When Frank Lloyd Wright Lived at the Plaza Hotel
Three experts who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright recall his days living in New York City at the Plaza Hotel—from Wright's secret meeting with Marilyn Monroe to his epic Easter celebrations.
These three never-before-published interviews were conducted by Debra Pickrel while doing research for her co-authored book, Frank Lloyd Wright in New York – The Plaza Years, 1954-1959 (Gibbs-Smith, 2007), recently released in a 10th anniversary printing.
I met the effervescent John, a Frank Lloyd Wright Legacy Fellow and co-founder of Taliesin Associated Architects (TAA), during a 1996 lecture series he gave at the Sims Residence in Kamuela, Hawaii, a house he and TAA realized from an unbuilt Wright design.
Debra Pickrel: You joined the Taliesin Fellowship as an apprentice and subsequently worked on more than sixty of Wright’s projects, including the Guggenheim Museum. What do you recall about his New York residence, Plaza Hotel Suite 223-225?
John Rattenbury: [Beginning in 1954], Mr. Wright maintained a permanent suite on the second floor of the Plaza, the one formerly occupied by “Diamond Jim” Brady. Mr. and Mrs. [Olgivanna] Wright stayed there when they were in town, and Mr. Wright also used it as an office. Unofficially, it was called “Taliesin III.”
Much of the furniture in the suite was Mr. Wright’s design, including desks, hassocks and display easels. The furniture was constructed of plywood and finished in black lacquer. The edges of the plywood were painted scarlet. We built these pieces in the basement at Hillside, part of the Taliesin complex [Spring Green, Wisconsin], and drove it to New York in the Taliesin van.
Mr. Wright’s sister, Maginel [who lived on East 11th Street], used to visit him there, as did his granddaughter, Anne Baxter, the actress. His publisher, Ben Raeburn of Horizon Press, also lived in town. Ben later published four books by Mrs. Wright, too.
When Mr. and Mrs. Wright traveled to New York, they usually took Kay [my wife] along with them. She went shopping with Mrs. Wright, helped with the luggage, answered the phone, and cooked meals in the little kitchenette. The only food that the Plaza served that Mr. and Mrs. Wright really cared for was their lamb stew.
DP: I imagine Wright had a number of illustrious visitors to his suite. Can you recall some of them?
JR: Mr. Wright had many clients visit him at the Plaza, including Solomon Guggenheim and his mistress, the Baroness Hilla von Rebay [artist, co-founder, and first curator of the Guggenheim Museum]; Max Hoffman, for whom he designed a Mercedes Benz [originally Jaguar] Showroom on Park Avenue and a home in Rye, New York; and Rabbi [Mortimer J.] Cohen, for whom he designed [Beth Sholom] Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.
His most famous clients were Arthur Miller, the playwright, and his wife, Marilyn Monroe. When she came to visit Mr. Wright without her husband, he sent his wife and Kay out to do some shopping. He interviewed Marilyn by himself. There is no record of what occurred during that meeting.
Although Mr. Wright designed a beautiful home for [the Millers] in Roxbury, Connecticut, they never built it. In 1994, thirty-five years after Mr. Wright died, we [Taliesin Associated Architects] took his design and built it as a golf clubhouse on the Island of Maui.
DP: You worked on the 1953 Sixty Years of Living Architecture exhibit and the Usonian House model, which were located on the Guggenheim Museum’s future site. What were you assigned to do?
JR: This was to be a public exhibition of the life work of Frank Lloyd Wright that included an exhibition pavilion and a fully furnished model of a Usonian house that visitors could walk through. He sent several of us [apprentices] to New York to help with the setup of the exhibit—Curtis Besinger, John Geiger, Morton Delson, Allen Gelbin, and myself. While we were there, we stayed at the Croydon Hotel, just a few blocks from the Guggenheim site.
We were to do three things. First, we had to repair the scale models that were part of the exhibit. We did this in an abandoned apartment building that stood on the corner of 88th Street and Fifth Avenue. This building was later torn down, but at the time, it was being used to store some of the paintings and sculptures that would eventually be exhibited in the Guggenheim.
Then, we helped set up the exhibition. This included large 8-foot-square photo murals along with a set of large volumes of photo-reproductions of Wright’s designs. The cost of making the murals was covered by Gimbel’s [Department Store in] Philadelphia.
Finally, we helped build and furnish a model of Mr. Wright’s Usonian house. This was built on the east side of the site. The contractor for it was David Henken, a former Taliesin apprentice.
My particular task was to construct the built-in cabinets for the model house. The wood was donated by the U.S. Plywood Corporation. Because this was a residential neighborhood, we were not allowed to make noise after 6:00 p.m. If I ran the table saw after this time, the police would be summoned. To get around this, I ran the saw for only two minutes at a time and then waited for twenty minutes before starting again.
Mr. Wright liked to go shopping for furniture for the model house, and on one occasion purchased some sculptures—a pair of granite lions from the Gobi Desert. He had these delivered to the site, and a large truck came later with a mechanical hoisting device, unloaded them, and left them on the Fifth Avenue sidewalk. Mr. Wright arrived shortly after this by taxi and told David to have the workmen bring them into the Pavilion, as he wanted to place them at the entrance to the Usonian House. Soon, six burly men appeared and tried to pick up the first lion. However, it was not only very heavy—about half a ton—it was also very smooth, so there was no easy way to get a grip on it. The foreman informed Mr. Wright that he would have to wait until a forklift arrived. “Nonsense,” Mr. Wright said,” Get me the boys from Taliesin.” The five of us came over, and Mr. Wright led us out onto Fifth Avenue. We clustered around the stone lion. Mr. Wright tapped it on the head with his cane, turned his back to us and said, “Follow me.” I have no idea how we did it, but we picked it up and followed him into the pavilion. As we passed the foreman, we heard him mutter, “That’s impossible.”
Every day, visitors walking down Fifth Avenue used to stop at the construction fence and watch what was going on. One day, we noticed an elderly gray-haired lady who stood there each day for an hour or more, obviously fascinated. Mr. Wright went back to Taliesin for awhile, but when he returned to New York, he came right out to see how things were progressing. I told him that he had a fan and pointed out the lady by the fence. Mr. Wright didn’t seem to hear me. Sometime later, I noticed that the lady had left. Then, I saw a sight I shall never forget. Mr. Wright was walking down the street with her on his arm! I think her feet were six inches off the ground.
DP: What were your responsibilities on the Guggenheim project?
JR: I helped prepare the drawings for the museum, working with Curtis and [apprentice] Jack Howe. William Wesley [“Wes”] Peters and Mendel Glickman [apprentices] did the structural engineering, and my job was to draw the details. This was in the day before computers, and the only tool they had then was a slide rule. We made all the drawings with pencil and ink on tracing paper.
Mr. Wright engaged a local architect, Bill Short, to help him get a building permit. The contractor, George Cohen of Euclid Contracting Corporation, was the only one who could bid within the budget of $3.5 million. Mr. Cohen asked Mr. Wright for more details, but Mr. Wright said, “You have enough, we have other things to do now.” So, Mr. Cohen called Wes and told him he needed help.
Wes and Mrs. Wright conspired to smuggle me to New York to work for several weeks in Mr. Cohen’s office. Mr. Wright never knew about my trip there. I stayed in his Plaza suite and slept in his bed. I was told never to charge anything because Mr. Wright would know I had been there.
I met the ever-energetic Arnold at Taliesin West during one of my many research trips to the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives there. I interviewed the Frank Lloyd Wright Legacy Fellow and architect in the complex’s dining room, its hub of “Wright community” life, on July 17, 2003.
Debra Pickrel: What did Frank Lloyd Wright think of New York, in your opinion?
Arnold Roy: He commented on [it] as an overgrown village. In fact, it’s in a lot of his writings…and he said the American cities really started out as villages, and it’s absolutely true. New York started out as a village, and it just kept on growing. Which is different, because the approach that he took with [his] Broadacre City [project] was that it was designed from the beginning as a city, rather than an overgrown village. So, I mean, he was intrigued with New York. It was sort of a love-hate kind of thing. He loved going there, because there was so much going on, but then he was always ‘hmm, overgrown village’…he really hated the skyscrapers one upon the other, so when he had the opportunity to do the Price Tower [Bartlesville, Oklahoma], you know, ‘the tree that escaped the forest,’ it was able to cast its own shadow.
DP: You interviewed with Wright to become a Taliesin apprentice at the Plaza Hotel. Tell me about that experience.
AR: It was late January 1952 [before Wright had his own suite there]. The ‘waiting room’…was the hall [outside Mr. Wright’s room]. One of [his] clients, obviously quite a wealthy man, and I…were standing out there. The door [opened], and Mrs. Wright said [to me], ‘Ok…you…come in.’ And the other guy was left waiting! I guess they..figured they’d get rid of me faster…The interview actually didn’t take that long, but it was pretty intense. He just wanted to know… why I wanted to be an architect…and he didn’t want to be bothered with anybody that wasn’t serious, and I convinced him that I was quite serious about this. After the interview, I just…prepared to go to Arizona.
DP: You had a second, later interview with Wright in his Plaza Suite, also, correct?
AR: Yes. I returned from Europe after being in the military in October 1954, and…wanted to rejoin the [Taliesin] Fellowship…And, at that time, the Fellowship was in the midst of moving from Wisconsin to Arizona [for the winter]…Mr. Wright told me to ‘go out West and take your time.’
DP: What personal impressions did you have about Wright’s suite?
AR: It was just very elegant in only the way Frank Lloyd Wright could do it. One of the things I really loved…the suite had these big arched windows, and he put mirrors at the top of each arch. Now, who else would think of treating an arch that way? It was extremely effective. He didn’t like the arch used [as it was], but by putting a mirror in it, it still retained the arch form, yet it transcended into something else.
DP: Tell me about the furniture you and other apprentices built for the suite.
AR: Mr. Wright had decided that in order to redo the suite to his liking, he needed black lacquer furniture. He felt it would be more capable with the classic furniture and furnishings that were there. So, he designed hassocks, chairs, and dining tables, and even easels to display his work on, all made out of…a fine-grained wood, so, with lacquer on, you wouldn’t see the grain. So, we set up shop here in the [Taliesin root cellar in case it rained]…we were making all this furniture, and everybody was participating like crazy…just putting the black lacquer on, and then part of the design was the edges that would be painted that bright…mandarin red. Actually, it was quite elegant, very simple-looking furniture.
DP: How did you apply the black lacquer?
AR: We just sprayed it, we had a little spray gun. The finish you get from lacquer is always so different from the finish you get from enamel, and Mr. Wright specified the lacquer, and of course, lacquer always dries faster, too.
DP: How many apprentices worked on the furniture?
AR: There must have been six or eight of us down there, as least.
DP: How long did the process take?
AR: Probably less than a month…there was a lot of pressure in New York to get the furniture.
DP: Did you go to New York to deliver the furniture?
AR: No, I think it was [apprentice] Ken Lockhart. We had a ‘semi’ at the time, and we just loaded it on, and he drove it to New York.
DP: What did you think about the melding of the furniture and décor styles in the suite?
AR: The black was the [elegant] transition [element]…the black lacquer. I think there were limitations on what he could do, because if you start taking all of the [existing] furniture out, you’re still left with period architecture. He had this incredible sense of proportion…he knew just enough to take out and enough to do to put his stamp on it.
I remember Frank Lloyd Wright would lecture to us in this room…‘Boys, I have a sense of proportion, and you’re going to have to learn, and you’ll never get one as good a mine, because I was born with it.’
Everywhere you look, the man had a perfect sense of proportion…even about life. Some of the things he did were outrageous, but still, this sense of proportion followed him everywhere, especially apparent in his architecture, and in the way he dressed. Some people say it was a little bit flashy. It wasn’t, it was just that far from being flashy. Nobody else dressed like him.
DP: Wright received substantial publicity from television appearances while residing in New York. Did he say anything to the apprentices about this?
AR: In the late ‘50s, probably after the Mike Wallace [television] interviews and other interviews he had, he came back [to Taliesin West] from New York, and lectured to us in the dining room, and he just said, ‘Boys, do you understand the power of television?’ He was quite intrigued by it, [but] we didn’t have a television out here. We knew vaguely what it was as an abstraction, but, you know, [not] as a reality…and he said, ‘This medium has given me the privilege of being recognized in my lifetime.’ So, he was really quite intrigued with [its] potential…people would stop him on the street…‘Mr. Wright, I saw you on television!’
DP: What do you know about Wright’s relationship with his cousin by marriage, New York Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses?
AR: There’s a marvelous story about the Guggenheim that Bruce [Pfeiffer, Frank Lloyd Wright’s archivist] told me…about Robert Moses. [Wright and Moses] were very good friends…and the building inspection people were giving Mr. Wright a lot of grief on the Guggenheim, because it did not conform to New York City building codes…’you gotta do this, and you gotta do this, etc.’, and he’d come back from New York, and we’d have to redo the drawings and then do them over again, and so, one day, they were having dinner, and Moses was asking how it was coming, and Mr. Wright was telling him [the bad news], and so Moses got on the phone to his people and said, ‘I want that permit on my desk at 10:30 tomorrow morning.’
DP: Moses didn’t like the Guggenheim, but he was interested in it being built, is that correct?
AR: Yeah, whether he liked it or not, he knew its importance.
DP: How would you summarize your impressions of Wright?
AR: I always tell people when I give talks here…this man knew what he was doing ALL THE TIME. It may seem at the time that he was a poor businessman…[but] look at what he left behind. That’s not what a poor businessman leaves behind!
Forever-young Susan grew up in two National Historic Landmark Wright houses in Wisconsin and is a 45-year member of the Taliesin Fellowship. I met her after her keynote speech at the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy’s 1996 conference in Seattle. Talking during the long van ride to Wright’s Ray Brandes House (1952) in Sammamish, Washington, we discovered that we have the same birthday and Chinese zodiac sign, and an enduring, treasured friendship was born. I interviewed Susan at Taliesin West on August 10, 2007.
Debra Pickrel: You spent most of your childhood in two legendary Wright houses and much of your adult life at Taliesin and Taliesin West. But you also lived in New York for a time when the Wrights were in residence at the Plaza Hotel. Tell me about your experiences there.
Susan Jacobs Lockhart: For me, living in New York City was a new experience, and the awe of the Plaza was part of that. I can still picture first getting off the elevator, and walking not far down the hall to the door of the suite, and entering this room with its distinctive design, furnishings, a baby grand piano, big windows with the circular mirrors, and red velvet curtains. The piano was close to the entry.
My husband [Taliesin apprentice] David Wheatley and I lived in New York from February 1957 through November 1958. David worked for [apprentice] Edgar Tafel, and I worked at Alfred A. Knopf, publishers. There were quite a few people from Taliesin living there then, including Morton and Anna Delson, John deKoven Hill, Curtis Besinger, Heloise Crista, Tony Puttnam–all former apprentices—plus a few people from the Gurdjieff study group in Chicago like John Menken. We were encouraged to use the Plaza Suite when the Wrights were not in residence.
DP: What was the Gurdjieff study group?
SJL: A set of movements based on eastern ritual temple dances designed to correlate mind, body and spirit, designed by Armenian [George Ivanovich] Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff created them from his research and taught them at his Institute in Paris, where both Mrs. Wright and [the Wrights’ daughter] Iovanna had studied. They were taught at Taliesin to those interested in participating and learning more of Gurdjieff’s spiritual teachings.
Tony remembered that Mrs. Wright was interested in starting a Gurdjieff study group in New York—including reading, discussion and correlation movements—and introduced the idea at a gathering of some twenty people in the city, at someone’s apartment. Those of us living there…gathered weekly to learn and practice the Gurdjieff Movements by ourselves. We tried to do the movements in the Plaza suite, but the spaces were too small, so we found a loft space where we met instead.
DP: Easter has always been a special holiday at Taliesin, and you have vivid memories of it. Tell us how the holiday was celebrated in the Wrights’ Plaza Suite.
SJL: Mrs. Wright grew up as a child in Czarist Russia where the traditional Easter celebration was a part of her life. The event was celebrated with baba, tall Russian egg bread; pascha cheese, dry curd cheese with ground almonds, eggs, and raisins shaped into a pyramid form; and colored hard boiled eggs. She first served it to her family at Taliesin—Frank Lloyd Wright, and the two small children, [her daughter] Svetlana and [their daughter] Iovanna. No one liked the pascha cheese, but they did like the baba with 30 egg yolks in it. No matter how poor, Russian people allowed themselves eggs for an Easter baba. Later, she served the pascha as a Russian Easter sweet for tea, and then they liked it. When she and Frank Lloyd Wright founded the Taliesin Fellowship in 1932, Mrs. Wright kept that one old Russian tradition, and it was built into the life of the Fellowship at Easter, sited outdoors, usually on the sunset terrace, with invited guests, choral music, a children’s egg hunt, balloons, and flowers as decoration for the tables and site. Today, [Taliesin Easter] guests number over 200.
The Easter breakfast event at the Plaza Suite that I attended was, I believe in 1957, with a number of the people I have mentioned in attendance. Typically used by Mrs. Wright for staging room service food from the hotel, the kitchen was very small for needed preparations. In making the baba, which has many stages, and waiting between two risings, our work expanded beyond the confines of the small kitchen. David was an excellent cook and participated–I mostly watched and helped. We probably made one or two babas, about 10″ high, and pascha cheese, and colored eggs. Tony remembered that we all ate in the main living room that Easter Sunday, with bright sunlight at the windows and flowers for decoration.
DP: Why did you leave New York?
SJL: During our residency there, Mr. and Mrs. Wright invited David and me to rejoin the Fellowship, which we saw as an opportunity, and we…moved to Taliesin West in late 1958.
Founder and principal of Pickrel Communications, Inc. (New York, NY), she served as VP of education on the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy board and was editor of its quarterly BULLETIN. You can find her previous Wright posts here.