Friday, December 23, 2011

Living History and Romance

The Dana-Thomas House as drawn by Marion Mahony
I haven't posted in a long time, but never fear, I'm still alive and kicking. Busyness and decreasing energy have combined to put me on the couch most afternoons, taking a refreshing nap. But I have acquired a cleaning lady (yessss!) and lost a writing client (hard to let go of that) so I now have more energy to do the things I truly enjoy, not the least of which is supporting Springfield's hidden treasure, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Dana-Thomas House.

Mahony and Kitty Wright
I had to give up leading tours of the house several years ago when my tour groups began worrying that I might fall down the stairs on top of them (and there are lots of stairs in that house). Even though I continued to edit the volunteer newsletter, I missed being inside the lovely, unusual home.

Moonchildren Fountain decorated for the holidays
Now, thanks to a trend at historic sites that allows a visitor to experience what living in the place must have been like, I have a chance to get back in the house. On the house's first "Living History" day, Saturday, December 10, I sat next to the Moonchildren Fountain and portrayed Marion Mahony, a woman architect who helped design the fountain and created many presentation drawings for Wright. Born in 1871 to progressive parents, Mahony was forward-thinking herself, earning a degree from MIT (then called Boston Tech) in 1894 and joining Wright in his studio the following year. In the 18 years she worked for Wright, Mahony contributed greatly to his thinking and became an integral part of his studio, growing close to his first wife Kitty.

Walter Burley Griffin
But wait, the plot thickens! In 1901, handsome young architect Walter Burley Griffin joined Wright's studio and Mahony, a plain woman five years his senior, fell madly in love with him. Griffin's biggest fan and stalwart supporter, Mahony left Wright's studio after Wright absconded to Europe with Mamah Cheney.  She joined forces with Griffin and they collaborated on a number of projects including the Rock Crest Rock Glen in Mason City, Iowa, seen as their most dramatic American design development. The couple married in 1911, at the same time submitting the winning design for the Australian planned city and capital, Canberra.  Mahony became an outspoken critic of the flamboyant Wright, deriding him at every opportunity (not that he let it bother him).  The Griffins had no children and Mahony returned to the US when Griffin died in 1937.

Susan Dana and friends at the first "Living History" event
To have the opportunity to portray this talented and complex woman and get back inside the house is a wonderful Christmas gift! Visitors seem to enjoy talking with costumed characters representing Susan Lawrence Dana, Governor and Mrs. Charles Deneen, Forence Lawrence and Richard (Dickie) Boch, among others. Traditional tours will remain the mainstay at the newly reopened house, but "living history" tours will be offered on the second Saturday of each month. I love this new way to make history come alive!