The architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright is iconic – Taliesin East is the home and studio he built in Wisconsin
Taliesin is the home, studio, school, and 800-acre estate of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). Located in the Driftless Region of southwestern Wisconsin near Spring Green, Taliesin is the name of Wright’s 37,000 square foot home as well as the estate that includes buildings from nearly every decade of Wright’s career from the 1890s to the 1950s. In 1976, Taliesin is designated as a National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Wright designed the main Taliesin home and studio, after leaving his first wife and home in Oak Park, Illinois with his mistress, Mamah Borthwick. The design of the original building was consistent with the design principles of the Prairie School, emulating the flatness of the plains and the natural limestone outcroppings of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. The structure (which included agricultural and studio wings) was completed in 1911. The name, Taliesin, meaning ‘shining-brow’ in Welsh, was initially used for this building (built on and into the brow of a hill or ridge) and later for the entire estate.
Wright rebuilt the Taliesin residential wing in 1914 after a disgruntled employee set fire to the living quarters and murdered Borthwick and six others. This second version was used only sparingly by Wright as he worked on projects abroad. He returned to the house in 1922 following completion of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. A fire caused by electrical problems destroyed the living quarters in April 1925. The third version of the living quarters was constructed by Wright by late 1925.
We have long been a big fan of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, so when we were in Wisconsin for a few days we simply had to go on a tour. There are a few different tours available – from covering the whole estate to just focusing on the house and studio. I decided to opt for the tour of the house – which is a gentle two-hour walking tour.
Our tour started in the gardens and orchard. Sitting on the brow of the hill there are spectacular views across the estate. Frank Lloyd Wright was a control freak so when he decided to build Taliesin he bought all the surrounding land so that he could maintain the views and his vision for the property. There are some interesting stories about mysterious damage to power lines that the local electricity utility put across his land using eminent domain.
From the orchard, we walked into the formal gardens which were very pretty and gave us the first view of the house itself. There was some maintenance work going on so we had to shimmy around the workmen and moved into the main courtyard, which originally received horses but was later adapted for motor vehicles.
We continued to walk around the outside of the house during which our guide told us more stories about Taliesin – including those who have lived here (resident students get to stay) and the fact that Lloyd Wright never built his properties to last (he used cheap materials ) so they are having to work hard to stop the place falling apart. There is also a small grate in the ceiling just by the courtyard where you can see the burnt rafters that were left after the fire that killed Lloyd Wright’s mistress Mamah Borthwick.
Finally, we get to enter the building. Our first stop is the studio where Frank Lloyd Wright and his team of the architects worked on their client’s designs. It is a typical Lloyd Wright space with lots of interesting themes that run throughout Taliesin and beautiful clean lines and symmetry.
The studio connects to the main house – which has been re-modelled from the original design a few times. A couple of which were due to fires. Frank Lloyd Wright had an interesting personal life – his last wife, Olga, outlived Frank (who was 30 years his junior) by 25 years and left her own mark on the building. Some of the work of the conservation at Taliesin has been to reverse her changes.
Lloyd Wright likes to use space creatively, controlling how people experience a space. He also liked low ceilings, which for a person with a 6-foot, 6-inch frame is a bit challenging – but it probably helped with the heating bills.
The main room of the property is the large living room, which is surprisingly light – mainly due to the windows on two sides, offering spectacular views across the valley. Wanting to draw peoples attention to the view meant some challenging design and manufacture, which was evident in some of the funky shapes of windows that had to be made. Not only did Frank design the building he also designed the furniture – which for me is my favourite aspect of his work.
Beyond the main room are the bedrooms. This house doesn’t have a lot of rooms – guests were not that frequent so they didn’t really get accommodated. There is an interesting counter-balanced balcony that stretches out from the main building. The idea was to escape the boundary of the house and feel like you were out there flying with the birds!
The Lloyd Wrights did not share a room – well not often. Frank was a bit of night owl and worked strange hours – particularly when he was working on a project. He didn’t really think of putting in storage – ruined the aesthetics – so after he passed Olga put in some cupboards to store her clothes.
The 2 hours shot passed and before we knew it was time to catch our shuttle bus back to the visitor centre.
If you are a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright or 20th Century architecture a visit to Taliesin (East – there is another Taliesin just outside Scottsdale, Arizona) then a tour is a must. It can be a little pricey to visit but we decided it was worth splashing out on.