Taliesin, built by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in his homeland of Spring Green, Wisconsin, near Madison, shone from the brow of the landscape, something like a crown. For him, Taliesin was imbued with hope and a homecoming freedom to the man’s soul. In this peaceful rural setting, we on tour understood more about architecture’s paradigm shift from Box to Prairie School visiting the genius architect’s “Shining Brow,” a structure put into the landscape, a home of many levels built from native sandstone, built into, not on, a beloved hill in the ancestral valley. Frank Lloyd Wright (FLLW) built a house to increase the happiness of nature in one of his favorite places as a boy. In this home was hope for a life of unconventionality. Under influence of his mother, Anna Lloyd Wright, he came to build in the place where his grandparents had emigrated from Wales seventy years earlier.
We toured the grounds and structures on a warm June day in 2015, we dozen together. We were an intergenerational group, many with cameras, restricted to outside shooting. After four hours of touring, the human warmth of the 600-acre estate built from the work of its own valley’s laborers was palpable. So was its architect’s truth, and the developing American history of the first half of the twentieth century. Taliesin is indeed a treasured place in the world.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s intellectual power, natural charisma, his being self-taught in skills of farming and building, not trained to pursue a certain sweep of established practices . . . these traits enabled the unique twists in the built structure combined with nature’s beauty, precepts that his mentor Louis Sullivan promulgated.
Readers of this post, what follows are tour notes scratched down in a four by five thin booklet, I standing and listening with gratitude to finally be where I was. Narration was by Brian, a three-decades-experienced describer of the architecture and points of personal interest of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 600 acres and the inhabitants.
Note #1 Out of the shuttlebus, we viewed the architecture design school, a sandstone building termed Hillside School. The structure once had a gymnasium, now a theatre, and wore the date 1903. The only such cornerstone adorns this building:
Can you imagine how thrilled members of this group felt entering the first building of the grandest Taliesin tour? Our narrator described the structure as a co-ed boarding school named Hillside Home School. It was said to have once accommodated 150 learners. Standing in the Assembly Room, we learned that FLLW’s grandfather saw to it that a phrase from the poem “Gray’s Elegy” was inscribed on the stone wall. Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Graveyard” is said to be the supreme example of eighteenth-century graveyard poetic expressions, i.e. a somber and thoughtful view of life. I include the stanza carved into the stone wall: Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield, Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke; How jocund did they drive their team afield! How bowed the woods beneath their sturdy stroke! These words bear evidence to FLLW’s Welsh heritage. Born in him was a sensitivity for the beauties and grandeur of nature. This poem, say critics, heralds lowly folk, which matches a strong take-away message of this tour– FLLW built Taliesin with the labor of farming folk of Spring Green. He got the quarrying, stone masonry, carpentry, electrician work, and more done by members of the community, some of whose laborers possessed similar skills as did FLLW, practical skills of the farm. Of course, his enormous talent encompassed design, drawing, music, construction of homes, fireplaces, and furniture.
Today this building houses work stations for architectural students seeking a master’s degree. Their place for drafting was referred to as the “Abstract Forest” for its dense collection of heavy structural V-shaped braces. The space was a forerunner to the Johnson Wax Building that FLLW designed.
Our tour moved in this building to include having a seat in the theatre of 120 chairs. Both a curtain like no other and a favorite quote by Walt Whitman burnished this most interesting space: Wisdom . . . something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul. The colorful stage curtain, made of cotton, canvas, and string, was designed by FLLW but put aside for many years. The name of the curtain was “View of the Valley in Abstract, Late Summer.” Mrs. Wright, Olgiavanna, Yugoslavian last wife, eventually recruited interns to sew his design and hang the curtain as a surprise. When FLLW analyzed what the students had produced, he arranged for a few changes, such as more gold cloth and more vertical bands of black. Apparently the many blocks of green cloth pleased him. The theatre welcomes patrons for performances by the Bach Dynamite Dancing Society and also hosts the Unity Chapel Concert Series.
Note #2 There are three Taliesins– I, II, III because of two fires. The first fire was lit by a deranged gardener who had been terminated. Seven people died in the fire. The first Taliesin stood five years. The second fire, lit by lightening, devastated the eleven-years-standing Taliesin II. Again, as in the first fire, the merciless winds, FLLW exclaimed, carried the flames to a dozen places burning up the living space but not the office, place of creative genius. Local lore has it that it seemed God was dissatisfied with the architect’s character and personal life, but not his work. In rebuilding after each fire, the Courtyard increased. The Carriage House, where horses could be watered and cared for, was moved further back. Taliesin III has 3,700 feet of courtyards, after five decades of development. FLLW stated that Taliesin would never be completed, and freely took risks to change elements. Changes were welcomed if they were governed by the concept of “Implicit Diagonality.” Our narrator said that a new term is needed, a simpler term.
In the brochure about the tour, one can read that red was FLLW’s favorite color. He wrote of stones turned red, dyed by fire and reused. He said a richness had been added. The chosen red is a Cherokee red, the color of ironstone, as trims the house and is shown in the barns for Guernsey cows, horses, pigs, and chickens. Only Guernseys were put on the estate. Being tan or brown, they colored the landscape harmoniously without dotting it, as would black and white animals.
Note #3 Inside the Architect’s Residence we saw the table upon which FLLW drew the famous Fallingwater Home built in Pittsburgh. The drawings were produced in three hours, just before the buyer arrived to seal the deal that had been arranged on the telephone. According to Brian the narrator, this true story evidences that the design was completely finished in the mind of the genius architect. All that remained was the “downloading” onto paper once the opportunity for the sale presented itself.
Taliesin contains seventeen fireplaces. FLLW called them strong, quiet, rectangular rock-masses from the outside, bespeaking comfort within. Some burn vertical logs, something unusual and beautiful. So much work to cut logs, then carry them in and light fires– this was a factor in the decision to establish Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, where interns and others in service could winter, returning to Taliesin Main during warmer seasons in Wisconsin.
Taliesin houses seven concert grand pianos of Bechstein brand. FLLW’s father was a piano teacher, and young Frank received so much music. All his architectural creations were like music to him. Our narrator placed much emphasis on the musical turn of mind FLLW possessed. In the short heyday of the estate when noted architects and literati gathered, some of them also musicians, the piano, violin, and cello sang of Bach, Beethoven, and Handel. A delightful piece of plywood furniture, never seen before by this tourist, had a purpose– it positioned four seated players facing in, their wooden music stands built in. The structure was a circle. Our narrator stated that one, the last one, was built for Lady Bird Johnson, former first lady, and that she eventually donated it to one of the Smithsonian Museums.
Many large Asian statues and many wall-hangings, notably a Japanese masterpiece by Tan Yeng from the late 1400s, adorned the living space. A quote from a book purchased in the gift shop after the tour (Taliesin, edited and photographed by Yukio Futagawa, 2002, Tokyo) addresses the curiosity about the many statues: “If the eye rested on some ornament it could be sure of worthy entertainment. Hovering over these messengers to Taliesin from other civilizations and thousands of years ago, must have been spirits of peace and good-will? Their figures seemed to shed fraternal sense of kinship from their places in the stone or from the broad ledges where they rested. For the story of Taliesin, after all, is old: old as the human spirit. These ancient figures were traces of that spirit, left behind in the human procession as Time went on, and they now come forward to find rest and feel at home. So it seemed as you looked at them. But they were only the story within the story: ancient comment on the New.”
Note #4 It seems to tour-goers to be true that Mr. Wright likely enjoyed life at Taliesin III with his young wife Olgivanna Lazovich Hinzenburg, of Montenegro and Yugoslavia, pupil of the philosopher Gurdjieff. We imagine they spent their days in the harmonious and subtle shelter that was the third edition of Taliesin with their daughter Iovanna. A surprise is born! A late change comes– 1953! FLLW acquires steel trusses that were part of a freight vessel on Lake Michigan. A highly unusual long jut is built into the house exterior off a living-room balcony. A steel truss, a lengthy I beam girder, it is supported in the middle by a stone pylon and named the Bird Walk; it was the wife’s idea. This disturbing walkway would in no way be thought of as an abomination because of the “form follows function” genre of architecture. Its reason for being? It was the site for seeing as birds in the treetops see, a lesson in perspective. FLLW stated of his beloved Taliesin that it would never be finished and that it had no inharmonious discrepancy. A nature-loving couple, happy at home, a workshop home, a home with a school wherein architects learn from the master to take risks, this is the unique Taliesin.