An Architect in Her Own Wright

LACasa-002WORDS: Amy Phare  IMAGES: Ron Pollard

Elizabeth Wright Ingraham had big shoes to fill. Her father, architect John Lloyd Wright, invented Lincoln Logs. Her grandfather: Frank Lloyd Wright. While she followed their footsteps, Ingraham charted her own path after relocating to Colorado, having built 150 buildings here before she passed away in 2013. She left behind an enormous local presence as an educator, community activist, public figure, and accomplished modern architect in what was, and still is, a heavily male-dominated field.

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GO WEST, YOUNG WOMAN
The year was 1947 when Ingraham and her husband and business partner, Gordon, left Chicago. “She felt freedom in the west that was very important to her,” said Elaine Freed, historic preservationist and author of Modern at Mid-Century: The Early Fifites Houses of Ingraham and Ingraham. “She was very optimistic and forward looking.”

She met Gordon at Taliesin, the architectural school her grandfather founded, and the couple traveled 11,000 miles in an attempt plant roots
for their new life and practice. The pair settled in Colorado Springs, a town with promise and a lively art scene. “People in Colorado Springs—specifically architects—felt proud to know and
 have worked with Elizabeth,” said JoeArchitect’s Joe Church, AIA, who was an intern for Ingraham and later a colleague. “She was a highly principled architect, and people felt proud in that regard. She was an example of someone who held onto that a lot longer than many others in the profession.”

Colorado Springs offered the Ingrahams plenty of opportunity and few competitors, A. Jan Ruhtenberg among them. “Between those two firms, they presented this community with two most important architectural movements that existed at that time,” said Freed. “They were representing the top of the heap. Ruhtenberg was expressing what he learned under [Ludwig] Mies van der Rohe, and the Ingrahams were reflecting Frank Lloyd Wright in their work. They brought impact and results of those two major modernist movements.”

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THE LEGACY AND THE LEAP
While Ingraham & Ingraham, Architects perpetuated Wright’s Usonian architecture—modest homes affordable to the upper middle class—imitation wasn’t fulfilling. “Being from 
a long line of Wrights, the pressure got to her,” said Mark Harris, Architect-Principal at markharris ARCHITECTS, Inc. “She’d say if you are continually emulating someone else’s work, you’ll never have your own conversation.”

After a divorce in 1974, Ingraham
 formed Elizabeth Wright Ingraham
 and Associates, pursuing her own architectural ideas. “She had a lifelong struggle with always being introduced
 as the granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright,” said friend to Ingraham, Gregory Friesen, FAIA, of CSNA Architects. “It took her a long time to break out and develop her own way of thinking of architecture. She was the happiest she had been when she had done that. Elizabeth was similar to her grandfather in shedding her past and reinventing herself artistically.”

Yet it wasn’t until her 70s that 
Ingraham designed and built her most experimental architectural projects, for example, the Fountain Library. “She was so excited about the whole culture of libraries,” said Church, who contributed to the Fountain project. “It was not just about access to books, but access to information was so central to everything she did professionally. There couldn’t have been a better match for Liz from a project standpoint.”

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ON CIVIC DUTY AND CITIZENRY
According to Harris, Ingraham described the library as the most obvious example of democracy at work. “That was
 part of her mandate: You need to be responsible at all levels, educated to your capacity, and you should seek that capacity,” he said. “Educate yourself, and that ties into her definition of a citizen, an involved participant. To be involved, you must be educated. The library is critical to democracy, well-educated human beings, and intelligence. That’s why she loved designing them.”

When Ingraham worked on a library, she took into consideration its height, as it would be the first civic building children would encounter, and she didn’t want to overwhelm them. “She was very generous and interested in young people and always wanted to figure out what people were working on,” Freed said about Ingraham, who raised four children and often mentored while practicing. “It was not the usual chit chat with kids. She was always pushing them to accomplish things.”

Through her lectures, writing, and conferences, Ingraham raised awareness of social and environmental architectural issues. She founded Crossroads, an international exchange program, and co-founded the Women’s Forum in Colorado. “She was a very direct, intelligent woman at a time when there were not many females in architecture,” said friend and photographer Ron Pollard. “She was really erudite and thoughtful.”

In 1970, she founded the Wright-Ingraham Institute, a non-profit education and research institution established to promote the conservation and use of human and natural resources. “If anyone remembers anything, it’s her saying, ‘Get involved, dammit. Get your house in order, and get organized.’ It was a mantra,” Harris said. “She implored people to be involved.”

Ingraham was passionate, active
 in the community, and even led a peace march in Colorado Springs. “She was a very vigorous person, quite opinionated,” said Freed. “She was hardly a shrinking violet. Her approach was quite the departure from what was expected of women in the ‘50s.”

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MAKING HER MARK
She practiced until she was 85, and according to Church, Ingraham would have said she was still working until the moment she died. “The Wright genes tell you to keep on going,” said Freed.

Colleagues and friends all paint the same picture of Ingraham’s influence
 in Colorado as Friesen said: “Her most lasting legacy was just her never-ending passion for architecture and the way it can have meaningful impact on daily life,” he said. “She was consumed by it.”

As Harris put it, “There was only, only, only one Liz.” She continues to create impact, having been recently inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame Class of 2014, acknowledged for her fight to gain equal footing in her architectural practice. In her later years, Ingraham reminisced to Pollard, “We were going to change the world.” And she did.

Learn more about Ingraham through a lecture taking place in Colorado Springs and see a video of Ingraham from an AIA Colorado History Committee’s interview with her. You can also continue to scroll for more photos of her work.

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