Frank Lloyd Wright? Herbert Hoover? Arch Oboler? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: When I was a child I saw a gallery of images showing a house built at the top of a waterfall. I fell in love with that house, called Fallingwater, and later learned that it was built by the extraordinary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The amusing quote I would like you to investigate was listed in a biographical sketch that I read many years ago and still remember:
The doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.
Does this accurately depict Wright’s sense of humor or was it invented by someone else?
Quote Investigator: I agree that Fallingwater is a beautiful home. The quote you provide is very similar to a statement made by Wright in a lecture published in 1931. The address was titled “To the Young Man in Architecture” and near the end of the discourse Wright presented a series of fourteen pithy numbered points. Here are three: 1
9. Abandon as poison the American idea of the “quick turnover.” To get into practice “half-baked” is to sell out your birthright as an architect for a mess of pottage, or to die pretending to be an architect.
10. Take time to prepare. Ten years’ preparation for preliminaries to architectural practice is little enough for any architect who would rise “above the belt” in true architectural appreciation or practice.
11. Then go as far away as possible from home to build your first buildings. The physician can bury his mistakes,—but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines.
Wright used the term “physician” instead of “doctor” in this original version. The quotation was further disseminated when an excerpt from the lecture was reprinted in the periodical “The Architect and Engineer” in November of 1931. Wright enjoyed the joke and used it multiple times over the years. 2
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The quip about doctors burying their mistakes has a long history. Here is an example in 1883 that was used as part of a comparison between the professions of medicine and farming: 3
The farmer cannot bury his mistakes out of sight like the doctor; they remain above ground where they are seen and known by all men.
An important precursor dated 1913 was located by top lexicographical researcher Barry Popik. The New York Evening Post published a series of columns about gardening by Walter B. Hayward. The jest about planting vines was told in a prolix fashion by Hayward: 4 5
Some day the American institute of architects will get together and vote a solid gold medal, summa cum laude, to the man who invented vines; for it was he who made the architect’s profession safe. Architects, and especially builders who are not architects, make mistakes about as often as not; and the awful thing about it is that their mistakes have to be right out in plain sight, unless they can be hidden by vines and trees. It is dangerous and criminal to call in the help of the arson trust—for, while burning down your neighbor’s house, you may set fire to your own—and so vines find their most important function, a function which is more important even than producing champagne.
In 1931 Frank Lloyd Wright delivered his lecture containing the humorous comment under investigation as noted above. In 1941 the joke appeared again. This time Wright was prompted to deliver the witticism by a deliberate set-up line from a radio personality: 6
There is a real moral in what Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s most venturesome architect, is reported to have said in the March issue of “Ladies Home Journal.” Arch Oboler, radio genius for whom Mr. Wright is building a fabulous modern house with a trout stream running through the living room, remarked. “You architects, Frank, are out of luck compared to doctors. Doctors can bury their mistakes, but the wrong house is a living reproach for years.” And Mr. Wright’s answer to that, “Oh, we architects have our tricks, we get the client to plant vines.”
In 1950 Herbert Hoover, the former President of the United States and a proud mining engineer, presented an elaborate lighthearted comparison of several professions that included a remark about architects: 7
The engineer has certain disadvantages compared to the other professions. His works are out in the open where all men can see them. He cannot deny he did it. The doctors’ mistakes are buried in the grave. The voters forget when the politician changes the alphabetical names of his failing projects. The trees and ivy may cover the architects’ failures. The lawyers can blame the Judge or the Jury. Unlike the clergyman, the engineer cannot blame his failures on the devil.
In 1953 an article by Frank Lloyd Wright was published in the New York Times and Wright used the jest again. He reordered the phrasing of point number eleven from his 1931 lecture. This is the version given in scholarly references such as the Yale Book of Quotations and the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations 8 9 10
The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines—so they should go as far as possible from home to build their first buildings.
In 1954 the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper printed the popular altered version of the saying that substitutes “doctor” for “physician” crediting Reader’s Digest: 11
“A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his client to plant vines.” — Frank Lloyd Wright in Reader’s Digest.
In conclusion, the quotation provider by the questioner does reflect Wright’s sense of humor. The wording is slightly different from the original spoken in 1931. Thanks for your inquiry and QI hopes you never have to resort to the vine cover-up.
Update History: On March 24, 2013 the citations from 1913 and 1914 were added. Also, the footnotes were switched to a numerical system.
- 1931, Two Lectures on Architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright, To the Young Man in Architecture, (Start Lecture Page 33), Page 62, The Art institute of Chicago, The Lakeside Press, R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company, Chicago. (HathiTrust) link ↩
- 1931 November, The Architect and Engineer, Thumb Tacks and T-Square, Page 13, Column 3, Architect and Engineer, San Francisco, California. (Verified with scans; Many thanks to the Library Assistant at the Architecture Library of Georgia Tech) ↩
- 1883, Annual Report of the Secretary of the State Board of Agriculture of the State of Michigan, [Lecture delivered at the Hastings Institute on Tuesday Evening, January 9, 1883, Farming as an Occupation by R.G. Baird, Secretary State Board of Agriculture] State Board of Agriculture, Michigan. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1913 May 20, Springfield Daily Republican, Vines That Are Useful, [Acknowledgement to the New York Evening Post], Quote Page 4, Column 5, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1914, The Commuter’s Garden by Walter B. Hayward (Walter Brownell Hayward), (Columns reprinted from the the New York Evening Post), Chapter XVIII: Vines That Are Useful, Quote Page 134, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York. (HathiTrust) link link ↩
- 1941 April 13, Ogden Standard-Examiner, Shavings by Shurick, Page 2-B [NArch Page 14], Column 1, Ogden, Utah. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1951, Addresses Upon the American Road: 1948-1950 by Herbert Hoover, [Engineering Society of the Moles. Address delivered in New York City on February 9, 1950], Page 187, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California. (Google Books preview) link ↩
- 1953 October 4, New York Times, Lloyd Wright and His Art: Comment by Frank Lloyd Wright, [Start Page SM26] Page 47, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Frank Lloyd Wright, Page 841, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2008, Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations edited by Ned Sherrin, Category Architecture, Page 15, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1954 December 26, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Are We Homeless in a Borrowed House? by J.A. Wadovick, [Freestanding quotation], Page 30-D (GBank Page 101), Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩