The following excerpts on John Lautner’s life in Michigan were taken from the oral interview entitled “Responsibility, Infinity, and Nature” by Marlene L. Laskey. (Oral History Program, University of California Los Angeles, 1986) The complete oral history can be found on the John Lautner Foundation website.
LASKEY: Now, you were born in Marquette, right? In 1911 . . .
LAUTNER: Yes. The life was beautiful because I loved the woods and the lake. I mean everything was beautiful, and we didn’t need any money. . . I played hockey. And playing hockey, and skiing in the wintertime and walking in the woods, and swimming and boating in the summertime, you need absolutely no money. It’s the most beautiful life in the world, and it’s so different from the city, you know. (p. 8 )
LASKEY: Do you ever get back to Michigan to refresh yourself?
LAUTNER: Oh yes, I go every chance I get, because it’s the most refreshing place I can go. Also because my oldest daughter [Karol] is there, and she owns her grandmother’s house . . . who engaged Frank Lloyd Wright to do a house which was the first house that I worked on. So, now my daughter lives in the Frank Lloyd Wright house in one hundred fifty acres of woods and lakes, and it’s the first place that I worked on. And so I go to see her, and just take a walk in the woods, in her woods. There just couldn’t be anything better. (p. 9)
LASKEY: In growing up in Marquette obviously you weren’t deprived in anyway of cultural or physical activities.
LAUTNER: Oh, no. Another interesting thing to me about it was that the college at that time had all of the people on a lyceum course that you’d have in a big city. Like I heard, oh, [Roald] Amundsen when he came from the North Pole, you know, and—Everybody you ever heard of, I heard at the college, and if I’d been in the big city I probably never would’ve seen them. So, I heard all of the nationally famous people in string quartets and everything, because of the college. So, being in a small town in the woods was more cultural than being in the big town, really. For me, I think it was. (p.10)
LASKEY: Well, the people of Marquette, at this time what were they like?
LAUTNER: Well, it was—I was interested in the whole cross-section. . . I knew people who were not considered the right people to associate with and I also knew the cream of the town, because of being a son of a professor.
My father and I would have social access to any strata of the society. And that made it interesting, because I could go to a party at the biggest, richest house, or I could go to a party at the poorest house, and I enjoyed both, and I’m still the same way. I like the real thing wherever it is. . . I don’t think Marquette is really an average small town, because there are more sophisticated, wealthy people who were world travelers. In fact, my ex-mother-in-law, now deceased of course, entertained President Taft at her house. Everybody doesn’t entertain a president, you know.
LASKEY: I’m curious—Marquette is in the northern part of Michigan in the upper peninsula. Why would that have developed into this sort of nucleus of culture and learning—There are two colleges there, right? There’s Marquette—
LAUTNER: No just one. . . It became Northern [Michigan] University. . . . But I think part of what happed there is the pioneers like my ex-mother-in law’s father. . . John M. Longyear, and he was a pioneer of northern Michigan and Minnesota [landlooker and timbercruiser]. . . Then there were other people there in timber and mining who built the libraries, and were very interested in nature and animal photography, and all kinds of beautiful things. They had the money, and they were so solid that . . . there was no need for any kind of “keep up with the Joneses” or any rat race or anything. It was just follow some endeavor you chose. So one of them would have his own sailboat and his own building for making sailboats, another was photographing—flash photography—deer out in the woods, and doing different things like that, and for their own entertainment. (p. 12)
LASKEY: You had a rather idyllic childhood, and we’ve gotten you through high school, and now it’s time for you to go to college. How was the choice made that you should go to the college of Marquette [Northern Michigan University]?
LAUTNER: Well, it was practically automatic because, my father being a professor there, I felt it was sensible and reasonable. I didn’t question it particularly, except that I had friends. . .who went to Princeton, and Harvard, and Yale, and all of the rest of them. And, I sometimes thought, well, I don’t know, it would be interesting to see one of those universities, but I was really happy with the college that I was going to right there in Marquette. I just took subjects that I was interested in, and so I really enjoyed it. I took astronomy and physics and chemistry and –Then I took subjects from my father: philosophy and ethics and anthropology. . . (p.23)
After graduating from Northern Michigan University, Lautner and his then wife, Marquette-native Mary Roberts, joined Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin school in Spring Green, Wisconsin in 1933. Mary’s mother, Abby Roberts, commissioned Wright in 1936 to design a house for her in Marquette and Lautner assisted in the physical construction of the home.
LASKEY: So, the house you built [for Wright] in Marquette [Abby Beecher Roberts House, “Deertrack,” Marquette, Michigan, 1936], then the Roberts House, what was it like?
LAUTNER: Oh, it was beautiful. On a hundred and fifty acres of woods. In the living room, the ceiling went up to the sky, so that you incorporated the woods, and a distant view of Lake Superior. So, there was nothing like that up there because, you know, most houses have a square or rectangular room with a window on each wall. . . Particularly in wintertime, when you’d go in that living room, you’re in a woods full of snow and you’re just right in the middle of it. And it’s just [an] unbelievable place to live. Of course, all spring, summer, and autumn, it’s just magnificent because you’re just part of the woods. (p. 45)
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