portrayed.

In February 1937, Griffin died of peritonitis. Mahony closed the Indian office, returned to Australia, and by the following year was in Illinois. The outbreak of war prevented her return to Australia. She began writing an account of Griffin's Indian adventure that turned into a personal biography of herself and Griffin, eventually swelling into an unworkable manuscript of some 1600 pages. Called "The Magic of America," it has never been published. She died in Chicago on 10 August 1961.
If Marion Mahony Griffin was a capable architect and a pioneer among women architects, she was more importantly one of the twentieth century's greatest architectural renderers, establishing the presentation style for which the Prairie School is known, and giving visual expression to the revolutionary designs of Wright and Griffin.


Many of Marion Mahony Griffin's renderings of Griffin's work as well as her own are dispersed among Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, the Avery Library, Columbia University, NY, and the Art Institute of Chicago, while her numerous drawings for Frank Lloyd Wright survive at that architect's archives in Scottsdale, AZ. The two versions of her unpublished autobiography, "The Magic of America," are deposited at the Burnham Library, Art Institute of Chicago and at the New York Historical Society, NY.

Marion Lucy Mahony. David M Amberg House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1910

Photo by Mati Maldre

General discussions of Mahony's career include S. Berkon and J. Kay, "Marion Mahony Griffin, Architect," Feminist Art Journal (Spring 1975): 10-14; and Anna Rubbo, "Marion Mahony Griffin, A Portrait," 15-26 in Walter Burley Griffin, A Re-View (Clayton, Victoria: Monash University Gallery, 1988), which also includes James Weirick's "The Magic of America: Vision and Text," 5-14. Mahony's architectural projects are discussed in James Weirick, "Marion Mahony at M.I.T.," Transition (Winter 1988): 48-54; and David T. Van Zanten, "The Early Work of Marion Mahony Griffin," Prairie School Review 3 no.2 (1966): 5-23. A selection of her colored renderings of Griffin buildings appears in Rassegna 74 (1998), 50-63, an issue devoted to the Prairie School. For analysis of her rendering style, see H. Allen Brooks, "Frank Lloyd Wright and the Wasmuth Drawings", Art Bulletin 48 (June 1966): 193-202, and Donna R. Munchick, "Marion Mahony's Architectural Drawings, 1900-1912," Southeastern College Art Conference Review 7 (Fall 1974): 5-14. The most complete analysis of her work is to be found among the essays published in Anne Watson, ed., Beyond Architecture: Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin—America, Australia, India (Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing, 1998), including Paul Kruty’s “Chicago 1900: The Griffins Come of Age,” Paul Sprague’s “Marion Mahony as Originator of Griffin’s Mature Style: Myth or Fact?,” Anna Rubbo’s “Marion Mahony: A Larger Than Life Presence,” and James Weirick’s “Spirituality and Symbolism in the Work of the Griffins.” A recent exhibition and catalog of her drawings featured the Australian “Forest Portraits;” see Debora Wood, ed., Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature (Evanston, IL: Block Museum of Art, 2005), with essays by David Van Zanten, Christopher Vernon, and Alison Fisher.

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