Willey House Stories Part 20 – The Struggle
Steve Sikora | Oct 19, 2020
Every house has stories to tell, particularly if the house was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Some stories are familiar. Some are even true. Some, true or not, have been lost to time, while others are yet to be told. Steve Sikora, owner of the Malcom Willey House, continues his exploration of the home and its influence on architecture and society.
The staggering circumstances that tested Frank Lloyd Wright during the Great Depression have been well documented. Caught in its grasp, his prospects remained grim until mid-Depression, at exactly the right moment, when the small Willey House commission arrived, like manna from heaven, providing a desperately needed spiritual sustenance and a faintest glimmer of hope on an otherwise bleak horizon. Willey became the first real world architectural work for the recently founded Taliesin Fellowship and helped to sustain morale at Taliesin as Wright set about regaining his mojo. The commissions that followed—Fallingwater, the Johnson Wax Administration Building and the Usonian home proved he had far more yet to offer the world. Indisputably, these highlights of the second period of his working life rank among his highest achievements. But nothing has been reported on the difficulties faced by first responder Nancy Willey, the woman who resuscitated Wright’s career by casting that hopeful beacon skyward. This is her story.
Now, if you want higher wages let me tell you what to do
You got to talk to the workers in the shop with you.
You got to build you a union, got to make it strong,
But if you all stick together, boys, it won’t be long.
You get shorter hours, better working conditions,
Vacations with pay. Take your kids to the seashore.
It ain’t quite this simple, so I better explain
Just why you got to ride on the union train.
‘Cause if you wait for the boss to raise your pay,
We’ll all be a-waitin’ ’til Judgment Day.
We’ll all be buried, gone to heaven,
St. Peter’ll be the straw boss then.
Now, boys, you’ve come to the hardest time.
The boss will try to bust your picket line.
He’ll call out the police, the National Guard,
They’ll tell you it’s a crime to have a union card.
They’ll raid your meetin’, they’ll hit you on the head,
They’ll call every one of you a goddam red.
-Peter Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell
Talking Union, lyrics © The Bicycle Music Company
I wonder about things. Sometimes I contemplate them into submission, until I finally experience their equivalent. Take this example—in college, talking with a friend about Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, he asked if I read the original story by Arthur C. Clarke. “It explained everything,” he said. So I read it. It didn’t. But the story did contain a fascinating concept not reflected in Kubrick’s elegant, cinematic masterpiece. In Clark’s story, new recruits to the space station could be readily identified because they were unaccustomed to its weak gravitational forces and would invariably careen into walls or fellow astronauts when they tried to stop quickly or abruptly change direction. Their body mass could not be offset by their now unequal weight. In other words, a 150lb man walking at a normal pace with a spring in his step would feel as light as a feather, but he was still hurtling through space with 150lbs of uncontrolled mass, which led to inevitable collisions.
For months, I contemplated what this must feel like and one day found myself behind the wheel of a short-wheelbase, Jeep CJ-5 with knobby tires, owned by my friend Mark Pollard. We were exiting the Chicago Loop on Wacker Drive, pointed toward a chain link lot with a waiting Driveaway Car he and our mutual friend Luis Kortlang planned as conveyance to San Diego. Steady rain began to fall. Traffic was moving fast and I needed to keep pace with it, when I suddenly had the unsettling feeling of hovering above the pavement. I tapped the breaks to confirm my nauseous suspicion, and found that, yes indeed, we were hydroplaning down a steep incline at a considerable rate of speed. Just ahead, the multi-lane roadway turned 90-degrees to the left, beyond that a curb, a few feet of pavement, followed by a low wall of concrete barriers, then an emerald green Lake Michigan. Time slowed to a crawl. I thought I should alert Mark, who was in the passenger seat. He turned to me and said, “Did you try the breaks?” I showed him, yes, “I am breaking.” Pump. Pump. “Did you turn the wheel?” he offered. “Look, I am turning it.” It seemed like an eternity before the front wheels of the Jeep made the acquaintance of the curb, then the concrete barriers. Upon impact, we levitated out of our seats. The cabin was uniformly peppered with sunflower seeds, the contents of a coffee can that Luis’s mom provided for the long drive to California. They hovered around us like a swarm of lethargic bees. All I could think about at that moment was, “So this is how it felt on that space station.”
One: The Great Depression
A later example, closer to topic, was the Great Depression. My parents and in-laws lived through it and described certain hardships they endured in carefully selected anecdotes and the occasional historical fact. But still, it was difficult to grasp the visceral quality of despair that must have gripped the nation during those cruel years. I’m sure there are things my parents preferred to forget, or simply chose not to share with children growing up in an era of great possibilities and optimism. I took a renewed interest in the topic because the Willey House was designed and constructed in the midst of the Great Depression. It’s even safe to say that it was a product of the Depression and would not have ever existed otherwise. I understood the tenor of those times, but how did they “feel” to the people living them? How did people without hope summon the courage to press on? And how on earth did Malcolm and Nancy Willey manage to build a house with Frank Lloyd Wright in the middle of this swirling financial miasma? The simple answer is, that then as now, America was a tiered economy. The working poor, as usual and those foolishly invested were the hardest hit. But Malcolm Willey found himself in a fairly resilient position. He had a steady job and the portents of a promising future at the University of Minnesota. As a Barnard graduate, Nancy had no difficulty connecting with statistical work for non-profit organizations. Though far from affluent, the Willeys, remained comfortably ensconced in the middle class even as many segments of the economy withered to dust around them. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright’s own financial situation was decidedly darker than theirs. He had been clientless for 3 years before Nancy sent her exploratory note of seduction, as were many of the builders and tradesmen who eventually erected the Willey House. They were grateful for the promise of a steady paycheck, regardless of the oddball design they were asked to interpret in brick and cypress.
Soon enough, I was granted a hint of what the Depression felt like, when in 2008, the Great Recession pulled the rug out from under us. Our design firm was exposed, with a massive overhead, a full staff of employees, suddenly little to no work and a profound sense of encroaching dread, cloaked in an ill-founded optimism that the ship would right itself as it always had. Our formerly robust business was crippled and along with the stress, came all the associated emotions of bereavement, personal failure and abandonment by the hundreds of clients, employees and contractors we supported over the decades. It was now “So long! Every man for himself.” We saw a few agencies sail though relatively unaffected, but not us. We were taken to the mat. Despite suffering a profound reversal of fortunes, there was a thin silver lining, so slight it is meaningful only in the context of this story. I gained a better grasp of how the Great Depression impacted the average American, and came to understand how some people and businesses prospered while others were laid to waste. Most impactful of all, I understood the visceral terror of losing all control over the structures of your life due to forces beyond your ken.
In the Depression, individuals and businesses alike became risk averse overnight. Even expenditures on necessities were treated conservatively. My uncomfortably direct 2008 experience served as a lens with which to view the risks and challenges of erecting so much as a detached garage during the Great Depression, much less a housing model that would change everything, during this vast financial reset. But the Depression, as it turns out, albeit an inhibiting factor was far from the greatest obstacle separating Nancy from her dreams. There were others less obvious.
For years I was stymied as to how to approach this episode in Nancy’s life and the perilous situation that stood between her and the completion of her Wright designed home. I felt under-qualified to report on it, until now. Recently, as often before, revelations arrived unexpectedly. It began with a murder on the streets of Minneapolis, and the subsequent, spontaneous eruption of moral outrage by its citizenry. These past days, as I began to gather my thoughts, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul were and are, in full crisis mode and locked down under a mandatory curfew. Every day, mass congregations comprised of incongruent factions ranging from peaceful to malicious, coalesce from the ether, to join in protest, while militaristic battalions in shoulder-to-shoulder formation attempt to block their advance.
Sirens blare as gunshots and unidentifiable percussions echo far and near. Menacing unmarked vehicles race down formerly quiet residential streets in pursuit of other unmarked vehicles. Blazing fires rage everywhere. The air is laced with ribbons of acrid smoke. Day and night helicopter blades beat incessantly overhead, fanning the flames of ceaseless tension and the most visceral sustained fear I have ever felt in my own home. Familiar buildings featured in my personal history are looted and set aflame in neighborhood after neighborhood. With police and firefighters overwhelmed, Governor Tim Waltz called in the National Guard to help stabilize a volatile situation that for days unabated, continued to increase in strength and geographic scope. In the thick of it all, I had the sudden realization this moment of cities-wide tension paralleled the state of affairs in the summer of 1934, while the Willey House was under construction. To be honest, I had no idea how terrifying a city at war could be. Now I do.
Public outrage over profound social inequity reached a boiling point in the summer of 1934, just as it did again today, causing a spontaneous insurrection by ordinary citizens. In both cases the public rose up, against the Minneapolis Police force, instinctively, and en masse to vehemently express their intolerance of the situation, and to stand their ground in support of human decency. In 1934, it was the working poor in the crosshairs, specifically the Teamster’s Union, Local 574 that stood for a livable wage and better working conditions. Their well-coordinated actions paralyzed commerce in the Twin Cities and resulted in a prolonged series of tense and increasingly violent standoffs with police, a deputized militia, business owners and scab laborers who were all too willing to take any risks for meager pay. Then as now, it wasn’t just the immediately affected parties taking to the streets.
The daily growing throngs reflected a significant public support for the trucker’s cause, despite a business-friendly yellow press that distorted the facts. As ever, it was the underclasses pitted against the underclasses by wealthy and powerful business interests. And from May through August, Minneapolis was the scene of countless skirmishes between pickets and authorities trying to move trucks and merchandise driven by scab workers.
Eighty-six years later, on Monday, May 25th 2020, a black man, George Floyd, died at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. From this author’s perspective, this has unfortunately become an a too familiar scene in America. This time, the entire incident was captured on video. All 8 minutes and 46 seconds leading up to the death of George Floyd was unflinchingly recorded, beginning to end by a courageous teenage girl, Darnella Frazier, who was among the crowd of onlookers pleading with the officers, particularly Derek Chauvin, the officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck, to “let him breathe.” Floyd implored the officers “I just had COVID man. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. Please one of you listen to me.” Heartlessly, they did not.
This senseless crime, the most recent of countless others, equally egregious, proved to be a moment for the Black Lives Matter movement and advocates everywhere for police reform. What began as a series of impassioned but peaceful protests in the streets of Minneapolis, turned violent with startling fury when the four officers implicated in the incident were not immediately arrested. At the time of this writing the facts are still deeply clouded in what can only be called the “fog of war.” But it is already clear that the cities of Minneapolis and St Paul will be forever changed by Floyd’s death and the catastrophic aftermath that literally erased countless neighborhood businesses, amenities and iconic local structures. But George Floyd’s death was hardly in vain. Rather, it appears to represent a tipping point, the incident that finally resonated far and wide in a centuries-long struggle for racial equality in America. It cannot and will not be ignored. But this crisis is heightened, because protests, both peaceful and turbulent are being attended by impassioned multitudes amid a deadly and highly infectious global pandemic, COVID-19.
Protestors were endangering their lives simply by congregating. It becomes even further amplified if you count the millions out of work due to the virus. It took this moment for me to grasp the zeitgeist of the summer of 1934. For it too was a double calamity. The global economy was still caught in the strangle hold of the Great Depression with millions out of work, many Americans literally starving, so with little to lose and everything to gain the teamsters said “enough!” But their work stoppage, however righteous, invited a forceful response from the powers that be. The labor tensions created a fear of spontaneous violence in the streets of Minneapolis/St. Paul that could literally manifest anywhere. Because local 574 represented teamsters, brutal clashes could arise without warning anyplace trucks traveled, deliveries were made or a picket line was crossed, perhaps even on the construction site at 255 Bedford St SE.
It was difficult to fathom the anxiety levels of summer 1934, in part, because Nancy seemed to downplay the significance of it in her correspondence with Taliesin. I’ve read and reread that series of letters for decades without sensing any looming direct threat posed by the strike. Her few mentions make it seem more like an inconvenience than a city teetering on the brink of a class civil war, which is exactly what it was. But Nancy was not insulated from any knowledge of it, nor would she have been granted any special immunity from the effects of the strike. It certainly would have been a constant topic of conversation on the jobsite, particularly between general contractor, A. C. Dahleen, and masonry contractor, Nels Blenoff.
If she indeed felt it, as she must have, Nancy kept her panic on a short leash and any apprehensions related to the situation strictly internalized. Perhaps she didn’t want to give Wright a reason to turn his attention from the details of the project when she so desperately needed to keep the crew productive. Perhaps she did not want to admit to herself how a strike like this could completely derail her schedule or prevent completion of the house altogether, so she simply partitioned off any concerns from the business of building and kept her nose to the grindstone.
The Willey House, like Wright’s vision for later Usonians, is thought of as being a house for people of moderate means. While that is true, the context of the labor strike helps to plot exactly where the Willeys fit in the tiered Depression economy. Malcolm and Nancy Willey, while hardy and well-to-do, did not occupy the lowest rungs of the economic ladder either. They were fully employed and confident enough in the future that they planned to build a home of their own, in an economy wobbling on decidedly shaky legs. Fanaticizing over their dream home is what led to their discovery of Frank Lloyd Wright’s An Autobiography.
The book turned their ideas about modern housing upside down. Not only were Wright’s theories inspirational they were aspirational. His revolutionary ideas sent Nancy “sky-high” and painted a picture of something that resonated with what a young couple could imagine life to be like long after the Depression. They wanted this for themselves, as long as it could be made affordable. Willing to take a risk, but establishing clear limits, Nancy and Malcolm determined a fixed budget they were unwilling to waver from. Banks at the time were not freely loaning money. To circumvent that, Nancy learned of a dentist in St. Paul who offered mortgages, though he declined theirs when he saw Wright’s plans. She eventually found salvation in an independent builder, Alfred C. Dahleen, who believed he could complete this curious house design on her budget, vowed to hold firm on his price and even agreed to leverage his interests further by carrying the mortgage himself. After two years of struggle with an unaffordable, first scheme, ultimately resulting in a total redesign by Wright, Nancy Willey finally broke ground on her new Frank Lloyd Wright house, only to have construction abruptly halted by a trucker’s strike that prevented the delivery of critical building materials to the jobsite.
Long before the work commenced, a whiff of trouble was already in the air. Minneapolis had a reputation as an “open shop” town. Through a variety of tactics business had been highly successful at preventing workers from unionizing. But in February of 1934 a surprise strike in the coal yards of Minneapolis forced the hand of industrialists. It was settled quickly when it was determined that the well-organized, striking workers had the upper hand in the middle of heating season. Most citizens were unaffected by the strike but on March 29, Nancy Willey should have taken notice when in a proposal from Roland Millwork Company a disclaimer read: “All agreements are contingent upon fire, strikes, accidents or delays unavailable or beyond our control.”
Two: A Surprise Attack
June 26 arrived with a sense of relief, as Nancy was able to report to Taliesin by Western Union telegram: “GROUND BROKEN TODAY GIVE THREE CHEERS”
However, that same day, Nancy encountered her first real bump in the road, a neighbor who took issue with her house being “unusual,” also for being erected on what was once the de facto playground for neighborhood kids, and out of trepidation that the looming brick walls would block the shared southern vista of the neighborhood. Nancy described the situation to her mother in a letter:
We had a little conference over the setting of the stakes to mark the lines of the brick walls and we decided to move the line in a foot, a foot more than the law required, in order to be not so close to the neighbors line for their sake. So we were off. The workmen reported that the second neighbor down was disgruntled about something so I made a mental note to go in and see her … I had already seen half of that family, the old lady, but when I had called to show the plans, the daughter had been out.
Tuesday afternoon I walked in to the lion’s den. Do you remember those horrid fairy stories we used to read, where there was a dragon whose breath breathed fire that scorched up the countryside. Well, the second neighbor down is the original. I ran in to the most scorching hate I have ever thrust my little neck into in my life. All the bitterness of all the prejudices that any one can have toward some one who is different … she hadn’t seen either M. and me; she had been told that we were building a house that stretched completely across the lot length shutting off the view from anybody else’s enjoyment and shutting ourselves off from everyone else in the neighborhood, turning our back on the neighborhood, with a great brick wall without any windows in it … and the lord only knows what would go on behind that brick wall, for that Frank Lloyd Wright has a bad reputation etc. etc. etc. … You can see how she conjured us up as the meanest people in the world and greatly to be suspected. The mores in community life are that you live your life under the eyes of your neighbor, backyard front yard etc. Of course my house doesn’t do that … not so much in search of privacy altho [sic] that I like, no question, but for reason that toward the south away from my neighbors is the most magnificent view in Minneapolis and naturally the house was built around that gorgeous outlook and to enjoy it in every nook of the house, Frank Lloyd Wright being what he is, he would of course build a house that way.
The Willey House did not conform to the standard setback of every other residence on the street. In addition, since it was the last house at the end of Bedford, and was turned 90˚ away from the street to take full advantage of the sweeping view to the south, it was perfect response to the site. But the irate neighbor could not understand why anyone would desire a house that was different from the other neighbors. Her suspicions ran amuck, then degenerated into panic, which quickly blossomed into a full-blown umbrage against the Willeys and what she perceived to be their monstrosity-in-progress.
… every gesture of friendliness was misunderstood and she thought it was a cunning attempt to get around her and put something over on the neighborhood. I never have run into such a blank wall of misunderstanding in my whole life. We practically started with no grounds at all forever bridging it. What the house meant to me … modern architecture, new ideals for houses, all that, why a house could not be just cut up and changed and switched around, why it had to be exactly as it was, why cutting off 7 feet anywhere would deform it impossibly, all that of course were outside her experience or why I should prefer my garden not to be under the eyes of my neighbors, all that was outside of her horizon, and instead she had all these expectations and demands which seemed to her RIGHT as RIGHT as Moses and yet which if she prevailed would utterly annihilate me and what I was trying to do and have in the house. Her Rightness demanded that nobody ever put up a house that was very different from anyone else’s; this she said outright … why couldn’t I be satisfied with a house like the other people had put up. Uniformity in housing was the only way to make a neighborhood look good; and uniformity meant of course all the houses like hers. She incidentally had built hers just exactly like her neighbor’s, which had just been put up a little previously … a stucco make-believe English.
Nancy had done her due diligence, attaining proper approvals and variances, but the neighbor threatened to take legal action if necessary. Due to her fervent adamancy, Nancy looked for the weakness in her case and came to believe she had a potential liability of the 7 feet closest to the street.
Well it was all very unpleasant, as unpleasant as anything I know. She was very vindictive and threatened to make it “as difficult as was within her power,” which meant injunctions, permits revoked damage suits etc. etc. Well, there were two very unpleasant things about it.
One. That tho I had complied with the rules and regulations all along the line and had duly obtained a city permit … the whole business of obtaining a permit was so complex, there were so many rules and regulations and special permits necessary, that I had spent weeks and weeks in just that, literally, that when all was said and done I was within the law, but with so many ins and outs to the laws, I did not feel at all sure that anyone bent on making trouble couldn’t succeed in making a lot of legal trouble.
But secondly, what was the most distressing part of it was that my conscience was actually shaken. I did begin to feel like the meanest man in the world … perhaps I had been very un-thoughtful and unkind and unsocial in not taking into consideration how my neighbors would feel. So … you see, we were turned upside down, both M. and me. Tuesday night I didn’t sleep all night thinking about it and deciding after all when one lived in mid America one could not ignore that fact even tho one thought one was at the end of a hill and therefore rather free. Wednesday M. stayed home and we talked and talked it over. I got F.L.W. on long distance and told him he had to cut the house seven feet, that was our legal vulnerability. He said, O.K. I’ll call you back. So Dahleen and M. and I chewed it all over; we mentally cut the house, rearranged it, omitted this and that and did everything only to end up each time with the conclusion that the house COULD not be changed; we’d rather give it up entirely. Then, Wright’s telegram came: “impossible to cut and save the house.” So that was final.
Nancy’s wrote of her mother’s response to the news: “ … my mother counseled me in regard to the lawsuit that it would be better to consider my neighbors than to follow my architect ‘who is bankrupt and in disrepute.’”
It is unlikely that Nancy and the “fire-breathing neighbor” assuaged their differences sufficiently to exchange Christmas cards, but at least no bricks were thrown, nor lawsuits filed. And despite the ostensible risks presented by the ongoing quandary, Nancy had her contractors forge bravely ahead:
All during the darkest hours of indecision we kept right on digging; we thought it would be better to have to pay the men a little extra for those days work than to seem to be stopped. So the hole kept getting bigger, and the trees that had to come down came down and trenches were dug, and now there is a cement “footing” (foundation) at the bottom of each trench and to-day, they will be putting in cement blocks … no, I guess more digging out of cellar space.
Malcolm was wonderful, kept his head when I was ready to collapse. And stood ready to pay for our folly, if it had been necessary and not blame it onto anybody. Well, I think we are alright now. Every day that goes by weakens the lady’s case … any judgment would be against her, if she stood by and watched us pile up expense before trying to stop it.
It’s a very thrilling thing to see your house all marked out in the earth and watch them plant deep its roots.
The irate neighbor’s objections were diminished after she understood she had misinterpreted the placement of stakes in the ground. But Nancy’s troubles were really just beginning.
Three: A Noble Cause
In Minneapolis a labor strike was brewing. The backdrop was painted in Charles Rumford Walker’s, American City: A Rank-and-File History. In it he wrote: “In the dark winters of 1932 and 1933, the gloomiest tales of bankruptcies and even fears of ‘impending anarchy’ had swept the drawing rooms of the empire builders. One prominent family, when gold fled the country and banks failed throughout the land, had gone abroad to await the collapse of the American economic system. That family was now back home enjoying the ‘normal recovery,’ which had already begun. The Depression had not hit Minneapolis manufacturers, as severely as it had in a dozen other Middle Western cities.” Big business in the Twin Cities found riding out the Depression no more difficult than the past four years of the policies of the Farmer-Labor party. Though business was in philosophical opposition, it enjoyed the subsidies provided by the “crackpots” of the New Deal. Minneapolis/St. Paul businesses, had, to date suffered far less labor unrest than other American cities. Provided a successful maintenance of the status quo could be maintained, prosperity seemed just around the corner. Yet, business leaders were apprehensive of national trends toward workers’ collective bargaining and unionization. So a business-friendly organization known as the Citizen’s Alliance was created in large part to discourage the organization of labor.
Twin Cities’ newspapers would side with of the Citizens Alliance in their slanted reportage. But rank-in-file workers, living below the poverty line had a worm’s eye view of the situation. Living standards for the working class had dropped to an historic low. “In 1932, eighty-six percent of the manufacturing plants in Minneapolis were operating at a loss. In the same year cost of living in the Twin Cities had dropped twenty percent but payrolls had unfortunately gone down by thirty-five percent. … By the spring of 1934 the unemployed and their dependents constituted almost a third of the population of Minneapolis and Hennepin County. Total farm income between the years of 1924 and 1929 averaged a healthy $370,000,000 per annum, but by 1932 that statistic fell to $160,000,000. Net incomes plummeted from an average of $177,000,000 down to a dismal $11,000,000.” Without any social safety net, organized labor seemed like the last hope for the lowly workingman, barely able to hold body and soul together.
The Federal Government attempted to intercede with a policy called the NIRA. The National Industrial Recovery Act was a program enacted into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt under the NRA, the National Recovery Administration. Both agency and act were created to bring business, government and workers together in order to establish fair labor practices. But the codes proved all too easy to circumvent. Fidelity to the law for Minneapolis businesses was little more than a charade. Businesses refused to negotiate directly with workers and far too often, once laborers, (who often toiled between 50 to 90 hours per week in order to make ends meet), joined trade unions, they lost their jobs. Still, the “open shops” of the past were challenged by a rank-in-file pushed beyond all reasonable limits. And as workers united, cracks began to lace the foundations of the empire’s Golden Age, a glorious era of prosperity built upon the backs of the lowly workingman.
In 1930 the Farmer-Labor party won political power in Minnesota thanks in large part to farmers, small business owners and workers. The labor-friendly Governor, Floyd B. Olson even held a mass meeting at the Shubert Theatre where he urged truckers to “organize and fight for their demands.”
It proved to be a remarkable moment in Minnesota history. Consequently, in February of 1934 the first trucker’s strike broke out in the coal yards of Minneapolis, paralyzing a city in need of winter fuel. According to MNopedia, it was here that, “Organizers created their plan of action with surgical precision. ‘A map of the coal yards of Minneapolis was prepared, and mimeographed instructions were issued to picket captains prior to the strike and within three hours sixty-five coal yards out of sixty-seven, covering the area of ten square miles, were ‘closed up tight as a bull’s eye in fly time.’” The strike was quickly resolved with a contract for better wages. Karl Skoglund and the Dunne brothers (Vincent R. Dunne, Miles Dunne, Ray Dunne, Grant Dunne) arose from this initial strike with well-deserved reputations as potent labor leaders. Their highly effective militant tactics were recorded and refined for use as a template for the inevitable strikes to come. One of the most innovative tactics, the brainchild of rank-and-file coal movers, was the invention of “cruising picket squads,” the stratagem was copied in labor struggles across the nation. The success of the coal strike drew workers to Minneapolis unions like ants to a picnic.
“If capitalism is fair then unionism must be. If men can capitalize their ideas and the resources of their country, then that implies the right of men to capitalize their labor.”
—Frank Lloyd Wright
Nancy Willey was quite aware of the Teamsters union, their plight, demands and the likelihood of a strike, though rarely broached the topic of a potential strike with Taliesin and certainly never openly betrayed her feelings about it in correspondence. But Nancy hinted at her allegiance when describing the glorious scene one day as “an 18-block labor parade with two planes overhead trailing banners for Local 574” marched through the city. Despite her esprit de corps, she remained mute on the subject in her letters.
Strike headquarters was a massive facility located at 1900 Chicago Ave, just a little over 3 miles from the Willey House jobsite. The building was strategically located on Chicago Ave where East 19th St ran directly into the center of the building so exiting vehicles could be directed in any of three directions. “Strike Headquarters of the General Driver’s Union Local 574” was displayed in foot-high letters outside. From this central location, the site of a former automotive facility, pickets were dispatched to the particular “front” of the moment. Strike operations and headquarters protocols were coordinated with a military precision. The “brain center” of operations was the dispatcher’s office.
Twenty-four hours a day, men stood at 4 telephones that gushed a steady stream of information. Roving picket captains, incessantly on-the-move, had instructions to phone in every ten minutes from a known point, which was then duly charted on a map. A captain in need might say, “Have only ten pickets. Send help,” and the dispatcher could instantly respond by sending vehicles. A minimum of 500 men waited at strike headquarters at any given time. Because the building housed a large food service and field hospital, cars were pushed out into the street before engines were started. Departing picket captains received written instructions when they were launched from headquarters. Within a few days the police began to tap the phones and so messages were encoded.
An additional level of information was collected and relayed to headquarters by a squad of fast moving motorcycles that cruised city streets, alert for scab truckers. During the strike, union pickets effectively guarded 50 roads entering and leaving the city to prevent trucks from moving goods. To keep the striker’s fleet in good working order, headquarters also featured a full machine shop staffed with 15 auto mechanics.
As many as 10,000 pickets and family members were fed at headquarters during the duration of the strike by a crew of 120 women under the direction of two chefs who prepared meals in what was a former car wash.
Injured strikers avoided hospitals, preferring to be treated at headquarters. At least one badly injured picket escaped his bed after being taken to a local hospital and limped his way back to 1900 Chicago.
Security at the strike headquarters was high. As many as four guards were posted, round-the-clock, at every door, while on the roof, four watchmen armed with Tommy guns maintained a 24-hour vigilance.
Despite the distortions of the local press, 65% of the populous was sympathetic to the strike. And many took to the streets to express their support. The funeral for Henry Ness, one of the pickets killed on “Bloody Friday” drew an estimated 50,000 people. Traffic in the city was reportedly snarled for hours.
Though people entering were carefully screened, at one point a “fink” infiltrated headquarters. He managed to send three cars full of men, and specifically directed women to join them, to the Tribune alley where they were ambushed and beaten in what came to be known as the “Alley Plot.” After that incident, the pickets decided to choose their own battleground and selected the Central Market, which became the scene of the final and most brutal battle of all.
The police augmented their ranks with a large force of thuggish, “deputized” officers enlisted by the Citizen’s Alliance. The Clark Woodenware Company was engaged to manufacture wooden saps for the deputized force. But fortunately, union pickets got wind of it and hijacked the truck full of weapons for their own use.
The strike officially began on May 16 and continued through the summer. It is fascinating to compare how the strike timeline aligns with Nancy’s conversations with Frank Lloyd Wright.
Wednesday, May 16
Police and private security guards beat strikers who attempted to prevent a truck from unloading. The police followed the strikers back to headquarters but were refused entry. The ensuing skirmish left two officers unconscious outside.
Monday, May 21
Hundreds of pickets armed with clubs rushed a truck attempting to leave a loading zone. The police whose forces were bolstered by newly deputized members of the Citizen’s Alliance attempted to stop them. But Local 574 sent a truckload of pickets into the crowd dividing the police forces and made it impossible for the police to fire upon them without shooting each other. The incident prompted other unions to strike in sympathy with the truckers.
Tuesday, May 22
Fighting broke out at the market district. The event became known as “The Battle of Deputies Run.” A large force of pickets drove police and their deputies from the market, but not before two of the “deputized” officers, C. Arthur Lyman and Peter Erath were cornered and killed.
Friday, May 25
Under pressured from the Governor, a tentative deal was reached. All workers would be reinstated and the Local 574 would represent truckers and helpers.
But by early June the agreement was shattered when the Citizen’s Alliance began to pressure businesses to discriminate against unionized workers and refused to negotiate with the union.
Tuesday, June 26
After a false start the previous day, ground was broken at 255 Bedford Street SE. Nancy sent a Western Union telegram to Taliesin reading: “GROUND BROKEN TODAY GIVE THREE CHEERS”
Thursday, June 28
Nancy wrote to her mother about the recalcitrant neighbor two doors down who threatened legal action to block construction.
Monday, July 9
Nancy wrote to Gene Masselink and mentioned the confrontation with the neighbor.
My dear Mr. Masselink,
I wish you could see the hill now. The foundation walls are nearly all around. The basement walls are up, at least the part of them that is concrete block.
We had a terrible head on collision with mid-America, or what … I scarcely know what we struck but it was fierce and terrible. It has all quieted down now I think. The worst of it was that after discounting all of the viciousness involved, I still did feel like quite a mean person for hogging all the glorious view instead of sharing it in a Christian brotherly fashion, as they seemed to expect that a good citizen would do! If the road is made around the edge of the hill, the citizens won’t feel quite so bad about our house; they will be able to see what goes on behind the brick wall! I believe the road will be made as there are two streets that need an outlet. It is impossible to alter the back line restriction as Mr. Wright suggested. We got a lot of legal advice, more legal advice I should say because I had looked pretty carefully into the thing in the first place, and we believe we are quite safe about the front line, So we are holding our ground. We had already granted another foot to the neighbors, so we are on the four-foot line to the north. I wish you could see it marked out on the ground; it shows its beauty already … well you can imagine. It is of course going to be beautiful beyond words.
Will you ask Mr. Wright to send the design for the corner stone, so that we can be ready. I would like to write something to go in it if he feels like it, and I would like him to help me think of a name for the house! …
In her writings Nancy Willey understates the scope of her actual accomplishments during the weeks of the strike. “My ’supervising’ activity was confined to such goals as naming the house and designing a cornerstone.” But her letters suggest otherwise. Instead, they seem to show no noticeable change in pace from any other period of construction. Which in some respects was a ruse. The corner stone is indeed the subject of numerous letters between Nancy and Taliesin during the strike. But that body of correspondence is the basis for another aspect of Willey House history and will be addressed at a later time.
Monday, July 9
Nancy updates her mother on the status of the house and neighbor relations:
Just a line to say all is quite well on our horizon now; the neighbors are won over at least to quietness and I don’t doubt soon enuf they will be very friendly; the two nearest neighbors are indeed very friendly and helpful already. It seems like not so much to have worried over now, tho actually they could have it in their power to turn our fun into a financial tragedy, so it was not imagination or mere sensitiveness, but I feel that it is all over and it is good to have had it at the beginning and gotten it over with.
She reveals her sentiments regarding Malcolm’s recent attainment of an official title.
Malcolm appreciated your lovely letter to him. I was glad you wrote, for it only happens once and I was glad for him to get a little fuss made over him out of it. I myself find it hard to “accept”, even tho it is so terribly useful to the building of the house. I seem to have a resistance to titles and labels and statuses. I want to be free and individual. So I seem to feel it, being dean, more of a danger than a triumph, so I’m glad for other people to send him congratulations. I guess my fears are foolish, just my natural hanging back to life, like was going to high school with socks on and not giving up my dolls at twelve … trying to hold back on life and growth inevitable.
The house is coming along just fine. They have the two kinds of brick there now and this morning we went up and watched three brick layers and one helper lay down each brick and carefully smooth off the mortar like a chocolate cake and test the lines for trueness and plumb-ness in all directions. Certainly a grain-by-grain process … to think the huge buildings all being laid brick by brick deliberately by hand. The view from the house is simply gorgeous, it is really a magnificent thing the house and its location. Gee I haven’t sent you the plans have I? I haven’t any extra copies now but soon I will have and I’ll send you a complete set …
Lots of love,
But to Gene Masselink on Thursday, July 12 Nancy appears to use the looming strike as leverage:
… It looks very much like another strike, so it behooves us to have no unnecessary delays, other than these “acts of god”!!!
With kind regards,
And Gene complies on Saturday, July 14 with specification details:
My dear Mrs. Willey:
Details for items 1-12 (no. 2 was crossed out before we received copy) will be sent to you as soon as they are finished. (In a day or two) … He goes on to provide details on the garage opening 6′ – 9″ in height, standard door heights, all doors 6-6 high, mill and plaster details, soffit height 6-6 1/8”, plaster corner bead details and the like.
The dining room table is designed and will be sent on shortly. However, there is a question about the chairs. Mr. Wright suggests cane chairs, but in the meantime is designing hassocks (ottoman).
Let us know your preference—or wishes in the matter.
THE TALIESIN FELLOWSHIP: SPRING GREEN: WISCONSIN
Monday, July 16
Workers voted to strike. Police Chief Johannes issued shotguns and slugs to the strikebreaking forces and encouraged their use.
Nancy recounted decades later:
On July 16th the unions struck again. Our builders had not expected to be idle during the summer. Mr. Dahleen was our main contractor, but also head carpenter, standing hammer in hand to earn wages. Mr. Blenoff, contractor for bricklaying, was also head bricklayer and waiting to lay bricks and earn wages. I shared their impatience as they shared mine. Soon, on July 20th, another battle erupted—on the streets, bringing deaths into the ranks of the leadership of 574 and others were also killed or wounded—the obscenity of it in this fair city!
Karl Jensen to Nancy on Tuesday, July 17:
Dear Mrs. Willey:
In the matter of hardware for your house Mr. Wright recommends that Sargent Hardware Co. in Chicago– both because of the quality of their product (which we use at Taliesin) and because they have proven to be very helpful to us in connection with the Fellowship. It seems that Mr. Wright went to the Leitz Co. and made a tentative selection? The representative of Sargent in Minneapolis is the Ben D. Straughan Hardware Co. and if no other arrangements have been made we recommend that you let them have the contract.
How is the outlook for lectures?
Very sincerely yours,
Karl E. Jensen. Secty.
Taliesin: Spring Green: Wis. July 17
Unpopular with the young Fellowship, Karl Jensen was soon to be succeeded by Eugene Masselink. Jensen was now mostly charged with securing lectures for Wright to generate much-needed cash flow. As an aside, the Ben D. Straughan Hardware Co. Jensen made mention of is still in business and has records of the Willey’s purchases for the house. Incidentally, the hardware and original Sargent locksets purchased from Straughan in 1934 remain in use today.
Another letter was sent on Tuesday, July 17, this one from Masselink who seemed to be still reacting to Nancy’s pressure:
My dear Mrs. Willey:
The millwork details go back to the millwork company today! Enclosed is the GARAGE FLOOR DETAIL!
Item: brick sills like copings are to be laid level and flush with wall and slope up to frame as per detail—of cement.
Mr. Wright suggests as a descriptive name of the house: THE
GARDEN WALL. …
Drawings and details for the table and chairs are being sent in this mail – God willing (!)
THE TALIESIN FELLOWSHIP: SPRING GREEN: WISCONSIN
Tuesday, July 17
Nancy offers a lukewarm response to the question of hassocks and there is no talk of the strike:
I do not know what to say about the chairs. I have never used hassocks for sitting at table, and I’m afraid I am lazy for wanting to have a back to my chair, but you know how much I like to try anything Mr. Wright suggests. Let me know more about it. I’m not sure that I know what a hassock is.
July 17, 1934
Tuesday, July 17
The strike resumed. Governor Olson mobilized, but did not deploy the National Guard.
Wednesday, July 18
Nancy comments on the cornerstone and continues to convey the builders’ requests for details. But again, no word on the strike, nor the presence of the National Guard on the city streets.
… I shall be glad to see the table and chairs design.
I shall have to think a little about the corner stone …
Friday, July 20
Meanwhile, with an implied urgency, Masselink sends detail sheets for the fireplace and garage floor brick pattern:
Dear Mrs. Willey:
Details for the lighting of the chimney lantern pier—for the garage floor, etc.—and full details for the treatment of the wall in living room on the north side of the kitchen door are being made now.
WAITING FOR MORE QUESTIONS
THE TALIESIN FELLOWSHIP: SPRING GREEN: WISCONSIN: JULY 20th
Eugene Masselink (who feels like the villain in the “penny thriller”)
Friday, July 20 “Bloody Friday”
On this day a yellow truck drove into the central market escorted by fifty armed police. A vehicle carrying pickets wielding clubs blocked the truck. Police fired upon the blockade with shotguns and then turned their fire into the crowds of pickets assembled in the surrounding area. Fearless strikers ran directly into the line of police fire. When the smoke cleared on “Bloody Friday” two of the pickets; Henry Ness and John Belor lost their lives. 67 others were wounded. Except for wooden clubs, the protesting pickets were unarmed. Despite this, the police, whose safety was never in question, shot to kill.
The result of this use of deadly force by Minneapolis police was to rally further support from other unions. A public appalled by the atrocity of the actions called for the resignation of Police Chief Mike Johannes (who left office in 1935) and Mayor A. G. Bainbridge (who left office in 1936). Going forward, the union instructed pickets not to give authorities any justification for another violent attack. Though police continued to escort trucks they were never very successful in completing deliveries.
The final event that unfolded on July 20 in the Market District, occurred at a site midway between the modern day baseball stadium, Target Field and Municipal Parking Ramp B, in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis.
Monday, July 23 a letter from Gene, obviously unaware of the riots in Minneapolis:
I have not tackled Mr. Wright as yet about the “table separable from the wall.” Gurdjieff has been at Taliesin over the weekend and naturally it was difficult to broach business questions. However, I shall ask him about that matter tonight and write you in the morning.
You would have enjoyed meeting Gurdjieff. He is a powerful individual. We heard some of his music and Mr. Wright read from the introduction of his book.
I am enclosing a belated copy of the SPRING GREEN HOME NEWS.
By the way, is there a murder in the penny thriller? If so, should I send my preferences in regard to the handling of my disposal?
THE RADIATOR SYSTEM THEN AND THE AIR CONDITIONING DECISION – ?
THE TALIESIN FELLOWSHIP
SPRING GREEN: WISCONSIN
Wednesday, July 25
Nancy writes to Gene Masselink. She and her builders have countless technical issues to resolve with Wright, even mundane questions like how the Willeys will dispose of their garbage. Her request may explain the addition of a masonry step from the bedroom terrace to the garden. She spends little time recounting the impediments of the strike and devotes no time the deadly events to Taliesin:
… But the next question will be the hardest to ask Mr. Wright. Can Taliesin offer some suggestions to solve the lowly problem of garbage disposal? The city REQUIRES (and this cannot be changed) that the large can be placed on the alley (east side of house). Our kitchen is on the front and we can get to the alley best by going down Bedford to Sharon St. and up the alley again … but it seems a little long. Of course we could go through the house and out the door in the bedroom, but at that a couple of steps down would be necessary additions. We can cross the terrace to the foot of the garden wall, but it is a long way to shovel a path in the snow.
Reading this, Mr. Willey thinks a goat in the garage is the only solution! You see the house is really going up and we are in high spirits about it.
A truckload of white brick smuggled in last night … think of it! Enuf firebrick carried in by private cars to keep three brick layers going. In spite of several days lost by heat and strike we are a little ahead of schedule.
We enjoyed the news of Taliesin both in your letter and in the Spring Green News.
July 25, 1934
The firebrick Nancy was so delighted to have received will be torn out and replaced with the alternating course of red brick in the days to come, after Edgar Tafel and Yen Liang make a site visit and bring their photos back to Taliesin.
After a week, on Wednesday, July 25 Nancy responds to Karl Jensen’s lecture request:
My dear Mr. Jensen,
About the lecture–––the University schedule for fall is still undecided but in the making. We shall be alert to any opportunity to place Mr. Wright at the University.
Thank you for your suggestion about hardware. We are following it up. In fact we purchased a mailbox from the Ben D. Straughan Hardware Co. today.
Thursday, July 26
To prevent further loss of life, Governor Olson declared Martial Law and mobilized 4,000 National Guardsmen. As a consequence, the National Guard began issuing operating permits to truck drivers allowing the movement of some goods again.
Friday, July 27
The flow of questions and answers continued unabated with no indication that work had been inhibited in any way, and absolutely no mention is made of the city under Marshall Law:
Dear Mr. Masselink,
The deck details just arrived.
I am sending, enclosed, the sink specifications. This is a “Standard” but it is the same as the “Crane”. I am actually choosing Crane fixtures, but the Crane portfolio is in the hands of the plumber now. I will send it when it returns to me. The space for the sink was not big enough for a double drain sink, by 8″, I think.
While considering this detail will you ask Mr. Wright to consider also a place for a light over the sink?
I have planned to have a bracket light in three places instead of a center light on the ceiling, which would be very high in this kitchen.
1) over the stove: this is possible because we have chosen a flat top stove; the oven is under the top surface, 36″ high (Incidentally it is a very handsome stove, in black and white … has honest lines!)
2) over the working space shelf.
3) over the sink. But this I can find no place for.
Friday, July 28
Meanwhile, Karl Jensen persists in his quest for lecture dates for Wright:
Dear Mrs. Willey: The lecture for Mr. Wright at the Minneapolis Women’s Club has been arranged for October 30th … But the Art Institute cannot commit themselves till January. I told them this was possible providing we could obtain another booking for a consecutive date in January. This date could be made with the University. I believe in view of the rest that the fee would only be $195. Does this changed arrangement strike you as feasible and will you let me know about the possibilities?
(Handwritten note) “The final arrangement for Minneapolis lectures are:
Women’s Club – Tuesday Dec. 11 –
Art Institute – Tuesday March 19 –
Can you arrange for a University date on any date preceding or following these?”
Karl E. Jensen: Secty.
Taliesin Spring Green: Wis. July 28th. 1934.
Tuesday, Aug 2
A letter from Gene Masselink:
Dear Mrs. Willey:
Mr. Wright’s suggestion for garbage disposal: “Garbage in paper container to be burned in the furnace in winter. Can outside wall on alley in summer reached by walking on space left next neighbor.”
This from Karl Jensen:
If the University is interested in lecture – then March 18th or 20th would be best because Mr. Wright has engagement at the Institute for the 19th. In this case – fee of $125.00. Otherwise $150.00.
THE TALIESIN FELLOWSHIP
August 2nd, 1934
Monday, August 13
After first responding to an unsatisfactory solution for garbage disposal, her modern ideas for telephone placement and more about the house name and cornerstone, Nancy finally expresses some frustration at delays caused by the strike, but only in the past tense:
Dear Mr. Masselink,
… I don’t think the suggestions about the garbage are very good. One of the disadvantages of oil furnaces over coal is that they will not incinerate anything but oil. As for going to the alley by the north side, one has to travel nearly to the sidewalk and then mount up the banked lawn, and imagine coinciding with a caller! But don’t worry anymore, we’ll worry along somehow and keep the secret dark. I’m really not much concerned.
I would like you to consult Mr. Wright about this suggestion for placing the telephone. I should like to place it in the coat closet! Half of the closet will do for coats, and the other half could have a shelf and stool and serve very well, I think for a phone booth. I should like it to be placed near the kitchen wall and have a little door through that partition so that the telephone could be reached from the kitchen as well, ie: telephone could be answered from the kitchen as well as from the living room.
About the corner stone, would this be possible? … Names or mottos will grow out of living in the house. Anything we want to put in the walls can be rolled in a pipe between the brick walls. I feel, too, that I would like the block to be in the house itself rather than the garden wall, since the existence of the wall is still dependent upon our luck with all the other expenses …
We were held up two solid weeks, now we have military permits and can get what we need. “No lady swears” but you can imagine what I’d like to say about the two weeks’ idleness, but this week will be a lively one up on the hill.
August 13, 1934
Friday, July 31
Nancy is far more candid in regards to the strike in a letter to her Mother:
Dear Mother, Yours and fathers letters don’t lack for news. There’s a whiff of salt air in every one of them too, not to mention a tantalizing smell of clams and seashells!
Are you reading something about our strike in the newspapers? It is probably better reported there than here as the local papers hate Gov. Olson so, they do not give the news fairly. Olson has put the city under Marshall Law and made very definite and courageous statements accusing the employers of rejecting the arbitration proposals and being responsible for the prolongation of the strike.
Which of course is all true. The word battle has been bitter and spicy. Olson is smart. I believe smart enuf for the situation, tho that is asking a lot, for it’s a tuff situation. Time will tell. In the meantime the moss and the ivy threatens to grow over our beginning enterprise, the Frank Lloyd Wright house! We are absolutely held up now; we need sand and frames and steel and brick and concrete block all at once … and we can’t take a chance on bootlegging, with the militia!
Now we are going to catch up to you … we too are going to get a look at the president. We are going to go to Rochester next Wednesday, when he will make a speech there. There’ll be crowds I suppose, but I think we’ll have fun …
It certainly was thrilling to see the house grow, and it would be growing fast if it had the chance. The brickwork goes fast, ordinarily. The chimney was half done, and you can see just how the fireplace will be. The near neighbor is very friendly and we pleasantly spend a half a day up there sitting on a pile of brick, discussing the affairs of the nation … the neighbors, the contractor and Malcolm, under a scrawny oak tree …
Lots of love,
Wednesday, August 1
The National Guard stormed strike headquarters and seized control of the building. Union leaders were rounded up and locked in a stockade at the state fairgrounds, like barnyard animals.
A token raid was made on the headquarters of the Citizen’s Alliance as well, all parties released.
The frustrated Governor broke the strike and forced both sides to the bargaining table. He declared that he would stop all trucks by midnight August 5, if no settlement was reached between business and the union.
But not until August 21 was a final settlement worked out, with the help of a federal mediator. The settlement, once ratified put an end to employer’s resistance to unionization in the Twin Cities and the overwhelming influence of the Citizen’s Alliance. The Cities reputation as a “scab town” was replaced by a strong union support.
The strike was formally declared ended on August 22, 1934.
A coalition was formed between local labor leaders and the Trotsky Communist League of America (that later founded the Socialist Worker’s Party).
The Minneapolis Teamster’s Strike, along with the 1934 West Coast Long Shore Strike and the Toledo Auto-Lite Strike led by the American Workers Party made history as important catalysts for the rise of industrial unionism in the 1930s.
Wednesday, August 22
Again Nancy leads with construction detail questions before news of the strike:
My dear Mr. Masselink,
The roof is started and here’s a problem: What do we do with the ribbon below rafter line in ceiling of bedrooms and study? Since the ridgepole calls for 6″ timber according to the plan and the rafters call for 4″ timber, there is a space of about 2″ on the ridgepole beneath the rafters? Should not the rafters be 6″ so as to bring the ceiling into an angle. This can easily be pieced out by nailing onto the 4″ rafters, which are already in place. Unless this is done we see no way of covering the ribbon except by arching it, which if we understand Mr. Wright will never be tolerated.
A second question involves the north wall of the kitchen. According to the plan the part of the wall which is exposed brick is marked 8.” Under the windows is marked plaster. The window frames being fitted to the plaster surface is 2″ out from the brick surface. Shall the difference be taken up by a piece of casing?
P.S. The strike is over!
The first question demands immediate answer.
Time and again, Nancy’s reportage on the crippling effects of labor strike, were downplayed in her communiqués to Taliesin. Without a doubt there were times that vital materials were unavailable to the contractors, paralyzing progress for days on end, yet no mention of any of it. Nancy’s reaction to the mounting crisis was to continue to press for details from Wright as if nothing was amiss, hoping her builders could somehow remain productive.
Not only was the strike a hindrance to construction, but by any measure, it would have been disquieting, if not in fact perilous, to residents in those weeks. Consider the revealing titles of some of my source material, The City of Tension, for American City: A Rank-and-File History, Charles Rumford Walker, 1937, Women Active on the Firing Line, William Kitt, Eternal Vigilance, from the Daily Strike Bulletin, August 6, 1934, James P. Cannon.
Though the Minneapolis summer of 1934 featured no helicopters overhead, drifting tear gas clouds, armored vehicles or flash bang grenades to subvert the assembly of unruly crowds, in a show of force the National Guard rolled through the streets in convoys as they do now. Minneapolis Police armed with real guns, loaded with live ammunition aimed directly at the pickets. And there was no hesitation to use deadly force on “Bloody Friday” as the struggle reached its violent climax.
In a recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, addressing the psychological toll of the Minneapolis protests, a psychologist was quoted as saying that similar to PTSD, post-traumatic stress syndrome in warfare, people need not be directly in the line of fire to suffer the same emotional damage as those who are. Simply stated, living in an environment of chaos and hostility has exactly the same effect on a person as for those who are directly in harm’s way. During the trucker’s strike, it would have been impossible to ignore the degree of tensity strumming upon the nerves of Minneapolitans. The accumulated stress would have left an indelible impression.
A further pressure on the already explosive environment came courtesy of the summer season itself. The teamster’s strike culminated during one of the hottest Minnesota summers on record. According to the Minnesota Climatology Office in the days around “Bloody Friday” the heat and humidity were unbearably high. July 21 was recorded at 106 degrees, July 22, 105 degrees and July 23 topped 104 degrees. The climate was primed and tempers were ready to blow. In the dog days of a hot and humid Midwestern summer, conditions like these can turn even the sweetest of dispositions instantly homicidal.
So, is it possible that Nancy Willey was tone deaf to the plight of the striking workers? Was she simply above it all? I read and reread those letters dozens of times through the years and sensed no significant disruption, nor sense of panic in her depictions of the strike. Her portrayals of the trucker’s strike to Taliesin seem like they existed on a separate plane of reality, removed from the actual situation on the ground. The question arises more from the things she does not share in her contemporaneous correspondence, as from what she does say. Though Nancy used the threat of strike as gentle persuasion she was careful to avoid spooking Wright with too much information about what was happening, out of concern it would disrupt the flow of detail sheets and decisions. Puzzling, but there are other, more complicated explanations as to why she seemed so oblivious to the threats before her.
It must be understood that Nancy was keenly aware of the day-by-day on the strike front. First, she was on the jobsite from morning ‘til night, alongside the carpenters and masons and other tradespeople busily erecting her house. The strike would have certainly been a hot topic and a serious concern for all of them with a near-constant worry over delivery of building materials. We can confirm her perpetual onsite presence because Wright failed to send anyone to supervise construction. So Nancy found herself in a position, which incidentally she “enjoyed immensely,” of being facilitator between contractors and architect, sending and fielding as many as three or four letters daily, each seeking answers more urgent than the last.
And also because her builder, A. C. Dahleen, insisted upon her regular presence, to fend off the continuous onslaught of inquiries from the gawkers that kept him distracted from putting hammer to nail. Nancy even spent some overnights at the house to prevent neighborhood kids from damaging the fresh plaster. Second, Nancy was well informed and politically aware, as was made abundantly clear in letters to her mother. Third, Nancy and Malcolm were self-described “liberals.” Her sympathies, like Malcolm’s, would have been in the camp of the underdog. Fourth, Nancy’s best friends were directly involved, volunteering at strike headquarters, and Fifth, reflecting back, later in life Nancy tells us exactly where her allegiances were. Even though she was determined to get her house built no matter what, she was sympathetic to the strikers.
In an unpublished piece Nancy wrote:
“I never doubted the worth of my project. But the strike upset me. To this day, I am capable of blurting out inappropriately, “What do you do with your social conscience?”
“In this strike the public pulse was stirred to be on the strikers’ side, and sympathizers would march with them.
The employers and bankers were well organized too. Their collective strength was known as The Citizen’s Alliance, and this was their first militant challenge from labor for over a decade. Its outcome would be watched—in the East especially—by the “Communist organizers.” That tricky label! No wonder the stakes were high.”
Strikers were sometimes labeled Trotskyists. The American Communist movement, prominent in the ‘30s, took a great interest in the labor movement and socialism became a faction in unionization. So did crime syndicates. Racketeers would take cues from the tactics of organized labor. In later years they sought to influence or corrupt labor unions for the purposes of extortion and bribery under the guise of labor negotiations. Here they had ringside seats. It so happens the Twin City of St. Paul had long been a safe haven for organized crime figures. Their presence was tolerated as long as their nefarious activities took place outside city limits, but the Teamsters of 1934 simply wanted to survive. Nancy continued:
… Minneapolis Local 574 had drawn into action a range of occupations, uniting immigrant and native, skilled and unskilled, employed and unemployed of many racial origins. All that diversity—united and trustful of its leadership! The women knew where they should be and they were there. I felt the bigness of it.
Nancy laid out a timeline and described April as “a fast moving month!” She wrote:
Mr. Wright catches pace with it and thinks he’d better come up and settle things. Which he does near the end of May. He talks to the builders, visits the site, and gives his blessing. Then we are ready to build. But, we can get no bricks, no lumber, no materials of any kind delivered to the site. That unhappy circumstance, Malcolm and I accepted as we had to.
If she accepted the realities of the strike how do we account for Nancy’s silence?
Perhaps as I suggested, she did not want to give Wright any cause to procrastinate on the details of her house. Maybe she did not want to openly side with the strikers if that threatened relations with her builders. Or worse if her position on the strike negatively impacted Malcolm’s standing at the University of Minnesota. One reason Malcolm left the design and realization of their dream home entirely up to Nancy was to keep her out of trouble, the kind of “good trouble” her conscience was likely to lead her into. Which brings us to a very particular, threat to her administrator husband that emanated from a mentor and close friend of Nancy’s, one Meridel Le Sueur.
Four: The Voice of Conscience
Long before her house plans, Nancy Willey, along with her good friend, Doris Kirkpatrick decided to join a group of faculty wives, interested in expanding their horizons and sharing new experiences. Their informal collective became known as the “Female Improvement Society,“ affectionately named by one of the husbands, a telling sign of the times. One of the avenues of enrichment they ventured down was a creative writing class. Teaching the class was a woman named Meridel Le Sueur. Nancy who grew up in Brooklyn, New York was hardly naïve. A big city girl, she didn’t lead a particularly sheltered life, but her worldview was profoundly altered after encountering Le Sueur. Entering the class with the intention of becoming a “writer with a capital W,” she instead found that the sessions opened for her a portal into “a whole new world I’d never dreamed of.”
Meridel Le Sueur was unlike anyone Nancy had previously known. Her attitudes toward social awareness and political activism exposed Nancy Willey to an alternate worldview. She described this newly found, exotic force of nature as “a beautiful person with a beautiful voice. In an essay about the strike Nancy described her relationship to Le Sueur: “My friends Meridel and Doris were down there at strike headquarters, helping. Meridel was the beguiling iconoclast of my writing class, who had made real the lives of people we’d rather forget, on farms, in cities … women, children and men in poverty, the despair we know of but prefer not to see. She was a Midwesterner whose family traditions were of the labor union and its warfare. Through her I felt the great ethic of the American labor movement, a natural right-ness such as one could feel about the vision of saving American wilderness.” Everyone has a moment in their lives when events or circumstances elevate them to adulthood. For me, the transfiguration occurred while hitchhiking the American west and Mexico, which eventually delivered me into the arms of a collectively run, vegetarian restaurant in Minneapolis, where everything ended and began, and all things intersect. Nancy’s transfiguration came as an epiphany, with the startling revelation of the unseen and voiceless people inhabiting a previously unknown stratum of society. This portal opened to her in an unassuming, creative writing class offered by Meridel Le Sueur.
In a video taped interview from February of 1996, conducted by Lief Anderson and recorded by John Clouse, Nancy Willey stated that she had “ideas about worker’s rights that she tried to live up to.” She explained “My mentor Meridel and close friend Doris Kirkpatrick and others of the writing class, joined the soup kitchen for the strikers.” Though Nancy’s heart was with the laboring class, she “wanted to get the house built.” “We stopped and waited for a whole month.” Conflicted, Nancy found the situation “emotionally disruptive” but still took time out to be supportive of the strikers. The circumstance of having friends directly involved on the front lines of a violent labor strike put Nancy at odds with Malcolm’s aspirations. She reported, “University people could not condone violence. Striking was fine but tangling with the police was questionable.” Still, I suspect Nancy as ever, was guided by her better angels. She could not be at strike headquarters in the physical sense but may have provided some relief from behind the scenes. An account from Women on the Firing Line:
Another interesting angle to the situation was brought out when sympathizers began to offer their services. One young woman, a graduate of the University who had specialized in sociology came down to offer her services. She felt that the power of the women had not even been felt in this class struggle. A young couple, friends of the other girl, offered their services. Using these three as an advisory council, the officers of the auxiliary began to raise money.
Nancy did not graduate from the University of Minnesota but was certainly associated with it. She held a degree in Sociology from Barnard, she was a feminist, and her friends did indeed volunteer to help in whatever way they could. If indeed Nancy did provide this type of direct assistance to the strikers, it would have been, out of necessity a closely guarded secret. Thanks in part to the volunteers the Teamster’s fundraising efforts were ultimately successful. Even Governor Floyd B. Olson donated $500 to the strikers cause.
By Nancy’s description, Meridel Le Sueur “planted the seeds of distrust in anything considered smug or conventional.” From her perspective, the little writing class was conducted for those whom she termed the “over town people,” in other words, the wealthier class in Minneapolis. ”Though Meridel had a respect for Frank Lloyd Wright and his ideas, she suggested that while Nancy’s house “might be beautiful … it may be a trap,” a warning of the blinders of class privilege. “There was that in the wind,” Nancy lamented.
Meridel who did personally volunteer at strike headquarters provided insight into what it felt like to be drawn into the movement. She wrote a magnificent essay on her experience, I Was Marching, Minneapolis 1934.
Our merchant society is built upon a huge hypocrisy, a cut-throat competition which sets one man against the other and at the same time an ideology mouthing such word s as “Humanity,” Truth,” the “Golden Rule,” and such. Now in a crisis the word falls away and the skeleton of that action shows in terrific movement.
She described the transformation within herself as she came to be pulled into the center of the action, not as a solitary soul, but as part of something larger and more truly formidable.
The truth is I was afraid. Not of physical danger at all, but an awful fright of mixing, of losing myself, of being unknown and lost. I felt inferior. I felt no one would know me there, that all I had been trained to excel in would go unnoticed. I can’t describe what I felt, but perhaps it will come near it to say that I felt I excelled in competing with others and I knew instantly that these people were NOT competing at all, that they were acting in a strange, powerful trance of movement together. And I was filled with longing to act with them and with fear that I could not. I felt I was born out of every kind of life, thrown up alone, looking at other lonely people, a condition I had been in a habit of defending with various attitudes of cynicism, preciosity, defiance, and hatred.
… And it filled me with fear and awe and at the same time hope. I knew this action to be prophetic and indicative of future actions and I wanted to be part of it.
She outlined the fervor and breadth of the labor movement and the societal contradictions that still denied it.
Our life seems to be marked with a curious and muffled violence over America, but this action has always been in the dark, men and women dying obscurely, poor and poverty marked lives, but now from city to city runs this violence, into the open, and colossal happenings stand bare before our eyes, the street churning suddenly upon the pivot of mad violence, whole men suddenly spouting blood and running like sieves, another holding a dangling arm shot square off, a tall youngster, running tripping over his intestines, and one block away, in the burning sun, gay women shopping and a window dresser trying to decide whether to put green or red voile on a manikin.
But Nancy did not belong on either end of the scale Meridel described. She was neither oblivious to the situation nor was she inside the palpitating heart of the beast. Regardless of her sympathies, she simply answered another calling.
If the rift in Nancy’s conscience caused internal anguish, externally it played itself out in the relationship between Malcolm and Meridel. Politically, the Willeys were progressive. But Malcolm was on the rise in the administration at the University of Minnesota. Consequently, his need to conduct himself in a formal and professional manner increased in direct proportion to his elevated position at the University. In the name of propriety, subtle compromises were invariably made.
On one occasion, the free-spirited Le Sueur “happened to be in the neighborhood” and decided to drop by unannounced. Malcolm and Nancy were hosting dinner for some dignitaries and Nancy recalled, “I welcomed her.” Meridel came in, sat on the floor and took center stage, “talking in her beautiful, dramatic way.” Proud and inspired as Nancy was of her mentor, scenes like this one could be perceived as embarrassing to a young administrator hoping to impress.
Though Malcolm and Nancy took mutual joy in babysitting Meridel’s children on occasion, the record is unclear how thoroughly Malcolm embraced his wife’s friendship with this provocative firebrand. It is not hard to imagine Meridel’s far left ideology, her problematic political activism, and the spell she cast over Nancy may have been a nagging thorn in Malcolm’s side.
As Malcolm continued to mount rung after rung on the administrative ladder, Meridel slowly drifted out of Nancy’s life and Nancy out of Malcolm’s. The inherent conflict between a conventionalizing husband and radical mentor was a contributing factor to the eventual dissolution of Malcolm and Nancy’s marriage. But Nancy and Meridel continued to correspond by mail. Later in life they reunited when Nancy came back to Minneapolis in the 1990s to see the Willey House, then in the hands of Harvey Glanzer.
The New Riverside Café, a collectively run, vegetarian restaurant where I worked at the close of the 1970s, was on occasion frequented by the celebrated Meridel Le Sueur. When she dropped in, it was as if the Pope had arrived by flaming chariot to the sanctuary of a country church for communion. Le Sueur was legendary on the University’s bohemian West Bank and the Meridel Le Sueur Center for Social Justice was established there in her name. Nancy recounted in an oral history that on the occasion of Meridel’s 90rd birthday a famous folk singer came to celebrate it with her. The weekend long celebration took place in February 1990. That folk singer was Pete Seeger who kicked things off by performing a benefit concert in her honor. Nancy Willey was there among the celebrants. By a strange coincidence, I saw him arrive at the airport while picking up a colleague of mine who printed fine art catalogs for a New York Gallery, in Minneapolis. Waiting at the gate, back when that was possible, for my friend Mark to disembark (yes, the same one whose Jeep I demolished), Pete Seeger emerged from the jetbridge. That was 1990, the year of Meridel’s 90rd birthday party, a dozen years before I knew of Nancy or her house.
In the text of an Oral History recorded by Indira Berndtson, Nancy spoke of her life, “I have a radical streak in me that’s frustrated—nothing much I can do about that in the circumstance in which I am fortunate enough to be living…” In that same 1995 Oral History interview she lamented about the direction the country was taking. Referring to the Republican lead congress she said, “It’s going to a mean-spirited concept … I don’t know. I dread it.” As we can see today, her concerns were not ill-founded. When asked by Indira, if she thought most people are powerless to do things, or if she thought each person can still make a difference in some way? Nancy responded, “Well, I still think that one person can make a difference, and that it pays to try. It may be a little risky…or VERY RISKY, depending on how hard you try.” Nancy, clearly a woman of conscience, didn’t give herself nearly enough credit for the risks she herself took and the rewards reaped, not by her, as much as by tens of thousands of American homeowners, long after the fact.
Five: A Sense of Purpose
At the beginning of a video interview done by Leif Anderson and John Clouse, Nancy Willey points out:
I am fond of saying I have hurdled three barriers:
Gender—because I was in a man’s world of construction.
Status—because I was in the working world, instead of the academic world.
And Timidity—It was fashionable to have an inferiority complex … and so I was working on that one.
As Anderson points out “That letter (to Wright) was not written by a timid person.” Nancy smiles and continues:
… But the real thrill was to be working with Frank Lloyd Wright. At that time the newspapers were merciless in exploiting, exaggerating and misunderstanding (him). In my point of view he could do no harm, because I had read the Autobiography
Nancy was modest to an extreme. But if she was as timid as she suggests, she was certainly able to overcome it when the situation required courage or ferocity. It is evident from everything she accomplished in life, that she could not have managed any of it without an abiding vision, passion and sense of purpose. It is also apparent she could play her cards close to her vest when necessary, her clever mis-directions in her letters to Wright and Masselink are perfect examples. And, it must have required a steely resolve for Nancy Willey to deny the human tragedies of the teamster’s plight to Wright while her two best friends were drawn in deep and stricken to their cores by the horrors and majesties of the movement. If Nancy seemed removed from the ground war it was only because she was altruistic to the core and had a greater good in mind. As far as the ideals she “tried to live up to,” regarding social injustice, she reminisced, “I think that my own emotional war on poverty went underground, so to speak, within me, frequently to spoil any complete enjoyment of good fortune.” Though Malcolm consoled her, “that you cannot escape conflicts and compromise, no matter who you are,” she felt some remorse that her life may have carried certain privileges not available to others.
The ever-competent Nancy was confronted by her own internal struggle between the direct action of hand-to-hand combat against societal injustice, and the deep-rooted proposition of accomplishing a vision for a better American future. Nancy was not a seasonal gardener in this respect. She was a landscape architect, in that the wisdom of her decisions could not be fully appreciated for decades to come. This internal struggle of hers presented her greatest obstacle, battling the perception that she had chosen the completion of a mere house over engaging in the real-world fight for human rights. But as Nancy reasoned, “Meridel could not know—because our house was not yet built—that Frank Lloyd Wright’s revolution would bring to millions the freedoms and beauty of a new kind of small home.” In the final analysis she was proven right. As Frank Lloyd Wright expressed in response to her request for a small house when she apologetically included, “I have little hope that you would take on anything so trivial that was also not near you,” he prophesized, “Nothing is trivial because it is not big.” A lesson he extrapolated from The Book of Tea, which reads: “Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.”
After leaving Malcolm, Minneapolis and her Frank Lloyd Wright house, Nancy returned to Sag Harbor, New York where her family maintained a summer home. As a founding member of the Old Sagg Harbour Committee she was instrumental in the preservation of elements from the 17th century whaling village, and later, she was prominent in the conservation the surrounding habitat as well. Wright called it a village of “Jeffersonian sepulchers,” chastising, “I warned you against the Sag Harbor influence!” She jokingly said, “I felt like Brutus.” Though Wright teased Nancy for her efforts to the save outmoded buildings that he himself would have gladly burned, he respected her for her probity. He also understood the role her determination played in his own career and they remained lifelong friends. His wife Olgivanna and Nancy, were separated by only four in age. Olgivanna was a pupil of George Gurdjieff at the Prieuré des Basses Loges in Avon. Gurdjieff, a spiritual seeker and teacher who defined his own, unique and complicated cosmology as well as a system for personal development he called “The Work,” expounded upon the value of internal struggle as a means to access pathways to spiritual growth. “Live a life of friction. Let yourself be disturbed s much as possible, but observe … When there is no friction there is no development.” Mrs. Wright elaborated on this aspect of Gudjieff’s belief system in her book The Struggle Within. In Olgivanna’s interpretation, internal conflict whether innate or externally imposed was necessary for spiritual advancement and development of character.
The noblest deeds known to us were born in suffering, without which nothing lasting seems ever to be achieved.
Nancy’s admission to her internal conflict was never meant as contrition to assuage a long festering guilt, nor was her decision-making unwitting or unconscious. She would have made exactly the same choices given a second chance because she innately understood the gravity of her undertaking. Like the strikers at Local 574, Nancy consciously chose her own battleground in the name of a better world that lie ahead. Meridel and Doris may have marched and served at strike headquarters but Nancy single-handedly conspired with the self-professed world’s greatest architect and helped him over the paradigmatic hurdles of designing for a new generation. Her rewarding partnership, though previously unacknowledged, helped to define Wright’s Usonian home and even more, created a roadmap for what was to become the ubiquitous, mid-century American Ranch House.
Nancy Willey’s stoic silence during the strike can only be explained in one way. Her tempered remarks are a consequence of pure discipline. For her, the stakes could not have been higher. She needed to prove to Malcolm, to her parents, to her contractors and workmen who came to respect her, to Wright whose approval she sought, and most of all to herself, that she could accomplish this undertaking. And so she would, at all costs, even if civil society was disintegrating around her ankles.
Seeking a model of resilience, Nancy needed look no further than to Wright himself. Remember how this story began? Frank Lloyd Wright suffered though the Depression, but he weathered the storm, as he always did with aplomb. He played the long game. When there were no architectural commissions, he’d earn money by writing and lecturing. Like an air fern he learned to thrive in times of plenty and survive through those roiled with adversity. Wright’s truest love was a woman he couldn’t marry. She was brutally murdered along with her children and several others while Wright was in Chicago. Taliesin itself was burned to the ground and rebuilt, twice. The estate was stolen by his second wife then repossessed by the bank. He was jailed crossing state lines accompanied by an unmarried woman and a minor, her daughter. Were that not enough in itself, Wright’s tawdry, personal affairs were put on public display regularly by the national press, thoroughly devastating his reputation, evidenced by Nancy’s mother and her fractious neighbor’s opinion of the man. In order to begin anew, he founded an architecture school though he didn’t want to teach. He authored his autobiography to take command of the narrative, clean up perceived distortions and possibly attract a new following. (Malcolm and Nancy incidentally, were the first young clients to respond to his clarion call.) Wright cultivated an extensive ground plan of subsistence farming on the acreage surrounding his home Taliesin where the Fellowship was put to work raising and growing everything they consumed from pork to turnips. Furthermore, they cut their own trees for lumber, chopped wood for heat. They quarried their own stone for building and slaked their own lime for mortar. With the possible exception of luxury automobiles Wright and the Fellowship were self-sufficient in every way.
If Wright could sail though the colossal calamities of his sordid life and bob back to the surface again and again, surely Nancy, his stalwart and trailblazing client would not let a little civil war disrupt her from achieving her singular aim. Nancy Willey lived what she believed though loath to fully admit it. She didn’t sit back and let someone else handle things. When necessary, she proved herself fully capable of taking up the yoke herself and pulling the plow.
If you’re curious to read more about Steve Sikora’s musings on the Malcolm Willey House, you can explore more than 19 different “Willey House Stories” about this home on the blog.
You can also watch our Wright Virtual Visits “Greatest Hits” video tours of the Malcolm Willey House: