July 28, 2018

Photo Essay: Is the Arizona Biltmore Actually a Frank Lloyd Wright? (Does It Matter?)

Maybe it's enough that Clark Gable and Carole Lombard honeymooned at the Biltmore in Phoenix...

...or that Ronald and Nancy Reagan celebrated their honeymoon there.

It's certainly has a storied history politically, with every president from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush having been a guest...

...and Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain conceding defeat on the lawn there.

But I didn't visit the Arizona Biltmore for any of that. I wasn't even that compelled to honor the legacy of the Wrigleys there, though they were heavily involved and built a mansion just up the hill, overlooking it.

To be honest, I squeezed the Biltmore into my last day in Phoenix for Frank Lloyd Wright, whose "Saguaro Forms and Cactus Flowers"design (which appeared on the cover of Liberty Magazine in 1926) was fabricated by Taliesin students into stained glass and installed as part of a 1973 restoration. (The hotel was renovated again by Taliesin Associated Architects in 1979, after a fire.)

That's the only real "official" tie that FLW had to the Biltmore—not the gold-leaf ceiling...

...nor the illuminated milkglass bricks...

...or even seemingly "Prairie-style" lighting fixtures on the upper mezzanine of the lobby.

Officially, Wright had nothing to do with how the hotel circumvented Prohibition in a men-only
smoking and drinking room up a back stairway and on the terrace—in the so-called "mystery room."

And yet, as I was skulking around the hotel resort on my own, opening unlocked doors and tiptoeing across perhaps that same terrace...

...all I could seem to find were signs and signals of Frank Lloyd Wright's involvement.

Officially, the architecture of the Biltmore is credited to a former draftsman for Wright in his Oak Park Studio, Albert Chase McArthur.

And Wright did design the inspiration for the "Biltmore Block," a geometric rendering of a freshly-cut crown of a palm tree.

But apparently McArthur modified so many contributions that Wright had made at the time—including creating 34 different pattern variations on the pre-cast blocks—that Wright repudiated any affiliation with the building once it was finished.

Reportedly, he was also unhappy with contractors who rebuked any suggestion of unconventional building methods (and wouldn't even test them).

Wright hated it so much that he declared the finished product "even worse" than he thought. Yet when it opened in 1929, it was widely considered the "Jewel of the Desert."

FLW changed his tune a bit after the resort was warmly received, further muddying the issue of how much he'd been involved.

Later, if you were to ask him whether he'd designed it—or how much of it he had—he'd more or less tell you, "Look at it. What do you think?"

Of course, it does look very much like a Frank Lloyd Wright-style design, with its textile blocks.

And apparently, the Aztec Room and cottages (some of which were refurbished in 1988) show few or no adjustments to whatever design Wright may have contributed or influenced initially.

The most recognizable Frank Lloyd Wright design at the Biltmore (besides the saguaro stained glass) may be the Sprites, designed in 1914 for the (now demolished) Midway Gardens in Chicago, and sculpted by Italian artist Alfonso Ianelli. Six new casts of the "Solemn Sprite" statue were added to the grounds in 1985.

But we can't forget about William Wrigley Jr., who'd initially invested in the Biltmore and became full owner in 1930. The Catalina Pool, opened 1940, was his idea—and it became infamous as Marilyn Monroe’s favorite pool (though likely not where Irving Berlin composed "White Christmas," despite claims to the contrary).

The Wrigley family sold the Biltmore in 1970, and it's now operated as a Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation embraces whatever affiliation FLW actually had with the construction of the hotel, and even contributed a Wright-inspired sculpture called "Wings of Phoenix" by Heloise Swaback from 1982.

We may never know what actually happened in Wright's collaboration with McArthur—but even if the Biltmore was merely inspired by FLW, it certainly feels like walking through the biggest of his textile block homes.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Frank Lloyd Wright Ennis House, Exterior (Updated for 2018)
Photo Essay: Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House, Interior (Updated for 2018)
Photo Essay: A Mansion Built By A Chewing Gum Fortune But Saved By Lunch Meat


  1. Nice photos...archives of 1929 drawings of Arizona Biltmore are at Arizona State University...all bear the title block of Albert Chase McArthur, licensed in Arizona in 1925 [Wright never got a license to practice so could only do non-residential design] The drawings are nothing like Wright's staff would do. When I was a visiting professor at Taliesin West and Taliesin in Spring Green, I searched drawings at all by Wright. The 1929 Architectural record feature article makes it clear this is an Albert Chase McArthur Building. I was hired in 197s by William Wesley peters and the FLW Foundation as one of 5 designers to produce permit drawings for the fire damages...I've studied the building and history thoroughly. Wright only consulted briefly on ONLY the textile block system...he was dismissed when it was learned he had lied about owning the patent on the textile block system.

  2. James. Do you know if Emry Kopta designed the actual block