Art Exhibitions Library/Archives

The ‘American Engineer’, My ‘Big Chief’… Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography.  Frank Lloyd Wright.  London: Longman’s, Green and Co., 1932.
Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography. Frank Lloyd Wright. London: Longman’s, Green and Co., 1932.

As we approach the opening of Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century (February 12–May 15, 2011) this is the perfect opportunity to highlight one of the library’s most interesting volumes:  a first edition of Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography (1932).

Written with wit and charm, Frank Lloyd Wright’s (1867–1959) An Autobiography is an account of the master architect’s philosophy and work, as well as the story of his personal life, turmoil and all.  From his youth in rural Wisconsin to his apprenticeship with Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan in Chicago (where Wright found inspiration for his signature style), through to the tragic fire and murders at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography tells the tale of a man that was truly larger than life.

This particular volume of An Autobiography, however, alludes to a personal tale with an inscription from Wright among its opening pages:

To Joan … granddaughter of the ‘American Engineer’ my ‘Big Chief’ …Frank Lloyd Wright

“Joan” is Joan Saltzstein, a longtime patron of the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the granddaughter of Dankmar Adler (1844–1900)—referenced here by Wright as his “Big Chief”—of the architectural firm Adler and Sullivan.  During his formative years with Adler and Sullivan, Wright found his major influence in Adler, whose “form follows function” philosophy became the inspiration for Wright’s designs.   Wright was employed with Adler and Sullivan from 1888-1893, and was eventually fired by Adler in 1893 for accepting too many independent commissions—and yet, they remained close friends, with Adler a frequent visitor to Taliesin.

Mrs. Saltzstein donated a number of materials to the Museum library related to Wright, including two family videos recently rediscovered in the Museum’s archives.  The videos present various vignettes of daily life at Taliesin, including Wright swimming in the local pond, carrying watermelon at the races and a group picnic in the prairie.  Not viewed since their creation in the 1930s and 1940s, the videos will be on view in the exhibition.

The beautiful and boldly designed An Autobiography is divided into five sections devoted to family, fellowship, work, freedom, and form and includes 65 photographs from Wright’s personal and professional life.

Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography.  Frank Lloyd Wright.  London: Longman’s, Green and Co., 1932.
Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography. Frank Lloyd Wright. London: Longman’s, Green and Co., 1932.

Finally, the book will be on display during the Museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition just outside of the library entrance in the stairwell of the Main Galleries (past the Nardo di Cione). We’ll let you know when it’s on view!

Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography.  Frank Lloyd Wright.  London: Longman’s, Green and Co., 1932.

Heather Winter manages and oversees the Museum’s George Peckham Miller Art Research Library, the institutional archives and the rare books collection.

2 replies on “The ‘American Engineer’, My ‘Big Chief’… Frank Lloyd Wright”

Heather, I have a first addition copy of this book signed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is also signed to someone perhaps you would know the name. I can not quite make it out but if you recognized it you may be able to read it. I could email you a snapshot of it. Let me know if you have any interest.
Sheila Averill

Dear Sheila,

That’s wonderful! We’d be pleased to view a snapshot of the signatures. Feel free to forward the image to my attention at

Thank you for your inquiry,
With best wishes,

Heather L. Winter

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