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Autobiography of James Walter Schildroth, Architect

I have been interested in architecture since I was eight years old.  Architecture is the focus of my life.  My life is lived in the design projects that I do for my clients.  I make my living from this work but making beautiful architecture is why I do the work.  I have learned how to design buildings that make the life lived in them much better and more enjoyable.     Organic space shelters and defines but never limits or confines.

Born in Detroit, Michigan.    When I was age eight the family moved to Traverse City, Michigan, where we lived in houses built by my father.   I attended Traverse City High School.   I attended Northwestern Michigan College for one year and then was accepted as an apprentice at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Taliesin Fellowship where I was a member until age 21.

My father was designing the next house he would build for my family and I watched him draw the floor plan and started to make my own floor plans for a house designs.  My father built three houses during the time I grew up and so I learned by watching him work and by helping.  He did all the work himself and so I could see how things were built.

I also had a mentor Will Willsey, Architect.   Will and his wife Virginia owned the Silver Lake Inn about a mile from my home.   I started working at the Inn painting boats, washing dishes and other jobs.   Will and Virginia had been in the Taliesin Fellowship in 1945 and 1946.  Will was my mentor and after a few years Will begin to show me his design work and teach me about architecture and about Mr. Wright’s way of design.  A few years later when I was looking for a school of architecture Will recommended that I go to Taliesin first and not the University.  I took his advice and wrote to Eugene Masselink, Secretary of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.    I went for an interview with Mrs. Wright and was accepted.

The Taliesin Fellowship life was very different from any university experience one could have. There were no formal classes.  The apprentices were assigned every job necessary to run Taliesin and Taliesin West from kitchen help to working on construction.  I had good drafting skills because I had taken drafting every year while I was in high school.   I did not understand how to conceive original design as of yet.

So how did I learn about architecture?   In September of 1959 there were 75 active jobs in the Studio at Taliesin and all of them designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  Every one of the 70 drafting boards in the studio had a different job on it and these jobs were being completed by Jack Howe, Wes Peters, Davey Davision and the other senior apprentices.   Everyone had the title of apprentice at Taliesin.  During the day at every opportunity I would pass by the drafting boards and see the work progressing.    At the end of each day I could look at the drawings in more detail.  I had three meals a day with the architects working on the drawings and could ask them questions about the work.  The learning was by this close relationship with the on going work and in conversation with the architects that were my close friends.

Photo taken about 1960 showing the architectural staff and Senior Taliesin Fellowship.  

From left in front row: Gene Masselink, Thomas Casey, Louis Weihle. Cornelia Brierley, Jack Howe, Wes Peters, Davy Davison, Ken Lockhart.
From left in back row: Joe Fabris, Charles Montooth, John Oppenheimer, Jim Pfeffekorn, Ling Po, Kamal Amin, John Rattenbury, Bruce Pfeiffer,  David Dodge.

Mrs. Olgivanna Lloyd Wright was in full charge when I was an apprentice just after Mr. Wright’s death.   She had some very unique ways of looking at things but was a great supporter of Mr. Wright until her death.

The thing most disturbing to me and many other apprentices was the way we were excommunicated when leaving the fellowship.   This was real and to this day not much effort is given to good relationships with ex-apprentices.  I believe it is the greatest down fall of the potential of the Fellowship and the advancement of the principles of Organic Architecture.

At Taliesin I learned the use of my creative mind.  For two years from age 19 to 21 I learned to conceive architecture using the principles of Organic Architecture and by living in, rebuilding and repairing Mr. Wright’s architecture.  I also went to visit at least one hundred of his built projects during my travels.   Self taught by being in close contact with the architecture and reading Mr. Wright’s writings about how to design a building in my mind and not on paper.   Also watching the architects at Taliesin design and do the detailed working drawings in the Studio.   Seeing the day-to-day process was a great education, Wes Peters, Jack Howe, Davey Davison and other of the younger apprentices Nari Gandhi, Vern Swaback, Mike Sutton and many others were all designing their own work.  I designed about 24 projects during my time at Taliesin or about one a month.  After two years I could produce a design that was original and good architecture. 

I left Taliesin and got my first job working for the architect Glenn Tsutomu Arai, Architect, Suttons Bay, Michigan in the summer of 1961.  I was given several design projects that first year and did construction drawings under Mr. Arai’s direction.

Resort & Ski Lodge I designed my first job working for Mr. Arai, Architect, I was 21 years old. 

I needed a degree to become a registered architect.    Two of my friends from Taliesin were going to the University of Oklahoma, I applied and was accepted and in the fall of 1961 I enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, School of Architecture, Norman, Oklahoma.   The faculty was hand selected by Bruce Goff, Architect during his tenure as Dean.   B. G. was then practicing in Bartlesville, Oklahoma and we students took all our design projects up for his review.   During the summers I worked for architect Glenn T. Aria, Suttons Bay, Michigan and one summer for William V. Kaeser, Architect Madison, Wisconsin.    O U was a good finishing school and gave me a chance to practice design for an additional four and a half years in an environment where I receive a Bachelor of Architecture degree.   I was a mature designer after the O U experience and several summers work experience in Architects' offices.  I had very little trouble getting a job in an architectural office because I could design and had a good understanding of construction.

I completed my course work at the University of Oklahoma in January 1966 and continued my architectural office work in San Francisco, Vermont, Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts.  I married in 1967 and was divorced in 1977 with no children.  I have lived solo since or you could say I am married to architecture.

My career continued in Michigan and Wisconsin.  I passed the 1969 NCARB exam in Wisconsin and opened my first office in Middletown, Wisconsin where I shared office space with Frank Dameron Leach, Architect.   I closed this office and moved to Whitefield, Maine in 1970.    I worked for Alonzo J. Harriman Associates, Auburn, Maine for about six months as a design architect and then started my own practice in June 1971 working from my home.  In 1972 I rented a small store front office on Water Street in Wiscasset, Maine.    The following year, 1973 I leased 1200 square feet in the Stacy House at 15 Federal Street and soon was able to take on another full time architect and secretary.

I have lived and practiced in the coastal village of Wiscasset, Maine (population 3500), about 50 miles northeast of Portland, Maine since 1971.

By October 1980, James Schildroth Associates, Architects employed five people and provided service in two areas.  The primary focus was Architectural Services.  The other area was “Design-Build Construction Management” as construction inspectors and consultants to hospitals using the Design-Build approach to accomplish their building projects.  This Construction Inspection service represented the owner’s interests in dealing with the design-build contractor.  We reviewed and revised the contract and other documents between client and the design-build firm before they signed any contract.  We then provided a full time on site inspector during the construction.

Our clients in the 1980’s were individuals, municipalities, and the Department of Defense.   We were working on the following building types: residential, hospital, museum, municipal office, fire departments, libraries, police departments, and condominiums.

My practice was building in volume of work and number of employees.  I was enjoying growing the practice and the administration of the office.  I was doing all the design work in the office as well as overseeing everything else.   This was becoming a problem as the number of employees reached eight.  I was becoming a manager with 25 active jobs going and I had little time for design.   The office was doing every kind of job that we could get and I managed the office during the week and did the design on Saturday and Sunday.   I wanted to do more creative design and less management so I begin to change the focus of the practice to residential.     As the commissions became more residential I also reduced the staff until the staff was just one associate architect and a part time bookkeeper.    This was still too much overhead for the way I wished to practice and so in 1994 I moved the office into my house on Lee Street, Wiscasset, Maine and begin working solo with the help of outside consultants.

I made an attempt to return to the Taliesin Fellowship full time in 1995.  I went for a month as a test and found that two conditions were not agreeable to me.   The first was that I could not continue to practice under my own name.  I had to join the Foundation and practice anonymously under the Taliesin Architects.  The other was that I had to sign an agreement that any money I made was to go to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.  I was not allowed to make any private income.  The Foundation would provide my housing and meals and a small monthly allowance.   None of this worked for me.    I had no outside trust fund like many of the other Fellowship members.   I had always made my money by practicing architecture just like Frank Lloyd Wright.    This is a long story but I could not live under this agreement and after a month I returned to my life in Maine.   It was a good choice and great loss for the Taliesin Fellowship.  Several years later the Foundation changed the policy and made all the architects in the Fellowship practice under their own name and pay the Foundation for the use of the facilities.

James Schildroth at Taliesin West 1995

In 1996 I bought my first computer and taught myself to use the programs.    I built my own Website in 1998 and continue to update this site with photos of my architectural work and essays.    In 2000 I began using computer aided drafting, CAD and since that date everything is drawn on Data CAD.  The Internet and the computer have made my office a totally electronic architectural practice.   This allows me to work with associates, consultants and clients at distance.   A lap top computer now allows me to work anywhere and take my office with me.  I spend January, February and March working in Cedar Key, Florida.  I have working relationships with several other professionals with established offices in Maine, Florida, Arizona and Argentina.   We collaborate using the Internet and the latest computer technology.

I continue to practice and am available to the discerning client that will only live in architecture designed around their needs and in harmony with the conditions of their site location.  Living in Organic Architecture will make your life better.

James Walter Schildroth, Architect

James Schildroth and Jill Snyder at the Taliesin Fellowship Reunion, Spring Green, Wisconsin   Jill is my significant other since 2001.

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