Story by Pamela Guthman Kissock, photos by Brian Kissock
Okay, picture this: phone-bidding for auction from your private pool cabana in the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Arizona Bilt-more Resort and Spa in Phoenix. Or, maybe just sitting in the lounge chair by the pool sipping iced tea (or whatever) under the Arizona desert skies while catching up on past Antiques and the Arts Weekly papers that have piled up while you were away at autumn shows. Really, it probably couldn’t be better (more Wright) than this.
If you aren’t doing business, and there’s plenty of room, by the way, for show managers to schedule a top-notch antiques show in one of the several Wright-inspired rooms where exhibitors of Native American, Western, Mission period, and Arts and Crafts would do extremely well, then take a moment to enjoy the history (including art and pottery collections, as well as a fascinating photo hall featuring pictures of US Presidents and celebrities from the first days of the hotel in the 20s), the setting (historic architecture, beautiful gardens, desert climate), the activity (world-class spa, tennis, golf, swimming, life-size garden chess), or just relaxing. This is an environment attractive to art and antiques connoisseurs.
Let’s begin with the building. While it was designed by Midwestern architect Albert McArthur (for his brothers Charles and Warren who left Chicago in the early 1910s in order to develop various “schemes” in Phoenix), the design is most definitely inspired by McArthur’s teacher Frank Lloyd Wright.
The famed architect was brought on the scene as a consultant, and there is much speculation as to how much he really did have a hand in the plans and building. Wright agreed to assist with the designing of the concrete blocks (now the logo of the resort) and teach the locals how to make them. These “blocks” are the façade of the building. He was paid $1,000 per month for his consulting, and an additional $7,000 was paid to cover the rights to his unique concrete-block method. McArthur did follow Wright’s design philosophy, using Arizona sand for the blocks and including many open spaces, very much a Wright concept.
“I was to remain incognito and behind the scenes,” wrote Wright, but “behind the scenes” is not a role he played well. According to Arnold Roy, architect at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation a few miles away at Taliesin West (Wright’s winter home and studio) who apprenticed with the architect for seven years and continues there today, “look at McArthur’s work prior to 1929, and look at Wright’s. There’s no question.” There’s no question that Frank Lloyd Wright’s brilliance is evidenced throughout.
The Biltmore’s Heather Schader said that after the fire in 1973 that demolished the fourth floor of the hotel (which, by the way, Wright strongly objected to), the architects went back to designs by Wright to refurbish and restore (Arnold Roy being one of those architects). “The first major changes/additions to the property didn’t occur until after the fire.” Schader continued, “Another major refurbishing began 20 years later.” At each instance, Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs were referred to and incorporated (including architects from the Foundation).
There are only two original Wright designs on location: One is Six Sprites – six-foot tall statues that were originally created in 1914 for part of an exhibit at Chicago’s Midway Gardens but were never used. The other design is the stained glass mural entitled “Saguaro Forms and Cactus Flowers” that greets visitors at the front lobby.
Other art found on the property includes a re-strike of a Remington sculpture of a cowboy on a bucking horse – the original logo of the Biltmore. There is also a collection of Jaspe’ (French pottery) in a Mission-style cabinet in the Biltmore Grill; Swiss pottery in the secretary in the Conference Center; and a lobby Mission-style cabinet filled with Arts and Crafts pottery.
There are Frank Lloyd Wright properties within easy driving distance of the hotel, too, including Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University in Tempe, First Christian Church in Phoenix, several private homes, and the famous Taliesin West.
It was at Taliesin West that we found Wright’s Organic Commandment for architecture:
Love is the virtue of the heart
Sincerity the virtue of the mind
Courage the virtue of the spirit
Decision the virtue of the will
Certainly a commandment that could be applied to the field of antiques collecting. Yet, there’s more to that “commandment” as you study the work of Wright, and the impress he’s left on the hearts and minds of students and those who see his work today. Yes, he was a difficult man with a huge ego. Yet, according to Arnold Roy, “his works more than equaled his ego.”
Walking through Taliesin West is a rare treat. Not only is the architecture unique and inspiring, but the private art collection of Wright is visible throughout – used in the buildings as well as set around the rooms.
For example, there are 12 replicas of tiles from the Summer Palace in China. These were created as theater art in the late Eighteenth Century and shipped to San Francisco where they arrived in pieces. They were later offered to Wright (at one time a major collector of Asian art) for a minimal fee. He liked them because of the cobalt blue color – a blue that went with the Arizona sky – and he purchased them and gave them to his apprentices who spent five years restoring them. Now they adorn the entrances to the various spaces (living room, theaters, office) at Taliesin West.
Inside the entrance of one of the theaters, an early Southeast Asian terra-cotta head greets visitors; there are early Asian brasses on doorways; and Native American, Japanese, and Chinese pottery throughout the property. Two of the original Sprites, that were designed for the Midway Gardens in Chicago, are placed off the Sun Room in the gardens. And, a pair of red Bakelite birds sit in the living room where the morning sun hits them and they appear bright red. The color changes as the sun moves across the sky.
A quote by Laotse is on one of the walls and reads, “The reality of the building does not consist in roof and walls but in the space within to be lived in.” Wright was at first upset, as he believed he had invented this concept. But it was so much his ideal that he inscribed it on his walls.
A petroglyph from the Hohokam period (“people from before,” circa 300 BC to 1425 AD) stands guard at the front entrance. This stone was found on the property and contains what later became Wright’s logo – a series of lines forming a box with design.
Roy says of Wright, “What first attracted me to him was his ideas.” He saw the physical manifestation, the application and the organic commandment, “which is a lifetime study.” “Wright was before his time,” his use of light is just now becoming understood. And, sitting in the staff cafeteria it is clear what a genius Wright was. The use of daylight is amazing. In a room that could be as dark and cave-like, with only one wall open to the sun and the others built from rock, the room is as light as outside. The skylights and glass corners on the windows all create something light and airy. Wright also invented track lighting, slab heating and carports.
Regarding the Arizona Biltmore, Roy says, “the Aztec Room is the way Wright designed it. Much of the structure of some of the buildings is a bit heavy-handed. But while the McArthur family tried to make the Wright-influence go away, it is very much Wright.”
As I review my notes for this article, I am sitting in my private cabana at the Paradise Pool (one of eight at the Biltmore), sipping that iced tea I mentioned earlier. Yep, it certainly couldn’t be more Wright than this.