New book explores Superior's Frank Lloyd Wright connection
Exchanges between the famous architect and librarian Edith Carlson chronicle her quest for a dream home.
A librarian’s quest to build a Frank Lloyd Wright home in Superior has been included in Philippa Lewis’ new book, “Stories from Architecture: Behind the Lines at Drawing Matter."
The connection between the world-famous architect and librarian Edith Carlson has captured the imagination of writers on two continents.
English author Lewis said her curiosity was piqued when Niall Hobhouse, a collector of architectural drawings, handed her a box of Edith Carlson’s papers and challenged her to piece a narrative together.
“I love the fact this box of newspaper cuttings, carbon copies of letters, notes, drafts of letters and letters from the Frank Lloyd Wright office had arrived, as it were, fresh from Edith Carlson's desk in Superior onto mine in the southwest of England,” the author said.
The documents chronicle the story of the librarian’s two-year campaign, from 1938-1940, to build a $5,500 Wright home in Superior, “Where frost penetrates the ground to a depth of 6 feet, where temperatures fall to 40 below zero and where much more snow falls than ever in Madison."
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Had it succeeded, the design Wright dubbed Below Zero would have been nestled in Superior’s East End, just behind Lenroot’s Funeral Home, across from Gouge Park.
To find out more about the woman behind the design, Lewis contacted the Superior Public Library and was paired with local history librarian Teddie Meronek.
“While I had all the paper evidence of Edith, I obviously knew nothing about the person,” Lewis said. “Teddie provided me with all the details of her family history and her biography as well as the local geography. And, of course, a photograph of her. I could not possibly have written such a complete picture without Teddie — and it was fun emailing across the Atlantic with odd forays into swapping political, lockdown and personal anecdotes.”
Meronek, now retired, was initially tapped to identify Carlson years ago when someone offered to sell her papers to the Douglas County Historical Society.
“I went searching and the only thing I found was an obituary,” Meronek said.
Nothing in the article mentioned anything about Carlson's connection to Wright.
“But I always kept the obituary on my desk, because it just fascinated me that there would have been someone who worked here at the library and who lived in Superior, Wisconsin, who was looking at building a Frank Lloyd Wright house,” Meronek said.
When Lewis requested information on Carlson, Meronek took a deep dive into library records, from scrapbooks and city directories to census records. A stations librarian, Carlson traveled from site-to-site in the city to ensure materials were available to the public. That meant she wasn't present for a lot of main library functions or photos.
Meronek discovered two pictures of Carlson and tracked down her correspondence with Wright's office. The 41 letters are shelved in the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives at Columbia University.
“I felt so sorry for his two secretaries or assistants, because boy, she badgered them,” Meronek said. “I love her because she was not going to back down.”
Carlson meticulously researched every aspect of house building. She provided lists of requirements and suggested revisions to the design in her correspondence.
“My house must make sense to me and a house in Superior without windows in the southeast is silly,” she wrote in one letter to Wright.
As her needs changed, so did her specifications, from a sun deck and space for trunk storage to a main floor laundry room and expansion of the "cup of tea" kitchen in one apartment. Her tenacity was impressive, Lewis said.
"The years 1938-40 were some of Frank Lloyd Wright's busiest: he was involved in large expensive projects such as Florida Southern College, Fallingwater and the Johnson Administration Building. Edith, however, persevered with trying to have face-to-face meetings with him and was distinctly peeved that the great architect wouldn't come down on a site visit," the author said.
As Carlson reminded Wright's assistants, his house No. 204 was also her house No. 1.
“She’s quite a character. I just love her. Wish I would have known her,” Meronek said.
While Carlson communicated regularly with his assistants, Wright wrote to her only once. The 1939 missive contained two lines: “My dear Miss Carlson: We’ll see what can be done -”
Cutbacks at the library and a reduction in pay put an end to Carlson's quest, and her back and forth with Wright's office, in 1940. Lewis included an excerpt from the librarian's final letter in her chapter on "Below Zero."
"I, like any other builder, am financially responsible for my house. My architect is not," Carlson wrote.
The librarian did eventually build a home in Superior. She took out a building permit in 1942 for a house at 1828 E. 11th St. The estimated cost was $3,500. It's the same house that stands on the lot today, Meronek said.
In time, Carlson's dream home did become a reality. The design for Below Zero, a compact L-shaped home with a steeply sloping roof, gravity heating system and a minimum of exposed glass, was built in Ann Arbor, Michigan 40 years after Wright drew it.
Lewis isn't the only author who's been inspired to pen the story of the librarian and the architect. Meronek wrote an article on Carlson's dream in 2019 and submitted it to the Wisconsin Historical Society for its quarterly Wisconsin Magazine of History. The editors said they would be interested if it focused more on Wright and less on Carlson. The Superior woman refused.
"Frank Lloyd Wright has had enough words written about him and his lifetime ... but there's hardly anything about Edith, and I think she's just as important as Frank," Meronek said.
Both her article and Lewis' book can be found in the Superior Public Library's area research center. "Stories from Architecture: Behind the Lines at Drawing Matter," published last month, is also available through bookstores and online.
This story was updated at 7:26 a.m. Nov. 19, 2021, with an additional photo and clarification about the chapter on Below Zero. It was originally posted at 6 a.m.