A Visit to Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin

"What A Man Does
That He Has."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson, from Frank Lloyd Wright's Hillside School at Taliesin

It's breathtaking, really, Wright's sprawling estate near Spring Green. Set in his ancestral green valley off the Wisconsin River, a number of his buildings dot the hillsides, his wraparound hilltop residence, Taliesin, Welsh for "Shining Brow," most prominent among them.

On Saturday, I visited my brother, a UWM architecture student who is studying there. My mother, sister, aunt, and I were spellbound as we toured (especially when Jase got us into a few places you don't usually see on the tour). Begun in 1911, Taliesin wreathes itself around a naked Driftless Zone hilltop, epitomizing Wrights push for a more organic architecture melding with its surroundings.

The 600-acre estate looked idyllic in the gorgeous weather, the rolling green hills almost evoking Teletubby land. Or New Zealand. Or The Shire. Unfortunately, photography was limited to the outside portions of the estate.

Throughout our journey, Sherpa, the Taliesin cat, traipsed along with every group. My brother says she occasionally joins the apprentices on the roof of the building as they make drawings.

Jase, the architect in training, stands in front of the portion of Taliesin where some of the Wright descendents and apprentices live. A number of members of "The Fellowship," the guiding body of what is really an architects commune, also live there. A handful of the fellows are in their late 80s and 90s, having worked under Wright himself back in the 1940s and 1950s before his death in 1959.

Interestingly, Taliesin manages a strange balance between museum frozen in time, private residence, and living, working, architectural lab. A little kid was playing in the lower courtyard, which gave off an almost Japanese aura.

Cyndi, our guide, pointed out the Tea Circle, where a giant oak used to stand. It fell during a storm a few years past, however, and crushed part of Wright's personal studio, which has since been repaired.

Wright was famous for incorporating "paths of discovery" into his architecture to draw people in. The sunken courtyard, with its levels and fountain, was a delight to wander in.

Cyndi, our guide, was very frank in relating Wright's many affairs and told about the two fires that struck the living portion of Taliesin, the latter in 1925. She didn't, however, mention that seven people, including one of Wright's female interests, were axed to death in the house as it was burnt by a crazed servant.

Wright's grandson, Brandoch, still lives at Taliesin. We encountered him ambling by with a cane during our tour. Jase says he keeps to himself for the most part. I snapped a shot of his Rascal next an old Mercedes in the parking garage.

The heavily rusticated walls of Wright's studio came into view, built from local stone.

In good Wrightian fashion, a cantilevered balcony with strong horizontal lines stretched out from the studio.

We moved on to Wright's personal studio, which survived both fires. It smelled of old, yellowing paper, like the Kiel Area Historical Society. Giant Japanese panel paintings and banks of windows wrapped around a truly unique space with wood, stone, and plaster interwoven. Some of Wright's chairs and furniture filled the space - he insisted on custom designing much of his furniture so it would fit each building he designed. Oh - there's Sherpa again.

Finally, we moved in Wright's living quarters. They were quirky, but beautiful. The giant hearth in the piano living room was ensconced in an unbeatable wraparound view of the valley. His second master bedroom seemed like a Japanese tea room setup, the table and ceilings low, surrounded by nature.

Moving out through the garden under a long viny arbor, we left the house itself. Here's yours truly on an old cistern with the "Bird Walk," a cantilevered balcony Wright built when his third wife said she wanted to walk out amongst the birds in the treetops.

A distinctive, almost magical place. Incredibly avant garde and original for something begun in 1911 and pushing the envelope continuously thereafter.

One not-so sweet building on the property was Tany-deri ("Under the Oaks"), a house Wright threatened to burn down. His aunts requested it be built along the lines of a traditional catalog house. Wright left it out of his tours when visitors came to the property. It's rather rundown, but the view is spectacular - I'd live there.

Jase showed us around the vast beamed hall of the Hillside School, including some of his architectural drawings. The school, originally built in 1902 as a school for use by Wright's aunts, now serves as the workspace for the many apprentices and architects at Taliesin.

A number of gigantic old models fill one of the galleries off the main hall, including a mammoth one of an entire planned city, Broadacre City. Wright laid out the philosophical underpinnings for it with these "boards of education," if you will. Note he includes fellow Wisconsinite Thorstein Veblen on the right.

We ducked into the dining hall with its whimsical light fixtures and peered through the ornate shutters into the backstage area of the adjoining theater.

Those notoriously leaky Wright roofs!

We rounded things out at the Romeo & Juliet Windmill, built by Wright in 1897 with a unique interlocking design. The wooden structure stood until the 1990s when it was replaced with an exact replica.

The siblings atop the Romeo & Juliet Windmill. It's a crazy climb up multiple stories in the pitch dark!

Jase also got us into a sweet cave on the property...that's definitely not on the tour...

Wright was originally buried down the road near Unity Chapel, one of the first projects he served as draftsman on. His wife, upon her death years later, had him exhumed, cremated, and transferred to lie with her ashes at Taliesin West in Arizona.

At the gift shop on the way out, I noticed Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead among the other biographical and architectural books on the shelves. Next to it, another book stood devoted to proving that Wright was the inspiration for Howard Roark. Both Rand and Wright supposedly denied the relationship.

Having read the book, however, and gotten to know the man even better through his own home, I would say the link would be spot on. Convention is made to be shattered, improved upon. Individual brilliance is the supreme imperative. Great things result when a shining brow does what it must, what it revels in doing. Even when Taliesin is reduced to stony ruins on it's hilltop, Frank Lloyd Wright will have been immortalized.