Frank Lloyd Wright and the Bowers' Historic Wing

The Historic Museum Hallway in the Bowers Museum's Mary Muth Historic Wing.
Visitors to the Bowers often ask about the origins of the museum’s Mary Muth Historic Wing which deceptively bears a striking resemblance to an old rancho home or a forgotten Santa Ana mission. With Frank Lloyd Wright: Architecture of the Interior just recently opened, the Bowers Museum Collections Blog takes the opportunity to discuss the history of the museum and specifically examines the original 1932 building through the lens of Frank Lloyd Wright, the preeminent architect of the same early 20th Century period in which the Bowers Museum was built.
Charles and Ada Bowers in front of their 
Santa Ana House, date unknown
Unknown Photographer; Santa Ana, California
Photographic print; 3 5/8 x 5 1/2 in.
88A
The Bowers family first settled in Orange County in 1890, purchasing the property at the corner of Santa Ana’s Main and 20th St. and constructed a then-popular Victorian-style home. In 1908 Charles W. Bowers married Ada Elvira Abbott and the pair lived together in this home for over twenty years, saving every dollar that they could. In early 1931 Ada Bowers passed away and it came to light that in the Bowers’ will it was stipulated their property and estate should be donated to the city of Santa Ana for the creation of a museum. Hearing this the city of Santa Ana eagerly accepted. Throughout the latter part of 1931 the museum was designed jointly by Frank Lansdown (British, 1880-?), a local Santa Ana architect most famous for his Santora building in the city’s downtown; and W. Horace Austin (American, 1881-1942), well known among purveyors of Southern Californian architecture for having designed Long Beach Airport’s main terminal as well as Santa Ana’s old city hall. Almost a year after Ada Bowers’ death on February 15, 1932, the Bowers residence was razed and construction commenced. Seven short months later the building was completed, on September 28, 1932.
The original plans for the Bowers Museum. Digital enhancement of 36760.10.
Though neither of the architects who worked on the Bowers ever achieved anything near the notoriety that Wright achieved, they were his contemporaries. When innovative architects like Wright were creating a new American architecture, Lansdown and Austin instead relied on heavily used revival styles. The Bowers Museum’s Historic Wing is a perfect example of the Spanish mission revival style common throughout Southern California, in this case even topped with a mission bell. But Wright’s architecture is not as disparate as one might imagine. Despite his modern style, it is important to note that Wright’s works still operate off many traditional principles. As a result, his philosophy of organic architecture, present throughout almost all the homes he designed, is also observable in the Bowers Museum’s Historic Wing.
Main Corridor of the Bowers Museum, c. 1961
Unknown Photographer; Santa Ana, California
Photographic print; 7 3/4 x 9 3/4 in.
30185
Explained briefly, organic architecture is the theory that every part of a building should be work together to create a greater whole. In many of Wright’s homes, this extended as far as furniture affixed to the floor to ensure residents could not lessen the aesthetic by rearranging everything. Long sightlines were a more reasonable facet of this ideology; connecting much of a house to what Wright considered the central focal point: the hearth. The rationale behind this is that in the days of old our ancestors gathered around fire and throughout history the sacred bonds of kinship and community have been preserved within its flames.
One of the most curious design elements of the Bowers Museum’s Historic Wing is the fireplace embedded into the southern end of the Historic Museum Hallway’s eastern wall. This feature more than any other prompts questions about the origins of the museum. This curiosity is compounded by the knowledge that the fireplace is in no way just built for aesthetics. Its chimney passes between a thick outer layer of stuccoed wall was once fully functional. Though this is more likely a happy coincidence of the foresight that the museum would be used to teach about the old rancho days of Orange County rather than an homage to Wright by Lansdown and Austin, we see in the Historic Wing a sightline which connects the entirety of the old wing to this hearth and our museum to the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Detail of Fire Place from the original 1931 plans for the Bowers Museum. The notes explain that every aspect of the fireplace's construction must be personally overseen by the architects.
Frank Lloyd Wright: Architecture of the Interior, is now open. Visit the Bowers Museum to discover the hearts of his homes far more intimately than we can in this post. While at the Bowers, be sure to step into the Historic Wing to form your own opinion on the museum’s hearth. Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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Wednesday, 23 September 2020

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