November 25, 2014

Homage or Prototype? The Untold Influence of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Apprentice

Most people know of Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous and influential American architect. Wes Peters (1912-1991), his right-hand man? Not so much.

Wright’s first Taliesin apprentice in 1932, Peters took a two-year break from the architect and returned to his hometown of Evansville, Indiana, from mid-1933 to 1935. Love caused the flight: Peters fell in love with Wright’s stepdaughter Svetlana, then a teenager, and her parents mightily disapproved.

Two years later, the Wrights relented. Peters and Svetlana married and returned to Taliesin, where Peters remained for the rest of his life, becoming chief architect after the master’s death in 1959 and retaining the title until his own death in 1991.

photo by: Indiana Landmarks

This 1935 photo shows Wright’s influence in the design of Peters-Margedant House by William Wesley (Wes) Peters.

Though he would never claim credit as first, the humble apprentice designed the Usonian-style Peters-Margedant House in Evansville in 1935, two years before Frank Lloyd Wright’s first Usonian appeared in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1937. The Evansville house shows that Peters internalized Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy of organic architecture and his thoughts on creating affordable homes. Art historian Richard Guy Wilson believes the tiny house possesses national significance.

photo by: Indiana Landmarks

Evansville supporters of the Peters-Margedant House got their hands dirty at a November 2014 clean up to remove overgrowth, vines, and non-original fences on the site.

Wright had conceived his Usonian houses in the depths of the Depression as an affordable option for the middle-class. They bore a resemblance to his Prairie-style houses in their horizontality, use of natural materials, and relationship to the land, but Usonians were one-story, with neither attic nor basement, and with little in the way of ornamentation.

The Peters-Margedant House -- a modest, miniature Usonian at just 552 square feet -- uses horizontal board-and-batten siding, a flat roof with deep overhangs, clerestory windows, and a central fireplace. However, the house sits on a narrow urban lot, dwarfed by its 1920s bungalow neighbors.

Compare it to Wright’s Jacobs House in Madison, which, at 1,500 square feet, also features brick and horizontal board-and-batten wood siding, a flat roof with deep overhangs, narrow clerestory windows, and a central fireplace that formed a focal point in the integrated living, dining, and kitchen areas. In addition, it is constructed on a concrete slab with prefabricated sandwiched plywood walls and a wall of window doors that open onto the garden and patio. This house is a National Historic Landmark.

Yet the Peters-Margedant house, arguably this landmark’s influence, was in danger of being removed from Evansville and landed on Indiana Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered list in May 2014. An ad hoc local group rallied and appealed to the city and the University of Evansville, where Peters was a student for two years before heading to MIT and Taliesin. Indiana Landmarks, with help from the city and the Vanderburgh Community Foundation, bought the Peters-Margedant House, and is raising money to move and restore it on the campus of the university where it will be accessible to the public.

photo by: Indiana Landmarks

With the exception of a two-year return to Evansville in the early 1930s, William Wesley Peters functioned as one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s right-hand men until the famous architect’s death in 1959.

photo by: Indiana Landmarks

The tiny house, set far back on its narrow urban lot between 1920s bungalows, was threatened with removal to another county.

To Wilson, the house at 1506 East Indiana Street offers insight into Wright’s innovative attempt in the Usonian house to provide affordable modern dwellings. While the spotlight legitimately always shone on Wright, Wilson observed that Wes Peters’ early design of the Evansville house illuminates how Wright’s work involved collaboration with Peters, who served as structural engineer and project architect on many world-famous Wright-designed buildings, including Fallingwater, Johnson Wax, and the Guggenheim.

Wes Peters’ son Brandoch, raised by his father and maternal grandparents, the Wrights, after his mother’s early death, feels his father never got his due as an architect because he willingly placed himself in Frank Lloyd Wright’s shadow. With the preservation of the early Usonian Evansville house and an upcoming biography of Wes Peters by William Scott, perhaps the world will soon know more about the man who ensured the structural soundness of so many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs.

By: Tina Connor, Executive Vice President, Indiana Landmarks

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