There are no secrets about what kind of person Frank Lloyd Wright was. He was demanding, headstrong and always “Wright”. He was also well ahead of his time, innovative and an amazing architect. I consider myself a Wright fan, not to the point that I correct docents while on tours (and if you do this, please stop), but I have toured several of his structures, 21 if you are counting.
Originally from Wisconsin, Wright worked most of his young professional life in Chicago. He lived in Oak Park , a suburb of Chicago. In 1903 Wright was commissioned to build a home for his neighbors the Cheneys, Edwin and Mamah. Wright and Mrs. Cheney struck up a fondness for each other that was wildly inappropriate, even more so then, then it would be today. As this was not the first time Wright had strayed, his current wife, Catherine, refused to give him a divorce. Mr. Cheney also refused to grant his wife a divorce. In 1909 Frank and Mamah fled the country to Italy for about a year. Edwin granted Mamah a divorce during that time whereas Catherine still refused to give Frank a divorce.
Frank and Mamah returned to The United States, seeking refuge in Spring Green Wisconsin. It was here where Frank decided to build his ultimate masterpiece, Taliesin. Construction began in early 1911. Frank was still working in Chicago, leaving Mamah at Taliesin during the construction and visiting her during his down time.
During her time at Taliesin, Mamah had become concerned about one of the servants, Julian Carlton. Due to this discomfort Carlton was asked to leave. Around the time of Carlton’s dismissal Mamah’s two children had come to visit her. On August 15th 1914 they were all enjoying a moment on the patio when Carlton returned to Taliesin with an ax, brutally killing 7 people, including Mamah and both of her children. Carlton then set fire to Taliesin and proceeded to attempt suicide. He survived the attempt only to be placed in jail where he later died of starvation after two weeks.
After the tragedy Catherine granted Frank a divorce. Wright’s life was filled with much more drama as his life continued however nothing much could top what happened at Taliesin.
Now that I have shared some of the history of Taliesin, now I will tell you about my visit to Taliesin. As I was basically at the Taj Mahal of Frank Lloyd Wright structures I felt that I should spend a considerable amount of time taking in the buildings that make up Taliesin. Like many Wright structures, Taliesin was in need of some TLC. Wright was not known for making structures that could stand the test of time. Taliesin was also viewed by Wright as an area to “test” out his ideas. If they worked, he would leave them, if they didn’t he would tear them down… well sometimes. While standing in his bedroom you could see that the ceiling was being pushed down. This was the result of a 3rd story play room that had been added on for his 7th child he had with his 3rd wife. He assumed the play room would not be needed long and could be removed. The playroom was never removed and has now compromised some of the structural integrity of the building.
Another interesting point about Taliesin was that Wright had made it in to a school for architecture students. There you would live, eat, work and design the Wright way. Working did not always mean it was architecture related either. The students would often be helping out with farm work or any other tasks that Wright found suitable to pass off to them. It sounded like a lot to ask of the students, but I guess if you signed up to be trained by Wright you probably had an idea of what you were getting yourself into. The school is still active today and although the students are no longer required to corral up the livestock, they still have gardening duties as well as assisting in the ever falling apart buildings of Taliesin.
The tour lead us around the exterior of the house where we learned about how Wright designed his homes with the idea of blending the houses in with nature, or better known as Organic Architecture. Taliesin was built around a hill, an interesting idea, however not so great for watershed. Lots of work has been done to the exterior to preserve the foundation and prevent any further damage to the building.
The tour lead us inside Taliesin where we stood by the front door in a low ceiling room. This was a classic Wright tactic. For rooms he believed you should not spend much time in, he would use low ceilings, thus making you feel the need to move out of the room as fast as possible. These rooms would be entry ways and hallways. As you leave these low ceiling areas you often enter a room with a much higher ceiling. This was called “compression and release”. You are basically compressed in a space and move to a wide open space as you are released into the new room. It was his way of introducing you to the room.
Wright was well-known for making furniture for his clients, as he did not just design you a house, but a lifestyle. He even went so far as to design dresses for the ladies of the house. I do have to say that Wright’s forte was not fashion design.
While living in a Wright designed home you were to have the furniture he designed as well and placed where he wanted it placed. He was well-known for moving furniture back to its rightful spots during visits to past client homes. And you thought your mother-in-law was annoying??! The irony behind the furniture was that most of it was not comfortable, but Wright did not care… well unless it was in his home. We found several pieces of furniture that were not Wright designed in Taliesin… in fact there were even some upholstered chairs from Marshall Field’s.
My favorite part of the tour was peeking through a vent seeing some of the charred rafter beams left over from one of the two fires (there was also an electrical fire after the crazy guy set fire to Taliesin). Wright’s response to the fire “God my judge my character, but he will not judge my work” referencing as to why the building was not a complete loss.
I took a separate tour of Hillside located on the Taliesin grounds. It was a school building that Wright had built for his aunts, who were school teachers. Hillside has now been converted into drafting rooms and used for dorms for the architecture school. It also contains a pretty impressive auditorium that is triangle-shaped, giving everyone a great view of the stage but also allowing them to be able to see everyone in the audience.
Hillside and Taliesin are the schools for the summer part of the year and Taliesin West, in Arizona, is where the school is located during the winter. Can’t really blame them for setting up two different schools, who would want to tough out a Wisconsin winter anyways when you could be enjoying the sun in Arizona!??!
There are no interior photos allowed at Taliesin or Hillside, hence why I do not have any. This is not uncommon however this was the first time I had ever heard the reason “the inside is copyrighted”. It makes sense but it is a real bummer that interior photos are not allowed.
After I had completed my tours I took a short side trip down to the church where Wright had been buried after he died. Also in this cemetery was Mamah Cheney. Her gravestone was sadly placed off on its own under a tree. Wright’s headstone was proudly placed out front, however his remains are not there. After his final wife passed away she requested his ashes be exhumed and placed with her ashes in Arizona. I personally think it had something to do with being buried in the same cemetery as Mamah but it was not explained other than she wanted their remains together.