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Listen: How a Superior woman almost built a Frank Lloyd Wright house

Archive Dive is a monthly podcast hosted by reporter Maria Lockwood. Episodes dip into the archives of historic events, people and places in Superior and Douglas County with local historians.

Archive_Dive-2022-ART-1080x720.jpg
Archive Dive is a monthly history podcast hosted by Superior Telegram reporter Maria Lockwood.
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Edith Carlson was a librarian who had a two-year campaign to build a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Superior. Had it succeeded, the design that Wright dubbed “Below Zero” would have been nestled in Superior’s Central Park neighborhood, near Lenroot’s Funeral Home and across from Gouge Park. The connection between the world famous architect and Carlson has captured the imagination of writers on two continents.

Local historian and retired librarian Teddie Meronek has written about Carlson. In this month’s episode of Archive Dive, Meronek discusses her journey in researching Carlson and how an email from writer Philippa Lewis of England led to learning more. Carlson has quite a story, and in her, Meronek found a kindred spirit, even though she had passed away before their paths could cross.

“When I finally tracked down what she did at the library, going through annual reports and things, I found that she was first hired as a general assistant, but then she became the station’s librarian, which made me feel good because that is what I was hired to do when I first went to work for the Superior Public Library,” said Meronek. In those annual reports, Meronek could see that Carlson was a determined advocate for literacy. “She was always petitioning for more books, more shelves, more space for the people she served.”

Edith Carlson
Edith Carlson, a librarian with the Superior Public Library from the 1930s to the 1960s, poses behind the library in this undated picture.
Contributed: Superior Public Library

That determination led to Carlson reaching out to the world-renowned Wright, an architect who designed over 1,000 structures in his lifetime, when Carlson decided it was time to build a house. She lived with her parents and was savvy about finances, saving enough money to purchase land near Gouge Park on 4th Street, strategically along a bus line as Carlson didn’t have a car.

While Wright was famous and in high demand, Carlson wasn’t afraid to ask questions or even challenge him. During correspondence, an assistant wrote, “This is Mr. Wright’s 204th house.” Carlson scribbled in a note, “Well, it may be his 204th house, but it is my first.” She took the project very seriously, knowing it would likely be the only house she’d ever build in her lifetime.

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“She had no problem standing toe-to-toe with him, saying this is what I need, this is my house and this is what I need, and most people would say, ‘It’s Frank Lloyd Wright,’” said Meronek.

Exchanges between the famous architect and librarian Edith Carlson chronicle her quest for a dream home.

The correspondence between Carlson and Wright went on for two years and the project faced various delays. In the end, ground would not be broken for a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Superior. The Great Depression had an effect, as around 1940, librarians in Superior took pay cuts and time off without pay. Suddenly now with slim paychecks, Edith couldn’t afford the price. She would eventually build a house near her parents’ home and the “Below Zero” house would eventually be built, just not for Carlson and not in Superior. Instead, the design was used elsewhere.

“She bemoaned the fact that it just wasn’t her loss, she also thought of it as Superior’s loss,” said Meronek.

New episodes of Archive Dive are published monthly. Listen here or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have an idea for a topic you’d like to see covered, email Maria Lockwood at  mlockwood@superiortelegram.com .

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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As reported by Douglas County Circuit Court.