2017 John Thorpe Fellows Reflect on Their Conference Experience
Photo by Mark Hertzberg
Photo by Mark Hertzberg
Among the many students who attended the Conservancy’s 2017 symposium at The Museum of Modern Art, three graduate students were able to attend our full conference as part of fellowship programs. For the second year, two graduate students were awarded the John G. Thorpe Young Professionals and Students Fellowship, which was created in memory of longtime Conservancy board member and tireless preservation advocate John G. Thorpe. Catherine Deacon, an architect from South Africa and master’s student in the heritage conservation and preservation program at the University of Minnesota, and Christopher Lock, a master of architecture student at the School of Architecture at Taliesin, were awarded this year’s Thorpe Fellowships. Emily Butler, the head of preservation at Kentuck Knob and a master of preservation studies student at Tulane University, also attended the conference on a fellowship from the Keepers Preservation Education Fund.
Each spoke briefly at the conference of their career goals and connection to Wright. Afterward, we asked both to reflect on their experiences.
Participation in the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy’s conference is an immersive experience. The opportunity to engage with the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, both from a scholarly perspective and through the community of homeowners and site associates is unparalleled. The variety of exposure to facets of Wright and his career was marvelous, in an academic sense through lectures and panel discussions, and in practical sense through tours of some extraordinary houses, and the interactive question and answer sessions with tour guides through the MoMA exhibit Unpacking the Archives. All aspects combined to reinforce the relevance of Wright’s work 150 years later. Being a heritage conservation and preservation graduate student, I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to talk with homeowners about the practical aspects of owning and maintaining a Wright home, and with professionals about the challenges and fulfillment of undertaking this work.
I was grateful for the chance to learn more about John Thorpe from other conference attendees who had worked closely with him in the past. I gained a better and more personal understanding of him and his commitment to the preservation of Wright buildings. The ‘Wright community’ is a welcoming and engaging collective. The number of invites extended to me for visits to sites and buildings of all scales across the country testifies to this group’s willingness to share their knowledge and experience with others who share a common interest in the relevance of Wright’s work today.
I’d like to thank the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy and, in particular, the John G. Thorpe Young Professionals and Students Fellowship for making such an unforgettable week possible. My final Masters of Architecture year at Taliesin couldn’t have had a more fitting climax than this autumn gathering in New York, meeting the vast community of scholars, architects, Fellows, and Wright home owners, touring Usonia, Hoffman House, Rayward-Shephard House, and celebrating days of conversation and laughter at Grace Farms with exquisite food and wine.
The Symposium format was innovative and rich, restricting presenters to brief overviews of their work to allow panel discussions and member questions, moving the day along quite democratically. I’d been warned by Neil Levine that he’d tried for some contrary presentations, maybe a little controversy (about Wright? How unexpected!), but was delighted to learn from Jean-Louis Cohen that despite present-day obscurity, many European architects had been clearly influenced by Wright, as shown repeatedly in buildings that could have come from his apprentices. Cammie McAtee’s Post War overview demonstrated Wright’s final re-invention in his final decades, or as she explained, the world finally caught up to Wright’s vision. Jack Quinan dissected our movie hang-out, The Cabaret, in phenomenological terms; Gunny Harboe, an old familiar face around Taliesin West, laid out the logic of his differently-ranked historic zones; and Ellen Moody showed the painstaking work of restoring some of the models that kicked around the studio and archives.
I think that was the most unexpected aspect of all, feeling like a strange overview of my last four years: here were familiar rooms I’d spent thousands of hours in, appraised by hundreds in an auditorium, dissected by scholars who’d found illuminating histories, but to me, that’s where we lie on the floor to watch movies, or my little bedroom is right there on that diagram of the studio, or the tower I’m living in is in all those shots! That’s where I wake up every day!
The MoMA Retrospective was even more wonderfully odd. So many photographs showed spaces we lived in for years, but with young people wearing clothing of the ’40s building a model, as we still do in the exact same space, or Mr. Wright sitting at a chair I know still knocks around, or images of a Formal Evening, which looked like ours just a week ago. The living community works and plays in the Taliesins still, often doing the same activities in architecture or celebration, using drafting stools I see behind museum glass, drawing our creations under the abstract forest seen by thousands in the galleries, the walls being our walls, our benches, our home. I recognize that stone pattern, it’s in the corner over there; I know exactly where that shot was taken, it’s just outside the kitchen; I was just hanging some new work on a wall seen by all these MoMA visitors. As I said to a Fellow, I expect to look behind a display and see a rag we just used to clean the dishes.
Just as fun was touring the galleries with homeowners. When the guide wondered if a blueprint detail for Jacobs 1 was accurate, I said, “Oh yes, that’s correct,” because we Taliesin students had been there so many times. When she asked if I was sure, the owner of Jacobs 1 spoke up behind me—he knew because, “It’s my house.” This happened throughout the galleries. Not many New Yorkers can walk around MoMA letting the historians know if they “got it right”, but the Conservancy makes for some hilarious moments…. which brings me to my final point.
A member of The Conservancy said something I find rather unforgettable. “It’s like some of these scholars wait for us to die. They’d never simply ask us in life, but they’ll comb through our papers after we’re gone to interpret the historical angle they want to give.” Wow. That’s something you don’t forget, and something that’s probably unique to this assembly.
The “Taliesins,” my wonderful school, homeowners, indeed, much of the Conservancy retains the living community Wright established when he first wacked his cane at those new walls. I spoke to living members of families that had a lifetime of relations with Wright, and they still have stories to tell. I hope the thoughtful scholars look up from those dry parchments from time to time and appreciate what we have here, more than dry stones or blueprints, sparks from an American genius are alive and talking. There’s a line still blossoming with roots deep in history. May the Conservancy appreciate its heritage!
The conference was a great learning experience for me as an emerging professional in the Frank Lloyd Wright community and a candidate for a Masters in Preservation. The conference afforded me the opportunity to not only see a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit of Wright’s archive, but also to hear panel discussions on several important topics surrounding Wright and his work. Among the most enlightening topics for me included a discussion on Phenomenology in Wright’s buildings. As someone who works with Wright everyday, I felt that this was such an interesting way to describe how one feels when inside one of his works.
In addition to the lecture and panel discussions, I was also able to attend the Homeowners and Public Sites Dinner, where I was able to meet many homeowners and discuss with them my thesis work on preserving Wright’s Usonian homes. It is vital to my research to hear firsthand accounts of owners’ experiences with preservation issues in their homes. Being able to speak with so many at this dinner added greatly to my understanding and focused my research goals.
The final day of the conference was a tour of several Frank Lloyd Wright homes as well as a visit to Usonia. Being able to tour homes typically not available to the general public was truly a wonderful experience. By being able to attend this conference I gained a better understanding of Wright’s architecture and more about what is being done in the larger community to protect and interpret his work. I want to thank the Keepers Preservation Education Fund for providing me with the funding that allowed me to have this experience and gain this new understanding.
Donations are accepted year-round for the John G. Thorpe Young Professionals and Students Fellowship. Just Make a Donation through our website and specify in the notes field that it is for the Thorpe Fellowship.
Posted on November 14, 2017