Following his extremely productive and celebrated Prairie House period from the turn of the century to the outbreak of World War I, Wright spent six years on and off in Japan designing and building the Imperial Hotel and worked on only one significant structure stateside – the Hollyhock House for oil heiress Aline Bardsdall in Los Angeles. The war, coupled with the lack of domestic production, conspired to push Wright into near obscurity by the mid-1920s. Out of the mainstream at his Taliesin studio and beset by domestic troubles and divorce complications, Wright’s career, arguably, was rescued with the arrival of the Graycliff commission from his old friends and benefactors, the Martins. The long association of the Martin family with Wright plays out as a story with some essential American themes.
Given Wright’s tumultuous life in 1926-27, it is a wonder that the organic design for the houses at Graycliff was ever produced at all. Running from creditors, having Taliesin foreclosed upon by the bank, finalizing a divorce from his second wife, wintering with partner and wife-to-be Olgivanna in Puerto Rico and California, and going on the lam with her and the children to Minnesota and being arrested for violation of the Mann Act, all contributed to a chaotic and inconsistent oversight of the design and building of Graycliff between October, 1926 and the opening of the house in July, 1928.
In Gill’s 1987 Many Masks biography of Wright, the house at Graycliff is described as “oddly conventional” and “…proved a joyless experience for everyone concerned, not only because of the Martin’s incessant revisions… but also because Wright was unable to supervise the construction.” (p. 320). There is, however, more recently emerging revisionist thinking about the importance of Graycliff, key elements of which include:
- The structures at Graycliff represented a refinement of his organic architecture ideas where the house and the land upon which it sits are seen as one.
- The gardens at Graycliff represent a refinement of Asian principles imported from Japan and a rejection of the more formal European gardens.
- Graycliff realized on a smaller scale the ideas first presented in the 1907 design of the McCormick House wherein the house was presented as a frame, the lower story of which was transparent for the through view of the lake.
As summarized by Kathryn Smith in her cultural landscape essay for Graycliff:
“Graycliff’s importance no longer rests on the notable fact that it is one of the few realized commissions during the architect’s period of 1922-1932 and that it was designed for one of his most favored and important clients. Rather, there is now abundant evidence that it was far more than that. Graycliff is a link between one of the most important unbuilt designs of the prairie period, the McCormick House, and very mature designs of his later career such as the Ralph Jester House and the Mrs. Clinton Walker House. It represents the development of some of his most seminal ideas on architecture and landscape which is very central to how unique Wright was and what made him different from his contemporaries….”