Dr. Richard M. Davis

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Interview: Dr. Richard M. Davis (rd)

Medium: E-mail

Date: Thursday, May 8, 2008

Collected by: Alex Lester (al)

al: You were a freshman in medical school when Pearl Harbor happened on Sunday, December 7, 1941. Where were you when you heard the tragic news, and how did you find out?

rd: I heard it on the car radio driving in Bloomington.

al: On Monday you arrived for your anatomy lecture to find the ROTC Major and Navy Lieutenant in front with the Professor. They instructed you all to sign up for the Army or Navy since you all were on the rolls of the draft board. How did you choose between the two?

rd: The army sounded better. The army people were instructed to go out the left door of the lecture auditorium, and the navy people went out the right door. Later, Joseph [Richard’s brother] went in the Navy, but was 4-F due to asthma. If he went in the Navy the sea air was better for the asthma. Merrill Davis [Richard’s father] knew people (like General Hawley head of Army Medical, and other big wigs), and some strings were pulled for Joseph to get in. Joseph was on the hospital ship Solace which was at the battle of Iwo Jima and many other battles in the Pacific.

al: What was your family’s reaction to this?

rd: They didn't object.

al: Was an anti-Japanese sentiment present at this time?

rd: No.

al: Due to the war, you would get out of medical school in three years instead of the usual four years. This came by means of no vacations and a weekend between semesters. Was this upsetting to you, and what was your reaction?

rd: I was glad to be in medical school. If you got a C average, you were out of medical school and put on active duty immediately. So it being compressed to three years was still better than being on the front lines.

al: On graduation day you would be discharged from active duty, made a 1st Lieutenant in the Medical Corps, and then put on inactive duty again. Everyone got an internship of his or her choice for nine months. How did you choose to intern at the Philadelphia General Hospital, and how was it different from other hospitals you had been at?

rd: Joseph was at Philadelphia General Hospital as a surgical resident, so that's why I picked Philadelphia, besides it was the best internship in the United States at the time.

al: I understand that on top of the nine-month internship, a third of the graduates would get another nine months of specialty training. Five of the interns, including you, drew straws for the three positions for another nine months. How did you decide upon this method, and what happened to the others who were not as lucky to train for another nine months?

rd: I had finished my first nine months of residency at Mayo Clinic and there were five places left to go to for the two remaining nine month periods. The director of the program decided that the residents would draw straws about which one of the five would stay at Mayo for another eighteen months. I drew the lucky straw and stayed at Mayo for another eighteen months.

al: Where did you meet Elaine Ax, and how did you decide upon marrying her?

rd: We were in college together at IU. I didn't decide until years later when I was at finishing up at the Mayo Clinic and going into the Army. The fact that I was going away into the Army helped speed up the process of deciding. (Madelyn, who Dick also dated at IU, had moved out to Los Angeles by this time.) [Added by Richard’s son, Michael Quinn Martin.]

al: After being on active duty at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, you were assigned to the Rodriquez General Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Was this a scary move for not only you, but also your family? How did this hospital differ from those in the United States?

rd: It was not scary to go to San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was the same category as Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. This was a general hospital and it covered all of the army bases in all the Caribbean Islands. (65th Infantry). I was an orthopedic specialist. Earlier during the war, a German submarine tried to skip a torpedo up the beach and explode an oil tank on one of the islands (Aruba), but that was the extent of the danger there.

al: When the war ended where were you living, and how did the way of life and mood of the citizens of the United States change?

rd: I was in Rochester, Minnesota at the Mayo Clinic when the war ended. The war had ended before I was sent to active duty on Puerto Rico. But they still had army bases in the Caribbean.

al: I understand you met Frank Lloyd Wright while he was in for surgery at the Mayo Clinic. He then decided against the surgery, declaring he did not need it. Did you advise him otherwise, and how did he eventually offer to build your house? Did you take him seriously when he made the offer?

rd: Frank Lloyd Wright was sent to Dr. Mayo as a patient. I was Dr. Mayo's assistant, and I was making rounds the night before surgery, and Mr. Wright said he was not going to have surgery for his gall bladder and said he felt better and would do it later. So I had Mr. Wright call Dr. Mayo, and Dr. Mayo decided he could do it later. Mr. Wright began to talk to me about my family and what I was going to do next. I said I was going back to Marion, Indiana to start a clinic with my father and my brother. He asked me where I was going to live. I said I didn't have a house. Mr. Wright asked would you like for me to build you a house? I said yes. I checked with Dr. Charles Mayo the next morning, and he said call Mr. Wright right now. I talked to Mr. Wright as I was discharging him, and he said to call him about the house.

al: What were your family, friends, and the city’s reactions to the world-renowned architect building your house?

rd: My family was delighted, but the people in the city didn't understand the house I was building until later.

al: Did you have a desire to build a Frank Lloyd Wright house before you met him personally?

rd: No. But Merrill and Josephine Davis [Richard’s father and mother] were always crazy about Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. When Josephine designed the house on Euclid Ave., she designed it on Frank Lloyd Wright principles. The house was built around the back sunken garden, with the windows in the back, and all around, were designed to bring the outside to the inside, which is one of Frank Lloyd Wright's principles. She also wanted no dining room. The dining room was part of the living room, another Wright principle.

al: Was it financially a huge undertaking compared to conventional construction and housing at the time?

rd: Yes. Not in the beginning. Frank Lloyd Wright gave me an estimate of the construction costs, but it ended up costing almost twice as much. $7,000 was the original estimate and it ended up costing $12,000. Normal houses at the time cost about $6,000.

al: Wright told you to purchase a 2-acre lot with a creek and hills that nobody wanted. Upon building the uniquely designed house, the original contractor quit, complaining of ulcers and feeling Mr. Wright was “crazy”. Did you, like the contractor, ever feel Mr. Wright was “crazy”? Personality wise, what was Wright like? Did other family members get to meet him?

rd: The Tee-Pee was built in a framework and it was cantilevered. Once the frame was removed the house was supposed to stay put. The contractor said it wouldn't work and it would fall down and he quit. I called Mr. Wright and he said, "I've had contractors quit many times and he obviously didn't understand the plan." He said, "We're better off without him, you be the contractor and I'll help you build the house." This is what happened. I put a telephone on a tree in small shack, and I called Mr. Wright once a week (breakfast time on Mondays), and Mr. Wright would tell us what to do for the following week. And he also answered any questions or problems that had come up. Mr. Wright was busy with many things at this time, including building the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. One time I called Mr. Wright about what color to paint the cement blocks. I mentioned I was going to New York. Mr. Wright said to go to the Guggenheim and go behind the construction fence and near the entrance, and there was a painted cement block. He said to look at the third block in from the entrance and gave me the name of the paint. I went to New York and looked at the block and painted it that tan color. The fourth owner of the house painted it green, and then it was restored recently to the original color by the new owners, who also had it placed on the registry of historic houses.

There is an entire chapter in the book "Frank Lloyd Wright Remembered" by Patrick J. Meehan that I wrote about Mr. Wright. On one of our trips from Marion, Indiana to Rochester, Minn., we dropped by Spring Green, Wisconsin to visit Mr. Wright's studio. I have a picture of Mr. Wright with Brian and Charlotte Davis that was taken in his studio.

al: Once the house was finished did you encounter any difficulties with the build of the house? For instance, the narrow hallways and small kitchen.

rd: No. I added the second wing later after Mr. Wright's death, which had two more bedrooms, a den, two bathrooms, and a basement, but these were based on Mr. Wright's original designs for the second wing, which was planned to be added when needed.

al: At that time in their lives, did your children understand the significance of Frank Lloyd Wright and the house they were living in?

rd: At the time Michael [Richard’s son] was only 6 and 7 and said he did not understand it, but he did like the cement floors, which were heated with hot water pipes buried in the concrete. Brian and Charlotte [Richard’s son and daughter] had more understanding of what they were living in as they were teenagers by then.

al: You finally decided to sell the house and move to California. Was it a difficult and hard decision?

rd: No, but it was difficult to give up the house.

al: Did you keep in touch with Mr. Wright until his death?

rd: No.

RMD/MQM 5/8/08