Power Lines Blog

Living the Wright Life in the Sonoran Desert


I just got back from the American Public Power Association’s 2017 CEO Roundtable—a great meeting we hold early each year. It is an opportunity for public power CEOs to step back from the day-to-day management scrum and think about the larger trends and issues facing our industry. For the last few years, we have been holding this meeting in Phoenix — a welcome change of venue for our members dealing with winter in more northern climes.

I decided to go out to Phoenix early and spend the weekend with my (long-suffering) husband, given that the following Tuesday was Valentine’s Day. And we decided to make it a Frank Lloyd Wright weekend, as we are both fans of the great American Prairie School architect.

A few years ago, we had visited Wright’s house/workshop/museum in Oak Park, Illinois, and did the neighborhood walking tour. But we knew that in his later years, Wright spent considerable time in Arizona (the winters) — he went back to his native Wisconsin in the summers, as this was before air conditioning.

We started the weekend at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, taking a walking tour and learning how the upper crust lived in the last century. As it turns out, the primary architect of the hotel was Albert Chase McArthur, a student of Wright’s, but Wright’s distinctive style is certainly evident. We got to see the “Mystery Room” where the booze flowed during Prohibition and the Aztec Ballroom with its real gold leaf ceiling, where Ronald and Nancy Reagan had their wedding reception.

The next day we toured Wright’s desert home and architecture school, Taliesin West. It is designed to blend in with the Sonoran desert, showcasing the hills behind it and the valley in front. Wright had definite ideas about the interaction between his home and the surrounding environment — according to our guide, Wright’s wife Olgivanna (wife No. 3, and more than 30 years younger than he was!) had to argue with him for years before he finally caved in and put glass in the windows. He also was apparently quite put out when he returned to Taliesin West from Wisconsin one year to find that Salt River Project had put up transmission lines on the valley floor while he was gone, spoiling his view. He even designed the windows in his living room to block out the view of the lines!


But the high point of the weekend for us was a tour of the David Wright House in Arcadia, a Phoenix suburb. Through the good offices of Peter Hayes of SRP, I was able to meet J. Charles Coughlin, an Arizona public relations executive and enthusiastic supporter of this historic property. Frank Lloyd Wright designed this futuristic looking home in 1950 for his son David and David’s wife Gladys. Wright intended the house to maximize the view of Camelback Mountain, and to sail above the orange groves that then surrounded the property. It was one of the last residences he designed, and its upward swirling ramp and dramatic design foreshadow the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The property was saved from the wrecking ball in 2012 by an attorney, Zach Rawling, who grew up nearby admiring the house. It is now owned by the David and Gladys Wright House Foundation, which is working to preserve the property.

Coughlin gave us a wonderful tour, with ample time to admire both the sweeping lines of the house and the design details, down to the rugs and the furniture, that Wright houses are so known for. Taking on the preservation of such a property is clearly a labor of love for the volunteers involved with the house.

With play time over, on Monday, Feb 13, we got down to Association business. Our morning speaker was Susan Eisenhower of the Eisenhower Group (yes, she is the granddaughter of Dwight D. Eisenhower), who shared her insights on energy policy and our country’s complicated relationship with Post-Soviet Union Russia. It is not often that you get to move past the latest cable news headlines and talking heads, and hear from someone who has such a deep and detailed understanding of our past relationship with that country, and just how that history informs current events.


Our afternoon panel was equally interesting: Patrick Currier of S2CPacific and former senior energy counsel to the House Energy and Commerce Committee; Sam Boxerman, an environmental attorney with Sidley and Austin; and Suedeen Kelly, chair of the energy practice at Akin Gump and former FERC Commissioner, all spoke about what they see on the horizon with the new Trump Administration. Of course, it is still very early days for the new Administration, but hearing our speakers’ very educated guesses and possible scenarios was extremely enlightening. As you can imagine, our CEOs had lots of questions for the panel.

On Tuesday, Feb 14, we resumed with a presentation by Mark Mills, CEO of the Digital Power Group and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His presentation was interesting and thought-provoking, and certainly was a change from the “conventional wisdom” about where our industry is going and where future load growth might come from.

Finally, on Tuesday afternoon, a small group of us remained to participate in a facilitated roundtable exercise dealing with a cybersecurity scenario. We had a great cross-section of CEOs and senior managers from public power utilities of different sizes and regions of the country. Our facilitators from the consulting firm of Witt O’Brien’s did a great job of leading us through the exercise and teasing out the issues and problems our utilities might face. This was just one of a series of exercises the Association will be running for employees of our member utilities throughout this year, using funding from the Department of Energy under our Cybersecurity for Energy Delivery Systems cooperative agreement.

It can be easy for utility (and trade association) CEOs to get so caught up in the day-to-day management issues that you forget the big issues or why you really do what you do. Having the chance to step back and see the larger picture — or even to see how a really creative mind can tackle design issues created by an austere desert environment — can recharge the brain and give you a fresh perspective. So thanks to the great presenters at this year’s CEO Roundtable, and thanks to Frank Lloyd Wright as well. It was a great trip to Arizona!

As it turns out, SRP was unfairly singled out by our guide at Taliesin West!  Rob Kondziolka of SRP reports: “There are four parallel transmission lines that are viewed from Taliesin West. They are all double circuit 230kV lines. The first line built was by WAPA. APS built the next two. SRP built the fourth and last one. It is the one furthest from view. The one by SRP was built in the late 1980s. I was the designer. I developed a new tower design to ensure the SRP was no taller than the adjacent APS lines to ensure views were not impacted any greater. I think credit goes to WAPA for agitating our famous and loveable architect.”  I love how Rob designed the towers to avoid further impacting the views from the property!

Sue Kelly

Sue Kelly

President and CEO