Why did Frank Lloyd Wright keep the drawings he planned to forget?

In the book Frank Lloyd Wright’s Forgotten House, I write of Wright’s plans to “clean up all traces” (his words) of his agreement to collaborate on American System-Built Houses and his enlistment of legal council to assist in the erasure. Wright’s dramatic decision – both swift and encompassing – was highly effective. In the century since Wright sued his partner, cancelled the contract, and covered his tracks, historians have been forced by lack of resources to study around the project, despite stacks of drawings in the archives. For decades, the massive project was barely mentioned in the literature.

So why do the ASBH drawings exist at all? Wright didn’t plan to re-use or show them. Was his decision to store almost 1000 images based on attachment (nostalgia or pride), or something more practical?

I believe that there is a simple answer hiding in legal weeds.

On the 1st of September in 1917, the Dane County (Wisconsin) Circuit Court ordered that the Richards Company (and all connected with it) should “desist and refrain from using, selling or disposing of any plans, drawings, perspectives, specifications or any details of houses prepared by Frank Lloyd Wright” (or by associates under Wright’s direction like Russell Williamson), while the court considered Wright’s lawsuit and Richard’s counter-suit over business disagreements. Then, on February 25, 1918, the court found in Wright’s favor and ordered that the defendants (Richards and his associates) “do forthwith deliver to the plaintiff all original sketches, designs, plans,” etc, and that Wright was to sole owner of the American System-Built Home designs and the “Standardized System” to make them, and that Richards must not deal in them in any way in the future.

I propose that we have the ASBH drawings (or most of them anyway) because Richards had been ordered by a Judge to return them. When he did, Wright stashed away the returned images and specifications as possible future evidence, should Richards be seen attempting to work around the court order. This suggests that there may have been other architectural masterpieces lost or copied that will forever remain forgotten.

Used by permission: “One of Row of Houses” (the Model B-1 that would be built on the Burnham Block) noted by Russell Williamson. American System-Built (Ready-Cut) houses for The Richards Company, Elevation, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, 1506.076.

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