Temple of Genius
Difficult, obsessed, Frank Lloyd Wright found the client he needed in Alice Millard

By Garrett Soden

From Pasadena magazine
IT WAS A RISKY THING TO DO, her friends had told her. To hire any famous architect was risky because he would as likely build his own ego as your house. But to hire Frank Lloyd Wright - this was madness. The man defined the archetype of the cantankerous genius. And this project promised to be especially ego driven, because the idea of building this new home had not even been hers. Wright had come to her anxious to put his latest theories into practice. In exchange for the chance to build, he offered to waive his usual fee.

Wright had called on Alice because she was a former client. Fifteen years before, she and her husband George had hired the young architect to build their home outside Highland Park near Chicago. Since then they had watched his reputation grow, and felt some pride that they had chosen a man who had gone on to command international acclaim. Now, in 1923, he was considered among the elite of architects, capable of brilliant designs.

But along with his reputed genius, she knew, came his legendary difficulty. Of the one-hundred and seventy-two clients he had worked for, only ten had hired him again. Alice Millard, though, had her own strength. Since her husband died in 1918, she had taken over his rare book business, a world that required her to stand up to men. She was hardly one to be intimidated by Wright's eminence in the world of the arts - it was a world she knew well. She was an admirer of William Morris, the 19th century poet, printer, architect, and designer credited as one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement. Her husband had even known the man. She was a connoisseur of well-designed pages, an acknowledged expert among book dealers, and a noted collector of art and antiques. She would have a few things to say to Mr. Wright about her new house.

Wright had worked in southern California for a few years, but didn't like it much. "...I was looking around me in Los Angeles - trying to hope but disgusted," he later wrote. "There the Anglicans [as he called Angelenos] were busy as could be with steam-shovels tearing down the hills to get to the top in order to blot out the top with a house in some queasy fashionable 'style,' some esthetic inanity or other." He detested the phony copies of Spanish and Mexican styles. He saw the transplanted midwestern house, with its sloped roof ready to shed rain and snow, as ludicrous, standing against a harsh environment that didn't exist. He searched for something else, something Californian. He wanted to find a form that grew organically from plain materials and construction techniques.

Perhaps inspired by adobe architecture, a form which grows from the cheap mud brick, Wright began to think about the most humble of modern building materials: the concrete block. For Alice's home, he would design pairs of blocks that fit together, smooth on one side for the interior, and textured for the exterior. Between the blocks would be an air space that would keep the house warm in the winter and cool in the summer. "Lightness and strength!" he enthused. "I was getting interested again."

(Later, Wright would perfect this system in the Freeman House, the Storer House, and the Ennis House, eventually eliminating the need for mortar by "weaving" the blocks into a net of steel rods. The technique he invented came to be known as textile block construction.)

Alice had listened to his plan, and it had caught her imagination. Her home - an innovation in architecture. It is what one hopes for when hiring someone of Wright's stature. She had approved, only adding that she still wanted the building to have an old-world atmosphere. Yes, yes, he said, it would.

AS EXPECTED, Wright was overbearing from the start. Alice had purchased a lovely piece of land on the top of a small rise near Prospect Boulevard. This he rejected. As she and Wright stood on her suddenly superfluous lot, he peered into a shady ravine just down the hill. There - that was the spot, he declared. Right between those two tall eucalyptus trees.

Alice agreed; well, yes, that was a beautiful spot. And although she had cautioned the architect from the beginning to hold costs below ten thousand dollars, she bought this new lot that so enchanted him.

He seemed agreeable enough on most other points, especially when she presented her basic requirements. To feature her collection of books, art and furniture, she would need a large living room. She asked for a bedroom with a balcony that opened onto the living room, an office that could double as a guest room, two bathrooms, a dining room, a pantry, kitchen, and servant's quarters. Wright assured her: yes, yes, yes, it could all be done, and within budget.

Alice soon found a contractor for her new house, one that came highly recommended. Wright was hesitant, but she insisted, banking on the advice of a friend who said a Mr. A.C. Parlee had finished her job for less than his estimate. Alice was determined that, famous as he was, Wright would not make all the decisions. She assured him that Parlee would be perfect. "I feel we can trust him utterly," she said.

Six months later, when she was in Europe, Parlee disappeared. Wright was furious, hunted the man down, and found him working on his own new house. Wright, who was famous for spewing forth personal insults (in a letter he once referred to the recipient's "ample fanny") now let loose on Parlee. For his part, the contractor had already put up with plenty from Wright. The blueprints for the house left important construction details unexplained, and Parlee's crew had been forced to improvise. The wooden molds for the blocks that Wright had designed swelled from the water in the concrete, yielding blocks so uneven that joints couldn't be made true even with extra mortar. Instead, joints had to be painstakingly shimmed. All this took extra time and a lot more money. More, Parlee claimed, than he had been given. Wright's tirade was the last straw - Parlee quit on the spot.

Two thirds of the money had been spent and the house was no more than half-built. To complete it would cost nearly double the original estimate. Parlee threatened suit. The bank threatened liens.

Wright was now in his element: the misunderstood genius battling the world. "I might as well admit it," he later wrote, "I quite forgot this little building belonged to Alice Millard at all." His own pride driving him, he borrowed six thousand dollars to add to their stake. And while he exaggerated his martyrdom, Alice began to understand that he was not entirely wrong. It was difficult to bring these new buildings into being. There would always be critics.

But Alice had not forgotten whose home they were building. She could take control; she could, if necessary scale back the plans, and bring the architect to heel - probably destroying his vision and perhaps crippling his ability to finish. Or she could timidly pay the bills and hope for the best. Instead, she matched his commitment. "We are going to finish that building if it takes every cent I've got in the world or can get to do it," she declared. "I see that it's going to be beautiful . . . I know something worthwhile is coming out of that block-pile there in the yard." Wright wrote later that her faith was better than he deserved.

A new contractor was found, and work resumed, but it was slow and tedious. Each block had to be put through the troublesome mold to stamp it with a design. When one didn't come out cleanly, it would have to be redone. Some blocks took four passes. There were a lot of blocks: more than ten thousand.

The result, though, was dramatic. When it was finally finished, the building seemed more like a tropical hallucination than a house in Pasadena. Although not much larger than an average home, its fortress-like facade appeared monumental. The patterns in the block recalled the icons of an ancient civilization. Nestled in the ravine, surrounded by trees, flanked by garden terraces and topped with roof gardens, it was a diminutive Mayan temple, eons old, emerging like a lost shrine from the jungle. They called it La Miniatura.

WRIGHT RETURNED TO CHICAGO. Alice was now surrounded by her collection of art in her large living room, all within a home that was also a work of art. But a work of art is often delicate, long on aesthetic appeal and short on durability. La Miniatura, it turned out, leaked. When mud and water swept down the ravine, it filled the basement and buried the furnace. Rain drizzled through the roof. Wright was mortified, stung by criticism from Alice's friends, who he called the "I-told-you-so brigade." Alice wept. Wright came back and fixed the problems. "We ourselves survived the untoward circumstances - yes, because the house was mainly all right all the time," Wright wrote later. "But not so for them, because La Miniatura had insulted them all by what it aspired to be. 'They' had no wish for it to survive anything at all."

La Miniatura endured, and over time became a place of special pride for Alice. People, especially students, came to see and study what was regarded as one of the great architect's masterpieces. "Inevitably," noted a local newspaper, "the building took on the atmosphere of a museum and its owner became a tireless custodian." Eventually she added a wing to serve as a true museum and as a meeting place for young artists and collectors.

Alice Millard died in 1938. La Miniatura, like a brilliant but irksome child, continues to demand special care and tolerance. Its blocks are crumbling, and are so porous that the home is often damp. But it also continues to gather acclaim. Architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock declared it the finest of Wright's block houses, and Wright authority Robert Sweeney has written, "...it is the most perfect of the block houses on the West Coast." David Gebhard and Robert Winter, authors of Los Angeles, An Architectural Guide, refer to La Miniatura as a monument of American architecture.

Alice's friends had been right. Frank Lloyd Wright had made the house his - the client and everyone else be damned. And they were wrong. Alice Millard knew that innovative art could not be sustained by after-the-fact appreciation; it had to be understood and supported when its ultimate value was cloudy. And it had to be paid for.

By doing these things, Alice Millard made La Miniatura her own.

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Copyright © 2006 Garrett Soden