Reflections of Frank Lloyd Wright's Youngest Apprentice

Vernon Swaback became Frank Lloyd Wright's apprentice when he was just 17. | Emily Balli

In early May, I took a tour of Taliesin West, architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and architecture school in Scottsdale. Like anyone who has the opportunity to visit, I was in awe of the architecture, beauty and history of the building. During the tour, the guide mentioned that there are only a handful of Wright’s apprentices still living. His youngest apprentice, Vernon Swaback, who worked aside Wright at just 17 years old, is one of them. He’s now in his late 70s and resides in Scottsdale, where he owns his own architecture and planning firm, Swaback Partners.

I got in touch with him and asked if he’d be interested talking about his experiences at Taliesin West. He graciously agreed, and before hanging up the phone, he mentioned that years back, he had written an article for Arizona Highways. I searched the archives and found his November 1988 article, Frank Lloyd Wright: A Personal Perspective. In the piece, he wrote eloquently about his experiences with, and observations of, his beloved mentor, a pioneer and innovator who is often named one of the greatest American architects.

Today, Swaback’s memories of Wright haven’t faded. When asked his experiences as a student at Taliesin West, Swaback lights up and speaks as if it were just yesterday that he was sitting at the drafting table with Wright.

Swaback grew up near Oak Park, Illinois, where Wright also lived for a time. Since high school, he says, he dreamt of one day working with Wright. Having visited and seen many of his buildings in Chicago, Swaback admired his work before he even knew his name. In October 1956, Wright unveiled his rendering of his famous (but never built) Mile High Illinois skyscraper in Chicago. Although Swaback didn’t truly meet Wright at that time, he did get a photo taken with him and the mayor of Chicago.

It was during the unveiling that Swaback had the chance to meet some of Wright’s apprentices. He knew he wanted to become one, and he wrote a letter to Wright, hoping to catch the attention of his architecture hero. Just months later, 17-year-old Swaback interviewed to be Wright’s apprentice at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin. His parents drove him to Wisconsin for his interview, and upon their arrival, they were ushered into Wright’s private studio.

“When [Wright] came in, it was like … I can’t explain it,” Swaback says. “It was just like, How in the world did an Earthling like me get to be in the same room as this person? I had pretty much assured my parents that I thought there was no way I would ever be selected. That’s not what I was thinking or hoping, but it helped them.”

At the time, he was studying architecture at the University of Illinois, and when Wright asked him why he wanted to leave the university, he answered the question in a way he never had before. “Because they’re beginning to teach preconceived ideas,” Swaback replied. He says Wright looked at his mother, and then at his father, and simply asked, “Where does he get it? From you … or from you?” Swaback says he knew then that he was in.

Later on that day, Wright, Swaback and his parents were outside and Wright stared up at the sky. “I was sure that my father expected him to say something like "e=mc2,” Swaback says, laughing. “And instead he said, ‘I’ve been watching that little cloud. Isn’t that wonderful?’ That was Frank Lloyd Wright. He was the simplest of men … not complicated, but brilliantly connected to the workings of nature, the aspirations of people and the difference between the space within or what something looks like.”

During his first two and a half years studying at Taliesin West, he worked directly with Wright on a number of projects. He slept in a tent outside and worked outdoors constantly. Swaback says every moment of every day with Wright was a lesson. It wasn’t just lessons in architecture. It was about how fragile beauty is, and about the importance of detail.

“From morning until night, it was just filled with meaning,” Swaback says. “There wasn’t anything we did that wasn’t purpose-centered. For example, when I slept in a tent, I would get more of an understanding of the cycles of nature, the climate, the movement of the sun. Walking from there and to breakfast, I would see the incredible creativity of the Sonoran Desert.”

He also says he appreciated how every apprentice at Taliesin West was treated as an equal, no matter where they came from.

“There were people here when I was here that were of royal birth and had a palace back in Italy,” Swaback says. “Others were the decedents of captains of industry and were multimillionaires, and I had nothing like that. The difference between that and a society elsewhere is that no one would know the difference between who was a millionaire and who had nothing. Because the having of things in this atmosphere wasn’t something you owned or were given. It was all about who you were as a human being.”

In 1959, Swaback says, he and his fellow apprentices were shocked to hear that Wright had passed away at age 91.

“I was working directly with him on a watercolor rendering of the plan of Monona Terrace,” Swaback recalls. “He went to the doctor for something that we thought was routine. Because he was lively as a teenager when he left. And he never came back. I am certain that is the way he wanted to leave this world.”

After Wright’s passing, Swaback stayed at Taliesin West for 21 years and eventually became the director of planning there. He left in 1978, at age 38, and started his firm. He’s written several books about Wright and other topics. He says there’s no question that Wright’s work will continue to inspire architects for years to come. However, he hopes to see architecture and the world move in the direction of building communities like the one that existed at Taliesin West back in the 1950s.

“If humanity is to have a future, the lessons reside in the history of this place,” Swaback said. “History is not made by the creation of technology that has the power to remove us from the face of the Earth. There is no history when that happens. For the rest of my life, for as long as I’m able to keep going, I’m far more interested in the architecture of life than the architecture of a building. That, to me, is the greatest lesson to be learned from that man.”

To learn more about Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright or Vernon Swaback, visit www.franklloydwright.org or www.swaback.com.

 — Emily Balli

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