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Family portrait on steps of a house with huge columns rising on both sides. All are well dressed; Orville Wright is the lone person standing, posed in the middle and behind the rest.
Orville Wright (standing). L-R, seated: nephew Horace Wright, Earl N. Findley, Pliny Williamson, Bishop Milton Wright, John R. McMahon, and Katharine Wright (Orville's sister), on the steps of Hawthorn Hill in 1915. Prints and Photographs Division.

Historic Photos: The Wright Brothers, at Home and in the Air

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This story appears in slightly different fashion in the November-December issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.

In the old days, when people reached a certain level of wealth and/or prominence, it wasn’t unusual for them to give their house a name. It conjured up a certain identity, a presence of the sort engendered by also calling the house an “estate,” “residence,” “family retreat,” or just “mansion.” The Rockefellers had Kykuit in New York’s Hudson Valley, the Vanderbilts had Biltmore in North Carolina, Faulkner named his Mississippi home Rowan Oak, Hemingway had Finca Vigía in Cuba, and so on.

Orville Wright, a modest and practical man, named his Ohio home Hawthorn Hill. He named it for the Hawthorn trees that grew on the property and it was, indeed, built atop a small rise. (We said he was practical.) He and Wilbur, his brother and aviation partner, had designed the place and both planned to live there, but Wilbur died of typhoid fever before it was completed. Orville, his sister Katharine and their father made it their home. It’s nothing on the scale of Kykuit or Biltmore, but grander than Rowan Oak or Finca Vigía.  Like all of the places mentioned above, it’s now a museum and tourist attraction.

You can see it as the backdrop — built to impress but not to overwhelm — in several photographs that were among the materials the Wrights gave to the Library after Orville’s death in 1948. Included were over 300 glass plate and nitrate negatives of photographs taken (mostly) by Orville and Wilbur between 1897 and 1928 — images that provide an important and fascinating record of their home lives and of their attempts to fly.

About 200 of the photos chronicle the brothers’ successes and failures with their new flying machines. Taken from 1900 to 1911, the images document the Wrights’ laboratory, engines, models, runways, flights, mishaps and daily life at Kitty Hawk.

The remodeled 1905 Wright machine, altered to allow the operator to assume a sitting position and to provide a seat for a passenger, on the launching track at Kill Devil Hills.
The remodeled 1905 Wright machine, altered to allow the pilot to sit instead of lay flat, plus a passenger seat, on the launching track. Prints and Photographs Division.

Orville and Wilbur assemble a plane in a covered building on the beach. A crumpled glider rests on the sand following a crash. A local boy holds a freshly caught drum fish. And, that December day in 1903, the first powered flight, with Orville at the controls and Wilbur running alongside as the machine lifts from the Earth.

A St. Bernard dog laying on a covered porch, looking at the photographer
Orville Wright’s Saint Bernard, Scipio, in his summer cut, relaxes on the family front porch. Prints and Photographs Division.

The collection also shows the brothers with family and friends back home in Ohio, in and around Dayton. Orville works in their bicycle shop. His pet Saint Bernard, Scipio, lies on the front porch of the family’s home. A third brother, Lorin, poses with his three children.

And then there’s the semi-formal family photo at the top of this post. Dayton History, the nonprofit organization that manages Hawthorn Hill today, refers to it as Orville’s “success mansion” and that’s just right. The double set of stately white columns framing the entrance, the wide steps, the grand door — it presents itself with the grandeur of a manor, the home of someone who has made a success in the world and the house is the emblem of that success.

The house says a lot about Orville Wright, mainly in its reserved stateliness, and the rest of the photographs in the collection show he and his brother’s eye for the world that they shaped and thern remade with their world-changing invention.

The full collection is online, waiting to be explored.

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  1. Enjoyed the blog, it’s very interesting to learn the more intimate pieces of the people that structured our lives. Thank you.

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