Massachusetts Institute of Technology, B.Arch., 1894
All Souls Unitarian Church, Evanston, Ill., 1903
Remodel of Gerald and Hattie Mahony House, Elkhart, Ind., 1907
David Amberg House, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1909, with Hermann V. von Holst
E. P. Irving House, Millikin Place, Decatur, Ill., 1909, with von Holst
Robert Mueller House, Millikin Place, Decatur, 1909–11, with von Holst
Adolph Mueller House, Millikin Place, Decatur, 1909, with von Holst
C. H. Wills House, Detroit, Mich., 1912, unbuilt project with von Holst
Fair Lane House for Henry Ford, Detroit, 1912, unbuilt project with von Holst
Plan for the international competition for the Australian Federal Capital at Canberra, Australia; delineator and project manager, 1912–13, with Walter Burley Griffin
Fern Room, Cafe Australia, Melbourne, Australia, 1916, with Burley Griffin
Capitol Theatre, Swanston Street, Melbourne, 1924, with Burley Griffin
Ellen Mower House, 12 The Rampart, Castlecrag, Sydney, Australia, 1926, with Burley Griffin
Creswick House, Castlecrag, Sydney, 1926, with Burley Griffin
Pioneer Press Building, Lucknow, India, 1936, with Burley Griffin
Awards and Honors
Winning design for the Australian Federal Capital at Canberra, Federal Design Competition, 1912, with Walter Burley Griffin
Office of Dwight Heald Perkins, Chicago, 1894–95
Office of Frank Lloyd Wright, Chicago, 1895–98
Oak Park Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, Oak Park, Ill., 1898–1908
Principal Designer, Office of Hermann Valentine von Holst, Chicago, 1909–12
Office of Walter Burley Griffin, Chicago, 1911–13
Office of Walter Burley Griffin, Melbourne, Australia, 1915–25
Office of Walter Burley Griffin and Eric Nicholls, Sydney, Australia, 1925–circa 1929
Office of Walter Burley Griffin, Lucknow, India, 1936–37
Licensed Architect, State of Illinois, 1898
Chicago Arts and Crafts Society, founding member
Chicago Architectural Club, member
Illinois Chapter of AIA, member
Location of Last Office
Sydney, Australia (transferred to Eric Milton Nicholls)
Reyner Banham, one of the twentieth century’s most renowned architectural critics, once described Marion Mahony Griffin (1871–1961) as “America’s (and perhaps the world’s) first woman architect who needed no apology in a world of men.”11Reyner Banham, “Death and Life of the Prairie School,” Architectural Review 154 (August 1973): 101. Her career, which included important collaborations with Frank Lloyd Wright and with Walter Burley Griffin, an architect she later married, took her to three continents and spanned more than six decades. Her work in the United States developed and expanded the American Prairie School, while her work in Australia and India reflected the Prairie School ideals of indigenous landscape and materials in the architecture of newly formed democracies.
Early Life and Education
Born on February 14, 1871, in Chicago, Marion Lucy Mahony described in her autobiography, The Magic of America, her mother carrying her as an infant in a clothes basket, holding tight to her toddler brother as they escaped the great Chicago fire (October 1871).22Marion Mahony Griffin, Magic of America, III, 70. Typescript. New-York Historical Society microfilm version, circa 1947 (hereafter, MOA). It was perhaps not accidental that she recorded this incident in the year of the great fire, situating her own life, education, and career centrally within the milieu of development, change, and progress that late nineteenth-century, post-fire Chicago represents.
After the fire, the Mahony family settled in an area just north of Evanston, Illinois, then known as Hubbard Woods, a neighborhood in Winnetka, an enclave founded by Unitarians. By 1880, Winnetka had a population of 584 and was more “like a pioneer town than a suburb.”33Michael Ebner, Creating Chicago’s North Shore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 83. Mahony described a pastoral childhood where she had easy access to a natural world that became central to her developing religious beliefs. Hubbard Woods offered intellectual community as well, of which it seems likely her family would have been a part.
Mahony’s father, Jeremiah Mahony, was an Irishman born in County Cork, Ireland, a “poet, journalist, and educator”44Anna Rubbo, “Marion Mahony Griffin: A Portrait,” in Walter Burley Griffin—A Re-View, ed. Jenepher Duncan (Clayton, Victoria, Australia: Monash University Gallery, 1988), 16; James Weirick, “Marion Mahony at M.I.T.,” Transition 25, no. 4 (1988): 49. who “had the reputation of being a better teacher drunk than most teachers sober.” Her mother, Clara Hamilton Mahony, was the daughter of a respected doctor who moved from New Hampshire to downstate Illinois and had ties to liberal politics.55Griffin, MOA, VI, 92. The public hall of Winnetka’s Unitarian chapel was a meeting place for discussions of literary works and contemporary issues by such intellectuals as Henry Demarest Lloyd and Jessie Bross Lloyd, who organized a variety of community activities and political actions; the Lloyds considered Winnetka “a laboratory where he [Henry] tested his theories about the practice of democracy.”66Ebner, Creating Chicago’s North Shore, 84. This combined access to liberal intellectual activism and an unspoiled natural environment must have had a profound effect on Marion, who throughout her life attempted to replicate the combination of these two formative influences.
This idyllic period in Winnetka ended when she was eleven and the youngest of the family’s five children was four. Mahony’s father died “from a self-administered overdose of laudanum.”77Griffin, MOA, IV, 134; Weirick, “Marion Mahony at M.I.T.,” 49. After their own home caught fire, sometime after her father’s death, the five Mahony children and their mother moved to the west side of Chicago, where Clara Mahony studied for and passed the Chicago Public School Board examination to become an elementary school principal.88Griffin, MOA, III, 77. Mahony’s aunt, Myra Perkins, moved in with the family and became young Marion’s confidante, encouraging her intellectual pursuits. Marion never lacked successful women as role models.
Nor did she lack for architect role models. Her cousin, Dwight Heald Perkins, studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for two years; it is likely that this connection drew Marion to enroll at MIT in 1890.99Eric Emmett Davis, Dwight Heald Perkins: Social Consciousness and Prairie School Architecture:An Exhibition Organized by Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois at Chicago, April 1989 (Chicago: Gallery 400 of the University of Illinois, Chicago, 1989), 4. Anna Wilmarth, the daughter of her mother’s friend Mary Hawes Wilmarth, funded her education after helping her study for entrance exams.1010Griffin, MOA, IV, 152. Mahony’s senior thesis was titled “The House and Studio of a Painter.”1111Weirick, “Marion Mahony at M.I.T.,” 50. For many years, “The House and Studio of a Painter” was assumed to be lost, but in the 1970s it was discovered buried in the MIT archives. Her presentation, a house attached to a studio by means of a colonnade enclosing a courtyard garden, is vaguely Second Empire in style. The plan is most interesting for its concept, connecting a suburban home to a workplace. When she graduated in 1894, Mahony was just the second woman to receive a degree from MIT’s school of architecture.
Upon returning to Chicago, Mahony began working with her cousin, Dwight Heald Perkins, in the downtown Loop. She worked with him for nearly two years, much of that time in his office in Steinway Hall, home to many of Chicago’s progressive young artists and architects of the era.1212H. Allen Brooks, “Steinway Hall, Architects and Dreams,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 22, no. 3 (October 1963): 171–75. When he had to let her go, she soon found work in the office of another young Chicago architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom she worked intermittently for the next fourteen years in a number of different locations. In January 1898, Mahony took and passed the Illinois State licensure exam for architects; she was probably the first woman in the United States to be professionally licensed.1313Paul Kruty, “A New Look at the Beginnings of the Illinois Architects’ Licensing Law,” Illinois Historical Journal 90, no. 3 (1997): 154. Barry Byrne, another member of Wright’s staff, suggested that Mahony was “the most talented member of Frank Lloyd Wright’s staff, and I doubt that the studio, then or later, produced anyone superior.”1414Barry Byrne, The Drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright by Arthur Drexler, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 22, no. 2 (May 1963): 109.
Byrne also describes the informal competitions Wright held in the studio among employees to design the details of a project: stained glass, murals, mosaics, linens, and furnishings. Byrne recollected that Mahony Griffin won most of the competitions, and that Wright sharply reprimanded anyone who referred to “Miss Mahony’s design” when her work appeared in later Wright commissions.1515David T. Van Zanten, “The Early Work of Marion Mahony Griffin.” The Prairie School Review 3, no. 2 (1969): 10.
In a more conventionally organized office, she would have held the title of “head designer.”1616Grant Carpenter Manson, Frank Lloyd Wright to 1910: The First Golden Age (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold: 1958), 217. Mahony herself teasingly suggested that Wright hired her as “superintendent of his drafting force,” a hollow title when she was Wright’s only employee, but one that seemed accurate as more employees were hired.1717Susan Berkon, “Marion Mahony Griffin,” in Women in American Architecture, ed. Susanna Torre, (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1977), 75. She became well known for her exquisite architectural rendering, which many architectural historians have claimed is among the finest ever produced. In an often repeated sentiment, Reyner Banham called her the “greatest architectural delineator of her generation.”1818Banham, “Death and Life of the Prairie School.” The project for which Mahony is perhaps best known during her years in Wright’s studio did not come to be associated with her until long after its publication in 1910. Wright’s portfolio, Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe, von Frank Lloyd Wright, published in Berlin by Wasmuth after Wright left Germany, is, according to historian Vincent Scully, “one of the three most influential architectural treatises of the twentieth century.”1919Vincent Scully, Studies and Executed Buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright (New York: Rizzoli, 1986), 5. Most historians now credit Mahony with at least half the drawings in the portfolio.
During the time she worked for Wright, she completed several independent projects, among them All Souls Unitarian Church in Evanston, Illinois (1903), and an addition to her brother’s farmhouse in Elkhart, Indiana (1907).
When Wright left for Europe with a married client, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, in 1909, abandoning his practice and family, Hermann von Holst took over Wright’s commissions and hired Mahony as his principal designer. She designed Millikin Place, a housing development built in Decatur, Illinois (1909–11), and several homes, most notably an unbuilt home for Henry Ford (1912).
In 1911, she married architect Walter Burley Griffin, whom she had first met in Wright’s firm, and they established an office, collaborating on several hundred projects in the United States, Australia, and India, including the prize-winning design for the Commonwealth of Australia Federal Capital competition at Canberra. Mahony Griffin’s renderings for the Federal Capital project captured the rich variety of golds, browns, and reds characteristic of the Australian landscape, which the Griffins only knew from black-and-white photos. Such a depiction of the beauty of the harsh landscape perhaps resonated with the judges. On May 23, 1912, Griffin was declared the winner of the competition. Historian Mark Peisch notes: “A British critic, commenting on the fact that an unknown American architect had won such a distinguished prize, said that the beauty of the renderings probably had a great deal to do with the judges’ decision to award the prize to Griffin’s plan.”2020Mark Peisch, The Chicago School of Architecture:Early Followers of Sullivan and Wright (New York: Random House, 1964), 111. After the result was announced, Australian author (Ms.) Miles Franklin and Alice Henry, a feminist activist from Australia who were in Chicago visiting Hull House, came to see the Griffins in their studio and described their impressions of the couple in an article for the Sydney Daily Telegraph. Among the multitudes of newspaper stories about the impressive international honor, only the account by the Australian women notes Marion’s credentials as an architect and the many projects on which the couple collaborated; Henry and Franklin wrote, “it is plainly apparent that their ideals are happily interwoven.”2121Alice Henry and Miles Franklin, “Walter Burley Griffin: Winner of the Federal Capital Prize,” Sydney Daily Telegraph, July 3, 1912.
Despite bureaucratic intervention and obstacles that derailed much of their vision for Canberra,2222Alasdair McGregor, Grand Obsessions:The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin (Melbourne: Lantern, 2009): 111–48. the Griffins continued to work in Australia creating town plans and landscape designs, houses, restaurants, theaters, colleges, and communities. Together, they produced the Capitol Theatre in Melbourne (1924) and saved a particularly lovely piece of Sydney’s Middle Cove from runaway development, giving birth to the community of Castlecrag (1920s). Always artistically talented, Marion spent time documenting Australia’s natural beauty and cataloging indigenous plant life. She retired in her sixties to focus her attention on her beloved community, using the principles of her anthroposophical beliefs to guide her work of running a kindergarten, and supporting the arts and the community’s shared intellectual and religious pursuits.
In an effort to save Castlecrag with an influx of needed money during the Great Depression, Walter took on a project in India, the library of the University of Lucknow.2323“The Idealists: Creating Castlecrag,” Hindsight (ABC Radio National, July 8, 2012); Paul Kruty and Paul E. Sprague, Two American Architects in India:The Complete Works and Projects of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997). In early 1936, when he was offered the design for the United Provinces Industrial and Agricultural exhibition in India (1936), he entreated Marion to come out of retirement and help him with the Herculean endeavor; his plan shows dozens of buildings that needed to be constructed in eight months. Marion agreed to join him and boarded a ship for Calcutta in April 1936. They worked furiously on this project and other commissions, such as the one for Lucknow’s Pioneer Press Building (1936). Walter died suddenly in 1937 of peritonitis following surgery for a burst gallbladder.
Marion considered remaining in India and finishing the projects there on her own; she followed that course of action briefly until Walter’s partner in Sydney begged her to return to settle the office there, as she was executor of Walter’s will.2424Jeffery Turnbull and Peter Navaretti, eds., The Griffins in Australia and India (Melbourne: University of Melbourne Press, 1998), 95. In 1938, she returned to Chicago, where she wrote an (unpublished) autobiography of the couple’s life and work together titled The Magic of America. Although most earlier scholarship ended Marion Griffin’s career with her husband’s death, Australian architect and historian Anna Rubbo has recently documented the extent of Griffin’s work after her return in 1938 to the United States, where she continued to lecture, design, and write.2525Anna Rubbo, “Marion Mahony’s Return to the United States: War, Women, and ‘Magic,’” in Marion Mahony Reconsidered, ed. David van Zanten (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011): 123–46. Unfortunately, Mahony Griffin’s life and impressive body of architecture and writings are not well known in the U.S., perhaps in part because her career spanned sixty years and three continents. She died in poverty, with a failing memory, on August 10, 1961, at Cook County Hospital in Chicago and is buried in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.