The following article is paraphrased from a paper prepared for The Contemporary Club of Chicago, delivered by John K. Notz, Jr., April 26, 2002.
Appeared in the Gazette, Summer 2004
Updated July 2022
Hometown Hall of Famer: Marion Mahony Griffin
Marion Mahony Griffin was born in early 1871 in Chicago, where her father (a Chicago school principal), mother and elder brother lived in the path of the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871. Marion’s family was driven by that fire to live in “Lakeside,” the northerly portion of Winnetka that has come to be known as Hubbard Woods. In her memoir, The Magic of America, Marion wrote lyrically of her childhood home and its surroundings. She, her four siblings and her older cousin, Dwight Perkins, who became a renowned architect, were free to explore widely—to the lake, some one half mile to the East, and into the Skokie Marsh, some one and one-half miles to the West. Perkins and his widowed mother lived above the Lakeside railroad station, no more than a couple of hundred feet from the Mahony family’s house. Throughout his childhood, Dwight Perkins was treated as if he were another brother within the Mahony family.
In 1881, “the Great Mahony Residence Fire” destroyed the Mahonys’ Lakeside home, and the Mahonys and Perkins returned to Chicago. In 1883, Marion’s father died of an overdose of laudanum, an opium/alcohol drink that was a popular medication of the time. By 1882, Marion’s mother had become a teacher, and by 1886, the principal of Chicago’s Longfellow Public School. During the 1880s, the Mahony family spent the summer vacation months in various speculative houses under construction in Lakeside/Hubbard Woods
During her high school years, through her mother’s friendship with the widowed Mrs. Henry Wilmarth, Marion met Anna Wilmarth, who became the second wife of Harold Ickes, the controversial Secretary of the Interior to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. (The Ickes had had Dwight Perkins design their extant, lovely Hubbard Woods home.) Mrs. Wilmarth had financed Marion’s education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1890-1894.
When Marion graduated from MIT, she was only the second woman so to do. Immediately upon her graduation, she returned to Chicago and joined Dwight Perkins’ office. Because Illinois was the first state to license architects, when Marion obtained her license to practice architecture in Illinois, she became the first woman to be licensed as an architect anywhere.
As the Depression of the 1890s reduced the business in Perkins’ office, he could not continue Marion’s employment. She freelanced for Prairie School architects, including for Frank Lloyd Wright in his Chicago office, joining his Oak Park “Studio” in 1895, once it was operational. She soon became his chief draftsman and architectural renderer.
In 1901, Marion’s future husband, Walter Burley Griffin, joined Wright’s Oak Park Studio. Burley Griffin became the Manager of Wright’s Studio, holding that role while Wright made his first trip to Japan. On Wright’s return, Burley Griffin resigned and started his own architectural design and planning office. Marion continued with Wright until Wright’s famous trip to Europe, to meet Mrs. Cheney. Having seen how poorly Wright had treated Burley Griffin she declined to assume any of Wright’s practice. She offered her professional services to Burley Griffin; together,they were successful, and they married in 1911.
There are many Griffin designs in Chicago’s suburbs, including the platting of the Trier Center subdivision to the West of New Trier High School (in which they planned to have their own home), several individual nearby homes towards Kenilworth, and an unplatted subdivision for what became the Fuller Lane area. They abandoned development of that area in favor of participating in the execution of their award-winning plans for Australia’s new capitol city, Canberra. They moved to Australia in 1914.
World War I halted the construction of Canberra “for the duration” and more. In the early 1930s, the Griffins had their differences, and Marion returned to her home on Chicago’s North Side for almost two years. They reconciled before Burley Griffin obtained his commission to design a university in Lucknow, India. Burley Griffin left Australia for India, and Marion soon followed. Only a few months later, Burley Griffin, suffering from the after-effects of a construction-related injury, died of peritonitis.
After her husband’s death, Marion closed up their Indian and Australian affairs and returned to her family’s Chicago home in 1938. As this was during the Great Depression and on the eve of World War II, she was unable to obtain employment as an architect. She turned to assembling her memoir, The Magic of America. Marion arranged for the delivery of several drawings to the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University and to the Avery Cultural and Fine Arts Library of Columbia University in New York City. She delivered a copy of Magic and some memorabilia to the New York Historical Society and the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries of The Art Institute of Chicago.
In time, Marion lapsed into senility or Alzheimer’s disease. She died a pauper’s death in Cook County Hospital. After cremation, her remains were interred in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery with no marker.
A chance conversation by John K. Notz with an expert on the Griffins, Paul Kruty of The University of Illinois at Urbana, created an opportunity to rectify this omission, by the internment of Marion’s remains in the cemetery’s then-new columbarium and the creation and installation of a suitable memorial plaque. A memorial celebration was set at a time when Notz had to be away; however, he relates:
“On my return, I had a good many calls waiting for me. There had been a great many more people present than we anticipated; every female architect in the greater Chicago area must have been there; the floral arrangements from Australia were astonishing. We had had no idea how much interest there is in this woman!”
The small memorial plaque for Marion is a regular stop for all tours of Graceland Cemetery sponsored by the Chicago Architectural Foundation, and public awareness of Marion’s reputation is continuing to spread.