Biography of Marion Mahony Griffin

Wright Team and Griffin Partner (1871-1961)

Historic sepia photo of Marion Mahony Griffin in her 60s, with head scarf
Marion Mahony Griffin, c. 1935. Media photo nla.pic-an23379384 courtesy National Library of Australia (cropped)

Marion Mahony Griffin (born Marion Lucy Mahony February 14, 1871 in Chicago) was one of the first women to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the first employee of Frank Lloyd Wright, the first woman to be licensed as an architect in Illinois, and some say the collaborative strength behind many successes attributed solely to her husband, Walter Burley Griffin. Mahony Griffin, a pioneer in a male-dominated profession, stood behind the men in her life, often foregoing attention to her own brilliant designs.

After graduating from Boston's MIT in 1894, Mahony (pronounced MAH-nee) returned to Chicago to work with her cousin, another MIT alumnus, Dwight Perkins (1867–1941). The 1890s was an exciting time to be in Chicago, as it was being rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1871. A new building method for tall buildings was the grand experiment of the Chicago School, and the theory and practice of architecture's relationship to American society was being debated. Mahony and Perkins were commissioned to design an 11-story venue for the Steinway company to sell pianos, but the upper floors became offices to social visionaries and many young architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright. Steinway Hall (1896-1970) became well-known as the place to go for discussions in design, building practices, and American social value. It was where relationships were forged and connections established.

In 1895, Marion Mahony joined the Chicago studio of a young Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), where she worked for nearly 15 years.

She formed a relationship with another employee named Walter Burley Griffin, five years younger than she, and in 1911 they married to form a partnership that lasted until his death in 1937.

In addition to her home and furnishing designs, Mahony is widely praised for her architectural renderings. Inspired by the style of Japanese woodblock prints, Mahony created fluid and romantic ink and watercolor drawings decorated with flowing vines.

Some architectural historians say that Marion Mahony's drawings were responsible for establishing the reputations of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Burley Griffin. Her Wright renderings were published in Germany in 1910 and are said to have influenced the great modern architects Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Mahony's lush drawings on 20-foot panels are credited for winning Walter Burley Griffin the prized commission to design the new capital city in Australia.

Working in Australia and later in India, Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin built hundreds of Prairie-style houses and spread the style to distant parts of the world. Their unique "Knitlock" houses became a model for Frank Lloyd Wright when he designed his textile block houses in California.

Like many other women who design buildings, Marion Mahony became lost in the shadow of her male associates. Today, her contributions to Frank Lloyd Wright's career and also to the career of her husband are being reexamined and reevaluated.

Selected Independent Projects:

  • 1902: All Souls Church in Evanston, Illinois
  • 1949: Magic of America, by Marion Mahony Griffin, and unpublished memoir with 1,400 typed pages and nearly 700 illustrations. Reproduced online by the Art Institute of Chicago.

    Mahony's Projects With Frank Lloyd Wright:

    While she worked for Frank Lloyd Wright, Marion Mahony designed furnishings, light fixtures, murals, mosaics, and leaded glass for many of his houses. After Wright left his first wife, Kitty, and moved to Europe in 1909, Mahony completed many of Wright's unfinished houses, in some cases serving as lead designer. Her credits include the 1909 David Amberg Residence, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the 1910 Adolph Mueller House in Decatur, Illinois.

    Mahony's Projects With Walter Burley Griffin:

    Marion Mahony met her husband, Walter Burley Griffin, when they both worked for Frank Lloyd Wright. Along with Wright, Griffin was a pioneer in the Prairie School of architecture. Mahony and Griffin worked together on the design of many Prairie Style houses, including the Cooley House, Monroe, Louisiana and the 1911 Niles Club Company in Niles, Michigan.

    Mahony Griffin drew 20-foot long watercolor perspectives for the prize-winning Town Plan for Canberra, Australia designed by her husband. In 1914, Marion and Walter moved to Australia to oversee the construction of the new capital city. Marion Mahony managed their Sydney office for over 20 years, training draftsmen and handling commissions, including these:

    • 1924: Capitol Theatre, Melbourne, Australia
    • 1926: Ellen Mower Home, Castlecrag, New South Wales, Australia
    • 1926: Creswick Home, Castlecrag, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
    • 1927: S.R. Salter Residence (Knitlock construction), Toorak, Victoria, Australia
    • 1927: Vaughan Griffin Home, Heidelberg, Victoria, Australia

    The couple later practiced in India where she supervised the design of hundreds of Prairie Style houses along with university buildings and other public architecture. In 1937, Walter Burley Griffin died suddenly in an Indian hospital after gall bladder surgery, leaving his wife to complete their commissions in India and Australia. Mrs. Griffin was well-into her 60s when she returned to Chicago in 1939. She died on August 10, 1961 and is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. Her husband's remains are in Lucknow, northern India.

    Learn More:

    • Beyond Architecture: Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin - America, Australia, India by Anne Watson, University of Illinois Press, 1999
      Buy on Amazon
    • Marion Mahony Griffin — Drawing the Form of Nature, Debora Wood, ed., Block Museum, 2005
      Buy on Amazon
    • Making Magic: The Marion Mahony Griffin Story by Glenda Korporaal
      Buy on Amazon
    • Marion Mahony Reconsidered by David Van Zanten, University Of Chicago Press, 2011
      Buy on Amazon
    • 100 Women Architects in the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright: A Girl is a Fellow Here, DVD, 2009
      Buy on Amazon

    Sources: Press photo from the 2013 exhibition The Dream of a Century: the Griffins in Australia's Capital, National Library of Australia, Exhibition Gallery; Rediscovering a Heroine of Chicago Architecture by Fred A. Bernstein, The New York Times, January 20, 2008; Marion Mahony Griffin by Anna Rubbo and Walter Burley Griffin by Adrienne Kabos and India by Professor Geoffrey Sherington on the website of the  Walter Burley Griffin Society Inc. [accessed December 11, 2016]