The Next Page / Cornelia Brierly: The Pittsburgher in Frank Lloyd Wright's inner circle

Marylynne Pitz details the life of a pioneering architect, a West Mifflin native, who designed the first Usonian house in Pennsylvania and who stood out as one of the few women apprentices in Wright's creative constellation

For two years, Cornelia Brierly studied architecture at Carnegie Institute of Technology, working diligently at a drafting table. By the spring of 1934, the Pittsburgh native was disgusted with the school's classical Beaux Arts approach, which emphasized the past.

Brierly found inspiration in Frank Lloyd Wright's autobiography and made one of the most important decisions of her life by resolving to study with "an architect who worked out new forms for a new age." That's how she described him more than half a century later in her impressionistic memoir, "Tales of Taliesin."

By the 1930s, Wright had succeeded in Chicago with Robie House, a quintessential example of his signature Prairie style, Unity Temple in the Oak Park suburb and the Imperial Hotel in Japan. Brierly mailed her tuition to the Taliesin Fellowship in Spring Green, Wis., a community of architectural apprentices established by Wright and his wife, Olgivanna.

"Come when the spirit moves," Wright replied in a letter.

Professors tried to dissuade her, Brierly recalled, then "wrote me off as a young radical embarking upon a complete misadventure."

Today, Carnegie Mellon University's archives hold 87 designs for projects by Brierly and her husband, Peter Berndtson; of these, more than 30 were built and all but a handful are in Western Pennsylvania. Brierly was in the last decade of her life when Zaha Hadid became, in 2004, the first woman to receive the Pritzker Prize, which honors a living architect's body of work. When she struck out for Taliesin, Brierly's passion for learning made her an ardent pioneer and pathfinder.

Joining the Taliesin Fellowship in the fall of 1934 turned out to be the best possible adventure for a 22-year-old woman whose love of nature, design and landscaping bloomed during a childhood spent on a vast West Mifflin farm, part of which later became the Allegheny County Airport.

Driven by a boundless curiosity, she had spent a summer studying plants at Cornell University and two years in a pre-med program at the University of Pittsburgh before enrolling in Carnegie Institute of Technology's architecture school.

Initially, she was the only woman in a creative, dynamic group of male apprentices, but Brierly thrived at Taliesin. While the nation gritted its way through the Great Depression, Wright's apprentices learned his principles of organic architecture and provided the necessary labor to live off the land, sustaining a community of nearly 70 people.

They cut down trees for firewood, planted vegetable gardens, harvested produce, threshed grain and cooked meals. For 50 cents, they led visitors on tours of Taliesin. They also did the back-breaking work of building some of the structures that still stand on the property. They staged cabarets and concerts, organized dinner parties, arranged flowers, danced under Mrs. Wright's direction, read poetry and watched current movies. Visitors included the singer Paul Robeson and poet Carl Sandburg.

Jerry Morosco, a South Side architect who was a Taliesin Fellow from 1981 to 1986, said Cornelia Brierly "epitomized that Taliesin ideal ... that the architect was responsible for crafting the entire environment. The design was conceived in toto, which is the way nature designs."

Wright taught his students to assess the site for a potential building and determine the best design for it. His apprentices also planned "the landscaping, the interior design, furnishings, tableware, fabrics, linens, finishes," Mr. Morosco said.

About six months after she arrived in Wisconsin, Wright chose Brierly to tour the United States as spokeswoman for Broadacre City, his plan to decentralize urban areas by building highways and providing an acre of land to each family. Brierly, who worked on the 12-by-12-foot model and suggested its color scheme, was a good choice because of her elegant appearance, engaging personality and straightforward manner.

By the time she died last August at age 99, Brierly had carefully planned the interiors of the Arizona Biltmore, the Pearl Palace, which was built for a sister of the Shah of Iran, plus many private homes. She accompanied Wright to Fayette County when he viewed the land where Edgar Kaufmann Sr. had commissioned him to design a summer house that became Fallingwater, the architect's best-known work.

As they stood looking up at the falls, Wright told her, "We're going to beat the Internationalists at their own game," Brierly recalled in an interview with Julie Lund for WMSN-TV in Madison, Wisc. (available on YouTube).

Born 100 years ago this month on April 12, her knowledge of architecture, design and landscaping became her passport to the globe. The handsome commission from Iran paid for the entire fellowship to spend two whole summers during the 1960s in Montagnola, Switzerland.

Early in her career, she married fellow Taliesin apprentice Peter Berndtson in 1939. By the spring of 1940, the couple was camped out in a tent in West Mifflin to oversee construction of the first Usonian home in Western Pennsylvania. Brierly originated the home's hexagonal design for her aunts, Hulda and Louise Notz, who were teachers.

Wright, who helped her with the plans, had already created a similar home for a Wisconsin family in 1937. He used the term "Usonian" (derived from "United States") to describe his concept for modest dwellings. Usonian homes have flat roofs, a carport, radiant heat embedded in the floors, built-in furniture and lighting and natural wood on the walls. Wood, stone and brick were the building materials. The Notz home still stands in West Mifflin and its owners, Jeree and David Kiefer, have spent years restoring it. (A story about the home appeared in Saturday's Post-Gazette.)

After a stint in Spokane, Wash., the Berndtsons moved to Laughlintown, Westmoreland County, in 1946. They practiced together until 1957, designing homes for middle-class and wealthy clients; much of their work is in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties. In 1957, they divorced and Brierly returned to Taliesin in Wisconsin. Except for the last year of her life, she spent each spring and summer in Wisconsin, returning to the warmth of Taliesin West in Arizona in the fall to escape the upper Midwest's harsh winters.

Val Cox, a South Side painter and sculptor who grew up in Waco, Texas, learned of the Taliesin Fellowship while reading about the Pearl Palace. He arrived at Taliesin West in 1972, and Brierly was the first person he met. "We hit it off right away. She was dressed in emerald green and off on a big trip."

Mr. Cox, who stayed until 1985, loved Taliesin's "stew of experience." He drew close to Brierly, who was famous for using every pot in the kitchen when she cooked. She loved road trips and picnics spread out on Native American rugs followed by long hikes.

When it came to color, taste or sound, Mr. Cox said, she had keen sensibilities. She rose early and embraced long hours of hard work. At Taliesin, he added, "You accepted hard, challenging work as a way to learn."

His mentor, Mr. Cox said, was influenced by her mother, Emma Notz Brierly. "Her mother studied yoga when Cornelia was growing up. Her mother was a seeker."

One day, with Mr. Cox at the wheel of her low-slung beige Volkswagen Dasher, Brierly said to him, "Let's drive up the wash,' " which meant driving off road in Arizona's Sonoran Desert. The joy ride through desert scenery lasted for two hours. The next day, she realized that oil had leaked all over the car's engine and paid to have it steam-cleaned, never telling the Taliesin West staff about the automotive mishap or expense.

One of Brierly's daughters, Indira Berndtson, is an archivist and oral historian at Taliesin West.

"She was taking architectural students on field trips into her 90s," Ms. Berndtson said. "She always enjoyed color and fabrics and plants. That was her first love, instead of actually designing houses and buildings."

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Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648. First Published April 28, 2013 4:00 AM


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