Mahony, Marion (1871–1961)

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Mahony, Marion (1871–1961)

American architect, the first woman licensed to practice architecture in Illinois, who contributed to Frank Lloyd Wright's "Prairie School" of architecture . Name variations: Marion Mahony Griffin; Marion Lucy Griffin. Born Marion Lucy Mahony on February 14, 1871, in Chicago, Illinois; died on August 10, 1961, in Chicago; daughter of Jeremiah Mahony (a schoolteacher and journalist) and Clara (Perkins) Mahony (a principal); Massachusetts Institute of Technology, degree in architecture, 1894; married Walter Burley Griffin (an architect), in 1911 (died 1937); no children.

Born on February 14, 1871, and raised in Chicago, Marion Lucy Mahony was the first daughter of Jeremiah Mahony, an Irish immigrant who worked variously as a journalist, teacher, and school principal, and Clara Perkins Mahony , a former teacher from a long-established New England family. Her father died when she was 11, and her mother went to work as a school principal while raising Marion and her four siblings. After graduating from Chicago public schools, Mahony received financial assistance from prominent Chicago citizen Mary Wilmarth in 1890, which enabled her to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's architecture course. She was only the second woman to receive a degree from the program when she graduated in 1894.

Mahony then worked briefly with her cousin, Dwight Perkins, in his Chicago architectural studio. She became the first woman licensed to practice architecture in Illinois in 1896, and began working with Frank Lloyd Wright in his Oak Park studio. Wright became famous for developing the precedent-setting "Prairie School" of architecture, so named because its use of sleek, low lines and jutting horizontal eaves resembled the flat prairie landscape. Initially paid $15 per week, Mahony did not complain when her salary was soon lowered to $10 per week, and made fundamental contributions to the designs produced in the Oak Park studio. Although she designed some of the interior objects included in Wright's housing designs, such as furniture and mosaic fireplaces, historians of architecture tend to agree that one of her greatest skills, during her time with Wright and later, was as a delineator (or artist) of architectural plans. These include landscape murals showing carefully drawn trees with detailed foliage—works which are clearly marked by her style. Her most important contribution to Wright's work is considered to be the drawings of his designs that she executed for the Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwurfe von Frank Lloyd Wright (also called the Wasmuth Portfolio), published in 1910, which brought Wright his first significant international recognition.

In 1909, when Wright made a sudden decision to depart for Europe, he asked Mahony to take over the direction of the studio. Her considerable accomplishments notwithstanding, Mahony preferred all her life to defer to the men she worked with (indeed, she seems to have been quite vehement in proclaiming her own inferiority of talent compared to theirs), and she refused his request, proposing her colleague at the studio, H.V. von Holst, instead. Von Holst agreed only on the condition that Mahony remain as the designer for the studio, which at the time of Wright's departure had a number of unfinished commissions. During Wright's absence, Mahony designed the David Amberg House in Grand Rapids, Michigan (1909–1911, the sole credit for which von Holst claimed in writing has been disproved); the Adolph Mueller House in Decatur, Illinois (1910); and a designed but unexecuted house for Henry Ford. Upon his return, Wright falsely accused her of stealing his clients. This caused a permanent rift between them, and she promptly left the studio.

In 1911, Mahony married Walter Burley Griffin, a colleague from the Oak Park studio. While she continued to be active professionally, she claimed she could never be as great an architect as Griffin, although most historians agree that the beauty of her drawings and the perfection of her delineation enhanced his work. Their professional partnership seems to have been a complete one in practice if not in name, and her work was a major factor in his winning a commission to design Canberra, the new capital city of Australia, in 1912. They moved to Australia in 1914, and for the next two decades lived and worked in Sydney and Melbourne. During this time, Mahony adopted her husband's interest in horticulture, which led to her design of Castlecrag, a self-contained community on the banks of Sydney Harbor. Through this admiration for natural beauty, she developed a belief in anthroposophy, a "mystical philosophy" derived from the theosophy of Madame Helena Blavatsky .

In October 1935, Griffin moved his practice to Lucknow, India, where Mahony joined him eight months later. He died in 1937. Mahony remained to complete his projects, and later returned to Chicago where she established her own practice and remained active for another 20 years. Chair of the Campaign for World Government and a member of the World Fellowship Society, she was commissioned by Lola Maverick Lloyd (a co-founder of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom) to design the World Fellowship Center in Conway, New Hampshire, in 1942. In 1943, she received a commission to design the town of Hill Crystals near Bolene, Texas. Neither project came to fruition, but her designs for the projects remained true to her appreciation for nature and the environment. Before her death in Chicago on August 10, 1961, Mahony also wrote her memoirs. Still unpublished, Magic of America is both autobiographical and philosophical in nature; biographical material about her husband is also included in the manuscript, which is retained in the Burnham Library of the Art Institute of Chicago and at the New York Historical Society.

A number of important details in Frank Lloyd Wright's designs, although traditionally assumed to be his, are now understood to have come from various co-workers, including Mahony, and the difficult task of assigning credit has not been finished. Many believe that Mahony did not receive full credit for her later work because of her staunch defense of her husband and her stated beliefs that he was the true genius. Yet her designs that survive reflect a high order of professional skills, and her architectural drawings, replete with detailed landscape renderings, are proof of a skilled perfectionist.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

Johnson, Donald Leslie, and Donald Langmead. Makers of 20th Century Modern Architecture. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green. Notable American Women: The Modern Period: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Torre, Susan, ed. Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective. Whitney Library of Design, 1977.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland