Robber Baron or Robin Hood?
A pizza king gets Wright’s art-furniture to go
Pizza King Thomas Monaghan gave the art and architecture worlds indigestion in the 1980s when he began hoarding bits and pieces from Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses. My editor at Chicago Times, the admirable Florence Skelly, asked me to report. This is the biggest of three parts; the other two are here and here.
I’m stretching definitions a bit to call this an Illinois piece, but the furniture in question is mostly from houses that Wright designed for Illinois clients while he lived in Illinois and the experts quoted are for the most part Chicago experts, and the issues raised pertain to the dozens of Wright houses in Illinois.
On February 1988, Tom Monaghan drove to Oak Park from his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to present a check for $20,000 to Oak Park's Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. He was behind the wheel of his 1940 Cherokee-red Lincoln; its coachwork—designed by the car's original owner, Frank Lloyd Wright—seemed to billow like a windblown scarf, though it was stamped out of metal. The landing of Dorothy's house in Oz could not have made a more vivid impression on the locals. His arrival revealed Tom Monaghan perfectly, especially in the way it combined serious purpose with showing off.
The business world has come to know Tom Monaghan as the founder and big cheese of Domino's Pizza, the delivered-within-30-minutes fast-food chain that rings up annual sales of $2.3 billion. The art world knows him as either Mr. Monaghan or "the pizza guy," depending on their opinion of the man who has amassed the world's premium collection of decorative pieces by Wright, America's master architect.
Monaghan's collection of Wright pieces numbers roughly 400, including many of Wright's finest furniture and art glass designs. The Domino's Pizza Collection outrivals in size and quality the Wright holdings of any major museum and is worth at least $30 million, give or take an end table.
The core of that collection will be trucked to Chicago next spring as part of a traveling exhibit titled "Frank Lloyd Wright: Preserving an Architectural Heritage/Decorative Designs from the Domino's Pizza Collection." FLWPAA-HDDFTDPC has been booked into the Chicago Historical Society from April 1 through June 17, during which time more than 70 of the pizza king's trophies will be on display.
The exhibit demonstrates the full range of Wright's inventiveness. In addition to the expected art glass windows and furniture, it includes copper urns, illustrated book pages (including a magazine cover), typist's chairs, wallpapers, china tableware, wall friezes, and two sets of wrought iron gates.
Monaghan accumulated most of this extraordinary trove in a little more than two years. In the opinion of many preservationists and architects, that wasn't collecting. That was pillage.
Stung by his critics, Monaghan accumulated a preservationist conscience just as quickly. Having gone from bad guy to good guy, he more recently has moved on to good works. But a new career as a religious philanthropist doesn't answer the questions about Monaghan's proprietorship of these national treasures. It just changes them.
* * * *
Frank Lloyd Wright's houses and their interiors are related in ways that are almost unique in architecture. Art objects themselves, Wright's furnishings and fixtures also were conceived as integral parts of the architectural experience of each house. Wright did not exactly design the decor for his "Prairie-style" houses. Rather, a Wright house was decor, and vice versa. With what one critic praised as "heroic discipline," the architect designed for each house its furniture, draperies and rugs, andirons and vases, table lamps and windows. On occasion he even designed the clothes to be worn by the mistress of the house while she entertained; ordinary architects might have to decorate houses to suit their clients, but Wright decorated his clients to suit his houses.
"Wright did not use ornament per se," explains Wilbert Hasbrouck, a partner in the firm of Hasbrouck Peterson Associates, restoration architects at work on both the Rookery and Wright's 1902 Dana-Thomas house in Springfield. "His furnishings were expressions of his manipulations of space-enclosing materials."
As Wright himself put it once, his furnishings were of the house, never upon it. In the 1908 Avery Coonley house in Riverside, light fixtures on the walls bore abstract designs derived from fern leaves, shapes repeated on the living room ceiling and in a fireplace mural.
Unlike ordinary decorative art objects, such architectural artifacts can be "destroyed" as art by their removal from their original settings, even though they continue to exist as objects. Marketability in the case of Wright's pieces thus is enhanced at the expense of meaning.
Wright's furnishings and decorative objects have always been uniquely vulnerable to their owners' whims. As early as 1908, owners of Wright-designed houses began scattering their furnishings, including not only furniture but also decorative fixtures such as wall sconces. Owners who loved them took them along when they moved; owners who hated them—and there have been more than a few—sold them to get rid of them. As happens during any diaspora, there were tragedies. A late owner of the 1908 Meyer May house in Grand Rapids reportedly chopped up his dining table and lamps and used some of the pieces to build a storage box for firewood. Happily, there were survivors, too. In the 1950s, the new owners of the 1902 Willits house in Highland Park held what amounted to a yard sale. Lucky bargain hunters picked up for a few bucks pieces that have since sold for enough money to put triplets through college.
Appreciation of Wright's work, along with that of his contemporaries like Gustav Stickley as well as Wright's own apprentices and colleagues, was not invented by Monaghan. Over the years, a few farsighted private collectors and museums salvaged some of these riches from the junk heap. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York began collecting Wright as early as 1967, and in 1972 rescued an entire room from a Wright house that was about to be torn down. But it was not until the 1980s that Wright artifacts began to command prices commensurate with their value.
Considered in economic rather than aesthetic terms, Tom Monaghan didn't just corner the market in Wright artifacts; he created it. Monaghan has been called Wright's last great client. Rich, untutored, impatient with convention, he is precisely the kind of rarin'-to-go businessman upon whom Wright depended in the early years of his practice. A former Marine who was raised partly in an orphanage, Monaghan is wonderfully Philistine. " The concept of delivering a hot, tasty pizza in 30 minutes or less," he has said, "is pure and needs no embellishment, any more than a Frank Lloyd Wright design might need a Gothic tower grafted onto it." He works in a $2.5 million private office, and when the learned and the powerful gather at his table from around the world, he feeds them pizza.
Like many a self-made millionaire, Monaghan has used his wealth to indulge the still-potent enthusiasms of his youth. He loved old cars—he bought more than too of them. He loved baseball—he bought the Detroit Tigers. He loved Wrightiana—he bought nearly everything.
Monaghan has been a fan of Wright's work since he discovered it as a 12-year-old in the pages of a library book. His interest flamed into passion in 1978 when he saw an exhibit of Wright furniture and other objects in a Washington, D.C., gallery in 1978, but it wasn't until the mid-1980s that Monaghan began collecting in earnest. He purchased a model "Usonian" house displayed in New York in 1953, disassembled and in storage, at a fund-raising auction for only $117,000; his first major furniture purchase was a dining set for which he paid $5,000.
Thereafter Monaghan spent lavishly, even recklessly. "He went in like a swarm of locusts for a couple of years," recalls Chicago dealer Scott Elliott, whose own Kelmscott Gallery was picked clean more than once. In 1986, Monaghan paid $198,000 for a single spindle-backt side chair designed for the dining room ol the Willits house; the sum was three times the auctioneer's reserve price and the most ever paid for a 20th-century chair. In 1987, he paid $1.6 million for a nine-piece dining set from the 1899 Husser house in Chicago (since razed), the most that had then been paid for any 20th-century art object. He even plopped down $10 grand for a bright red painted plywood house that Wright's office designed in the 1950s for a client's cat.
Monaghan's unrestrained spending had the usual effect—namely, runaway inflation. By 1987, when Monaghan bought 29 of the surviving 34 windows from the 1912 Coonley Playhouse in Riverside, he paid a reported $3 million. Today the sophisticated burglar would sooner break through the safe of a Prairie house to steal a window than vice versa.
Trading architectural artifacts as art objects ordinarily would not bother most architects; indeed it rather flatters their profession. But dealing in Wright remnants is a matter of costs as well as prices. Remove such furnishings from their settings and both they and the house are impoverished. John Vinci, the Chicago architect who oversaw the restorations of Wright's 1909 studio and library in Oak Park and the Coonley Playhouse, calls the collecting of what he calls "bits and pieces" of Wright interiors "rather destructive."
Museums have been left with their noses pressed to the shop window, says Pauline Saliga, associate curator of the Art Institute's Department of Architecture, which owns a few Wright pieces. "We can't play in that league." In 1986, for example, the Art Institute was one of two major U.S. museums bidding to buy the windows from the Coonley Playhouse, but was outbid by Monaghan. (The Art Institute was able to acquire a triptych from the set, which will be installed along its grand staircase with the rest of its collection of architectural fragments.)
And, while a new generation of private owners brings an historical consciousness (not to mention conscience) to their custodianship of Wright houses, their efforts to restore Wright houses are stymied by high costs. Already pressed by the cost of maintaining structures that are now nearly a century old (and that in some cases were not that well built to begin with), private owners also face crippling costs to insure their valuable contents.
Refurnishing a Wright interior by buying back the originals on the open market has become impossible for any but the very rich. The story is told that, a few years ago, the owner of a Wright house gave up for auction what he had dismissed as two beat-up old oak tables. The tables were sold to dealers who eventually sold one of them to Barbra Streisand for a six figure sum.
Least conscionable of all to preservationists is the way that spiraling prices have tempted some owners of surviving Wright houses to strip them of what's left of their original accoutrements and put these objects up for sale. For example, the purchase for $264,000 in early 1987 of a single chest of drawers from the 1903 Little house in Peoria would have tempted any owner of a Wright house to scour the basement for odds and ends he could live without. A few months later, nearly a dozen pieces from the Little house showed up for sale at Christie's auction house; Monaghan bought them all.
By 1987, Progressive Architecture magazine couldn't decide whether Monaghan was a Robin Hood or a robber baron. Just about everyone else involved in the sale, restoration, or management of Wright's work had made up their minds, however. Brendan Gill—in his biography of Wright, Many Masks—denounced "ignorant millionaires acting as vacuum cleaners in the wake of fashion." Tom Monaghan, it seems, had become a plague on all Wright houses.
* * * *
"I tried to look at the controversy in a broader view," says David Hanks, a New York-based art consultant who wrote the major study to date of Wright's decorative designs. Hanks, who serves as Tom Monaghan's advisor, conscience, and apologist, wrote the essay that introduces the catalog for the Domino's traveling exhibit; like the exhibit itself, the essay grapples with what Hanks calls "the unusual ethical difficulties that collecting [Wright] presents."
Hanks—whose early career includes a stint at the Art Institute's Department of American Decorative Arts—is one of a group of advisors with whom Monaghan has surrounded himself as protection against the darts hurled at him by preservationists. Among other things, they advise him on what Hanks calls "possible conflicts between his corporate collecting and his interest in preservation" —after, one suspects, first explaining to him what his interest in preservation is.
Hanks's essay is as much a defense of Monaghan as a collector as it is a description of Wright as a designer. "There is no question," Hanks acknowledges, "that Monaghan's purchase of individual objects at record-breaking prices encourages their removal from their original architectural setting." Yet he reminds us of the damage that was done to Wright's work before Monaghan came along. "By the 1950s," he writes, "Prairie houses retaining any of the original furnishings were notable exceptions." Rising prices for Wrightiana, he notes, may result in their dispersal to collectors, but at least these artifacts will not be destroyed.
About Monaghan's setting out of a drift net for the contents of the Little house, Hanks writes, "One can perhaps fault the owner of the house, Christie's, and even the purchaser for the dispersement of these furnishings . . . but it must be kept in mind that the furniture was stored and had not been used." Since only a handful of Prairie houses are open to the public on even limited bases. Hanks reminds us, preserving a Wright artifact in its original environment would likely also mean removing it from public view: "If the | Little) house is not destined to become a museum, as seems unlikely, then the preservation of the furniture in a museum context is a desirable solution." Better in Ann Arbor, in short, than in a basement or bedroom, where the public will never see it.
Finally, Hanks warns of the uncertain future awaiting Wright artifacts in any but the wealthiest and most responsible hands. He lists the financial pressures on owners of Wright houses (ignoring, for the moment, his patron's role in increasing those pressures), and notes that today-Wright houses are—quite literally—worth more in pieces than they are whole. " The private Wright house is the core of Wright's architecture and demands preservation," a perplexed Hani writes, "yet how this is to be achieved is difficult to determine."
Indeed, compared with most private collectors, Tom Monaghan looks like a benefactor, flanks notes approvingly that Monaghan created in 1986 his Center for the Study of Frank Lloyd Wright, which was set up to both sponsor annual symposia to which public and scholars would be invited, and handle Monaghan's collection. He placed his treasures on public display in new galleries in Ann Arbor. He has awarded matching grants to not-for-profit restorers of Wright buildings. He has permitted owners of houses undergoing restoration to measure certain pieces in his collection so that exact reproductions may be made, and has loaned pieces themselves to other museums.
Like any proper savior, Monaghan even has a testament—a set of guidelines by which Domino's promises to manage its collection. Notably, the guidelines oblige the center to "make an effort" to return to Wright museum buildings via gift, sale, or loan any piece now in the collection that originally came from those buildings.
Monaghan is a fervent Christian and, as such, no doubt believes in redemption. In his preface to the exhibition catalog, he writes that, while he began to buy Wright to satisfy a whim, "1 slowly came to realize that a greater purpose exists for this growing collection," namely that "future generations . . . develop a deeper appreciation of [Wright's] contributions to our American heritage." The grants and new study center may, like his loan of treasures for the new tour, be understood as both Monaghan's reply to his critics and an act in expiation of any sins he may have committed against the integrity of Wright's heritage.
* * * *
The conversion of Tom Monaghan, looter, into Tom Monaghan, friend of architecture, did not altogether convince some critics. Cheryl Kent accused Monaghan, in Inland Architect, of trying to "appropriate the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright for his own aggrandizement," complaining that the displays in Ann Arbor honored Monaghan's interest in Wright as much as they did Wright.
It isn't hard to dismiss Monaghan as an entrepreneur for whom the excitement of making money has palled, who seeks new satisfactions as a social benefactor. Chicago used to produce them by the dozen. When Charles Hutchinson toured the salons of Europe as president of the Art Institute, he bought up paintings (claimed his critics) for "$1,000 a foot," knowing little about them except that they were all "corkers."
Many of these complaints, however, can be blamed on snobbery. Monaghan is one of those people to whom (as Chicago historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz has explained) "refined taste does not come naturally." Monaghan named his collection so that it sounds more like objets d'oven than objets d'art, and the entrance to the Wright rooms at corporate HQ has been decorated with old Domino's signs. "His audience isn't the art world," sniffs one Chicago dealer. "It's people who go to theme parks, people who would just as soon look at his antique cars as look at Wright things, because it's 'something to do.'"
David Hanks remarks, "I don't think he's gotten a fair shake." Tom Monaghan may have installed some of the most distinguished designs of our most inventive architect in a dumb-cluck amusement park called Domino's Farms, but at least he hasn't chopped any of them up to make pizza counters. His affection for Wright may be naive, but it is less venal than a dealer's. And while an experienced collector might have been suspected of deliberately overbidding for strategic purposes (to flush out pieces held privately, for example), Monaghan's extravagance may be credited to the enthusiasm of the uninformed.
Yet innocence is seldom simple. Monaghan has been stirred in recent months by what associates describe as a personal religious crisis. He has devoted himself increasingly to Roman Catholic charities and political causes that might politely be described as right-wing. He has embraced these new endeavors with the same single-mindedness and the same ready checkbook he brought to his collecting of Wright.
The man who wanted to make the world Wright now wants to make it right. In September, it was reported from Ann Arbor that Monaghan was exploring the possible sale of Domino's so that he could devote himself full-time to his expanding charitable projects. The news surprised Wrightians across the country, many of whom no doubt had concluded prematurely that nothing Tom Monaghan could do would surprise them any more.
Sources at Domino's insist that Monaghan remains committed to preserving the Wright collection, but it is not evident where or how or by whom. Plans for a major Wright museum were dropped last summer. Staff and budget at the Domino's Center for Architecture and Design, which includes the Wright center, have been scaled back, and the Wright center's founding executive director has resigned. Domino's spokespeople explain the changes by noting that the pace of acquisition has slowed and that the bulk of the collection is out on the road at least until late in 1991.
But what then? Monaghan could donate selected pieces to public house museums or donate the collection en masse to some institution willing to display it properly. Such gifts would enable him to keep both his new collector's conscience and his checkbook intact by preserving his treasures for public viewing at someone else's expense. Selling off the collection en masse seems a less likely fate, if only because it might trigger a crash in prices. However, a phased de-accessioning might realize millions for Monaghan's charities.
The future of his collection will reveal the depth of Monaghan's commitment to his new preservationist ethic. To some, the issue isn't whether he decides its fate responsibly, but that he, indeed any single person, is in a position to decide the fate of a collection of such national importance. Until it is decreed that art cannot be peddled like pizza, however, we may contemplate an observation made some months ago by Hanks. " It isn't easy to put it into 'all good' or 'all bad,'" Hanks said of this most vexing of clients. "Mr. Monaghan is different in lots of ways." ●
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