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Tenacious architect built a legacy

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With less than 20 days left in the legislative session, all I think about is what needs to be accomplished by May 7. So, when my father called last week to tell me that my 79-year-old mother was in the hospital in Wyoming suffering from bronchitis, a nasty gastronomic virus and acute renal failure — I was snapped back to reality.

I spent Friday and Saturday at her bedside with my father. We passed the time waiting for test result after test result, reminiscing about family members long gone but not forgotten. At lunch on Saturday, my mother was jokingly trying to convince me that her recently acquired allergy to penicillin was actually an inheritance from my life-long allergy to the drug … she almost had me convinced!

Driving to Colorado, having settled Mom back home after her discharge late Saturday night, I thought about all the Coloradans I have known and lost in the last 40 years — one in particular keeps resurfacing: Elizabeth Wright Ingraham. I knew Elizabeth only in her last 20 years, but I know she left me an “inheritance.”

Elizabeth died last September in San Antonio, Texas, with her family near, at the age of 91. She was born in 1922 in Oak Park, Ill., the hometown of her famous grandfather, Frank Lloyd Wright. Her father had followed in her grandfather’s footsteps not only in becoming an architect but also in divorcing his wife and marrying again; Elizabeth was the product of that second marriage. In 1930, Elizabeth’s father continued the “family tradition” of abandoning his family when, like Frank Lloyd Wright, he fell in love with the wife of a client.

Like her father, Elizabeth first looked away from architecture as a chosen profession. She wanted to be a physicist, but soon recognized the pull she felt toward the “family business” and studied with Mies van der Rohe at IIT and then at Cal-Berkeley. After World War II, she and her husband (also an architect) moved to Colorado Springs. They opened a practice, raised a family and divorced in 1974.

Elizabeth then opened her own practice and produced a body of work that further explored her ideals. Some of her best work was designed and built during her 70s. She also spent countless hours working on behalf of improved land use, environmental concerns and the advancement of women professionals.

I first met Elizabeth in the late 1990s through our shared involvement in the American Institute of Architects. While we were polar opposites in our political beliefs, I greatly admired her stubbornness and tenacity of spirit. Although I was not a great fan of her grandfather’s work — she helped enrich my understanding of the importance of his vernacular in our culture’s progress toward modern design. I once joked with her that I thought it was actually her father that had a greater influence on the modern world through his invention of “Lincoln Logs.” I was serious in my assertion, and she was equally serious in her disgust at the thought.

From a man who revolutionized the architecture of the 1950s in the creation of a style first developed in the 1890s came a son who furthered the work of his father in projects throughout the world, in addition to inventing one of the most singularly popular toys of the 20th century, and fathered a daughter who carried on her grandfather’s and father’s tradition of design, innovation and tenacity of spirit working as a woman in a man’s world.

I am so very grateful for the time I shared with Elizabeth — it was an inheritance.

Cheri Gerou, an architect, has lived in the Evergreen area with her family for 30 years. She is the state representative for House District 25.