A humble apprentice

BesignerCurtis Besinger, Professor of Architecture at KU from 1955-1956 and 1957-1984, was a man without pretense. He eschewed all sartorial or any other kind of extravagance in contrast to Frank Lloyd Wright for whom he worked 16 years from 1939 to 1955. Instead, Curtis drew no attention to himself, dressed modestly in browns and grays, white shirts and sometimes plaids, almost always with a tie, usually of woven cloth with no pattern and in a single color. He knew how to pass inconspicuously through the corridors of Marvin Hall in heavy traffic, like a background figure in a play, speaking respectfully to everyone in a soothing voice, stopping to view a student project when one stood out. He was always friendly, when he turned to you with what seemed like the longest “yes?” in history, but he wasted little time for small talk (he did like gossiping with trusted friends) before he sidestepped out the giant front door and touched lightly down Marvin’s stairs to Jayhawk Boulevard. A brisk walk and unassuming manner took him anonymously across the campus to and from his small, hidden house on the southeast cusp of Mt. Oread. For me, Curtis cut a figure as refined as any character Proust portrayed in A la Recherche du temps perdu. Many of his former students and colleagues would agree.

He had many students, hundreds of them, who pushed and shoved for his design studios year after year. Over his 32 years in the school he taught just about every course in the architectural curriculum—design at every level, graphics, watercolor, Japanese architecture, site planning, history, theory, professional practice—except construction, mechanical systems, and structures. Students and faculty eagerly sought his opinions on design, architectural history, Japanese architecture, and especially Frank Lloyd Wright. Among serious and not so serious students, a design studio with Curtis was considered almost a rite of passage, an experience that brought them back to KU to seek out Curtis after they graduated, when they could find him. Curtis was no slacker, an Eagle Scout, well traveled and he knew how to disappear quietly happily into his work all his life.

When Curtis graduated from KU in the middle of the Great Depression in 1936, he had won all the student prizes, including the 1934 Gertrude Goldsmith Prize, the 1935 Thayer Medal, and the 1936 A.I.A. Medal. He immediately got jobs in Kansas City with Joseph Radotinsky, Charles Keyser, and Arthur Archer. Then in 1939, at the behest of the “radical” professor George Beal, Curtis was accepted into the Taliesin Fellowship. Curtis was a perfect apprentice because didn’t mind doing the humble work that others found demeaning or meaningless, such as garden work, waiting table, dish washing, repaired and painted buildings, re-built buildings. Curtis could cook, too. He became the breakfast supervisor, and taught other apprentices how to undertake the delicate responsibility to preparing food equal the Wright family’s high expectations. Curtis was especially good at making beautiful flower arrangements for table settings, one of the most important and certain indicators to Mr. Wright that someone had a design mentality and was ready to do serious architecture work in the studio.

Many apprentices never got to the studio but Mr. Wright had other ideas for Curtis Besinger whom he recognized as a gifted architect, designer, illustrator, pianist, and cello player. Curtis eventually conducted the Taliesin Chorus and accompanied Mrs. Wright’s dancers but he worked in the studio whenever there was enough work to do. Jack Howe was the main project manager for much of Mr. Wright’s work at that time, which meant that Howe was in charge of doing preliminary sketches, preliminary design drawings, presentation drawings, working drawings, and models. By 1940, less than one year after Curtis joined the Fellowship, he was assisting Howe in all of these creative activities. Howe usually did plans and elevations, and Besigner made the large-scale sections and details of construction, according to Besinger’s CV, which he corrected before his death. After a three-year interruption as a Conscientious Objector from 1943-1946, Curtis returned to Taliesin and was named a Senior Apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright until 1955. In that role, he worked carefully with Howe and Wesley Peters on residences, churches, hotel resorts, retail stores, museum exhibitions, apartments, and synagogues. Most notably perhaps, Besinger helped Howe make three sets of working drawings for the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and did preliminary drawings and working drawings for the V.C. Morris Gift Shop in San Francisco.

Clockwise from the top: Besinger (left) with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West (photo by Robert Carroll May); Besinger’s Tom MacNider House (1959), Mason City, Iowa. (Photos by Elizabeth Dunbar)

After Besinger returned to Lawrence for good in 1957, he had a modest practice while he taught full time at KU. He did houses, mostly, but also exhibitions, pavilions, interiors, and historic preservation work. During the summers from 1956 to 1981, he practiced architecture with Fredric Benedict in Aspen, Colorado, and designed the master plan for the Aspen Campus along with its multi-purpose building, classroom building, and the practice room quadrangle. During that practice, Besinger also worked with Herbert Bayer on the Central Building, Aspen Meadows, as well as presentation drawings for Bayer’s design for the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas. In addition to teaching and his architectural practice, Besinger was a prolific writer who published more than 85 articles and designs in House Beautiful between 1957 and 1964 on design, as well as articles for in The Prairie School Review, The Prairie School of Iowa, and The Kansas City Star.

Curtis and I had small town Midwestern lives in common, and we worked together in the School of Architecture at KU from 1976 to his death in 1999. But I was 30 years younger and always considered him a mentor and friend who I frequently visited at his home in Lawrence and Aspen. We got to know each other well in our travels together to Taliesin West and Washington, D.C. He took special interest in my study of vernacular architecture and American architecture that initially focused on Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence on German architects during the early 20th Century. In the quiet background of my life and the lives of many of Curtis’s students, he counts as one of the most admirable and significant people in my architectural life. For me, Curtis is a warm, easy memory.

Besigner_chorus

Here is Curtis Besinger directing the Taliesin Chorus. Sitting up front in white overalls is Wesley Peters and right behind him is Jack Howe with whom Curtis worked at Taliesin. (Taken from The Fellowship by Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman, p. 228.)

*Much of this information is taken from an article I wrote about Curtis Besinger in the KU Architect, Summer 1984, 3, 8, and from an unpublished interview Roger Martin and I did with Curtis, also in 1984. Find the best information on Curtis Besinger in his own book, Working With Mr. Wright: What It Was Like, that was published in 1995 by the Cambridge University Press.

—Dennis Domer


Ed. Note: Lawrence Modern is seeking photographs of Curtis Besinger’s work for a retrospective of his architecture. Please contact wsteele@ku.edu if you have any information. Thank you!

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