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Edgar Tafel, Wright Apprentice, 1913-2011

February 14, 2011

New York architect Edgar Tafel passed away January 18 at the age of 98. He was the last survivor of Frank Lloyd Wright’s original Taliesin Fellowship team. Working with Wright and fellow apprentices from 1932 to 1941, he played key roles in the creation of such iconic structures as the Fallingwater House and the administration building for Johnson Wax. He has since produced two books based on his Taliesin experiences, as the author of Years With Frank Lloyd Wright: Apprentice to Genius and the editor of Frank Lloyd Wright: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him.

Maintaining his own architectural practice in New York from 1945 to 1986, he designed a number of houses and institutional buildings. His best known work in the city is the Church House of the First Presbyterian Church (1960) at Fifth Avenue and West 12th Street, designed to blend respectfully with the 1845 church and earlier additions. In this hard-to-classify annex, Tafel defied modernist principles by applying grilles with Gothic quatrefoil motifs to a modular grid of glazed bays.

Among his other New York buildings are the DeWitt Reformed Church (1957) on the Baruch Houses grounds in the Lower East Side and the Andrew Goodman Building (1974), an annex to the Walden School on the Upper West Side. A once-prominent but long since demolished work was his Protestant chapel (1966) at Idlewild (now JFK) Airport, one of three denominational retreats once lined up along a lagoon at the center of the terminal area. (With it were a Catholic chapel designed by George J. Sole and a Jewish one by Bloch & Hesse, all three designed within Wallace Harrison’s guidelines.)

Tafel joined the preservation cause before most of his fellow architects. In the 1950s he joined the fight against a Robert Moses plan to wipe out a huge swath of Greenwich Village for housing projects. And in 1971 he played a crucial role in salvaging major interiors from Wright’s Francis W. Little house in Minnesota—its living room moved into the Metropolitan Museum and its library installed under Tafel’s supervision in the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania.

Like some other architects, Tafel also had musical skills. At Taliesin, while undertaking duties ranging from menial to key design and supervision roles, he sometimes acceded to a Wright request: “Edgar, go up and play some Bach for us.”

—John Morris Dixon

Photo: Fran Leadon
First Presbyterian Church House, Greenwich Village Edgar Tafel, 1958-1960
Photo: Fran Leadon