Her beautiful watercolor renderings of buildings and landscapes became known as a staple of Wright’s style; over fifty of them were included in the Wasmuth Portfolio, a two-volume folio of one-hundred lithographs of Wright’s work, published in Germany in 1911. The portfolio served as a significant link between Wright and the first generation of modernist architects in Europe, like Le Corbusier, Rudolf Schindler, Richard Neutra, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, who were all known to own or at least see first-hand copies. Wright never gave proper credit to Mahony Griffin, whose visual style had a lot to do with the publication’s success and influence. She then went on to be eclipsed by another man when she assisted her husband, architect Walter Burley Griffin, in his own work. It is believed Marion’s watercolor perspectives in the international competition to design Australia’s capital city of Canberra in 1911 is what led Walter to win first prize, beating Eliel Saarinen of Finland and Alfred Agache of Brazil. In 1914 the couple moved to Australia to oversee the construction of the city where they stayed until Walter’s unexpected death in 1937. During a lengthy visit with her family back in Chicago in the early 1930s, Griffin created a very elaborate mural at George B. Armstrong School, where her sister Georgine was an art teacher. A gift from the eighth grade graduating class, the then 60-year-old Mahony Griffin painted the two-panel five-by-twenty foot oil on canvas mural along a main corridor of the original school building. A number of students recalled seeing an old lady come nearly every day to work on it while classes were in session. She found inspiration from the teachings of Rudolf Steiner and his anthroposophy philosophy.
“Fairies and Woodland Scenes” is an expression of the artist’s belief in the existence of fairies in everyday life. In her 1400-page unpublished memoir “The Magic of America” Griffin wrote that fairies existed as helpers to humans and recalled telling the graduating students “that the kind of thinking that made people able to function as geniuses do…they must be ready to develop that kind of thinking which would someday enable them to see the fairies.”On the left side of the mural, a group of fairies feeds a nest of young herons. While on the right side, another set of fairies assists the male heron in securing food for his young. Painted with such confidence and effectiveness, Mahony Griffin must have worked on other murals before, yet this is the only one known to survive. Unfortunately a wooden door, which appears to go nowhere, is right in the middle of it. No one knows exactly why the door is there, but an addition to the school might be the reason. The door was already in existence when Mahony Griffin painted the mural, which was restored during Phase II of the Board of Education’s Mural Restoration Project in 1997.
Leaving the United States led to a fractured legacy for the Griffins. Most, if not all, Australians are aware of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin. Yet the same cannot be said for their hometown of Chicago. Marion spent the last thirty years of her life in relative obscurity. With the exception of a handful of homes in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Decatur, Illinois, little of her built work survives.In 1961, Marion Mahoney Griffin died a pauper at Cook County Hospital at the age of 90. Her ashes were interred without a marker at Graceland Cemetery, where other well-known architects are buried, including Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and Mies van der Rohe. It was not until 1997 that her grave was properly recognized with a plaque. Rarely known outside of architectural circles, Mahony Griffin was not just an important member of the Prairie School movement but ahead of her time as one of first female licensed architects. Her marginalization has now been questioned and reassessed over the last decade. In honor of Women’s History Month, it seems appropriate to honor this Chicago native who was a role model for a generation of women wishing to practice architecture in a male-dominated profession.