Born: December 27, 1928

Died: March 28, 2021

JOHN Rattenbury, who has died of cancer, aged 92, enjoyed an illustrious career as an architect mentored by the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright and worked on his boss’s most famous project, New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

This success, however, came in the shadow of a gruesome event known as the “Murder at the Villa Madeira”, which left both his parents dead.

After settling in Canada, John’s Yorkshire-born father, Francis, himself enjoyed fame as an architect. He was credited with defining the cityscape of Victoria, British Columbia, including its Parliament Buildings.

But Francis scandalised Victoria society when he had an affair with Alma Pakenham (née Clarke), a concert pianist and songwriter almost 30 years his junior, already once widowed and once divorced. He flaunted her publicly and even took her back to his home, where his wife, Florence, would be taunted by the sound of their lovemaking.

After securing a divorce, Francis married Alma, who gave birth to John Rattenbury in 1928, but the couple were ostracised and moved to Britain the following year to live in Bournemouth, at the Villa Madeira, on the town’s East Cliff.

The marriage was already on the rocks by the time Francis retired and, in late 1934, the couple advertised for “a daily willing lad” for housework and driving duties.

Within weeks of being hired, George Stoner was having an affair with Alma and, after his 18th birthday, she moved him into the house. With Francis sleeping downstairs, he would cross the landing to her at night while John was in a bed in the same room.

Then, in March 1935, when Francis was dozing in a chair in 
the drawing room, he was struck three times from behind with a carpenter’s mallet. He later died in hospital.

Alma initially admitted to the crime – perhaps to protect her lover – and both were charged with murder. Newspapers reported salacious revelations of sex and drugs at the Old Bailey trial and depicted Alma as a drunken nymphomaniac who manipulated the younger man.

In the event, Stoner was found guilty and sentenced to hang while Alma was acquitted. Four days after the trial, she took her own life on a riverbank in Christchurch, stabbing herself, then drowning.

The Dundee Evening Telegraph fuelled readers’ appetites for the gory and macabre with the eyewitness account of a farm worker.

“Suddenly she stood up, slipped off her fur coat and fumbled with trembling fingers in her handbag,” the paper reported. “Steel flashed in the rays of the setting sun. The woman stood erect at the river’s edge. Swiftly a little dagger struck, six times, into her breast. The slim figure toppled into the water.”

A petition signed by 320,000 people who were shocked at Alma’s morals and saw her as corrupting Stoner with “undue influence” resulted in his sentence being reduced to life imprisonment. He served just seven years and eventually died in 2000.

No one ever knew for sure which of the pair murdered Francis, the family dog being the only witness to the crime, but one legacy was Terence Rattigan’s final play, Cause Célèbre, first performed on radio in 1975 with Diana Dors as Alma.

Seven decades after that fateful night, John told journalist York Membery that he did not learn the truth until a year after the terrible events – “rather cruelly”, from another schoolboy.

“I remember the night my father was murdered because the lights went on in the house – and I woke up,” he recalled. “Nobody would tell me what had happened, but I had this cold feeling that something terrible had occurred.”

Sean O’Connor, author of The Fatal Passion of Alma Rattenbury (2019), was struck by John’s lack of ill feeling towards Stoner. “If anything, he had a great deal of pity or empathy for him,” O’Connor told me. “I found that terribly moving. He really was an open-hearted and very forgiving man.”

John continued boarding at his Bournemouth school, then King’s College School, Cambridge, until he became a wartime evacuee in 1941, sailing to Canada to live with his maternal grandmother, then an aunt.

On leaving St George’s School, Vancouver – where he won a competition to design a new campus – he studied engineering at the University of British Columbia before taking a job with a logging company, then training as an architect at Oregon State College and working for a Vancouver practice.

Influenced by reading a book on Frank Lloyd Wright, the father of American modernism – bowled over by his “organic architecture” style, based on a belief that people should live in harmony with nature – Rattenbury successfully applied to become an apprentice at his Taliesin Fellowship in 1950.

He joined Wright’s community at its new Arizona desert-camp school, lived in a tent and undertook household duties while absorbing the philosophies of the visionary who was both mentor and father figure to him, as well as sharing the same name and birth year as his real father.

Becoming a principal architect, he worked with Wright on dozens of projects. Their only skyscraper was the Price Tower for a chemical company in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, while most of their designs concentrated on horizontal, rather than vertical, construction.

Wright’s masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum, was innovative in a different way – cylindrical, wider at the top than the bottom.

He died months before its 1959 unveiling to the public. With his colleagues, Rattenbury then completed some of their tutor’s unfinished projects, from hotels to schools and houses, including a circular home on a mountain overlooking Phoenix. He went on to design his own buildings for Taliesin Architects, such as a desert conference centre with floor-to-ceiling windows.

When challenged in 1997 by the American magazine Life to design his “dream house”, the result was influenced by Wright’s Prairie-style homes – single-storey, with plenty of natural light indoors.

Rattenbury always felt that fate guided him towards architecture, Wright – and his wife, Kay (née Schneider), a fellow Taliesin architect whom he married in 1968. She died in 1996 and he is survived by his stepdaughter, Celeste Davison, and stepson, Allen Oyakawa. His other stepson, Tal Davison, predeceased him.