Sunday, October 24, 2010

Wright or Wrong?

Bogk residence by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Detail Bogk residence. 
One of my favorite Frank Lloyd Wright designs is the Bogk residence in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Built in 1916 it is atypical Wright.  It lacks the horizontality of his prairie style architecture from the same period. Instead it is vertical and blocky.  Very un-Wrightian: it even allows for a third level attic space.  However, this stately home is brilliantly executed with exquisite massing, well-developed detail, and complex interior volumes. It should rate as one of his most sophisticated designs, but is hardly ever mentioned in Wright biographies. The Bogk residence reflects the proportions and ornamentation he was beginning to develop for the Imperial Hotel in Japan during the same period. It also foreshadows his California projects of the twenties which are typically blocky and utilize vaguely-Mayan motifs. These include the Hollyhock House for Aline Barnsdall (1922), La Miniatura for Alice Millard (1923), and the Ennis house (1924), among others.

Also in Milwaukee, less than a mile north, is a similar home.
It displays the same proportions, though it is actually much smaller.  It has the same approach to fenestration, the same gold tiles in leaded glass, the same horizontal banding played against vertical structure.  One could easily identify this as another Wright design executed on a slightly more modest budget.  Many have assumed this to be the case, but this assumption is wrong.  This house, originally built for T. Robinson Bours, was designed by Milwaukee architect Russell Barr Williamson.  It was completed in 1921.

Bours residence by Russell Barr Williamson.
The confusion is understandable. Williamson worked for Wright in the late-1910s and actually supervised the Bogk resdience for him.  Given their proximity in time, space, and lineage it is not surprising the two structures bear a resemblance.

Besides obvious budgetary differences, not everything about the two residences is similar.  The biggest divergence is in the interiors.  The Wright design bears richer rewards in the interplay of spaces and exhibits a higher sense of drama.  In contrast, the Williamson design feels much like the typical bungalow built throughout Milwaukee and the rest of the country during these pre-depression years. It is very pleasant but certainly less adventuresome. The Williamson design differs on the exterior as well.  Wright was loathe to use barrel (or "Spanish") tiles on his roofs; Williamson uses them here to great effect.  Wright was characteristically stubborn when it came to entries as well.  They were often hidden at the end of a circuitous path.  This seemed to be deliberate;  it was a way of establishing a sense of intrigue.  In Wright's Bogk house, however, the main entrance abuts the side drive with  little grace and no drama.  It is marked only by a stubby little cantilevered canopy.  Williamson's design, by contrast, announces the entrance to the house with a pavilion-like structure set back on the right.  It complements the house and signals welcome.  In this respect, it is the more successful of the two.

Russell Barr Williamson had a distinguished career in Milwaukee.  He designed several notable buildings, some in the manner of Wright and others with his own distinctive flair.  He died in 1964.

Frank Lloyd Wright also designed many other buildings in and around Milwaukee. Here is another residence only three miles further north in the Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood:
Wright or faux Wright?
Is this Wright?  Williamson? Some other prairie school architect?

The answer will be provided in the next blog entry.

All photos:  M. Knorr
Research Librarian for Williamson history: Susan Knorr

1 comment:

  1. I own a hotel that was built by Russell Barr Wiliamson in milwaukee Wi. I am looking for pictures/posters to decorate my rooms and hall with that are williamson buildings. Can you advise where I might find them.