Dictionary of Sydney

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Griffin, Marion Mahony

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Griffin, Marion Mahony

Marion Lucy Mahony was born in 1871 in Chicago, United States of America, to parents who were both school principals. Her father died when she was 12.

America's first female architect

Her mother moved in a circle of intellectual and activist women and was herself prominent in social and educational reform. This 'supportive network of independent women' helped Marion into professional life as an architect – one women friend paid for her education, while another was responsible for introducing her to the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

In 1894 Marion became the second woman to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in 1897 became the first woman in the United States to register as an architect. From 1895 to 1909 she worked for Frank Lloyd Wright, eventually rising to the equivalent of 'head designer.'

The Griffins in Australia and India

In 1912, at the age of 41, she married another former employee of Wright's, Walter Burley Griffin. After their design for Canberra won an international competition, they moved to Australia in 1914. In Australia they worked on the Canberra project, designed many buildings and worked on the town planning and architectural design of their acclaimed Castlecrag community on the shores of Sydney's Middle Harbour.

They lived in Australia until Walter moved to India in 1935 to fulfil a commission, with Marion joining him in 1936. He died there in 1937.

After Walter's death, in 1938 Marion returned to Chicago where she completed several architectural commissions and wrote a 1,500 page memoir entitled 'The Magic of America.' She died in 1961.

The work and legacy of Mahony Griffin

Despite her career spanning many decades, very few building designs can be definitively attributed to Mahony Griffin alone. Those that can be attributed include: her thesis project 'The House and Studio of a Painter' (1894), which James Weirick argues was used as the basis for Frank Lloyd Wright's addition of a studio-atelier to his own home in 1898; [1] All Souls Church, Evanston Illinois (1902); a one-storey house for herself and her mother in Chicago's Roger's Park (1906); Adolph Mueller House in Decatur, Grand Rapids; and David Amberg House, CW Wills House and drawings for the unbuilt Henry Ford House (all between 1909–1912).

In Australia, historians have largely agreed that Mahony Griffin was responsible for the extraordinary ceiling design for Melbourne's Capitol Theatre (1922–1924) and that she worked on the interior design for the Cafe Australia in Melbourne (1916), described by architectural historian Anna Rubbo as 'extravagant and breathtaking'. Mahony Griffin is also credited for the outstanding design for Newman College at the University of Melbourne (1915–1918) and the remarkable small home, Pholiota (1922), the Griffins built for themselves in Heidelberg. Mahony Griffin's registration papers in Victoria in 1923 also stated that she was solely responsible for the design of Jeffrey House in Surrey Hills, Melbourne.

Mahony Griffin contributed to the Griffins' Castlecrag development in Sydney by preparing drawings, promoting sales and developing the community, for example, through producing and designing plays in the outdoor theatre.

In her retirement back in Chicago, Mahony Griffin worked on two 'communities' for the World's Fellowship Centre, in New Hampshire and in Hills Crystals, Texas in 1943, as well as a plan for South Chicago in 1947.

Her beautiful drawings for the national capital city plan for Canberra are undoubtedly of national heritage significance and have been included in Australia's Memory of the World program. Always recognised as a superb draftsperson, she was described by Reyner Banham as 'the greatest architectural delineator of her generation'.


City of Dreams: the Collaboration of Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin, video recording, Film Australia with the assistance of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Lindfield NSW, 2000

Marion Mahony Griffin, 'The Magic of America,' (memoirs, c1949). A composite of the three known versions of the memoirs is published online by the Art Institute of Chicago as 'The Magic of America: Electronic Edition' at http://www.artic.edu/magicofamerica/index.html.

Dustin Hadley Griffin (ed), The Writings of Walter Burley Griffin, Cambridge University Press, 2008

Bronwyn Hanna 'Absence and presence: a historiography of early women architects in New South Wales', PhD thesis, University of New South Wales, 2000, viewed 6 November 2008, http://www.library.unsw.edu.au/~thesis/adt-NUN/public/adt-NUN2000.0006

Anna Rubbo, 'Marion Mahony Griffin: A portrait', in J Duncan and M Gates (eds), Walter Burley Griffin: A Re-View, Monash University Gallery, Clayton Vic, 1988, pp 15–26

Walter Burley Griffin Society Incorporated website, viewed 6 November 2008, www.griffinsociety.org/index.html

Anne Watson (ed), Beyond Architecture, Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin, America, Australia, India, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 1998

James Weirick, 'Marion Mahony at MIT', Transition, no 25, Winter 1988, pp 48–54

Julie Willis and Bronwyn Hanna, Women Architects in Australia, 1900–1950, Royal Australian Institute of Architects, Canberra, 2001


[1] James Weirick 'Marion Mahony at MIT', Transition, no 25, Winter 1988, pp 48–54