Spring Green, Wis. — It is one thing to read about the life and work of Frank Lloyd Wright, and another to see and breathe and feel it. That is what my traveling mate and I decided here in the soggy heat of July.
Not far south of this small southwestern Wisconsin town is the home of the greatest architect of the last century, an epithet that he wholeheartedly believed appropriate. A winding trip up Wisconsin 23 from Mineral Point to the house took most of a Tuesday morning, not because it is a long distance to the “Wyoming Valley” where Wright’s “Taliesin” grows from a hillside, but because we stopped for a while just outside of Dodgeville to stretch our legs a bit, and to visit a waterfall that happened to be catching some misty morning sun.
But seeing Taliesin a while later, growing like a tree to the west of the highway, was a revelation. We had visited Wright through the years only through books and documentaries, although I had also toured his Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Illinois, a decade ago. On this day it was steamy and nearly 90 and my shirt clung to me like a Turkish bath towel. Despite forewarnings that the house is mostly without air conditioning, and that mosquito repellent baths are recommended for the hardy souls who visit in July, we had little patience for the gift shop or restaurant as we waited to depart from the visitor’s center.
There were fewer than a dozen of us on the bus when we were joined by our tour guide, Andy Cole. Most of us innocents aboard were dressed in shorts, a few in sandals, yet Cole wore long-legged cargo pants that held a pair of industrial-strength repellent cans in extra pockets. The short hop to the house took us past the northern spillway to Wright’s “water garden,” a small lake fed by the creek that runs through the property. We were then deposited in maple shade after a few turns on his looping drive.
Taliesin (the word means “shining brow”) is named for an ancient Welsh bard. Although Wright gave it a commanding view of the farmlands and roads below, he believed that to place a house at the very top of a hill ruined it, so Taliesin sits just below its crest. As we exited through his garden as our tour ended nearly two hours later, we actually climbed a bit, getting a wonderful view, not only down and toward the southeast and the Unity Chapel graveyard — where Wright was originally buried — but to the south and west, to the peak of yet another hill where his unique “Romeo and Juliet” windmill sits near the Hillside Home School, operated for years by a pair of aunts.
Taliesin is more than Wright’s retreat in the country. It sits on an 800-acre complex of farmland that helps finance its upkeep and utilities, and puts food on the visitor center’s restaurant menu, from which we later chose a mid-afternoon lunch while eyeing the nearby Wisconsin River. Much of the land was originally owned by the Lloyd Joneses — the “God-Almighty Lloyd Joneses” — of which Wright’s mother, Anna, belonged, and it was there, most importantly in the years after his mother and father divorced, that the young Frank, between ages 12 and 18, spent his summers, undoubtedly resenting the labor and itch of farm work, but developing a life-long love of the natural world.
Interviewed by Mike Wallace in 1957, the nearly 90-year-old Wright was asked if he believed in God. “I believe in God,” Wright replied, “only I spell it Nature.”
“I think the house reflects that [belief],” Cole says. “He so lovingly blends nature into the house using mostly local and natural material — limestone, Wisconsin River sand in the stucco and native oak. He wanted it to look like nature, and be created from nature, because he loved nature so much.”
Vain, self-confident, proud with the personal flourishes of a dandy, Wright’s formative years were dominated by an up-tight teacher-mother, who spent most of her life — after leaving her wandering husband — doting on and making excuses for her son. His tumultuous private life — messy, to say the least, and mostly of his own choosing — cannot be separated from his professional one, for out of the chaos grew Wright’s tidy genius for order and creation.
Taliesin is perhaps, then, his most ambitious work, for it was never supposed to last, nor did he ever finish working on it. In fact, Wright’s apprentices continued to complete various projects there after his death in 1959; they were the last of the nearly 200 alterations he planned.
“Taliesin really shows that he was a dynamic personality who thrived on innovation and new ideas,” Cole says, “but there were certain core principles that he believed in down to his bones. He was constantly changing the architecture of Taliesin, both inside and out. Keep in mind that he referred to it as a ‘living laboratory’ — a place of experimentation and new ideas. Had he lived longer, the house would have looked different than it currently does.”
Of course, necessity proved the mother of Wright’s invention in Taliesin’s case. Construction began in 1911, not long after the architect had left his wife (Catherine) of 20 years, their six children and his magnificent home and studio in Oak Park, Illinois; he did so for the wife of a client, and he and Martha “Mamah” Cheney scandalously lived together abroad, primarily in Italy, for a while. Escaping debts, and domestic responsibilities, he worked on a collection of designs that helped resurrect his career in the face of the inevitable gossip and public condemnation. Upon returning to America, he built Taliesin as a refuge from the noise, as well as for Mamah, yet claimed it was to be his mother’s country home.
“I come back from the distant, strange and beautiful places that I used to read about when I was a boy, and wonder about; yes, every time I come back here it is with the feeling there is nothing anywhere better than this is. More dramatic elsewhere, perhaps more strange, more thrilling, more grand, too, but nothing that picks you up in its arms and so gently, almost lovingly, cradles you as do these southwestern Wisconsin hills,” Wright wrote in an essay for an industrial magazine in 1930; he would seek refuge there often.
By the time Wright penned that passage, Cheney, her two children and several of Wright’s employees were 16 years dead, the result of a murderous servant’s rampage with a shingle axe while the architect was in Chicago. The madman also burned much of Taliesin to cinders in the process; one of two times fire ravaged the place. “Something in him died with her, something loveable and gentle,” wrote Wright’s son, John, years later. He and his father buried Mamah in the Unity Chapel cemetery themselves.
The second fire, this one in 1925 and caused by defective wiring, destroyed the home again. Just as we tourists neared the typically down-sized east entrance — Wright’s apprentice studio just next door — Cole showed us where recycled, but charred, lumber was used.
The tour is a revelation. We were reminded time and again — not only through Cole’s vivid narrative, but through the experience — that Wright was a master of manipulating space. Most of the house’s hallways and utility areas are nearly claustrophobic, yet visitors are channeled into magnificently open spaces that are flooded with light and commanding views of the valley floor or wonderfully planned garden, the latter complete with statuary and wildflowers.
Taliesin reflects Wright’s belief in the exterior becoming interior. The same limestone used on the house’s outer structure is used in abundance inside, and at one point in the tour we were able to look through glass and see Wisconsin green in all four directions. His love of diagonals and asymmetry are also apparent, as visitors are guided through rooms — even his front steps — at angles.
“Taliesin is incredibly innovative,” Cole says. “… [I]t simultaneously harkens back to the natural world, yet is a metaphor for the world today in that people don’t have to abandon their core, traditional principles; they can still embrace change.”
Wright’s love of the sound of moving water is also obvious. Along with the water garden below, he strategically placed a fountain in the back garden, visible from a sunny, open room that he especially designed for visitors as Wright was selling the idea for his great final project: the Guggenheim Museum in New York. He also brought the motif inside by covering a native stone floor with glossy polyurethane; it mimics a wet surface, even in the absence of rain.
The architect’s love of the hearth is displayed often in the home. Not far from one fireplace still sits his innovative music stand — designed to hold scores for four musicians — and his piano; both were essential elements in the night life at Taliesin. Wright believed music was so important in one’s quality of living that he required his apprentice architects to be proficient musicians themselves.
While music, social interaction and light were of primary concern, Wright’s own personal bedroom (his third wife, dancer Olgivanna Hinzenberg, demanded a corner bedroom for herself since her husband slept very little), although airy and mindful of view, is somewhat confining. At only 5 feet 7 inches, Wright was not concerned that the ceilings there were just a few inches above my head, and the architect’s single bed, not nearly long enough for me to nap on, is tucked into a quiet corner.
Despite living with a T-square and compass always near, Wright’s personal affairs remained chaotic until old age. After Mamah’s death, and a protracted and laborious divorce from Catherine, he fell into a second marriage with Miriam Noel, a wealthy but clearly unstable admirer. His divorce from her proved long and difficult, as well; it was still in limbo when he met Olgivanna, who was 32 years his junior and pregnant with his child before they married in 1928. Their marriage, tempestuous at times, endured, and she proved to be, perhaps, the driving influence of his late life, leading to the creation of the Taliesin Apprentice program (a source of reliable income) and many of his most striking designs.
The epitome of Wright’s long and linear “Prairie Style” design, Taliesin was not a “blank check” house and the architect employed simple building materials like cypress and plywood. His belief that Taliesin was a “living laboratory” was nearly unrealized, for after his death, Olga rarely visited the place, mostly neglecting it while living in Arizona at “Taliesin West,” which she preferred. She eventually even spirited Wright’s body out of the ground at Unity Chapel, and had it cremated; their ashes are mingled together in a wall near the place in the desert she loved more than his house in Wisconsin.
As I write this, autumn leaves are falling in a golden shower outside my window, and I wonder what fall must look like at Taliesin.
“Being radical, I must strike root somewhere,” Wright wrote. “Wisconsin is my somewhere. I feel my roots in these hillsides as I know those of the oak that have struck in here beside me. That oak and I understand each other. Wisconsin soil has put the sap into my veins. Why, I should love her as I loved my mother, my old grandmother, and as I love my work.”
Contact Mike Lunsford at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit his webpage at www.mikelunsford.com. His sixth book, “Field Notes and Other Stories,” will be released this fall; his regular column appears in tomorrow’s Tribune-Star.