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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Meeting Edgar Tafel, an 'Apprentice to Genius'


Edgar Tafel at his townhouse, pointing
towards the entrance to his office.
I met Edgar Tafel on July 27, 2005. This was just two short months following my graduation from the Historic Preservation Planning program at Cornell University. Work took me to Northern Manhattan to document Art Deco apartment houses . One day after my work was done I decided to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then to Greenwich Village with my AIA guidebook, soaking in the architecture of New York City. Little did I know that along the way I would meet the last surviving Taliesin fellow, and find myself one degree of separation from the Master himself, Frank Lloyd Wright.

The story of how I met Edgar Tafel is as simple as it is profound. There I was standing at Fifth Avenue looking at the First Presbyterian Church by Joseph C. Well, dedicated in 1846. McKim Mead and White had built a glorious addition to the original building between 1893 and 1894. A more modern addition was built in the 1950’s as well. Just as I was looking at this later addition and reflecting how well it blended with the historic character of the building, I received a tap on my right shoulder. Naturally, I was surprised, and thought that maybe I was in some sort of trouble. Upon turning around I saw an older gentleman in bright red shorts and a blue-and-white striped short-sleeved shirt who asked me, “Who built that church?” I answered, “Joseph C. Well.” Somewhat forcefully he said “No,” then in exasperation he asked “Who built the addition?” I answered none other than the great Stanford White. At that point he got even more upset and then pointed directly to the new church house and asked who built that. I answered, “Edgar Tafel.” His mood instantly changed. He reached out his hand and said, “A pleasure to meet you.”

Edgar Tafel was full of many surprises as I would come to discover that day. We had a lively banter there on the sidewalk discussing the building, his experience constructing it, and how this was one of his favorite projects. We could have ended it there and this would have been a nice and memorable story. Instead, he invited me to his townhouse just around the corner on 14 East 11th Street and started an adventure that would last the remaining hours of that fateful day, and stay with me just as clear as if it were yesterday, now several years later.

We entered the townhouse not on the first floor level by way of the primary staircase and elevated stoop, though through the lower basement level where Tafel’s office once had been. A simple plaque just outside of the door read “Edgar Tafel, Architect.” Inside there were books and plans strewn about. It was obvious to me that any serious work had not been done there for years. Still, I could only imagine the treasures waiting to be discovered for a budding architectural historian like me.

He next took me upstairs to his main living room. There the walls were lined by all manner of Japanese prints. One window had a colored stained glass window with geometric design, providing a direct connection to Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie Style. Dominating the room was a raised fireplace with an overmantel that was a giant block of marble made to appear as if it was floating. Tafel explained to me how he “invented” the raised fireplace.


Some prints on display over the desk in Tafel’s living room.

Things took an interesting turn from there. Tafel drew the curtains and the room became very dark. Then he lowered a screen and brought out a slide projector (of the manual variety of course, no Powerpoint or computer was to be seen anywhere). His story unfolded before me in one beautiful and tantalizing image after another.


Slide showing telegram from Frank Lloyd Wright to Tafel, inviting him to Taliesin.

One of the first slides was a document, this one a telegraph from Western Union, from none other than Frank Lloyd Wright himself and addressed to Edgar Tafel who was living at 15 West 76th St in New York City at the time. The telegraph read:
“BELIEVE WE CAN MANAGE A FELLOWSHIP FOR YOU IF YOU PAY ALL YOU CAN NOW STOP YOU MAY COME NOW INTO TEMPORARY QUARTERS IF YOU LIKE MY RESPECTS TO PERCIVAL GOODMAN. FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT.”

Note in Wright’s own hand to Tafel, upon the occasion of his departure.


Tafel accepted the offer of course. Otherwise I surely would not have been sitting in his living room. The next slide he showed was a personalized note from Frank Lloyd Wright himself written at the completion of his fellowship, demonstrating the affection Wright had for Tafel:
“To Edgar Tafel - His nimble mind and fingers enlivened our Fellowship and his spirit should make him a good architect - I hope a great one - Frank Lloyd Wright - Taliesin - when Edgar was 22 years old.”
Like some family descended from nobles proving their lineage, these two data points instantly established Tafel’s connection with Frank Lloyd Wright. Then attention shifted to Tafel’s own work. One of the first drawings he showed was a “Local Architect’s Sketch” for the 16th Street Entrance of the S.C. Johnson & Sons Building dated 1936. This simple non-descript building was organized into seven bays, with a pedimented portico in the center, and three round arched windows to either side. A simple unornamented band ran across the top took the place of what might have traditionally been a cornice.

One of the most intriguing stories Tafel shared was how when stress tests were being done for the lily-pad columns of the Johnson Wax building, it was Tafel’s own Instamatic camera that was used to take photographs first of the column, and then the iconic image of Frank Lloyd Wright standing atop the column to prove its ability to carry a load. Tafel related to me how his mother had bought the camera for him just days before the photos were taken.

Other slides followed: one of the Guggenheim Museum in New York during construction, another of the room installation of the Francis W. Little House. Tafel orchestrated the move of the Little House from Wayzata, Minnesota, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Then his First Presbyterian Church project and designs for the Church House from 1958 came up. A beautiful drawing of the 5th Avenue elevation showed how the building harmonized well with the older structures though also had an autonomous character. The rooftop had a parapet that staggered upwards towards the spire of the original 1844 structure. A schematic drawing also showed how the original 1844 structure, the 1895 addition, and Tafel’s 1958 addition were differentiated from one another with each section being identified by date.

Frank Lloyd Wright himself in his enigmatic cape made a brief appearance in Tafel’s living room that day. A collage of photos from a newspaper article that included the Guggenheim Museum project followed. Then there were several slides of Tafel’s work at SUNY Genesseo. Tafel designed an impressive assemblage of buildings there. The birds-eye view was particularly striking, showing bold, daring, and geometric shapes, set against a back-drop of smaller and less grand structures.

Tafel’s work at SUNY Geneseo.

Upon concluding the presentation we sat there reminiscing about all things Frank Lloyd Wright and of Tafel’s work for several hours more. The conversation shifted between Wright and Tafel’s own work, to some of my recent experiences studying in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell. He took a real interest in the program there and frequently related this to his work at SUNY Geneseo – another place where he was welcomed, accepted, and felt he belonged. Tafel’s admiration and respect for Wright was great. This came across in ways large and small – from the decoration he chose for the interior of his townhouse, to the slide presentation he had prepared, and his enthusiasm to share this with unexpected visitors he happened across on the street.

Most of the afternoon went by like this until I realized that the evening was fast approaching, and that a reception was being planned for the Cornell Urban Scholars Program at the Old City Hall. I asked Tafel if he’d like to attend as my guest, and he accepted. I sat there in the living room seemingly forever, as he went off to get ready for going out. Tafel donned a slightly worn plaid jacket and a light green bowtie. Just as we prepared to leave, he gave me a copy of his book Apprentice to Genius that he personalized and autographed the inside cover.

Personalized note from Edgar Tafel inside his book Apprentice to Genius

We took a quick taxi ride from his townhouse in Greenwich Village to the Old City Hall. Once inside we made our way up the stairs to just outside the main chamber. There we respectfully listened as students were making their presentation about their internships in New York that summer. One of my advisors from Cornell, Dr. Ken Reardon, saw us and came out to greet us. In making my introduction, I barely got the name Edgar Tafel out, and Reardon replied, “Apprentice to Genius.” This is something I always admired about Ken. While he was not a preservationist or an architectural historian by training, he was knowledgeable enough in the subject to immediately make a personal connection with Edgar Tafel. We talked there in the rotunda a few minutes longer. Upon saying good-bye to Dr. Reardon, it was off to a Chinese restaurant in Greenwich Village. There our discussion kept going on until eventually this came to a close. Tafel accompanied me to the nearest subway station and I was back off to Northern Manhattan, reveling in the wonderful experience I had that day.


Tafel speaking with Dr. Ken Reardon in the rotunda of the Old City Hall, New York.

I put it out there that I’d like to come back some time to help document his work, and to help share his presentation on Frank Lloyd Wright with a broader audience. He was friendly though non-committal. Once you get to a certain age, I guess you stop making plans too far ahead.

Once my week in New York City was over and my work completed, I went home to Michigan with incredible memories and experiences in tow. I attempted to follow up with Edgar. I sent several postcards with beautiful views from Cornell left over from my days as a student. In these postcards I thanked him for sharing his time, and expressed my desire to visit again.

One August morning as I was driving into Detroit from my home in Wyandotte, I received a call from a 212 number. It was Tafel. He questioned me what all of these postcards were about, and told me that he had no idea who I was or why I was writing to him. Despite my efforts to reach out and maintain our connection, he made it very clear that he was not interested in having any further contact and then as abruptly as our first encounter began, our last conversation ended.

I heard very little of Tafel in the years to follow. He would receive some additional accolades and attention in his waning years. SUNY Geneseo awarded Tafel a Doctor of Fine Arts in 2001. Tafel gave a lecture at Cornell on My Years as an Architect: From Apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright through 55 years in Private Practice. This event was held on November 2, 2006, in the Lewis Auditorium at Goldwin Smith Hall. That same year Tafel gave $3.6 million gift to the Cornell University Department of Architecture to endow the Edgar A. Tafel Professorship in Architecture and the Tafel Architecture Lecture Series.

On at least one other occasion when visiting New York City, I passed by Tafel’s townhouse and still saw the plaque with his name there. By that time I imagined he had long since passed away. Had I known that he still lived there I might have summoned the courage to ascend the stairs, knock on the door, and introduce myself once again. The reality of the situation is that this was not how I met Tafel in the first place. He saw me on the street admiring his work, and then invited me in. Not the other way around.

Tafel by his willingness to invite a total stranger in taught me many lessons that day. The first was to be open to serendipitous moments and chance happenings. Another lesson was to appreciate how these moments are fleeting in nature, and often few and far between. By inviting me in perhaps the greatest impression Tafel created on me was similar to one Frank Lloyd Wright made on Tafel also at a young age. When Wright wrote to “pay all you can now” and “you may come in now into temporary quarters if you like,” Wright took a risk just as Tafel did with me that one day.

The whole experience of meeting Edgar Tafel reinforced the power of an idea that I’ve always held dear – that all I’m looking for are a few good guides in life. People who can show me from one place to the next or expose me to new ideas and ways of thinking. Those people end up being the ones whom I value and respect the most. Tafel played the role of guide for me at least for a day.

One last observation of Tafel’s character and personality as expressed through his work. Tafel called himself and titled his book “Apprentice to Genius.” He didn’t feel a need to overtake Wright or to be a genius himself. Instead, Tafel seemed perfectly content to be the next apprentice, in a long line of teachers and apprentices reaching back through time. This willingness of Tafel to be an apprentice to genius is perhaps the greatest impression he left with me. That sometimes simply being an apprentice is a great honor. And the day that he and I met I was a brief apprentice to him I guess.

The knowledge of humanity passes on from one generation to the next, only with the consent of apprentices agreeing to work with masters, and students agreeing to work with teachers. The willingness to be an apprentice and a student when the master arrives or the moment calls is what helps to pass on precious knowledge from one generation to the next. This is the greatest lesson Edgar Tafel taught me that one fateful day. Rather than any single building he made, Tafel's commitment to his craft and profession, is perhaps his greatest legacy. I hope that Edgar Tafel is forever remembered and respected for the influence he had on me and countless others in continuing the study of Architecture, and promoting the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next.

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