Man of the Prairie

In the Wright tradition, John Randal McDonald pursues an organic vision of design.

by Thomas Connors

I didn't want to just paint pictures," says John Randal McDonald. "I wanted to do something where I could be in the picture. Then I read The Fountainhead and that absolutely blew my mind away. I had to be Howard Roark, I had to be an architect, I had to do it my way."

A Wauwatosa boy who liked to draw, McDonald had meant to osketch a future for himself studying fine art at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. But after graduation and a stint in the Navy (he read Ayn Rand's tale of idealism vs. commerce aboard a carrier in the Pacific), McDonald set off for Yale on a new course of study.

"I think what I admire most about John Randal McDonald," says local architect John Vetter, who toddled around a house McDonald built for his parents in 1953, "is his unwavering commitment to a vision of organic, Frank Lloyd Wrightian, Prairie School architecture. John is, gosh, maybe one of six contemporaries of Wright who is still active and the only guy I can think of still practicing who has actually pushed the vocabulary into some exciting architecture."

Recalling his McDonald-made home in Elm Grove, Fred Vetter notes, "A friend was planning on building a house with this architect from Racine, and he said, 'Boy, I'll tell you, what a job he does, it's just fantastic and it's very inexpensive.' He drew something up and it really wasn't anything we should have had in the area because most of the houses were Colonials. I said, 'Let's change this a little bit,'" he laughs. "Well, John didn't change it a hell of a lot and I went ahead and built it."

Although McDonald never studied with Wright, his homes share the ground-hugging shapes and strong horizontal lines so often at play in Wright's work. But built decades after Wright's own masterpieces, they hum with an atomic age energy all their own. And while never a minimalist of the Miesian sort, McDonald stripped away millwork, paint and Sheetrock in favor of natural wood, stone and glass. Often tiny by today's standards (soaring, soulless foyers and great rooms that reduce people and furniture to laughingly Lilliputian proportions), McDonald's houses remind us that space and volume are not the same thing.

In fact, McDonald doesn't have much patience for the contemporary notion of what makes a house a home. Speaking from Florida (after raising five kids, he and his wife of 54 years split their time between the Sunshine State and a design studio in Whitefish Bay), he says, "Here I'm sitting in the land of milk and honey, where people talk of spending $10 million for property and another $10 million for the house, oh, and they'd like about 30,000 to 40,000 square feet. And they all want the same thing—they all want a wedding cake type of house, with all the tiers and bric-a-brac—stick a candle in the top and light it."

So he goes his own way, relishing the work as much as he ever has. Now in his 70s, he's negotiating with a manufacturer to reproduce some of his furniture designs; developing a plan for the Schlitz Audubon Center; creating new homes in Texas, Florida, and Waukesha; and adding on to some of his landmark residences in Mequon, Manitowoc and Racine.

"My favorite words—mark this down—my favorite words in this world are, 'Would you be our architect?'"