In his autobiography, Frank Lloyd Wright stated that since boyhood one of his chief pleasures had been “omnivorous reading.”1 Wright did indeed have an unusual attraction to books—not only books on architecture and other arts, but novels, plays, poetry, and works on history, philosophy, social and political thought, economics, and other subjects. In a letter of 1901 to a friend who had lent him a novel by Johann Paul Richter, he described the intense feelings the book had aroused in him:
I have read him … and have read him again. I began by indulging him … charmed and sunned by his genial humor … but there came a grumble on page 260 … like the ominous hush before the coming storm, and solemnly deep down, he begins, and gathering wrath and force and power he goes on building up grandly until with a terribly comprehensive reach, he crashes the universe in fragments, at our feet and commands us to look down—and we look, shuddering, into a godless chaos. I read this in bed on a Sunday morning … while the church bells were tolling…. I shall never lose that impression. And there, the beauty and tenderness of the man became invested all along with a new power and a deeper significance, until—well, I am richer and happier for having read your book.2
During a visit to Taliesin West in April 2017, I conferred with Margo Stipe, the curator of collections there, and I asked why no catalogue of Wright's library had been published. Among the reasons, she explained, was the fact that there is no single repository of Wright's books. Groups of books once belonging to him are now found in several places, including Taliesin in Wisconsin, Taliesin West in Arizona, the Avery Library in New York, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Research Center in Oak Park, Illinois. Other collections, such as the Olgivanna Lloyd Wright Library, must also contain books that belonged to Wright, although identifying them would be difficult. Moreover, many of Wright's books are not in any of these collections, having been dispersed or lost either before or after his death.
Since knowing about the books that Wright owned or read over the course of his life could be helpful for understanding his intellectual development and the influences on his thought and work, I took up the challenge of compiling as complete a catalogue of these books as possible. I then decided to broaden the project and attempt to reconstruct Wright's “library”—defined as the surviving books Wright owned and the lost books from his collection that can be identified, as well as works he is known to have read, even if he did not have his own copies. Margo Stipe helped me to begin this work by providing several existing book lists and other relevant information. In 2018 I returned to Taliesin West to examine and catalogue the books in several collections there, including the Frank Lloyd Wright Library, the Olgivanna Lloyd Wright Library, and a group of Hillside Home School books, which came into Wright's possession when he acquired the school's property in the 1910s.
Between my visits to Taliesin West, I went through all of Wright's writings, compiling his many references to authors and to books he had read, many of which are not represented in any of the collections of his surviving books. I also found evidence of Wright's readings in other sources, such as the writings of his apprentices and acquaintances. Wright's extensive correspondence with Lewis Mumford proved to be a particularly good source; in their letters over a roughly thirty-year period, Wright and Mumford made frequent references to books they had read or were reading, and often recommended works to each other.3 I also decided to include the library of Louis Sullivan in the project, since Wright probably had access to many of Sullivan's books when he worked in Sullivan's office from 1887 to 1893.
The total number of books held in the various collections is quite large. The Frank Lloyd Wright Library at Taliesin West contains about 170 works. The Olgivanna Lloyd Wright Library originally included about 1,400 books, although many of them no longer survive and are known only from a list compiled before they were lost (only some of these works are likely to have belonged to Wright). The surviving Hillside Home School books total about 120. Books at Taliesin in Wisconsin number roughly 2,000, though only about 200 of them probably belonged to Wright. The Frank Lloyd Wright Research Center in Oak Park has a small number of Wright's books, as well as a list of his mother's books, for a total of about 200 works. The number of Louis Sullivan's books that were probably available to Wright is about 270. Trying to determine which of these many books were actually owned by Wright or accessible to him is an ongoing challenge.
From the beginning of this project, I conferred with other Wright scholars, who provided encouragement as well as suggestions and advice. One question was whether the project should be presented in a traditional monograph or as an online database; the consensus was that it should be published online (at least at first) so that it would be widely available to the public and could be added to and corrected as more information was discovered. The next question was where to host the website. The Avery Library, which holds the bulk of the Wright archive, seemed an obvious location, but it turned out not to be feasible. In the meantime, I conferred with staff members at the Stanford University Library—in particular Vanessa Kam, head librarian of the Bowes Art and Architecture Library, and Glen Worthey, digital humanities librarian. They became enthusiastic about the project and eventually determined that Stanford could create an online database for it. After more than a year of work, we decided that the database was ready to be released to the public (for more on the website, see below).
A basic question is relevant to this project: To what degree can we rely on Wright's statements about the books he read? The issue of reliability is especially pertinent to several lengthy lists of authors and historical figures that Wright included in his own writings, such as one at the end of the revised second edition of his autobiography, published in 1943: “For the writing of this work I have … consulted and occasionally remembered Pythagoras, Aristophanes, Socrates, Heraclitus, Laotze, Buddha, Jesus, Tolstoy, Kropotkin, Bacon, William Blake, Samuel Butler, Mazzini, Walt Whitman, Henry George, Grundvig, George Meredith, Henry Thoreau, Herman Melville, George Borrow, Goethe, Carlyle, Nietzsche, Voltaire, Cervantes, Giacosa, Shelley, Shakespeare, Milton, Thorstein Veblen, Nehru, Major Douglas, and Silvio Gesell.”4 Brendan Gill, in his biography of Wright, describes this list as “wry bravado … thrown together to astonish and impress us.”5 The suspicion might be justified, given Wright's tendency toward self-aggrandizement and hyperbole; one does, no doubt, have to take his statements with a grain of salt. Wright may have said he had read an author or a book when in fact he had read only a few lines or he knew of the author's views only from other sources. But various kinds of evidence suggest that for the most part we can trust Wright's statements about his readings—including that expansive list in his autobiography. For example, one of Wright's apprentices, Priscilla Henken, who kept a diary of her life at Taliesin in 1942 (just as Wright was preparing the second edition of his autobiography), recorded one day that “Frank Lloyd Wright read from Nehru's Glimpses of World History at tea”; on another occasion she noted that he read from “Laotse” one evening.6 Even those on Wright's lists who were not authors, or whose works have not survived, such as Buddha and Pythagoras, often turn out to be the subjects of probable readings by Wright; there is evidence, for example, that his library contained a book titled Golden Verses of Pythagoras and another titled Buddha: His Life and Teachings.7
Another issue for this project has to do with signatures and annotations in books. Judging from the surviving evidence, Wright occasionally signed his name in his books until about 1910, when he was in his forties; from that time on, he seldom signed them. And it appears that he almost never annotated his books. In a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass that he acquired in 1948, Wright marked many passages, apparently to read in one of his talks to his apprentices. But there are few other examples of such annotation among the surviving books, and one can only speculate why. Wright clearly had strong opinions about and reactions to the books he read, as attested in his writings and correspondence. Perhaps he felt it was unnecessary to write in his books since he expressed his views on them in other places.
When Vanessa Kam and Glen Worthey proposed creating a Stanford website for my project, we needed first to identify the most appropriate platform or program for it. Ultimately we decided to use the Biblio module of the Drupal platform, and to put it on one of the Stanford Sites. For each collection of books I had compiled (Wright's books at Taliesin, Olgivanna Wright's books, Louis Sullivan's books, and so on), I entered the bibliographic data in Zotero files. Stanford Library academic technology specialist Marie Saldaña created the actual website, Frank Lloyd Wright's Library, using the Zotero files to construct online databases. I wrote several pieces for the site to help orient users; these included an account of the project itself, an essay on the importance of books to Wright, and descriptions of each of the book collections. A “How to Use This Site” section explains certain peculiarities of the website, such as the fact that the database actually brings together nine separate book collections; to understand Wright's relationship to a specific book, a user must take note of the collection the book is in. For example, the collection named “Wright's Books at Taliesin West” contains books known to have been his; the works in “Olgivanna Wright's Books” perhaps belonged to him; and those in “Anna Wright's Books” and “Louis Sullivan's Books” were no doubt accessible to him during certain periods in his life.8
Implications of the Data
One may wonder how the bibliographic information compiled in this project should be interpreted. What are its implications for our understanding of Wright's life and work? The website itself does not attempt to address this question, which could lead to speculation in many directions. In carrying out this project, I wanted to focus, at least at first, on compiling the information and making it available to the public. Nevertheless, I can make some suggestions about how the material might be interpreted.
One issue is simply what motivated Wright's passion for reading. To what extent did it stem from a quest for knowledge, or from a desire to confirm or justify his beliefs? Or did he read merely for amusement, or for other reasons? The types of books Wright favored also raise questions. Probably most remarkable is the fact that books on architecture and design constitute a smaller proportion of his readings than one would expect; such volumes are greatly outweighed by those on literary subjects. Out of the total of more than 1,200 books in the database, only about 160 fall into the subject category of architecture (and about 50 of these did not belong to Wright—they were in Sullivan's library), while roughly 500 books are in the categories of drama, essays, fiction, literature, and poetry.9 One could no doubt propose a number of explanations for Wright's apparent preference for literary works over books on architecture. One clue may be found in Wright's own writings. Describing his favorite authors and books, he wrote in a 1932 article, “Mine is a catholic taste, which probably means a hearty appetite, and I find much to admire in books that do not touch my own work. When I get to those, I find too much pretended or missing.”10
One could examine the writing styles of the authors Wright read—especially his favorite authors, who included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, William Blake, Mark Twain, and Victor Hugo. Which authors had the greatest impacts on his own mode of writing (and perhaps speaking)? And did such influences change over the course of Wright's life? Moreover, could the writing styles of Wright's favorite authors have shaped not only his own writings and speech but also more fundamental characteristics of the architect's thinking or his personality?
The books Wright read can also be examined, of course, for the possible influence of their content on his ideas and principles. To some extent scholars have investigated the impact on Wright of the works of authors such as Emerson, Whitman, Thomas Carlyle, Henry George, Lao-tzu, Henry David Thoreau, and Thorstein Veblen (as noted in the entries for these authors in the “Authors Read by Wright” section of the website). Other works that could be studied in fruitful ways might include those of Shakespeare, Goethe, Blake, John Ruskin, Owen Jones, and William Morris. To mention a specific case that would involve both content and writing style, one might examine Wright's fascination with the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. In his autobiography Wright quoted lines from Poe's “The Bells” and “The Raven,” which he said he remembered from his childhood, and in a passage comparing poetry and visual design, he proposed that Poe came close to merging the “abstract-pattern” of both art forms.11 Could the patterns and rhythms of language, such as those in Poe's poems, have reflected—or perhaps even helped to shape—the visual patterns in Wright's architecture and decorative designs?
In examining the data presented on this website, scholars may discover various new avenues of investigation. Frank Lloyd Wright's “omnivorous reading” is surely one of the most fascinating—and hitherto largely unexamined—aspects of his life and character.
Other Databases of Architects’ Libraries
When I decided to create a website for my reconstruction of Wright's library, I was unaware of similar undertakings—the production of the site was not based on any previous models. Only recently have I attempted to identify other relevant projects. Scholars have, of course, published nondigital studies of architects’ libraries. Probably most notable among these are the essays in the two volumes of American Architects and Their Books, edited by Kenneth Hafertepe and James F. O'Gorman.12 A European case is my own study of Le Corbusier's library, The Education of Le Corbusier.13 For Latin America there is a thesis on the library of Luis Barragán.14
Recently, the libraries of several architects have been catalogued digitally, although without having dedicated websites; the books in these libraries can usually be found only through searches within the respective institutions’ online catalogues. An example is the library of Charles Moore, preserved at the University of Texas at Austin and searchable in the university's library catalogue.15 An example of another kind of online resource concerned with an architect's books, one without a database, is “Unpacking Sir Robert Taylor's Library,” which describes the books owned by the eighteenth-century English architect that are preserved at the University of Oxford.16
The most extensive website with a database that is devoted, at least in part, to an architect's books is Thomas Jefferson's Libraries, a project begun in 2004 and still being developed. Based at Monticello, the site is described in its introduction as a “database of the books Jefferson owned, desired to own, knew about or recommended to others at different times in his life.” A section of the website on the scope of the project lists twenty-four book collections, early lists of Jefferson's books, and related material, as well as a dozen “works in progress” and “future additions” to the project.17 Of the thousands of books in the collections documented on the site, only about sixty are architectural works. The website deals with the library of a statesman and a scholar who just happened to be an amateur architect.
Although these other projects bear some similarities to mine, Frank Lloyd Wright's Library differs from them in that it is the only website and digital database devoted solely to the library of a professional architect—at least as far as I know. Perhaps it will suggest to historians the possibility of similar undertakings. In any case, I hope it will increase awareness of the importance of books to Frank Lloyd Wright.
I encourage users of the website to contact me regarding evidence for books that Wright possessed or mentioned that are not included in the database, and to report any other oversights or errors. My contact information is available on the site.
The website's URL:
Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography (London: Longmans, Green, 1932), 165.
Frank Lloyd Wright to Mrs. Sophia Austin Morris, 24 Dec. 1901; this letter was provided to me by Kathryn Smith. The English translation of Richter's German novel was titled Flower, Fruit, and Thorn Pieces […] (Boston: W. Osgood Smith, 1876); it was published under Richter's pen name, Jean Paul.
Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer and Robert Wojtowicz, eds., Frank Lloyd Wright and Lewis Mumford: Thirty Years of Correspondence (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001).
Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography, 2nd ed. (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1943), 561.
Brendan Gill, Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1987), 324.
Priscilla J. Henken, Taliesin Diary: A Year with Frank Lloyd Wright (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012), 72, 109.
These are two of the many books in Olgivanna Wright's library that probably belonged originally to her husband.
See Frank Lloyd Wright's Library, https://flwlibrary.sites.stanford.edu.
Determining these totals is complicated by the fact that some books in the database fall into more than one subject category.
Frank Lloyd Wright, “Books That Have Meant Most to Me,” Scholastic, 24 Sept. 1932, 11.
Wright, Autobiography, 1st ed., 48–49; Wright, Autobiography, 2nd ed., 442.
Kenneth Hafertepe and James F. O'Gorman, eds., American Architects and Their Books to 1848 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001); Kenneth Hafertepe and James F. O'Gorman, eds., American Architects and Their Books, 1840–1915 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007). The essays on Jefferson and Latrobe in these volumes were written by Richard Guy Wilson and Jeffrey A. Cohen, respectively; Elaine Harrington contributed an essay on Wright's library.
Paul V. Turner, The Education of Le Corbusier (New York: Garland, 1977).
Fernando Curiel Gámez, “La biblioteca de Luis Barragán: 1925–1980” (PhD thesis, Universidad de Navarra, 2012).
Information on the Charles W. Moore Library can be found on the University of Texas Libraries website at https://www.lib.utexas.edu/find-borrow-request/collections/charles-w-moore-library.
Clare Hills-Nova, “Unpacking Sir Robert Taylor's Library,” 19 Dec. 2014, Taylor Institution Library: A Bodleian Libraries Weblog, http://blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/taylorian/2014/12/19/unpacking-sir-robert-taylors-library (accessed 30 Sept. 2020).
Thomas Jefferson's Libraries, http://tjlibraries.monticello.org.