Sunday, August 23, 2015

On the Road Again : Taliesin

Outside of Spring Green, Wisconsin about an hour's drive west of Madison is Taliesin, the estate of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, a place I have wanted to visit for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, for many years the only way to get a look around it was to be accepted into the school of architecture. So I either had to start a new career or hope for a policy change. It's been a long wait.

He began building Taliesin in 1911 on property adjacent to land that had been farmed by his mother's family since around the mid 1800's. He rebuilt it twice and was continually revising it up until his death in 1959. I was expecting it was to be a simple hillside home in the country, not a 600 acre estate with a school of architecture, a home he built for his sister named Tan-y-deri, the visitors center and the only restaurant he ever designed plus many farm buildings. I also thought the description that said the tour was four hours long was a typo! The photo above is from Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesin, and taken by Yukio Futagawa. I used it here because the front of the house is currently covered in scaffolding and barely recognizable, fortunately the Taliesin Preservation site has excellent photos of all the buildings as well as sculptures and other works from his Asian art collection.

According to Mr. Wright, "Taliesin was the name of a Welsh poet. A druid-bard or singer of songs who sang to Wales the glories of Fine Art. Literally the Welsh word means 'shining brow.'" Wright's mother's family were Welsh immigrants who had originally settled in the valley and since they all had Welsh names for their places he thought he might as well have one for his too.  

He was a significant influence on the modernist movement in architecture. It seems like modern architecture generally gets more that it's share of criticism, probably because so much of it is badly done.  Taliesin, in spite of being over a hundred years old really looks quite contemporary and feels like a modern home without all the sterility and coldness they can sometimes have. No matter what the style, I do like to have a good snoop around a famous house! Unfortunately, there was no interior photography allowed which was probably just as well since my camera continued to have fits of not working for the entire tour! I did sneak in a photo while hiding under the pergola through the open doors of what was his bedroom. You can see straight through the house to the valley on the other side, the views from all the rooms were fantastic as almost all the walls are windows.

Most of us are lucky enough to escape truly tragic events in our lives but not Mr. Wright, and his was a whopper! In 1909 he had left his family and run off to Europe with a former client, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. When they returned home in 1911 he started building Taliesin supposedly for his mother but it eventually turned out to be a home and studio for himself and Mrs. Cheney. In August of 1914 Julian Carlton, a deranged member of the household staff, set the home on fire and killed seven people with an axe as they attempted to escape. Mamah and her two children were among the dead. Carlton drank poison immediately after the attacks and died. No motive was ever discovered.


Given those horrific events you would think that would have been the end of Taliesin but that wasn't the case. According to Wright scholar Ron McCrea, the architect had rebuilt the residence by the end of that same year. The studio, workshops and farm buildings were not damaged in the fire so he was able to concentrate his efforts on rebuilding the residence, making it larger and more expansive than the original. Strangely, these tragic events were never brought up in any of my Art History classes! 

In 1925 fire consumed the residence once again but this time it was lightning that caused a short in the phone line. Luckily no one died but a sizable collection of Japanese prints was destroyed in the blaze. Even though he was still in debt from the rebuilding of Taliesin II  he started right in on what is now the current structure, known as Taliesin III. Amazingly, the part of his career where he did his most innovative work was still ahead of him! He went on to design what some have called the most famous house in America, Fallingwater in Mill Run, PA; the Guggenheim Museum in NYC and his groundbreaking Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin.

This is Mr. Wright's drafting studio, it escaped both fires and remains mostly as it was when it was originally built in 1911. I took this photo from the flagstone terrace showing in the foreground which is the actual peak of the hill and a favorite spot of his as a child. He wrote that it was unthinkable to place his house or any house on the top of a hill, so he made Taliesin part of the hill. I can see his point, but I can't help but wonder how it has escaped being washed down to the river below after all these years of rain and melting snow. Maybe that's why he built Taliesin West in the Arizona desert. 

A flagstone path leads to a barn, stables and other typical farm buildings, Wright referred to them as the agricultural wing. It's actually much further away from the house that it looks but having grown up on a farm, I'm not so sure you really can get far enough away from the aroma of manure. 

It was a surprise to me that Taliesin was actually a working dairy farm. One of Wright's most notable styles is referred to as Organic Architecture, the integration of a building with it's site by by using the natural materials found there. It is clearly illustrated here in the dairy barn as well as his love of reinventing the look of traditional structures. His barn is a pretty far cry from the huge red monstrosities that dominate the typical Wisconsin dairy farm. He also preferred brown and white cattle because he felt the black and white Holstein's weren't as harmonious with the landscape.

It's impossible to summarize the career of such a complex architect as Frank Lloyd Wright in a few sentences under some photos. Obviously there are many books on his work, he wrote twenty of them himself! Taliesin was an experiment as much as a home. I was particularly impressed that he changed the course of a small creek to make it look more artistic and then out of sight, damned it up to generate his own electricity. All the details in his houses from the door handles to the furniture and the light fixtures are designed by him, too. He designed more than a thousand buildings and over five hundred of them were built. I keep wondering, where did he find the time get it all done?

So what do you think about Frank Lloyd Wright?

Sorry about all the wordiness, honestly I didn't mean to write a term paper.

Thanks for stopping by!


  1. What a fascinating post! The estate looks absolutely beautiful, and the life story should be a film. I have to say I thought his home had a style that made me think of rural Japan, and you mentioned that he had a had a collection of Japanese prints :D XXX

    1. Yes, it is very reminiscent of Japanese architecture, I think he developed his aesthetic of a building being one with nature from them. He also had a sideline business as an art dealer of Japanese prints and according to some sources it provided more income than his architecture! Oh, I'd love to see a movie of his life! I don't expect to see one soon, the impression I got from the private foundation that controls his legacy is that they would prefer to keep it focused on his work and forget about all the scandals. Too bad!