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How a Set of Rediscovered 19th-Century Japanese Doors Leads to Frank Lloyd Wright

The Japanese Phoenix Pavilion, known as the Ho-o-den, from the 1983 World's Columbian Exposition (photo via Wikipedia)
The Japanese Phoenix Pavilion, known as the Ho-o-den, from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (photo via Wikipedia)

Last week, a trio of late-19th-century Japanese sliding door paintings, originally believed to be missing or destroyed, finally emerged after years spent hidden in a Chicago Park District storage facility. Decorated with long-tailed phoenixes and painted by artist Hashimoto Gahō, the golden doors first appeared at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which was an important six-month-long international event that attracted 27 million visitors from 46 countries. The rediscovery of these doors warrants revisiting the Japanese building in which they were originally installed: the Ho-o-den — or Phoenix Pavilion — which, though long gone, has a lasting albeit quiet legacy in US architecture, most notably in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style.

(image via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)
Frank Lloyd Wright’s early ideas on his Prairie House concept, as published in a 1901 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal. (image via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)

According to Robert Karr Jr., a director at the Japan America Society of Culture, Wright first encountered Japanese architecture through visits to the Ho-o-den. The architect had moved to Chicago in 1887, just three years before construction of the Ho-o-den began on Wooded Island at the center of the fair. Gifted to the city by the Emperor of Japan, the Pavilion was first designed by Masamichi Kuru in Tokyo, where its parts were also built. It then made the journey via steamer to San Francisco, before traveling by rail to Jackson Park, where Japanese workmen pieced together the three buildings connected by covered walkways.

Wright, working on the Exposition’s Transportation Building, would have been able to observe the Ho-o-den’s construction from its start, as Robert McCarter notes in his account of Wright’s career. Additionally, Okakura Kakuzō, whose writings had “an enormous impact on Wright,” also penned the accompanying illustrated description of the Pavilion. Karr writes that the young architect, just 26 years old, had “a revelation” upon seeing the Ho-o-den that led him to explore new paths:

Soon after encountering the Phoenix Pavilion, Wright would begin experimenting with what he eventually called, “the elimination of the insignificant,” an approach that would lead him to transform American residential design by focusing upon principles inspired by Japan rather than formulas found in the West.

A scaled-down replica of an ancient wooden temple in Uji, near Kyoto, the Phoenix Pavilion adopted a symmetrical, cruciform plan and was actually meant to represent the mythological bird: a two-storied central hall signified the body while the right and left colonnades, the wings; a corridor at the back, accordingly, formed its tail. Wright’s own early Prairie rooms reflected this plan, reducing the established complex, boxy interiors at the turn of the century into expansive and fluid ones. As Kevin Nute describes in his study of the role of Japanese architecture in Wright’s work, the Ho-o-den’s central hall consisted of four main spaces. The configuration, he writes, is one that “appears to have quite logically given rise to its Western equivalent in the early Prairie House plan”:

[T]he jodannoma [private sitting area] became a sitting area directly in front of the hearth, which had replaced the traditionally decorative wall-alcove, the tokonoma; the tsuginoma [where one received guests] becoming a living area; the konnoma a dining room; and the shosai, a study or library.

The William Winslow House, whose construction began the same year of the Ho-o-den’s completion, reflects a similar layout, as does the Ward Willits House, designed in 1901. Many of Wright’s houses, like the Ho-o-den, are essentially symmetrical and build on a cruciform foundation, with some having additional, latched-on porches.

Top: Floor plan of the Ho-o-den (image digitized by National Diet Library); bottom: floor plan of the Winslow House (image via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)
Top: Floor plan of the Ho-o-den (image digitized by National Diet Library, Japan); bottom: floor plan of the Winslow House (image via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)

How much of a direct influence Japanese architecture actually had on Wright’s work has been widely debated: the architect, who in 1905 travelled extensively throughout Japan and also passionately collected woodblock prints, supposedly rejected any himself; many, however, do consider his viewing of the Ho-o-den as formative to the development of his Prairie style, and the similarities between the Eastern and Western structures are clear and go beyond those in basic configuration. As McCarter writes:

The effect on Wright of the “Ho-o-den” was immediate, and in his work he took as his own and transformed numerous of its aspects, including the cruciform plan; the horizontal proportions; the screen-like walls that slid open and closed under the continuous wrapping door-top beam; the lack of rigid interior room division; the overhanging, shade-giving roof, cantilevered outwards from its inset supports; as well as the tokonoma at the center, where Wright located the fireplace — all aspects of the interior space of the “Ho-o-den.” It is also interesting to note that this hybrid structure, joining as it does the temple and the house, may also have served as an inspiration for Wright’s tendency “to treat the dwelling as a form of temple to traditional family life — based around the ‘altar’ or central communal hearth.”

Room from the Central Hall of the Ho-o-Den, featuring shoji and a view of the found door paintings (photo digitized by National Diet Library)
Room from the Central Hall of the Ho-o-Den, featuring shoji and a view of the found door paintings (photo digitized by National Diet Library, Japan)

The Prairie homes’ embrace of the Ho-o-den’s features is observed through striking similarities like their overhanging eaves, but their translation of the Pavilion’s sliding door paintings — like the recently found trio — are less evident. Wright’s sightings of such paintings, also known as fusuma or shoji, interestingly influenced his design for, not doors, but windows. Writing for the April 2001 issue of Magazine Antiques, stained glass historian and restorer Julie L. Sloan explains:

Details of staircase window from the Isidore Heller House (image via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)
Details of staircase window from the Isidore Heller House (image via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)

The shoji of the earlier Fujiwara period, shown in the Ho-o-den, were “elaborately ornamented with paintings of various kinds.” Thus, the decorative quality of these shoji may have been the liberating concept that triggered Wright’s development of the screenlike, purely decorative, rectilinear Prairie window.

The windows in the 1897-constructed Isidore Heller House, for example, broke from the curvilinear patterns Wright previously favored. They were also the first for which Wright incorporated color, possibly inspired by the colorful sliding door paintings in the Ho-o-den, as Sloan surmises. The three fusuma found in the storage facility even attest to this vibrancy: relatively well preserved, they boast iridescent colors, especially on the plumages of the phoenixes.

The three sliding door paintings originally shown at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (courtesy Chicago Park District) (click to enlarge)
The three sliding door paintings originally shown at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (courtesy Chicago Park District) (click to enlarge)

Unlike the rest of the buildings constructed for the Exposition that were intentionally destroyed when the fair ended, the Ho-o-den remained until 1946, when it tragically burned in a fire started by two boys. It may be easy to glance over the Wright connection, as today only a Japanese garden (currently evolving) alludes to its site’s former occupant. The emergence of signs of the past like the fusuma are, therefore, necessary, occasional reminders: of a slice of history and, equally significant, of the diversity of works that have left —and continue to leave — lasting impressions on Western art.

The Phoenix Pavilion, or Ho-o-den, at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (photo via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)
The Phoenix Pavilion, or Ho-o-den, at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (photo via Wikipedia)
Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, designed in 1908 (photo by Luiz Gadelha Jr. / Flickr)
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, designed in 1908 (photo by Luiz Gadelha Jr. / Flickr)
Dana_Elevation (wiki)
Plans for the Dana-Thomas House, built in 1902 (image courtesy Wikipedia)
Sliding door paintings in situ, from Okakura Kakuzō's catalog (photo digitized by National Diet Library)
Sliding door paintings in situ, from Okakura Kakuzō’s catalog (photo digitized by National Diet Library, Japan)
Study Room in the Ho-o-Den, from Okakura Kakuzō's catalog (photo digitized by National Diet Library)
Study Room in the Ho-o-Den, from Okakura Kakuzō’s catalog (photo digitized by National Diet Library, Japan)
Cover of Okakura Kakuzō's 1893 illustrated catalog of the Ho-o-den (digitzed by HathiTrust)
Cover of Okakura Kakuzō’s 1893 illustrated catalog of the Ho-o-den (image digitized by HathiTrust)
Bird's-eye-view of the 1893 World's Fair Exposition (image via Stuart Rankin / Flickr)
Bird’s-eye-view of the 1893 World’s Fair Exposition (image via Stuart Rankin / Flickr)
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