While we were visiting family in Wisconsin we took a side trip to the small town of Spring Green, site of Taliesin, home of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Why is his home out in the middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin? Because that’s where he grew up.

     He went off to the University of Wisconsin in Madison for a year or so, then moved to Chicago where he established his architectural practice. In 1911, when he was in his 40s, he purchased land near his mother’s home and built the rambling house that epitomized his style of integrating a building into the landscape and promoting harmony between humans and the natural world.

Front entrance to Taliesin

     As we found out on our two-hour tour, Wright led a dramatic and controversial life. He had six children with first wife Kitty, before launching an affair with Mamah, wife of one of his clients. They went off to Europe together, and eventually she moved into Taliesin with her two children. 

     In 1914, while Wright was working in Chicago, a disgruntled worker at Taliesin set the house on fire and murdered seven people, including Mamah and her children. A large part of the house was destroyed and later rebuilt.

Where he worked

     In 1922 wife Kitty granted Wright a divorce, and he married another woman. She was addicted to morphine. The marriage lasted less than a year.

     In 1925 there was another fire at Taliesin, though no one was hurt. Then in 1927, at age 60, Wright married for the third time — a marriage that lasted until his death in 1959 at age 91.

Low ceiling, large windows

     Through it all, Wright kept working, designing and building more than a thousand structures. One of his most famous is called Fallingwater, built in Mill Run, PA, as a private weekend retreat for a wealthy Pittsburgh department store owner. Wright also built Taliesin West outside of Phoenix, AZ, which is where he spent winters starting in 1937.

     Wright started a school of architecture at Taliesin, with 20 to 30 students per year. He was notoriously difficult to work with, but many thought, as one student said, “a year in his studio would be worth any sacrifice.” 

The skyscraper he never built

    He designed a couple of modest skyscrapers, but his proposal for a more ambitious skyscraper in San Francisco was not accepted. He kept a model of the bulding in his office for the rest of his life.

     Perhaps his most famous work is the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which occupied him in his later years. The museum was just as controversial as the rest of his life, with open architecture featuring a central spiral ramp — a design unlike any other museum in the world. Apparently, while all of his designs were original, not all were practical from an engineering standpoint. Several aspects of the Guggenheim had to be reworked before it could be built, and while we were on our Taliesin tour we were told that his house now needs some major reconstruction since he insisted on putting a second story above an area that couldn’t bear the weight.

Where apprentices learn the trade

     Honestly, after spending some time at Taliesin — and ducking my head under some of his low ceilings (Wright himself was 5 feet, 7 inches) — I don’t think I would want to live in one of his homes. But what do I know? It was the American Institute of Architects that in 1991 called him, “the greatest American architect of all time.”

Tom Lashnits Writer, Blogger
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