Visual Arts

Designing Men

Warren McArthur knows something about the tenacity of fiction. For the past quarter century, he has been trying to undo the popular one that presents America's über-architect Frank Lloyd Wright as the designer of the Arizona Biltmore.

"My uncle Albert [Chase McArthur] was the real architect, but I guess some people just don't want to accept that," he says a little wanly.

No matter how often McArthur, who is in his mid-70s, insists that the Wright story is mostly wrong, it persists like soup stains on the McArthur family's tablecloth.

Year after year, books and magazines and lecturers repeat it as architectural fact. Every so often, the Biltmore itself encourages the lie by printing something claiming the hotel for Wright. And just last month, a local magazine published a photograph with yet another caption suggesting that Wright was the brains behind the resort's design.

McArthur's rebuttal takes the form of a slide talk -- December 9 at the Burton Barr Central Library -- and a self-published booklet detailing what he calls the "mostly untold" story of his family's lengthy involvement with the hotel. The talk and book also touch briefly on his father's (who's also named Warren) notoriety as an inventor of such bygone things as the Wonderbus and Electroscoot, and designer of what a growing number of writers and curators consider some of this century's most striking American furniture.

McArthur's arsenal has been largely paper: memos, photographs, letters, contracts and recollections from the key players in the Biltmore deal. They fill the file cabinets of his small Phoenix graphic-design studio and lie behind a flurry of icons on one of the studio's computer screens.

He keeps the overhead lights off, "to make the screens a little easier to see," he says. Yet once he sits down and begins clicking his way through the icons that tell the story, the darkened room also makes his family's history glow a little bit brighter.

When the Biltmore opened in 1929, there wasn't much confusion about whose idea it was. Early newspaper and journal articles attributed the resort's design to Uncle Albert, and the idea for the project to his two brothers, Charles and Warren.

McArthur says his father and Charles -- transplanted Chicagoans who started out here as car dealers -- began toying with the idea of building a luxury hotel around 1914.

"They wanted the wealthy people back East to have a nice place to come," says McArthur.

Location was the big question.

"Originally, they had the idea of having two hotels," he says. "One was going to be up north, the other down south. The idea being that they'd move the staff from one to the other according to the season."

In 1925, they enlisted Albert, the architect in the family, to draw up plans.

The fib about Wright's role in those plans took root around 1927, when Albert McArthur decided to use a form of concrete block construction, known as knitlock, which he erroneously thought Wright had patented.

"A lawyer said that if Wright did have such a patent," says Warren McArthur, "Albert would have to get a release for it."

Wright was hardly a stranger to the McArthurs. He had designed a Chicago house for the McArthur family in 1892. And Albert had spent 1907 and 1908 as a draftsman in Wright's Chicago studio.

Albert, who considered Wright a friend, eventually offered him $10,000 for the right to use the construction method.

The offer couldn't have come at a better time. Wright's finances and circumstances in the Midwest were a shambles, so he invited himself out to assist with the project. He arrived in January 1928. But by May of that year, the McArthur team realized -- as did others who had business dealings with Wright -- that they'd been had. Wright had no patent on the use of the Biltmore-style block. The true patent owner eventually sued the Biltmore and settled with it out of court.

Charles McArthur canned Wright, but not soon enough to prevent him from claiming the Biltmore as his own. Wright touted his role in the project to audiences here and in California. The claim stuck, partly because the building has an architectural Wrightness about it, but also because people doubted that Wright -- as arrogant and pushy as he was talented -- could be involved in a project without running it.

But even before he left the scene, Wright told McArthur that by ignoring the "most important" of Wright's suggestions, he had produced a design that "lacked even the most primitive elements of good design."

In 1930, Albert solicited and got from Wright a letter conceding that McArthur was the Biltmore's architect.

But that didn't stop writers in the 1930s from pinning the "beauty" of the design on Wright and giving the lie the legs it needed to pass through much of the century.

For Albert McArthur, the Biltmore was the high point of a career that saw few other major projects. For his brother Warren, however, it more or less marked the beginning of a career that, until fairly recently, was largely unknown here.

Aside from his Dodge dealership, Warren was an incurable tinkerer and designer. Early on, he invented the Dietz lantern that became a fixture on trains and farms. And in the late 1920s, using a Dodge truck chassis, he built one of the earliest known versions of a mobile home -- the Wonderbus -- to tour visitors around the Southwest. The bus, a mobile hotel styled after the railroad parlor cars of the day, had the comforts of a living room, four beds, a bath, shower and kitchen. And it came with a driver and cook. Its doors, windows and side compartments opened, like a camper, onto the landscape. The writer Sinclair Lewis, one of the first paying customers, took it on a tour of the Tucson area

McArthur also designed the Electroscoot, an early version of a golf cart, which he used to buzz around downtown Phoenix, sometimes even steering it onto the elevator at the Luhrs building for a ride to see prospective car buyers upstairs.

Yet McArthur's most lasting tinkering came in the area of furniture. He designed and built some of the Biltmore's early furniture -- now gone -- using steel and copper tubing. In the early 1930s, he moved to Los Angeles, and opened a furniture-design business -- Warren McArthur Corporation -- which specialized in tubular aluminum chairs and tables and catered to the Hollywood crowd.

His designs sported the clean-line simplicity of other modernist furniture of the day. Yet his came with an interior -- therefore hidden -- system of connectors and wires that reinforced the structures without encumbering their visual ease.

McArthur moved his operation to New York and eventually Connecticut, expanding his line to include sofas, tables and other forms.

It isn't known how many different designs he produced. Experts say the number could be anywhere from several hundred to 1,500.

A surer thing is the rage his furniture has created among some high-end collectors. In the past decade, prices for original McArthur works have risen to about $1,000 for one of his folding chairs, $14,000 for a table, and almost $50,000 for one of his rarer chairs.

The American Federation of the Arts is planning a major exhibition of McArthur's furniture for 2001. The show isn't scheduled to come to Phoenix. And the junior Warren McArthur only touches on this work in his talk. But in conjunction with the lecture, the Vintage Modern Gallery will be exhibiting a dozen examples of the senior McArthur's furnishings. They will be on view the night of the lecture and remain up for a week afterward. They're well worth a detour.

Warren McArthur's lecture is scheduled for Thursday, December 9, from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Norwest Lecture Hall (fourth floor, west side) of the Burton Barr Central Library, 1221 North Central. Limited seating requires reservations: 602-462-5790. Vintage Modern Gallery is located at 1515 North Central.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow