The (not so) Plain and Simple Correspondent: Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom

Katie Green, Columnist

An undated picture of Minerva Montooth. Photo courtesy of Minerva Montooth.

In the Roman pantheon, Minerva was the goddess of wisdom, justice, law, victory, and the sponsor of arts, trade and strategy. Gracious! It boggles the mind that even a goddess could possibly incorporate so many sterling qualities. As it happens, there is a human being who comes close. She lives at Taliesin – “Shining Brow”, named for the famous Welsh bard – and is in her 99th year. The years have robbed her of easy mobility but left her mind intact. Still sharp as a razor, she is almost the last of the apprentices who knew Frank Lloyd Wright personally, as he gathered around himself what was called the Fellowship, the brainchild of the last Mrs. Wright. It was composed mostly of very young people who subscribed to his philosophy of Natural Architecture. They paid to come learn how to practice it and be a part of the close-knit, sometimes competitive circle that basked in his aura, sat at his knee. 

Minerva Jane Montooth (née Houston) was enlisted as a member of the Fellowship at Taliesin in 1947, has actually resided there since 1957, and in the years I’ve known her I’ve seen her demonstrate consummate skill at jumping over a tough set of hurdles, using all the attributes of the Goddess whose namesake she is. She doesn’t always win the battle when up against opposing forces, but always emerges unbowed, using considerable wisdom to think of another strategy. In that regard she is a fitting successor to Frank Lloyd Wright himself, who rarely took no for an answer.

It is a challenge to sum up Minerva in one page or ten. You will get the short version here. Soon after we met, I discovered a curious tie between us. Minerva, her twin sister Sarah, and red-headed husband-to-be, Charles Montooth, were all from the small burg of Rushville, Illinois, which was the birthplace of one of my great-grandmothers. Like my ancestor, Minerva and Sarah were born on a prosperous dairy farm, one that was wiped out by the Depression. An early memory of Minerva’s is walking past the failed local bank with her mother as a small child and observing confusedly that “the bank doesn’t look crashed to me.” Minerva was named for her grandmother in an era when Latin and Greek names were popular, and family legend has it that “Minerva” was also the name of the ship which brought her ancestors from England to America.

She and her twin have been described as being terminally shy when young, but both shed that liability abruptly once ensconced at Taliesin. She has said, “If I could talk to Frank Lloyd Wright, I figured I could talk to anyone.” Minerva’s radiant smile and frequent laughs bespeak someone confidently at home in the world, able to enjoy an exchange with luminaries and just plain folks alike.

Katie Green

Charles Montooth, was four years older than Minerva – one she saw as “a sort of Greek God” – and paid her no attention. Their parents and grandparents were friends but she only lit up his radar screen later. She went off to college at Northwestern, majoring in English (“the catch-all major”) and her twin to University of Chicago to study social work, where Charles was also, trying to study architecture. To his frustration, the architecture curriculum consisted of reading the Great Books, nothing practical. During this time Frank Lloyd Wright came to the U. of Chicago to speak and Minerva thinks Charles heard him. Certainly Charles walked past Wright-designed Robie House daily on the way to class and that sparked his interest enough to read Wright’s books on architecture and travel each weekend throughout the Midwest to look at examples of Wright’s completed projects. 

After college, Minerva went to New York City and got a job as a librarian for an advertising agency. Meanwhile, her twin began dating Charles in Chicago and the pair made their first forays to visit Taliesin. Then Minerva developed pneumonia and her twin suggested they go to Taliesin West for recuperation in the desert. That was a major turning point in her life. She was enthralled by the people and places she saw. The fickle finger of fate intervened when Sarah met Bill Logue, a student of economics, ditched Charles, who promptly focused on Minerva. They fell in love. “I was born under a lucky star,” she says. “What did I do to deserve this?” She is rueful about playing second fiddle to her twin at first where Charles was concerned, but there is no indication that he regretted how things turned out. When the Logues later became members of the Fellowship, they gamely assumed primary responsibility for the farm that produced the food eaten at Taliesin. The twins were reunited and did not part again until Sarah died in 2013.

An undated image of Charles and Minerva Montooth. Photo courtesy of Minerva Montooth.

The apprentices and resident staff dwell in elegant surroundings of lush gardens, orchards, water features, vine-covered trellises and outdoor gathering spots, but have very small private living spaces. Frank Lloyd Wright apparently didn’t believe in wasting valuable square footage on places where one spent time alone. His own private spaces were larger; he invariably served himself a bigger slice of the pie. He saw everyone as equals, but some were more equal than others, as George Orwell suggested. Minerva’s apartment is next to what was Mr. Wright’s beautiful art studio, which after his death was frequently used for art exhibits and receptions. It sits silent now.

The apprentices had nothing but veneration for their leader. What magnetic property did Frank Lloyd Wright have that drew so many loyal young people to him? There was the revolutionary architecture, of course. But pain and privation often accompanied their labor and primitive living conditions at early Taliesin in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. “They worked as unpaid slaves”, it has been suggested. But they never felt anything like slaves, Minerva insisted, for they were treated like family by the Wrights. And they were also learning valuable skills, encouraged to be enterprising and creative, and there was plenty of time set aside for fun and frolic. Minerva giggled about once painting an amateurish figurehead on a tiny galleon built for a theatrical event on the pond, which was roundly criticized until she confessed to being the artist. “Oh, very nice,” the critic backtracked. Extravagant masquerades, dances, theater events inside and out, travel to exotic lands to work on architectural projects, and picnics entertained them constantly. The day before Frank Lloyd Wright died suddenly in Arizona, he joined his band of believers on a desert picnic.

Minerva has been the “social coordinator” at Taliesin for years, although she doesn’t think of herself as organized. She became the one who issued invitations to formal dinners, worked out the guest list and seating arrangements to be most rewarding to the parties involved, and made sure there was entertainment – usually music – afterwards. Charles didn’t like taking photos, so she captured on film ordinary day-to-day events and the parties, too. She planned the annual student “box projects” presentations, open to the public in the design studio of the School of Architecture, and the annual Frank Lloyd Wright birthday bash. Frequently there were guest lectures, plays, and music in the Theater to be publicized. 

In 1962 she was asked to be amanuensis to Olgivanna Wright, helping her with writing and many summers were spent traveling with Mrs. Wright in Europe, Africa and around the US. As a result of Mrs. Wright receiving an invitation to speak in So. Africa, Minerva became partial to giraffes. This was during apartheid, which offended them both so much that Mrs. W. left Dutch-controlled Durban as quickly as she could, traveling north to the Serengheti to see the wild animals in their native habitat. Minerva’s biggest travel disappointment is that she didn’t get to go to Japan with Mrs. Wright. Mrs. W. was angry that the beautiful hotel Frank Lloyd Wright designed, one that had been engineered to withstand earthquakes and had performed perfectly when major tremors hit the island, was slated to be torn down and a taller one with more rooms was to be erected in order to make more money. Mrs. W. went to rally support for saving the structure. Unfortunately, she wasn’t successful, and the landmark was destroyed.

One of the great highlights of life was in 1952 when she and Charles were invited by Mr. Wright to be married at Taliesin West (highly unusual), and Mr. Wright sat next to her at the wedding dinner, held in what was called the “cabaret”. A Presbyterian minister was called in from Tempe to officiate. Her parents traveled down from Rushville and “were horrified because in those days everyone had their wedding at home or in a church,” certainly not in a cabaret. She and Charles wed, unfazed by parental criticism, honeymooned in Mexico and soon produced three handsome children, two daughters and a son. 

Another highlight occurred recently when Taliesin was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Governor Tony Evers came to present the plaque outdoors in the courtyard. “I liked him immediately. He made sure my chair was firmly planted on the rough stone walkway and we chatted like old friends. He was so unassuming. I told him I was sorry he didn’t have a better legislature to work with and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll come out all right.’ ”

A recent photo of Minerva Montooth. Photo courtesy of Minerva Montooth.

I asked Minerva if she were lonely to be among the last. I should have known the answer because it took weeks for her schedule to accommodate our interview. She interacts constantly with younger people and is in great demand. “I am never lonely. I get calls and texts from former apprentices from all over the world.” Several messages arrived that day, in fact, one from Italy to say the fellow was coming for a visit. She mentioned that she is frequently asked when she will take a vacation. “Every day is a vacation, so I never felt the need for a vacation. I’m so blessed. What did I ever do to deserve this,” she repeated. I hear the wonder in her voice.

A fuller, ongoing story of Minerva’s life and career can be read in one column of the “Wright in Racine” blog of photojournalist Mark Hertzberg, called “The marvelous Minerva”.

Katie, who until recently lived in Plain, has been writing for fun and profit since childhood. Self-described as opinionated, she writes in the interests of a more loving, better-functioning world for all. She may be reached at

Editor’s Note: This column is the corrected version of the unedited column which ran in the Jan. 26, 2023 version of Valley Sentinel due to a technology issue.