Cornelia Brierly, In Memoriam

Brierly as a young architect. Photo credit: The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives/The Museum of Modern Art/Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library.

Cornelia Brierly, Taliesin Fellow, architect, and interior and landscape designer, passed away on August 24, 2012, at age 99.  She was alert and engaged in life up to the very end. She was born in Mifflin County, PA on April 12, 1913.  Brierly grew up on a farm and always loved nature and the countryside.  She studied at Cornell, University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Tech where she was one of the first five women to study architecture before joining the Taliesin Fellowship in 1934. That winter the Fellowship came to AZ to build models for Frank Lloyd Wright’s visionary idea of a decentralized city he called Broadacre City; she worked on the models and later traveled to Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. to help explain them to the public.

Brierly studied with Frank Lloyd Wright for 10 years, after which she was partner in private practice with then-husband Peter Berndtson. In 1956 she returned to the FLLW Foundation and worked both with Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Architects as architectural designer, interior decorator and landscape architect. As a teacher in The FLLW School of Architecture she inspired many generations of apprentices. She was a Trustee of the Foundation for many years, then Honorary Chairman. Some of her special talents were: zest for adventure, writing articles and her book, Tales of Taliesin, making beautiful yarn designs, painting, singing and being a consummate hostess.

Awards she received included: Interior Plantscape Association, a Philanthropy Leadership Award and The Wright Spirit Award. In 1999 she was honored in Pittsburgh for her work with Peter Berndtson. She is survived by daughters Anna Coor and Indira Berndtson, cousin Robert Brierly, and nephews Peter and Eric Drake. Her sister, Hulda Drake, pre-deceased her.

Brierly working on the Broadacre City project. Photo credit: The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives/The Museum of Modern Art/Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library.

Indira Berndtson, who works as the Administrator of Historic Studies at the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives, kindly agreed to answer some questions about her mother’s influence on her, growing up in Taliesin, and preserving the legacy of architects.

BWAF: How did your mother’s work influence and affect your own interest in archiving and working with the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives?

Berndtson: Since I lived at Taliesin until 4 years old, and then even though we lived in PA until 1956, we always visited the two Taliesins as often as possible. So I loved the Taliesin architecture, philosophy, its overall aesthetic sense, life and community, as my mother did.  In 1989 we realized that very few researchers or journalists were capturing the stories of these people like my mother who had worked with Mr. & Mrs. Wright.  We began interviewing every one we could. Also, in 1990 we wanted to capture the memories of people who had lived in and helped build/remodel, etc. Taliesin in Wisconsin, so we did a number of interviews on that. Since then over 1400 interviews have been conducted by our archives, including clients, apprentices, business associates & family members of the Wrights as well as friends.

BWAF: Do you have any anecdotes or challenges about the work of an archivist that might be useful for or pertinent to practitioners today looking to preserve their own legacy?

Berndtson: My specific field is in oral history, so one challenge is creating the correct questions, by knowing as much as you can about the person & his/her work. We are fortunate to have the FLLW correspondence on microfiche so I could look up correspondence with a client, apprentice, etc. And it’s been helpful to have interviewed various apprentice/associates from the same time periods, so what one may have forgotten, another remembers.

BWAF: Does your mother have an archive, and are you in charge of it? If we want to learn more about your mother, where should we go?

Berndtson: The Taliesin Architects Archives, also here at Taliesin West, houses much information on each apprentice, and any drawings done while a member of TA. So that archive  has any drawings my mother did for the firm, such as landscaping or interiors or buildings she designed (but were not built)

I have about 15 interviews on audio or video, with the transcripts, as well as historic photos, some of her art work, her book Tales of Taliesin, etc.  If one wanted to learn more about her, they should start with reading her book, now in the third printing, then contact me. The TA archive will be transferring to the Avery Library & MoMA in the Future, probably after the FLLW archives have gone to New York, so the drawings would have to be accessed there when they have been processed there.

You can learn more about Cornelia Brierly by visiting her biographical entry in our DNA.

Click here to visit the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation website.

Photo credit: The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives/The Museum of Modern Art/Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library.