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Archiving Frank Lloyd Wright: Breadth and range of master architect's work highlighted in comprehensive Storrer Collection

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Dr. William Allin Storrer was in junior high school when he first met architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

In Storrer’s account of the meeting, the charismatic Wright, whose flair for the dramatic was well known, glided into the room at his Taliesin estate. After being introduced to Storrer and his family, he tipped back his pork pie hat-topped head, swirled his black cape and swept out the door.

William Allin Storrer at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City.
William Allin Storrer at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City.

Neither Wright nor the awestruck boy could know that Storrer would become one of Wright’s most committed cataloguers and respected scholars.

Storrer spent more than two decades making multiple visits to each of Wright’s more than 400 built structures, photographing them, redrawing their plans and interviewing original owners. His dedication resulted in the first comprehensive catalog of Wright’s built works and several other books, including 1993’s “The Frank Lloyd Wright Companion,” which Booklist called “the definitive Wright reference book.”

Last year Storrer donated all of his manuscripts and his research and reference archive to The University of Texas at Austin Libraries.

This unparalleled collection along with the expertise of premier Wright scholars Drs. Anthony Alofsin and Richard Cleary, both professors in the School of Architecture, help establish the university as one of the country’s premier places to study Wright and his legacy.

“Having the Storrer Collection in the Alexander Architectural Archive confirms The University of Texas at Austin as the primary location for advanced scholarly research on Wright,” Alofsin says. “It represents the most comprehensive documentation of Wright’s built work that has ever been assembled outside Wright’s own archive.”

When documenting Wright’s work, Storrer left no stone unturned. In his books, a visitor can not only find driving directions to each of Wright’s buildings, but also Global Positioning System coordinates to tell them the best place from which to view the structures.

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He redrew building plans, making sure that they were accurate for each of the built works. The plans, included in the archive, are often more accurate or legible than Wright’s own plans, which may have undergone changes during construction.

Storrer also created a common numbering system for Wright’s work, one that allows easy universal recognition.

“One of the wonderful things that Dr. Storrer contributed to Frank Lloyd Wright scholarship is his cataloguing system,” explains Beth Dodd, curator of the Alexander Architectural Archive. “He has provided a number for each project in essentially chronological order, an S number, that we hope will continue to be used.”

The Storrer Collection, with its thousands of photographs, slides and negatives as well as drawings, papers, correspondence and books, provides a solid foundation to any scholarly research on Wright. It joins the more than quarter of a million drawings and thousands of photographs and materials in the Alexander Architectural Archive.

The collection is a labor of love. Storrer visited each and every built work and began his documentation in the 1970s, before he even had a publisher. And he continually updated his work, including follow-up documentation when houses were sold or otherwise altered and keeping track of demolished buildings.

(As recently as last week, Storrer was at work confirming the state of Wright’s buildings in Ocean Springs, Miss., in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Sadly, both the Sullivan and Charnley properties were severely damaged.)

The Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Penn., is considered one of Wright's most expressively designed houses of worship.
The Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Penn., is considered one of Wright’s most expressively designed houses of worship. (S.373)

“The collection represents the devotion of a lifetime by Dr. Storrer,” Alofsin says. “It’s a wonderful collection to have because I doubt that it will ever be duplicated. He did his documentation and analysis within a reasonable time from the creation of the buildings. He also interviewed many clients who had worked with Wright himself.”

Most impressive of all, he completed his work while maintaining other jobs, most notably as a high school teacher in Newark, N.J. The extent of his work is impressive, and his books and archive remind us that Wright’s breadth and geographic range are part of what made him America’s best-known architect.

Wright’s first buildings were built in the early 1890s when he was in his early 20s and his last were completed after his death in 1959 at age 92. His buildings can be found in his native Midwest, and across the country, from California to Connecticut as well as in other countries, including Japan, site of Tokyo’s celebrated Imperial Hotel (demolished in 1968).

While the spirals of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City or the cantilevered concrete decks over the waterfall at Fallingwater may first come to mind when considering Wright, his legacy can be seen in just about every neighborhood in the country.

“Wright sought fundamentally to follow a vision, and his vision was the creation of a distinctive architecture for the American democracy,” Alofsin says. “This was his fundamental goal and he never deviated from that goal.”

For Wright, architecture for an American democracy meant that architects designed not only for the elite, but for the average American.

“Whether he was designing a dog house for a 14-year-old boy’s pet or an estate or mansion for an industrial magnate, he always kept these goals in mind,” Alofsin says. “Those ideals connected him perpetually with the American public.”

John Storer residence, Hollywood, Calif.
John Storer residence, Hollywood, Calif. (S.215)

Wright’s prairie style houses emphasized the horizontal in long low buildings made of simple materials such as brick, wood and plaster. His later Usonian houses, first designed while the U.S. was weathering the Great Depression, were built explicitly to control costs. Like the prairie style houses, they featured open living areas and little ornamentation.

Wright’s prairie period and Usonian houses and his focus on what he called “organic” architecture, architecture in harmony with the natural world and the individual building site, changed American residential design. If your house has a carport or picture windows, a great room or casement windows, you are living with Wright’s legacy.

“He was able to make wonderful innovations in the spatial formation of architecture,” Alofsin says. “He asked how spaces fit together, how they flow from interior to exterior and exterior to interior.”

While Wright’s influence is seen in today’s architecture and his larger-than-life reputation continues to fill the pages of popular biographies, scholarship on Wright is still in its early stages. Access to his correspondence only became possible after his wife’s death in 1985 and after the volumes of letters were indexed by Alofsin, a fundamental breakthrough for scholarship.

Alofsin continues to lecture about Wright across the country and Cleary is on leave to pursue his project, “The Art, Science, and Craft of Organic Architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright and Building Technology.” The next generation of Wright scholars will surely turn to Alofsin and Cleary. And they will find the detailed documentation of the Storrer Collection invaluable.

“Consulting the Storrer Collection will be necessary for anyone doing serious scholarly research that requires scrutinizing the built works,” Alofsin says, “not just in the U.S., but around the globe.”

BY Vivé Griffith

PHOTOS from STORRER Collection courtesy Alexander Architectural Archive

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  Updated 19 September 2005
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