By Joan Fischer
For all that we hear about the women in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life—a steamy subject that, 50 years after his death, still inspires works of fiction (Loving Frank, The Women)—we almost never learn about two indomitable spirits who not only influenced Wright, but also earned his admiration and deep affection.
Ellen (“Nell”) and Jane (“Jenny”) Lloyd Jones, Wright’s mother’s sisters, are better known simply as “the Aunts,” which is how Wright himself referred to them. They founded Hillside Home School, a freewheeling, “learn by doing” elementary through high school that reflected their own liberal Unitarian upbringing. They ran the school during its entire existence, from 1887 to 1915.
Eventually the Hillside building (designed by their famous nephew, whose own sons Lloyd and John became students there) was repurposed to serve as a school/studio for Wright’s architecture students. It is located on the Taliesin grounds and is open to tourists. And it is there that many people first hear about the Aunts.
On a recent tour I was lucky enough to have a guide who was quite taken with the Aunts and provided more information about them than I had heard on previous visits. I followed up with a brief Q&A with Taliesin staff historian Keiran Murphy.
What made these two women so unusual for their time?
Simply, there is the fact that they never married and had positions of authority before even starting the Hillside Home School. Jane had been director of kindergarten-training schools in Minnesota; and Ellen had been the head of the history department at River Falls State Normal School in Wisconsin. The fact that they served as the principals at the Hillside Home School from the very beginning had to be very unusual.
I think Jane’s background helps explain part of their outlook on education: they believed in using education to teach the “basics” (and college prep courses), but also to raise fully empathetic and well-developed human beings who were engaged in the natural world around them. Science classes were held outdoors, on the grounds and in the gardens.
According to one former teacher, Mary Ellen Chase, there were no “rules” to speak of. The Aunts’ attitude was that the older students teach the younger ones deportment and responsibility, which is part of the “learning by doing” that we sometimes mention on tour.
The Aunts hired Chase in 1910 for her first job. Their interview with her is telling. “They surprised me by not asking anything about what I knew in the subjects for which they needed a teacher,” Chase wrote in her book, A Goodly Fellowship (Macmillan Company, New York City, 1939). “They wanted to know instead if I liked the country, if children amused and interested me, if I liked and could take long walks, if I knew anything about birds and common flowers.”
What was Frank Lloyd Wright’s relationship with the Aunts like after he became famous?
They remained incredibly proud of him and generally had a good relationship with him. The fact that they allowed him to design their “Home Building” (at 19), then took the chance and allowed him to design the unusual Romeo & Juliet windmill tower, then the radical Hillside Home School building, are testaments to their feelings toward him.
After he bought the buildings and land, Wright was supposed to support them financially, but wasn’t good at it. The Aunts spent years trying to (a) get the money out of Wright that he promised them, and (b) begging to come back to Hillside.
Wright wrote extensively about the Aunts, their school, and the buildings he designed for them—as well as their financial travails—in his autobiography. Reads one such passage:
Bankruptcy threatened the Hillside Home School where for twenty-seven years “the Aunts” had mothered some forty to sixty boys and girls, aged seven to seventeen—preparing their forty to sixty boys and girls for college by keeping a staff of thirteen teachers in residence besides themselves. They had done a pioneer work in home-school co-education. The Hillside Home School was perhaps the first—certainly one of the first—co-educational home schools in our country.
Eventually the Aunts did both die at the Hillside Home School site that they had sorely wanted to get back to, Jane in 1917 and Ellen in 1919.
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Hillside serves as a school to this day. Students of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees there May through October (the rest of the year the students are at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona).
For more information, visit Taliesin Preservation, Inc. and Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.