The Apprentices: Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence lives on in his students’ La Jolla architecture

If your home has a living room, carport or open floor plan, it’s likely due to the early influence of architect, interior designer and educator Frank Lloyd Wright. His philosophy of “organic architecture” — once considered radical — is today a common component of contemporary architecture and interior space planning.

Wright’s creative vision endures in pockets of San Diego and La Jolla, as a handful of his apprentices later settled in the region, designing an array of structures, from homes to office buildings, each conveying varying degrees of his aesthetic.

An exhibit from Sept. 26, 2015 to Jan. 17, 2016 at La Jolla Historical Society’s (LJHS) Wisteria Cottage galleries focuses on Wright’s influence in the region, as conveyed through the work of those who studied under him at his Taliesin studios in Spring Green, Wisconsin and Scottsdale, Arizona.

“There aren’t that many cities I know of where multiple of these apprentices took up residence,” said exhibit curator Keith York, a local authority on mid-century design, who has meticulously documented San Diego’s modernist architecture via his website, modernsandiego.com. “The early work by all of them, when they first moved to San Diego, is very much connected to their time at Taliesin.”

The exhibit, “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Legacy in San Diego: The Taliesin Apprentices,” highlights the work of several of them, including Vincent Bonini, Frederick Liebhardt, Sim Bruce Richards, Bill Slatton and retired La Jolla architect Loch Crane (whose son, magician Loch David Crane many may remember as a frequent, colorful candidate for mayor of San Diego). The exhibit also focuses on the work of Wright and his two sons, Lloyd and John, through drawings, photographs and ephemera.

“These young architects were moving here (after World War II) to try to help design a new San Diego,” York said of the apprentices. “What I’ve learned is that when they came out of their apprentice program and moved to San Diego, they were all somewhat social and knew about each other — and several of them collaborated with each other on a number of buildings.

“Then, of course, as all architects do, they create a path for themselves and open up their office. In the latter parts of their careers, decades after their time with Frank Lloyd Wright, (their work bears) less of a resemblance to those early days when all of them, say, were in their 20s and being optimistic about architecture changing humanity.”

Loch Crane

Loch Crane, who at age 92 resides in the third home he designed for himself and his late wife, Clare (on Mt. Soledad), was born in Pittsburgh in 1922. He arrived in Point Loma via Wyoming in 1929 with his brother Russ and mother, who was seeking a better life for her family, according to a biography on Crane that York published at modernsandiego.com

Adept with his hands from an early age, Crane spent his time drawing, learning to sail and modifying skiffs to make them sail better, and faster.

His mother reportedly showed him the Jan. 17, 1938 edition of TIME magazine, featuring Wright on its cover as “the greatest American architect of all time,” according to York’s biography. As crane leafed through its pages, his mother proclaimed “this is who you will work for.”

Following several high school drafting classes, and short stints in the offices of Richard Requa and Templeton Johnson (with Robert Mosher), Crane and his mother packed his early drawings in the family’s Ford Model A and drove to Taliesin West near Scottsdale, where Mrs. Crane handed Wright a $1,000 check for her son’s fellowship tuition.

“I came out of the interview … (and) I just couldn’t talk,” recalled Crane during an interview with York last month. “She asked what happened. ‘Did he throw you out or invite you to come back?’ ”

Wright accepted Crane into the program, and moved him with his other students to Taliesin in Wisconsin, where he would meet his future wife, Clare.

“They would have you in the galley for a while, then out (working) in the fields for a while, then washing cars,” Crane recalled. Some accounts, including those from Roger Friedland’s 2006 book about Wright’s Taliesin fellowship, claim Wright exploited his apprentices, having them build the Arizona and Wisconsin complexes, till land, chop wood and shovel manure.

But Crane said, for him, the experience was largely positive. “Some people thought we were nuts, but, boy, the environment (and) living in that kind of architecture. … You absorbed that … way of life.”

Crane said more than once he bumped his head on Wright’s notoriously low ceilings, which the architect fancied to create more intimate spaces.

“He said, ‘You’re too tall; it’s your own damn fault … bend over,’” Crane recalled. “He didn’t feel sorry for you at all … but he had that twinkle that made you think, boy it would fun if someday I could pull that stuff and be an architect.”

Crane said Wright’s students — including himself, “burning that midnight oil every night on my drawing board” — “very strongly wanted to please Mr. Wright … but you wanted to show that you had some design initiative … rather than just mimicking what Mr. Wright had done with three houses before. … Mr. Wright was very smart that way. He picked out the best architects as students … and made better ones out of them.

“I don’t know anyone that took advantage, and was able to get as much as I was able to get, from Mr. Wright,” Crane added. “Not imitating him but (soaking up) his context and his enthusiasm.”

Although Wright was a self-proclaimed pacifist and demanded as such of his apprentices (he was a vociferous opponent of the Unites States’ involvement in World War II), he cut Crane some slack when he decided to join the war effort.

“The draft was gonna pick me anyway and I knew I could get a pretty good position in the military,” Crane recalled to York. “That’s why I left — and I explained that to him. … There was nothing greater than being a flyboy.”

According to York’s biography, after Crane completed his service flying B-25s in World War II, he remained in Japan through 1946 teaching “twin-engine advanced” pilots and overseeing construction efforts. “He spent his free time photographing, drawing and researching Japanese architecture,” York writes. “Many of the photographs he took would later end up in a slide show for Mr. Wright and his colleagues back at Taliesin West. Crane said that when he pointed out the red-orange tips of beams extruding from Shinto shrines, Wright proclaimed, ‘Even they have copied me!’ ”

Sim Bruce Richards

Of the San Diego apprentices, York said it was Sim Bruce Richards who most closely adhered to Wright’s concepts, and the longest. Richards’ La Jolla projects include the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Prince Chapel by the Sea) on Cuvier Street (1947); the Clark Residence (1959, visible to motorists along Torrey Pines Road at Calle de la Plata), and more than a dozen other private residences.

Although he lived in Point Loma, Richards maintained an office on Pearl Street and another on Prospect Street for much of his multi-decade career.

“He was like a stalwart,” York said of Richards. “Everything still had to follow that sort of Wrightian path.”

Crane added, “Sim Bruce painted a beautiful vision of what Wright could’ve been. … Looking back on it, it was very stagnating. … I think I hit it perfectly to have enough previous experience, to know what to look for and (to see) what was in front of me to see.”

--- Barging Wright In ---

• Perhaps one of San Diego’s most memorable headlines from the Roaring Twenties followed a summer in which architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) and his third fiancé (and final wife), Olgivanna Lazovich, rented a house in La Jolla at 228 Coast Blvd. during the summer of 1928. According to La Jolla Historical Society (LJHS) historian Carol Olten, during the couple’s stay, Wright’s second wife, Miriam Noel, paid Wright and his fiancé a visit. Wright was in the process of divorcing Noel after less than a year of marriage due to her reported morphine addiction. Finding Wright and Lazovich not at home, in a rage Noel ransacked the Coast Boulevard property, tossing the couple’s clothes and furniture onto the beach. Wright’s maid phoned the police and Noel was arrested and taken to jail. The front-page headline in San Diego’s daily newspaper read, “Pursuing Woman Wrecks La Jolla Home.”

• To read more about the incident, look for Olten’s account in the upcoming issue of La Jolla Historical Society’s Timekeeper magazine. lajollahistory.org

--- IF YOU GO ---

• What: "Frank Lloyd Wright’s Legacy in San Diego: the Taliesin Apprentices" exhibit

• Where: La Jolla Historical Society’s Wisteria Cottage galleries, 780 Prospect St., La Jolla

• When: Noon to 4 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, Sept. 26, 2015 to Jan. 17, 2016

• Cost: Free

• Info: (858) 459-5335

• Website: lajollahistory.org

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