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George Grant Elmslie

Letter to Frank Lloyd Wright
October 30, 1932

Editor's note: Original spellings have been left intact.  Only minor punctuation, consisting of the addition of two periods for clarity, has been changed.  The version of this letter from which the text was transcribed bears Elmslie's full signature.  The pagination of the document is indicated.

GEORGE G. ELMSLIE, ARCHITECT
CHICAGO AND MINNEAPOLIS

122 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, Illinois
October 30, 1932

Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright
Spring Green
Wisconsin

Dear Mr. Wright:

In reflective and subjective moments in your varied life the names and figures of some of those whom you have met in years past may come to view. I have followed your career, from long ago, with probably as keen and definite an interest as anyone, and with probably as clear an understanding of the nature of your endeavors as anyone, here or elsewhere. It was therefore with an ardent and deeply interested anticipation that I picked up your autobiography to read, and finally re-read.

The form you used in disclosing the story is a beautiful one, the shaping very dignified, an though it were music --a Song at Life. You have, to me, a very persuasive style in your art of verbal expression; at times I think perhaps a bit too rambling and discursive for good biography, and at other times a bit too casual, while here and there, there are, to me utterly unnecessary references filling up space altogether too good and valuable for the purpose.

Apart from these defects the book is, unquestionably, a great performance, although not equal to the �Autobiography of an Idea,� and other work of the master, In simple continuity and crystal clearness of statement.

I suppose I have put up as many back-to-the-wall scraps for you and your gifts in the years past as anyone, anywhere. I deserve no credit for this. My doing so was merely an act of faith, an act of belief, and therefore as subject to a natural outpouring as anything within the realm of the human spirit. I have always been intensely loyal to the exhibits of your creative impulses.

Your references to your contacts in days past, with more or less gratuitous insults to some of us whom you met, were entirely out of place in any serious biography. One of us was slow thinking, anaemic, diffident, and never young; another was covered with pimples and blushed; this, that and the other thing; so little, alas, of grace and delicacy in any of your comments about others. And total lack of any mention of that expert workwoman, Miss Mahoney, which, under the circumstances, is incredible to me. But so it is.



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Doubtless some of the comments were introduced amusing episodes in a great tale; some were perhaps considered funny. I have a good sense of humor, even though I am Scotch and not a minister's son. Yet I fail to feel a real and abiding interest in all that garrulous miscellany. How you could have put it in baffles me.

Your reference to your fight with a filthy Jew, who was two-thirds your size, is a ridiculous episode to put into a serious tale of your life. I was there, as you say, but I was not scared as you imply, only fearful for you and the possibility of your spine being injured, causing permanent injury or worse. Who would not have been, carrying as I did a great affection for you?

Then the boxing episode - how stupid, vainglorious and theatrical. They did not like you, of course, as the pet of the master, and it was as impossible for you to have any companionship with them as it was for me. Except for the great Paul Mueller, Jean Agnass and Theodore Andresen, they were a rotten lot in the Borden Block. In the Auditorium Tower some fine and genuine blood was introduced in Louis Claude and Ostonfeldt.

There was an episode one day in the Borden Block that I thought very amusing. You were out of funds and Claude Howell, at your right, who did the printing, took you out to lunch. When he came back he told the office, �I took Wright out, and what do you suppose he did? He ordered fresh mushrooms, and they cost forty cents! My God! What do you think of that?" -- in a very sad and forlorn voice. And so it goes - tales of a vanished day. I hold quite a few stories somewhere in the recesses of my mind,

I remember only too well the day you left and the exchange of comments between you and the master. You do not truly state the condition of affairs. I had many comments from him, about you, off and on for many years, and his comments do not fit yours about your affairs with him. He had a marvellous memory and was ever and always just, no matter what the circumstances were. I would rather not make any comments at this time relating to his conversations with me. I believe he told the truth. I hope, in humbleness of spirit, to write a genuine tale some day on the greatest figure in American Architecture.

The master talked a great deal with as from 1895 to 1909, when I left him. Very precious to me are the obiter dicta of those days. He would monologue for an hour at a time, always and ever fascinatingly. I think I know the real Sullivan better than you do, or anyone also. I saw him in his intellectual prime. You saw none of his in those years.

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In your book you make reference to work on which I helped hi m. and ycu are greatly in error. I did most of the work on the Carson Pirie Scott building, and did all of the work on the Owatonna Bank, including the idea of the big arch, excepting the cornice which he did. The same might be said of the Gage Brothers Building in Chicago, and others elsewhere.

As I said, I left in 1909, therefore could not have done any of the smaller banks which you say I helped to do, at the same time damning them. The smaller banks were all done after 1909.

Sullivan gladly left me things to do. He never "leaned on me� -- which shows how little you really knew him. He was fit enough, in my time, mentally and physically, to engage in any kind of activity. He wrote most of his Kindergarten Chats between ten PM and three in the morning, and appeared at nine o'clock in the office. He was fit and needed to lean on no one.

I did not, as you imply, design his pitiful monument. I agree with you that no monument is required. I was asked to design a monument and made some simple shapes, then gave them $25 and quit the time-serving chairman Tallmadge and the others, in disgust. The committee designed the monument.

The master was always fair to me. He put my name in his will to succeed to what business there might be, and was full of hope at that time. It stood that way up to the time we separated. Bad times eventually came around, and with them the end. I gave ten vears of my life at acknowledged half pay, which is more than anyone else ever did for him. At a time, later on, he took a dislike to me because some people, after 1909, preferred to have me do work for them after discussing their plans with him. He could be a bit arbitrary, you know, at very unfortunate times for him.

You are inclined to be just about as untrue to the real and vital Sullivan as Mumford is in "The Brown Decades". By this I mean the man apart from his work. How could you, of all man, refer to habits he learned in Paris? Now could you refer to the fact that you bought him a suit of clothes, in his poverty? That seems a shameful thing to do. How delicate, and as an act of grace, it would have been to have dropped a veil over those last sad days and kept them from the curious public gaze. You could not have loved the man himself. I doubt at times, in a quizzical manner, whether you have the quality of spirit that would recognize how shameful it was to comment as you did.

Not to have read his Autobiography, even for the reason you stated, seems inconceivable to me.

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I did all of the ornamental work after you left with the exception of the ornamental iron in the Guaranty Building.

In doing this for so long I doubtless got into the habit of it. It was easy to improvise and I regret it. It got to be a habit in later years. The master used to say that I did more with it than he ever did or anyone else, which was really bad news, only I did not seem to realize it. The ornament, as I looked at it, was as the exfoliation of a germinal idea -- just as a plan is the exfoliation of a need and has nothing to do with optimism or pessimism or any other label that might be attached to it in a literary way, after is to made. As I look at it, in the absence, so far, of any crystalisation of thought as to symbols representative of our time, the ornament seemed a reasonable idiom to use and for people to enjoy, and they did enjoy it. It was great fun, and as in some kind of fun it brought its sting and punishment. There is perhaps a sensuous and over-rich quality to it at times. A lot of it many be compared to music in its joyousness, but without that element of over-ripe decadence that exists in some music with which we are all familiar. One critic was kind enough to liken some work I did, at one time, for the master, to a Schubert song.

I have followed the drama of your work from the beginning, as it has unfolded itself, and have been allured and fascinated by its greatness. To me some of it is utterly complete and has in it the grace and rhythmic fineness and utter last-word completeness of some of the early churches in Asia Minor. Yet some of it is fragmentary, some a bit inchoate and lapsing from unity of purpose. Be the latter as it may, it is, in its totality, the only truly great contribution of modern times.

May I venture to say that perhaps the process of your architectural thinking is still in a crystalline stage, and that your finest to yet to come when the solvent and vivifying colloids appear as emanations of your spirit. There was no life in the material universe until this life-giving element appeared. Maybe the analogy is not so far-f etched in relation to Architecture or your Art of expression. I believe you will achieve it.

Even in some of your best work there is yet missing, to me at least, a large part of that element perhaps best qualified by the word overtone. Somehow I want always, from you, a radiant quality of expression to the point of contagion; a fairness, a simple serenity unqualified and unruffled; and I expect it. The unsatisfactory elements may arise from a lack of basic mobility, at times, coupled with a desire to do something to the problem instead of allowing it to breathe more clearly and cleanly through your mind, untrammeled.

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In connection with this thought it may amuse you to have recalled to your mind a comment you made to me, long ago, in connection with Unity Church in Oak Park. I made some general comment about the use to which the building was to be put, and your reply was, "I don't give a damn what the use of it is; I wanted to build a building like that.� It may be added that in general scheme and with minor modifications it would serve equally well as a counting house. I admire it immensely. It gives me a thrill. It ages with an austere glamour that is very compelling, be it meeting house or counting house.

Your Imperial Hotel plan! Well, there never was anything like it in sublunary places or elsewhere, up or down, to my way of thinking, for sheer splendor. It is enough in itself to place you as the leader of the age, now that L. H. S. is no more. But did you fittingly reveal this splendor? To me you did not. There to something about the general plan conception and the beauty of the finesse of weaving it all together that is so fascinating, that the outside, in view of all that, leaves me dissatisfied. I expected, from the plan, a revelation, with due respect to your great and unique type of construction, and I did not get it. This may reveal a lack of understanding on my part.

From my point of view I might say that your comments on the work you did by your own hand in Adler & Sullivan's office, and for them, was rather out of place in a published statement. It would have been generous and beautifully appreciative to have leaned far in the other direction and made all your theme the general inspiration you received there.

At the International Show in Chicago some of the work of Adler & Sullivan was labelled as designed by you. It would here been pardonable if Indicated as designed with your assistance. The show in all its vital essentials was yours anyway. Why be so damnably egocentric; you don't road to be. The field is yours, and no one is more satisfied than I am that it is.

Your early life episodes are very interesting. You made references, at times, long ago, to your days In the open in a beauteous country, and your days in Madison and its University. You were a special student in engineering at the University, so you said -- two years of it, 1885-1886 and 1886-1887, ending a sophomore. I therefore do not understand your reference to your senior year and impending graduation. Special students do not graduate, I always understood. However, that is not a serious matter except as it relates to a true tale of events.

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I used to go to hear your uncle preach quite often and was always inspired on coming away from Lincoln Center. There was a man � kindly, honorable, brave, and clean as his homeland streams -- eloquent, persuasive, and infinitely helpful.

As a child, up to fourteen years of age, I used to play, also, in a beautiful country, with winding streams and aged forests -- rich and fragrant valleys -- and old, old hills, covered with white and purple heather. The people are thrifty and liberal; sometimes dour; always kindly; hospitable to the devil himself if he were in need; strong in mind for all the education possible to get, and spending more money on it, today, per capita, than even your own Usonia. Romantic too they are, and full of song, much akin in many ways to your own Welsh. Both are nations of pioneers and carry a flaming torch of liberty, in all things, wherever they go.

Faithfully yours,
[signed: George G. Elmslie]

 

research courtesy mark hammons