Marion Mahony Griffin

A look at American architect and artist Marion Mahony Griffin's life and career.

A friend of ours, Arantza Aramburu, recently rendered a watercolor of Marion Mahony to shed some light on a life and career well lived for those of us not so familiar. Mahony (later Griffin) was a practicing architect who contributed immensely to the early success of Frank Lloyd Wright though she has not received the attention she deserves, hence Aramburu’s blurry interpretation of her professional accomplishments as well as her legacy in the history of 20th century American architecture.

Watercolor of Marion Mahony by Arantza Aramburu
Marion Mahony (from Beverly Willis,, and 

As Wright’s first real employee, Marion Mahony took on significant responsibilities in his practice. So much so that when Wright escaped to Europe in 1909 with his mistress, Mary Cheney (see previous blog post concerning the Tulsa riots of1921 for more details on their tragic relationship), he asked Marion to takeover the practice. Not only did Wright leave behind his practice, but also his wife and children. Mahony declined Wright’s offer, which was wise in the long run as Wright had absconded with client’s “advance fees” on works in progress making the practice financially unstable. This caused an understandable considerable rift between the two, which was the first of two estrangements to occur over a period of the next 20 years.

Mahony graduated from MIT in 1894 with a Bachelor of Architecture degree, only the second woman to do so at MIT.  She was also among the first group of licensed architects in the United States after passing the state of Illinois’s first administered licensing exam in 1897. After graduation she moved back to Chicago to work for her cousin Dwight Perkins, who at that time shared offices with young Frank Lloyd Wright. The office was in an attic loft of the downtown Steinway Building, a building which Perkins had designed. When work eventually slowed in Perkins office, Mahony went to work for Wright. Wright was known then for his beautiful residential ink and watercolor illustrations. Below are the works of Marion Mahony.

Marion Mahony's illustrations

Wright’s colleague Barry Byrne remembered Mahony as having a real presence when entering a room. She had a big laugh and a biting wit. She was very smart and unwilling to be walked over by Wright, much to the amusement of her coworkers. She was an uncredited contributor to both the famous Robie House in 1905 and to Unity Temple. The Robie House was a masterpiece, the major turning point in 20thcentury domestic residential American architecture. Below is a Marion Mahony illustration along with a current day photograph of the Robie House.

According to Byrne there were many others thought to originate the Robie House as well, including Mahony, her cousin Dwight Perkins, and future husband Griffin (whom she met working for Wright) among others. But to these practitioners the common thinking was, according to Byrne, that it truly originated with Louis Sullivan, not Wright, although Wright did work for Sullivan and had enormous respect for him.

Mahony continued to work occasionally with her cousin Dwight Perkins, whom she had grown up with and was quite fond of. Among those projects that she may have contributed to in the Prairie School style was the 1908 South Pond Refectory(restaurant hall) in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Along with the Waco Bros. band, I attended my brother-in-law’s wedding at this venue, the best and loudest wedding I have ever been to.

Lincoln Park Refectory

After years of working with Wright and after he had left for Europe with his new lover, Mahony joined forces with Walter Griffin, with whom she designed several projects over the next few years, and eventually married. Among the projects are All Souls Church in Chicago and the 1909 Amberg Residence in Grand Rapids.

All Souls Church (now demolished) 
Amberg House, Grand Rapids (1909)

Other projects ensued along with her husband Walter. A few of Mahony’s residential designs done with Walter during this time are below. Wright had been accused of sometimes crediting himself for Marion’s work. Though I have not been able to track down any concrete examples, below are some possibilities.  

Ricker House (left), Mueller House (right)

In 1914, Marion encouraged Walter to enter the international design competition to design a new town, Canberra, Australia, to become the country’s new capital. Walter went on to win the competition, much credit to Marion who did all the illustrations. The couple subsequently moved to Canberra and remained there for the next 21 years designing mostly residential projects in the suburban town of Castlecrag.

Winning plan for Canberra

After sometime, Walter obtained several commissions in India, mostly in and around Lucknow University. Marion joined him a year later but unfortunately, he died at a young age in 1937. Thereupon Marion finished the projects in India and moved back to Chicago, where she passed away in 1961.

It is a great travesty that Marion Mahony Griffin is widely unknown today, for she was a major contributor to the Prairie School of American architecture and should be credited for reinventing architectural illustration that others copied and reinterpreted throughout the 20th century. This contribution can probably be best remembered by viewing Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous 1910 Wasmuth Portfolio, which included 100 illustrations of the Prairie School, half of which were done by Marion Mahony Griffin.

This portfolio, published in Germany, made Wright famous and a household name. Marion though to this day has not gotten the credit she deserved, for she was much more than an illustrator, she was a major architect and part founder of the Prairie School of American design.

Blog post written by David Tritt, Senior Architect.

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