WRIGHT, FRANK LLOYD. 1869-1959.
A SETBACK IN WRIGHT'S "NEW THEATRE" PROJECT.
Archive relating to efforts by actor, director, acting coach and conscientious objector Paton Price to construct a "New Theatre" designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Hartford, CT, comprising: large perspective view of the Theatre signed lower right ("F.L.L.W.") and dated January 2, 1949, ink on tracing paper, 640 x 900 mm, light creases and a few tears generally without loss; 10 Typed Letters Signed from Wright to Price, March 10, 1948-April 22, 1958, 2 with manuscript addenda; 2 Documents Signed by Wright being the invoice and contract for the project; 34 copies of letters from Price to Wright, Eugene Masselink, and other Taliesin fellows; various other related letters and telegrams, and numerous transmittal envelopes; a small cluster of publicity materials for the New Theatre; 15 gelatin silver prints of Wright and the model of the Theatre, various sizes, several taken at an introductory luncheon for the planned Theatre; 8 photographic negatives, 5 by 4 inches, of Wright and others, 2 showing him with an enormous pair of binoculars.
Wright had originally designed a "New Theatre" for Woodstock, NY, in 1931, but that plan never came to fruition. When theatre director Paton Price [1916-1982] wrote to him in early 1948 proposing a new venue in Hartford, CT, the architect took the opportunity to revive his earlier project. Price would fund the construction through his own savings and from donations and loans; understanding the need for publicity, he asked whether Wright would allow the theatre to be named after him (Wright refused), and got local leaders and media interested. The two formally entered into a contract in November of 1948, and Price was soon anxiously asking Wright for drawings, a model, and designs for a brochure.
The New Theatre's "coming-out ball" was a luncheon in Hartford on January 25, 1949, hosted by Hartford Times publisher Francis Murphy for Price and Wright. Guests included the Governor of Connecticut Chester Bowles, architectural scholar Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Broadway producer Oscar Serlin, and Director of the Wadsworth Atheneum Charles Cunningham.
As the project takes shape, the letters offer a window into the relationship Wright had with his clients: the client boundlessly enthusiastic, verbose, detail-oriented, nervous and deferential ("I am addressing this letter to you with great reluctance since I am only too aware of the numerous other projects you have"), the architect brief and to the point ("Would rather increase diameter of house than balcony to increase seating. Can do if imperitive [sic]. Reluctant."). Behind the scenes, the Taliesin pupils struggle to hold things together (Masselink: "Sorry this is so late... Mr. Wright just got in... we have been in a confused state"), and frequently allude to their master's character (Masselink: "As Mr. Wright might say, 'God help us all'"; Marcus Weston: "Mr. Wright is not one to lay down his arms"; John Howe: "the mood at Taliesin reflects Mr. Wright's own").
Wright's personality would come to the fore later on, when one delay followed another. In April '49, concerned Hartford citizens sought a court order to prevent construction. Price's communications from late '49 show him frantically negotiating with several insurance companies about different plots of land around Hartford. He reports that the treasurer of the Travelers Insurance Company went to examine the Johnson Wax Building and told his board that he never seen anything like it and didn't approve (Price suggests that he must have expected colonial columns). One letter elicits the response from Wright, "I think we can forget Kaufmann! He is 'in' with the N.Y. Insurance gang who work with Dowling, Eakin, et al and isn't what he used to be I fear." (Surely Edgar J. Kaufmann of Fallingwater fame.) Then zoning laws proved to be an even bigger hurdle: "2 lengthy + bitter hearings" (Price). In desperation, on September 12, 1950, Price invited Wright up to Connecticut for a final meeting with the zoning committee; we get an inkling of how the meeting went from Wright's letter two weeks later: "Dear Paton: What's up? You aren't pouting are you? We wondered why we heard nothing from you - feared you cracked after the big scene. I hope I didn't crab the works by throwing stones through the window. A 'shock' was needed."
Ultimately, "there was a hard and bitter fight on rezoning... We qualified for a referendum, it was ordered, an injunction was granted to prevent the election, and in true New England fashion of justice, it was postponed and postponed" (Price). The main correspondence ends in February, 1951, although there are a handful of later letters including this from Price to one of his investor's accountants in 1958: "I sincerely hope that Olive's loss is somewhat mitigated by the income tax deduction permitted for such a loss." Wright and Price remained on friendly terms, and the architect eventually saw his planned theatre come to life in the form of the Kalita Humphreys Theater in Dallas, TX, which opened in 1959.