Scandal on the skyline

Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright wasn't too impressed with industrial,
mass-production Akron during 1945 visit

By Mark J. Price

Beacon Journal staff writer

Frank Lloyd Wright's visit to Akron didn't go as planned.

The famous architect got a rude reception -- unintentional, we assume --
when he arrived in town for a public lecture Oct. 10, 1945. He repaid
the city with a candid assessment of its shortcomings and a startling
admission of his displeasure.

``Akron's awful,'' he told the crowd. ``I won't return.''

Things began to go awry the minute the 78-year-old visionary stepped off
the 7:11 a.m. train into the sulfur haze of the Rubber City. Wright's
first impression of Akron was Union Depot, a soot-crusted building in
the gully at East Market and College streets.

The 1891 depot, a source of public ridicule for decades, was dirty,
crowded and hopelessly outdated.

It seemed to represent all the things he disliked about industrial cities.

A hot bath might have helped wash away the Wisconsin traveler's
discomfort, but when Wright arrived at the Mayflower Hotel, he made an
unhappy discovery. He didn't have a room.

The Women's Art League, sponsor of Wright's lecture at the Akron Jewish
Center, had reserved a suite several months in advance and reminded the
hotel staff on at least three occasions that the distinguished architect
would be staying there.

Somehow the message didn't get through. Every suite in the 450-room
hotel was taken.

Charles Val Clear, executive director of the Akron Art Institute, argued
with Mayflower desk clerks while Wright went for breakfast in the
hotel's coffee shop.

The clerks wouldn't budge. It didn't matter that Wright was
internationally renowned. There was no room at the inn.

An embarrassed Clear escorted Wright to the Akron Hotel, a
less-prestigious building at East Market and Broadway. All 160 rooms
were full there, too. A convention was under way.

Hotel manager Vera Henderson took pity, though, and offered Wright the
use of her private quarters until other accommodations could be arranged.

With the chaotic morning at an end, the architect spent the afternoon on
a tour of the city.

Downtown Akron was a blur of automobiles, buses and pedestrians. Wright
rode past department stores, movie theaters, government buildings,
banks, restaurants, shops. He traveled out to the rubber plants and took
note of the sprawling complexes. He passed through old neighborhoods and
new neighborhoods.

Most anyone living in Akron at that time would have sworn it was a
vibrant city with an impressive skyline.

Wright's public lecture was heavily promoted and greatly anticipated.
The Akron Art Institute and Akron Public Library had joined forces on a
book display and photo exhibit of his design genius.

Residents were eager to hear anecdotes about Wright's organic style of
architecture and some of his best known buildings, including Taliesin in
Wisconsin, Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and the Imperial Hotel in


On the night of the speech, the Akron Jewish Center auditorium was
packed. The white-haired Wright, an imposing figure, was impeccably
dressed for the occasion.

Beacon Journal reporter William V. Wallace described the guest lecturer
as ``a lover of truth'' who spoke ``with the fervor of a minister of the

Wright, who once said he preferred ``honest arrogance'' over
``hypocritical humility,'' launched a verbal assault on industrial
cities in general and Akron in particular.

Akron's industrial power was amazing, Wright conceded.

``But I've been driving over your city and I can't see that you have
much,'' he said.

He saw little vision in Akron's buildings: Too many structures,
especially homes, were being mass-produced. The cookie-cutter approach
had taken over.

It would be better to move out to the countryside with a fresh idea and
start anew, he said, ``and we'll tear down all the rotten spots where
people live now and plant grass.''

With uncanny prescience, Wright envisioned the rise of suburbs and
decline of cities.

``The American not only likes to ride to work, but he wants to do it in
a car of his own,'' he said. ``He will not live on a street of houses of
deadly uniformity.''

A hot topic in Akron in the 1940s was a proposal to build a civic
center. The idea had been batted around for years but wasn't going anywhere.

Wright suggested it wasn't worth the effort.

``It probably will be mediocre and a monstrosity because it will be
dedicated by a committee and a committee never achieved anything
original,'' Wright said.

Just the same, he wouldn't be there to see the building.

He told the audience that he thought Akron was awful. He said he'd never
come back.

Yes, Wright was singling out Akron, but if it's any consolation, he felt
the same way about all industrial cities. He preferred the rolling hills
of the country to the rising smoke of the city.

News coverage doesn't mention the crowd's reaction upon the speech's
conclusion -- whether there was stunned silence, polite applause or loud

However, the speech created an uproar that continued for the better part
of a month.

``The city Frank Lloyd Wright wants is good, but it will take several
generations to achieve it,'' Akron City Planning Director Leonard B.
Hiebel told a reporter in 1945. ``The talk was deliberately provocative,
and was designed to stir up local thinking. It did that. It made a good
many people angry. But in the long range that may be a good thing.''

The debate raged in the pages of the Beacon Journal. In a letter to the
editor, Frank O. Enright criticized the architect as a malcontent who
lacked civility.

``Frank Lloyd Wright clearly is suffering from an inferiority complex
and has to compensate in some manner,'' Enright wrote. ``This `lover of
truth' is in demand to make speeches because he has revolutionary ideas
and makes no pretext to hide his contempt for those who disagree. People
should quit listening to men like Mr. Wright.''

However, reader Virginia Perkins Spaulding said she wanted to stand up
and cheer for Wright's dream of a better life.

``It's the lethargic people who hold back progress,'' she wrote. ``They
not only cannot see how ailments can be cured; they refuse to admit that
they exist at all.''

Wright kept his promise to Akron. He never did return.

The closest he got was designing three homes in Canton and another in

In all, he designed more than 700 buildings around the globe, including
the Guggenheim Museum in New York. His radical techniques and daring
concepts were a major influence on the world of architecture.

Frank Lloyd Wright was 91 when he died April 9, 1959.

Akron is a much different place than the city he visited in the 1940s.
Many industries pulled out, many businesses closed, many buildings bit
the dust.

But new landmarks dot the skyline, too, and the city is enjoying a comeback.

We've even planted grass on some of the lots.

Well, Mr. Wright, how do you like us now?