William Cary Wright: Looking for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Father

From left: William Cary Wright as a young man; William and Anna Lloyd Jones around the time of their marriage

When John Lloyd Wright, son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, drafted a memoir about his life with his father, he asked his father to read it and comment. John wrote to him, “If you read it and come upon shadows, remember—sunshine made them.”

When I first saw that sentence, I paused at the mention of shadows, because one of the things that is commonly said about the famous architect is that his accomplishments are of such splendor that anyone else’s achievements are diminished by comparison. His was a blinding sunlight—while everyone else was left in the dark.

In the son’s book, he recalls the challenge he faced as a young architect, because he was often expected to be as masterful as his father. The situation was not helped when he changed his name, which was John Kenneth Wright at birth, to John Lloyd Wright. His older brother, also an architect, modified his name as well. He was Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr., at birth, but always used the professional name of Lloyd Wright.

There is a passage in John’s book in which he lists the junior architects (five men, two women) who worked for his father in his Chicago studio. He admits that each of them, while working for Wright, was “making valuable contributions to the pioneering of modern American architecture for which my father gets the full glory, headaches and recognition today!”

It is also commonly said that Frank Lloyd Wright changed his own name. According to legend (although it’s sometimes questioned now), his birth name was Frank Lincoln Wright, which seems reasonable, given Lincoln’s recent death. But years later, after Wright’s parents separated, he changed his middle name to Lloyd, perhaps as a way to spurn his father and to underscore his affinity with his mother’s Welsh ancestors, the Lloyd Jones family. That family was famously prominent in a region of Wisconsin near Spring Green, where they owned a 600-acre estate called Jones Valley, which locals sardonically renamed “the valley of the God Almighty Joneses.”

Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother, née Anna Lloyd Jones, was born in 1838. Her husband, the architect’s father, William Cary Wright, was a Baptist minister who was born in 1825. So they differed in age by 13 years. At the time of their marriage in 1866, Wright’s father had been a widower for two years and was the single parent of three children, ages ten, eight, and four. He brought these children into the marriage, and then, in successive years, he and his second wife (who was nearing 30 when they wed) went on to become the parents of three more children of their own: Frank Lloyd Wright and his two sisters.

Providing for six children requires a substantial commitment, monetary and otherwise, especially if the income source is a spouse whose work is said to have been “itinerant,” which means that he could be transferred. Within a span of seven years, William Wright served as a pastor in Wisconsin, Iowa, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, before finally returning to settle in Wisconsin.

Given such frequent uprooting, perhaps we should not be surprised that the marriage only lasted about 15 years. In the past, the primary blame for the split-up has been attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright’s father, whom John dismisses as “a Protestant preacher who excommunicated himself from several denominations, even from . . . his wife and children, and fled to—no one knows where.”

There are, as is commonly noted, two sides to any story. And that is most likely the case in the unsuccessful marriage of Frank Lloyd Wright’s parents. This subject is rarely fully discussed, but little-known details began to emerge a half century ago, when a portion of a memoir by Frank Lloyd Wright’s half-sister, Elizabeth Wright Heller (one of the children from William Cary Wright’s first marriage), was published in March 1973 in the Palimpsest in Iowa. The entire 300-page typescript, titled The Story of My Life, is at the State Historical Society of Iowa.

Since age 20, Heller had lived in the area of Marengo, Iowa, where she had worked as a milliner, typesetter, and teacher. In 1976, an account of the life of the father of Heller and her architect half-brother, Frank, was published in a book titled Grandpa Wright by Heller’s granddaughter, Hope Sankot Rogers, who lived in Vinton, Iowa.

It was in part an exposé, in the sense that it contended that the failure of the marriage was as much the fault of Anna Lloyd Jones Wright as it was of William Cary Wright. In this and other sources about the story’s “other side,” not much good is said about Wright’s mother, especially in connection with her treatment of her stepchildren. “She was very sweet to us,” Heller recalled, “[un]til after they were married.” But it soon became apparent, as Anna’s brother Jenkin concurred, that she was also capable of “a most tremendous temper.”

“I was very much afraid of my stepmother,” remembered Heller. “She not only beat me . . . but threatened me with some terrible things. . . . I grew more and more afraid to be left alone with her.”

The Wright-Jones marriage was a volatile blend. As Rogers concluded in her book, it is hard to imagine two people who were more opposite, and “it is not at all surprising that their marriage disintegrated. The marvel is that it lasted so long.”

Rogers also made the case that Frank Lloyd Wright’s father was not a ne’er-do-well drifter, as has often been supposed. He was a traveling preacher, but he had also studied law, literature, medicine, letterpress printing, and music in particular. He was a composer of music, and a performer and teacher as well. For Frank Lloyd Wright, the music of Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, and others (which Wright’s father introduced him to, as the architect admitted) was no less essential to his approach to architecture than was his exposure to Froebel’s kindergarten building blocks, which his mother brought home from the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.

There is another component in this that prompted me to hesitate. It seems that William Cary Wright was small. He was short and slight of build. His feisty, strikingly beautiful wife was one head taller. But, as these revelations note, William Cary was not nearly as small as his own father, also a preacher, who was too short to stand in the pulpit. This is interesting in part because Frank Lloyd Wright is often said to have been short (in truth, he was about five feet, eight inches, one inch taller than average at the time), and that was what prompted him to design residences in which the ceilings seem too low for today’s visitors.

The family of Frank Lloyd Wright (seated at right) in 1898

After his parents’ separation and divorce, Wright never saw his father again, and he all but never mentioned his estranged half-siblings in later published accounts of his life. William Cary died in 1904, having resettled west of Omaha, Nebraska, where he established a sheet-music publishing firm, and where he could be close to relatives from his first marriage.

In 1928, when Hope Rogers was four years old, Frank Lloyd Wright showed up at a reunion at the Sankot family farm near Belle Plaine, Iowa. Wright’s half-sister, Elizabeth Wright Heller, was also present, at which time she was 68. It is said that their meeting was cordial, but not entirely, and it may have been the final time that descendants of the marriage met. The “prodigal son” was greatly delayed in returning—and the enmity was soon restored.

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A primary source for this essay was Mary Catherine Rogers of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who is the daughter of Hope Sankot Rogers. More detailed information about Rogers and her family—and their link to Frank Lloyd Wright—can be found at ThisAmericanHouse.com. That website was established by Jason Loper and Michael Schreiber, authors of This American House (Pomegranate, 2021), who restored and were the owners of the Meier House in Monona, Iowa. Note: William C. Wright’s middle name is variably spelled as Cary or Carey.

Roy R. Behrens is a designer, writer, and retired university professor. His most recent book is Frank Lloyd Wright and Mason City: Architectural Heart of the Prairie (2015). For more information, see BobolinkBooks.com/ BALLAST.