By Brian J. Pape, AIA
39 years ago, this summer, upon the publication of Edgar Tafel’s memoir Apprentice to Genius: Years with Frank Lloyd Wright, my father-in-law Rabbi Bernard Mandelbaum arranged an introduction with the author. I visited Mr. Tafel’s Greenwich Village architecture office and got the book inscribed with “To Brian Pape—with best wishes from one architect to another! Edgar Tafel.”
Mr. Tafel was a warm and welcoming host to his scholarly friend, and this young architect, showing us around the various projects “on the boards” and introducing us to other staff before begging off to run to another meeting that afternoon.
When Mr. Tafel’s death on January 18, 2011 was announced by Robert Silman, the imminent structural engineer who was also Mr. Tafel’s legal representative, Mr. Tafel’s successful practice had designed 80 houses, 35 religious buildings and three college campuses, among other projects, making him the most well-known of all Wright’s early apprentices and the last surviving member of that privileged inaugural group. Silman consulted with Tafel on 11 restoration projects of Wright’s work as well as Tafel’s own work.
Mr. Tafel’s life and work will be honored at an illustrated talk on Tafel on Saturday, September 29, 2018, at St. John’s in the Village Episcopal Church, one of Tafel’s outstanding designs from 1972 to 1974, whose nave is equipped with lighting that allows it to be transformed into a theatre. The weekend also includes a Friday night concert and Sunday morning Festal Eucharist—all at 218 West 11th Street (near Waverly Place) in Greenwich Village.
Edgar A. Tafel was born in New York on March 12, 1912. He grew up in Manhattan, graduated from the Walden School, and attended New York University before joining the Taliesin Fellowship at age 20. Taliesin was Mr. Wright’s newly established school in Spring Green, Wisconsin, where apprentices learned by doing what Wright thought would benefit young architects: drafting, cutting stone, making plaster, pouring concrete, gardening, haying, cooking, cleaning, and anything creative—especially music.
The revolutionary teaching method at Taliesin was not foreign to Tafel, for during his early school years his own parents had been progressives who joined a cooperative/colony in a verdant setting in New Jersey that utilized the arts and crafts, vegetable gardening, farming, and sports as integral to academics.
Tafel worked with Mr. Wright on very important commissions including the Fallingwater cantilevered house over Bear Run Creek in Pennsylvania, the Johnson Wax headquarters, and Wingspread (home of the company’s president) near Racine, Wisconsin. Tafel was in charge of the young apprentices when Wright established a winter school in Scottsdale Arizona, named Taliesin West, in 1937.
Even though Tafel left Wright’s employ in 1941, they maintained an amicable relationship afterwards. Tafel wrote, “Mr. Wright didn’t want subservience. He wanted devotion to the cause of an organic architecture—integration of form, materials indigenous to the setting, and function.” So, when Wright was in New York for the Solomon Guggenheim Museum project, they would visit together; and when the bids from mainstream contractors came in too high, it was Tafel who introduced his concrete contractor—who got the job for the stunningly unique structure we see today.
Tafel endowed Chairs of Architecture at Cornell and the University of Illinois, donated his archive to Columbia University’s Avery Library, and endowed the lecture hall in the AIANY Center for Architecture in Manhattan, where he had been an active, involved member his entire independent career.