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  • Frank Lloyd Wright in the Kitchen
  • Elizabeth Collins Cromley (bio)

In my 1996 essay entitled, "Transforming the Food Axis: Houses, Tools, Modes of Analysis," I introduced the concept of the "food axis," by which I mean the spaces in a dwelling used for food collectively—a constellation that incorporates indoor and outdoor spaces for storing, preserving, and cooking food, and the serving of meals.1 That project resulted in a 2010 book that offered a much-expanded discussion of the concept. In the book I sketched the broad changes in American house planning from the seventeenth century to the present that arose in response to food.

In the present essay, I expand my questions on the food axis taken up in the article and book to ask: compared to the standards that evolved in popular architecture, what would the choices of an important architect look like? I consider the way spaces related to food were deployed and furnished in Frank Lloyd Wright's residential designs of the Prairie era and in the later Usonian houses. In the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, food-axis rooms included kitchens, pantries and storage closets, and dining rooms; ancillary additions to this list included breakfast rooms, ice rooms, service porches, and summer kitchens. These rooms may be found in Wright's houses and in contemporary food-axis ideas circulating in popular culture and vernacular architecture. Wright was well known as a designer of houses—some 70 percent of his design output was residential. His houses from the Prairie years, the first decade of the twentieth century, and his Usonian houses in the 1930s and '40s have been widely celebrated for introducing a modern plan and a new aesthetic to residential design.2 I am interested in seeing whether Wright extends an innovative spirit to food-axis rooms in his house designs. Will Wright's ideas for the back of the house be progressive? Or will ideas found in popular sources suggest more modern approaches to the food axis? In short, did Wright lead or follow in the development of food-axis spaces?3

Even though every Wright Prairie house had a kitchen, "back of the house" service spaces have rarely been discussed by his historians.4 Façades, living rooms, and other social spaces have been treated by historians and critics as the equivalent of "capital A" architecture within his houses. The back of the house—kitchens and food storage spaces, servants' spaces, and minor features like closets or utility rooms—has been treated as the vernacular part, not worthy of attention. Since Wright is always treated as a high-style architect in American architectural history, the omission of kitchens and pantries from Wright scholarship is not surprising. Instead Wright's clients provide more information about his food-axis ideas, as do some of his own lectures and articles.

At the beginning of his career, Wright made use of the baseline standard for food-axis programs seen in later nineteenth-century middle-and upper-class houses. Typically these designs performed several functions, both low-and high-ranking. One set has to do with the preservation and storage of food. Another is space for preparing and cooking food. Yet another functional space is the butler's pantry where servants or housekeepers readied food for serving, and cleaned and stored the china and silver used in [End Page 18] presenting a meal. The final space in the food axis sequence is the dining room where meals are served and consumed. All of these features are present in one well-known upper-middle-class house, the Glessner house in Chicago, designed by H. H. Richardson and completed in 1887 (Figure 1). The Glessner house occupies the north side of a long urban lot in the city and frames an open side yard on the south.5 On the entrance level a generous dining room with a bay window looks onto the yard. In addition to a dining table and chairs, this room contained storage furniture for linens, larger food-service pieces, and china or silver intended for display. Behind the dining room is a sequence of pantries and storage spaces, a large kitchen, an ice room...


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