Landscape architect Franz Aust took this scale model of Frank Lloyd Wright's cabins to his meeting with the YMCA College trustees in 1931.

The mystery of Frank Lloyd Wright and the George Williams College campus

Tom McReynolds, a longtime GWC employee, recently “rediscovered” a file folder in which its contents, largely forgotten since the early 1930s, could have turned the lakeside campus into a mecca for lovers of 20th century modern architecture.

The folder, tucked away in a filing cabinet just outside McReynolds’s office in the Weidensall Administration Building, held a number of faded floor plans and elevations for three new cabins to be built somewhere on what is now the George Williams College campus. It was then known as a camp and summer home of the YMCA College based in Chicago. The folder also contained an itemized cost estimate and a photo of a three-dimensional model depicting how the cabins would have looked when constructed.

It also included a browning, type-written letter, dated February 9, 1931, addressed to the cabins’ architect, one Frank Lloyd Wright — the same Frank Lloyd Wright who is today considered by many to be the greatest architect the United States has ever produced.

McReynolds, a lifelong fan of Wright’s work, holds a bachelor’s degree in history and has spent a lot of time studying GWC’s past during the 18 years he has worked there.

Despite his frequent forays into GWC’s archives, however, he had never suspected a Wright-GWC connection — that is, until recently, when AU President Rebecca Sherrick just happened to mention that she had seen the documents some years before.

“After that, it took me about 30 seconds to find the folder,” he said. “It was filed under ‘F’ for ‘Frank Lloyd Wright Cabins’ in a filing cabinet that was literally 10 steps away. As someone who likes to think he knows a little bit about the college’s background, I was pretty stunned.”

Wright was no stranger to the Williams Bay area, having designed the 1911 Hotel Geneva, located in downtown Lake Geneva (it was demolished after a fire in 1970) as well as several still-extant homes on Delavan Lake, a few miles northwest of campus.

The GWC cabins, with their concrete walls and high-pitched wood and canvas roofs, are aesthetically quite different from these earlier Prairie-style works. Designed to sleep four in close quarters, they are modular, highly geometric and seem as though they were intended to fit together like cells in a honeycomb. The price for all three: $2,580 — an even $3,000 with furnishings included.

It seems unlikely that Wright actually designed the cabins with the YMCA camp in mind, said McReynolds. His research shows that the cabins are almost exact duplicates of those Wright designed in 1929 for the San Marcos Water Gardens, a “motor inn” planned for Chandler, Arizona, just outside Phoenix. (The GWC cabins were to have fireplaces and chimneys; the Arizona cabins lacked them.) The San Marcos project was never built, a victim of the deepening Depression and also because the client balked at Wright’s insistence on using canvas as a roofing material.

According to McReynolds, Wright’s link to the YMCA camp was landscape architect Franz A. Aust, a colleague who was also a close friend of Benny Bentsen, the camp’s manager at the time. (Incidentally, Aust was later to design Bentsen Chapel, dedicated to his friend, which graces the hillside behind Lowrey Hall.)

As the documents indicate, Aust represented Wright during negotiations for the project, presenting the designs and models to the YMCA camp’s Board of Directors during a meeting in Chicago on February 7, 1931.

“I had a most interesting time down in Chicago with the models for the Lake Geneva situation,” he wrote Wright two days later. “The Board of Directors … are very anxious to go ahead with the units … but raise two or three questions regarding some. … ”

But there the documentation dries up. Wright never replied to the letter, or at least there’s no record that he did. And the cabins were never built.

Perhaps those “two or three questions” quashed the deal — in the letter Aust does indicate that the directors were concerned about the idea of a canvas roof — or maybe the money just ran out.

McReynolds has enlisted the help of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to see whether their files might yield an answer.

Despite the Wright cabins that never were, the GWC campus still features several original buildings designed by Chicago architect Emory Stanford Hall, including the Weidensall Administration Building, Brandenburg and the Ingalls Children’s Building. Hall and Wright were colleagues who shared office space for more than a decade in Chicago’s Steinway Building. Examples of Wright’s Prairie School design are evident in these iconic buildings. The Children’s Building, now undergoing renovation, was erected in 1929 in memory of Ruth Ann Ingalls. She was the daughter of industrialist J. Kibben Ingalls, whose Wright-designed mansion still stands in River Forest, Illinois, just outside Chicago.