San Marcos In The Desert, Near Chandler, Arizona, 1928-1929

In 1928, beset by personal and financial difficulties, Wright again found himself with little work. Showing uncharacteristic humility, he agreed to consult with a former apprentice on the design of the Arizona Biltmore. His trip to Phoenix to accomplish that task led to a major proposal for a similarly luxurious resort: San Marcos in the Desert. It was commissioned in early April by Alexander J. Chandler (1859-1950), one of the area's successful developers. Wright wrote to his son, "Phoenix seems to be the name for me too. . . . It looks as tho I was well started now for the last lap of my life and work." By May 1928 he had a scheme for the resort in mind.

Chandler's site of some 1,400 acres, located south of Phoenix at the base of the Salt River Mountains, offers close views to a foreground enclosed by low hills with framed views to a greater vista beyond - not unlike the sites for Doheny, for Lake Tahoe, and for Johnson. Wright emphasized these different depth - planes in his composition, reinforcing a residential typology in which protective elements of the visible surroundings were balanced with open views suggestive of limitless space.

Chandler responded positively to Wright's proposal; working drawings were completed in 1929, and favorable estimates augured well for construction. The stock market crash in October, however, doomed the project. Grossly insensitive residential development now obscures much of the site.

Map showing the proposed location of the San Marcos in the Desert resort, near Chandler, Arizona

 

This image is currently unavailable

Map showing the proposed location of the San Marcos in the Desert resort, near Chandler, Arizona

S.F. Goddard, cartographer. Holmquist and Maddock's Map of Maricopa County, Arizona (Holmquist and Maddock, 1926). Photolithograph. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (122)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj1

View of Ocatilla, near Chandler, Arizona

This view of Ocatilla depicts Wright and his family approaching the camp by automobile.

This image is currently unavailable

View of Ocatilla, near Chandler, Arizona. Unknown photographer. Gelatin silver print, 1929 (negative exposed), modern print from copy negative. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (162)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj2

Exterior and interior views of Ocatilla, near Chandler, Arizona

 

This image is currently unavailable

Exterior and interior views of Ocatilla, near Chandler, Arizona. Unknown photographer. Gelatin silver prints. 1929 (negatives exposed), modern prints from copy negatives. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. Gift of Donald D. Walker, 1986 (153)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj3

Hypothetical study model for San Marcos in the Desert

Surviving plans provide detailed information as to the shape and location of each component of the main resort, and historic surveys confirm local topography. Judicious cuts would have formed a harbor-like area just behind the entrance, at the end of the roadway, and a gentle grading of slopes near the building would have provided firm anchorage.

As became apparent in constructing the model, underlying patterns of the terrain were strengthened by Wright's additions of building and terrace, and the site would have achieved extraordinary definition through his knowing intervention. Two related designs (for the Cudney and Young houses) were not indicated in the overall plans, but their locations are suggested in perspectives, and drawings for each structure provided sufficient information to construct reasonable hypothetical study models.

Comparable information did not exist for other, more fragmentary elements appearing in elevations and perspectives: these were not included in the model, as they seemed to represent less decisive components of the project. Perhaps they were sketched to suggest future development, including both houses and recreational elements.

Hypothetical study model for San Marcos in the Desert. Basswood and birch, 1995-96. Scale: 1 inch = 50 feet (area represented: approximately 1/2 mile by 1/2 mile). Second view of model. Created for the exhibition by George Ranalli, architect, with Aaron McDonald and Nathaniel Worden, model makers (121)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj4

Back to top

Ocatilla, 1929

In January 1929, Wright, fascinated by the ephemerality that the desert suggested, built a temporary camp on a low mound south of the site for San Marcos. There, during the months that followed, he completed working drawings for the resort.

He called the camp "Ocatilla" after the giant desert shrub he so admired, and with low board walls defined an angled enclosure apart from the surrounding desert. A full-scale sample of the textile blocks for the resort was constructed, demonstrating the visual effects Wright expected to achieve. Working drawings were completed by late May, when Wright left for Taliesin.

In June, much of the camp was destroyed by fire. What remained gradually fell into ruin and disappeared. Yet it demonstrated how Wright approached the land even when no permanent structure was contemplated: as a place that could reach higher definition through understanding use.

Plan for Ocatilla

An architectural theme based on the triangle . . . the mountains . . . rising behind triangles. The cross section of the Saguaro and all other desert plants - triangles . . . the building horizontally drifted between the rock ledges that terminate it. 1928

Plan for Ocatilla. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1929. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (108)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj5

Fragment of full-scale maquette for textile blocks, San Marcos in the Desert

 

This image is currently unavailable

Fragment of full-scale maquette for textile blocks, San Marcos in the Desert. Plaster, 1929. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (142)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj6

Textile block for San Marcos in the Desert

 

1 of 2

  • Textile block for San Marcos in the Desert. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, 1929. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (171)

  • Textile block for San Marcos in the Desert. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, 1929. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (170)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj7

Back to top

Perspectives and Plans for the Hotel

Out here obvious symmetry soon wearies the eye, stultifies the imagination before it begins. So, there should be no obvious symmetry in the building in the desert. ... The hard straight line breaks to the dotted line where stark necessity ends and thus allows appropriate rhythm to enter in order to leave suggestion. 1932, 1931

The resort was to be approached along an angled roadway embedded in a dry-bed or "wash" and leading through the outer walls of the building itself, again recalling the Johnson compound. At San Marcos, this opening for the roadway was partly framed by the lounges and main dining room, which bridged it, joining the low hills on each side.

A powerful and richly faceted vertical element - intended to enclose organ pipes - emphasized these central rooms. Low wings containing private suites stretched out on each side, terracing the natural slope of the hills. The angles of the existing contours as well as the desert setting suggested triangular shapes to Wright. The triangle became the project's ruling motif: his plan was infused with a rich angularity only suggested in his earlier work of the decade. By such angles the earth itself was brought into greater play with the building forms.

With his design for San Marcos, Wright conceived a unified, massively scaled yet informally shaped landscape of building, roadway, and terrain, leaving the predictable symmetries of conventional monumentality far behind. The sharply drawn lines of the terraces, with triangular terminations carried out into the desert, mark a clear division between cultivated and uncultivated plantings. As each ascending floor steps responsively back along the slope it adjoins, the roof terraces multiply, so that an architectural composition of connected planes results.

Preliminary plan for San Marcos in the Desert

 

Preliminary plan for San Marcos in the Desert. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1928. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (116)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj8

Preliminary plan of upper level for San Marcos in the Desert

 

Preliminary plan of upper level for San Marcos in the Desert. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1928. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (117)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj9

Front elevation for San Marcos in the Desert

This view emphasizes the low sweep of the design and clearly indicates how Wright envisioned the extended wings as terracing elements that embank the low slopes behind. Specific uses of the elements that bridge the ravine as it continues up behind the resort are unidentified.

Out here obvious symmetry soon wearies the eye, stultifies the imagination before it begins. So, there should be no obvious symmetry in the building in the desert. . . . The hard straight line breaks to the dotted line where stark necessity ends and thus allows appropriate rhythm to enter in order to leave suggestion. 1932, 1931

Front elevation for San Marcos in the Desert. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1928. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (113)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj10

Aerial perspective for San Marcos in the Desert

This drawing appears to have been done in preparation for the more finished perspective that follows. Its harder lines help define individual elements of the resort.

Aerial perspective for San Marcos in the Desert. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1928. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (143)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj11

Perspective for San Marcos in the Desert

 

Perspective for San Marcos in the Desert. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, 1928. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (111)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj12

Perspective showing entrance for San Marcos in the Desert

Cars were meant to approach the resort by following a ravine up to, then under, the building. The linear rendering technique gives an impression of the "dotted line" effect that Wright expected to obtain from the faceted concrete blocks.

Perspective showing entrance for San Marcos in the Desert. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1928. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (112)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj13

Aerial perspective for San Marcos in the Desert

This much-published drawing - rendered by Wright's son Lloyd Wright - supplies the ambience of place and extraordinary sense of scale that Wright had requested. At each end of the extended terraces, walls link to related components: at the right, to a building resembling the Chandler house, and at the left, to a building vaguely suggestive of the Young house. Other structures shown behind the resort and bridging the ravine between the two prominent hills seem meant to suggest future development of the resort.

Aerial perspective for San Marcos in the Desert. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Watercolor on wove paper,1928. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (110)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj14

Back to top

Interior Perspectives for the Hotel

The major public spaces of the resort were the main dining room and lounge at the centre of the complex. The dining room at the top was to have a richly faceted ceiling of copper and glass, recalling similar motifs in the dining room of the Imperial Hotel. The two-storey lounge was to be located below, over the automobile entrance at a lower level still. Throughout, glass and patterned concrete blocks were to be combined in ways that would have achieved the effect of a luminous mass.

Interior perspective of the dining room for San Marcos in the Desert

 

Interior perspective of the dining room for San Marcos in the Desert. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1928. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (115)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj15

Interior perspective of the lounge for San Marcos in the Desert

 

Interior perspective of the lounge for San Marcos in the Desert. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 1928. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (114)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj16

Back to top

Working Drawings for the Hotel

Complete working drawings reveal extraordinary attention to detail. Plans and sections suggest the complexities of the triangular module that governed the design of the central core; the extended wings of rooms on three levels are comparatively simple, yet shaped to define individual spaces. Sections show how gently the wings would have reinforced their sloping site.

Plan and sections of central section showing the dining room for San Marcos in the Desert

 

Plan and sections of central section showing the dining room for San Marcos in the Desert. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, 1929. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (118)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj17

Section through the central element showing the dining room and lounge for San Marcos in the Desert

The tower rising behind the central element of the resort, richly embellished with geometric patterns, would have provided a dramatic accent at the point of entrance to the complex. Details in the upper left show how concealed lights beneath glass blocks in the floor would have encircled selected columns with translucent bands.

Section through the central element showing the dining room and lounge for San Marcos in the Desert. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, 1929. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (120)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj18

Plan and sections of first terrace, east wing, showing guest rooms for San Marcos in the Desert

 

Plan and sections of first terrace, east wing, showing guest rooms for San Marcos in the Desert. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, 1929. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (119)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj19

Plan for the Wellington and Ralph Cudney house, San Marcos in the Desert

 

Plan for the Wellington and Ralph Cudney house, San Marcos in the Desert. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1928-29. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (126)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj20

Perspective for the Wellington and Ralph Cudney house, San Marcos in the Desert

 

1 of 2

  • Perspective for the Wellington and Ralph Cudney house, San Marcos in the Desert. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1928-29. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (125)

  • Perspective for the Wellington and Ralph Cudney house, San Marcos in the Desert. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1928-29. DR1985:0291. Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal (109)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj21

Back to top

Young and Cudney Houses

In addition to the central resort, private houses were also to be part of the San Marcos development. Wright prepared designs for two: the Owen D. Young house (with some drawings inscribed "for Mrs. Owen D. Young"), and the Wellington and Ralph Cudney house. Both illustrate his continued exploration of block construction adapted to a desert setting.

In its general layout, the Young house resembled the Sachse project (gallery 5), but with an oculus recalling Wright's own desert studio (also gallery 5) added to its major room. Indicated on the drawings as a solarium, it was to be largely open at the centre. By aligning the blocks of its walls on a diagonal grid, Wright developed unusual triangular massing, and windows identical in shape and size to the individual blocks animated its massiveness.

In the Cudney house, Wright developed variations of hexagonal geometry; it was an intensification of shapes of the main hotel, effectively rendered to suggest a pattern of vibrating lines that appear to rise up out of the desert itself.

Plan for the Owen D. Young house, San Marcos in the Desert

 

Plan for the Owen D. Young house, San Marcos in the Desert. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, ca. 1928-29. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (124)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj22

Perspective for the Owen D. Young house, San Marcos in the Desert

 

Perspective for the Owen D. Young house, San Marcos in the Desert. Office of Frank Lloyd Wright. Graphite on tracing paper, ca. 1928-29. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona (123)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/flw/flw6.html#obj23

Back to top