In last month’s post I wrote about my husband, Bill Haney, who had just celebrated his 90th birthday. I told the story of how we met at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California when I was beginning a doctoral program in Theology and the Arts, and Bill was beginning a Master of Divinity program at Thomas Starr King School for the Ministry. This was a career change for Bill, whose first love had been architecture. He pursued that career passionately from the time he was a boy and first learned about architects and what they did. Below is his story of that discovery, a story I love. It is “the tale of an aspiring youngster meeting an awe-inspiring genius.”
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“When I was a child I loved to draw. In Jr. High School I found enjoyment in mechanical drafting, and learned that this is what architects did – so, I wanted to be one. My high school drafting labs consisted of copying house floor plans to scale from the teacher’s collection of magazine cuts. In the meantime a real estate friend of my parents gave me back issues of the Architectural Forum magazine. Each issue was read thoroughly continuing my aspiration toward the art and profession. Then during the summer before my senior year a treasure came into my hands. It was the January, 1948, edition of the Forum, the entire issue featuring the recent works of Frank Lloyd Wright. This was my first encounter with his designs and it was an epiphany!
Astonished and inspired by Wright’s works, I wanted to become an apprentice in the Taliesin Fellowship, the school he established. There was also the prospect of attending the School of Architecture at Oklahoma University – but that is another tale. In a quandary, I met with Iva Childs, my former Senior Studies teacher to talk about what to do. She said simply to write to Wright. The worst thing that could happen would be his lack of response. I did and he did – not respond – but his secretary did. An invitation to see the great architect!
I arrived by bus in Phoenix from Los Angeles a month later and took a taxi to Taliesin West, which was then in the middle of the desert. I was met by Masselink at the Entrance Court saying Mr. Wright was in but with a client. He offered to show me around the campsite – the drafting room, kitchen and dining area and into the Garden Room, the private quarters of Mr. and Mrs. Wright. The complex had a nomadic aspect to it, which accorded with Wright’s pattern of spending spring through fall at Taliesin in Wisconsin and the winters at Taliesin West. The building was indescribably “alive” with canvas stretched between rough-sawn wood members, responding to the desert wind and these diaphanous forms anchored to the desert floor by concrete walls embedded with local stones. I was as excited by the camp compound as I was in anticipating meeting Wright.
I was found by Masselink at the pergola behind the drafting room and he escorted me to the office cabana, opening the canvas flap “door.” Suddenly I was terrified! I walked in, and there stood Frank Lloyd Wright behind his long, low drafting table. My first impression—he wasn’t tall enough! I imaged he should be a giant. He warmly welcomed me and motioned to sit down opposite the table. In a gentle, kindly manner he talked about life in the Fellowship, noting there was a long waiting list. I told him I enlisted in the Naval Reserves Construction Battalion, the “Sea Bees,” for construction experience. He quipped as a pacifist with “The rams herding the sheep into the coral,” referring to the Korean War. I also told him of my interest in attending the School of Architecture at Oklahoma University. He responded by referring to the Chairperson of the School, Bruce Goff with, “Well, Bruce is young yet.” I did not know at the time what that meant, something of a mystery. I later found it meant Goff had not yet become a true disciple, was not exactly following Wright’s architectural philosophy, was following his own, independent path.
My time with Wright was about 20 minutes, and I felt at ease with him. The encounter was both inspiring and disappointing. The disappointment was the long waiting list to enter the Fellowship. The inspiration was his gentle and caring manner willing to spend time with a kid just out of High School. Wright was willing to be present for me. Here was at that time the world’s greatest architect willing to simply spend some unannounced time with a novice. He presented to me a model of one-on-one encounter without condescension or superiority. I have since in my studies seen his flaws, but I have also encountered clients of his who found his underlying warmth and engagement to be a vital part of his persona. I was privileged to witness that feature of him. It has stayed with me ever since.
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Bill did go on to study with Bruce Goff at Oklahoma University, a profoundly important time in Bill’s life. And though he came to feel that Goff ‘s work surpassed that of Frank Lloyd Wright, Wright and his work remained deeply important in Bill’s life. Our library contains probably every book written by or about Wright. We have visited and toured perhaps most of Wright’s buildings. Bill has led Wright tours, given presentations on Wright and his work. In his own way Bill has been as much a student of Frank Lloyd Wright as he was of Bruce Goff.
Bill finally retired on his eightieth birthday. He was a practicing architect for more than twenty-five years, licensed in five states, and retiring with the status of Emeritus by the Board of Examiners of the State of Oklahoma. Those twenty-five years were followed by twenty-three years as a Unitarian Universalist minister. He is now Minister Emeritus of the UU Church of Columbia, Missouri. He has had two, long, busy careers, working full time through his seventies. Frank Lloyd Wright remained an active architect into his early nineties, practically up until his death just before his ninety-second birthday, in April 1959. This was Bill’s model for aging, to work up until death. He is retired from both ministry and the practice of architecture, but he still works at his desk, he is still active and engaged.
©Loretta Willems, September 1, 2022