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Pilgrimage: Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright at Home

by Regina Cole on March 4, 2014

in Magazine,Travel

To feel his legacy, followers of the famous architect trek not only to Oak Park in Illinois, but also to Wisconsin.

The garden court at Taliesin is an extension of the architecture.

The garden court at Taliesin is an extension of the architecture.

Wright’s favorite childhood haunt was the site of his Uncle James’s farm near Spring Green, about 40 miles west of Madison, Wisconsin. Wright’s mother had purchased land there in 1904, and Wright thought of the area as his home. He returned to Wisconsin in 1911 and began designing Taliesin, the home and studio he would build and rebuild until his death in 1959.

Famously marked by fire and tragedy, Taliesin remained Wright’s beloved “shining brow” (a translation from Welsh of the name). The 37,000-square-foot complex included living quarters, guest rooms, apartments, a drafting studio and office, a working farm, orchards, berry patches, vineyards, kitchen gardens, and a hydroelectric plant. It also housed Wright’s cadre of apprentices, who were largely responsible for construction.

Hillside, designed by Wright as a school in 1902, is located on the site.

Hillside, designed by Wright as a school in 1902, is located on the site.

Today the 600-acre estate is open to the public as a house museum. On site is Hillside, a school designed by Wright in 1902, which today houses a theater and a huge drafting studio. Halfway between the residence and Hillside sits a cluster of agricultural buildings called Midway Barns. There is no better place to see Wright’s ideas at work than in this sylvan setting.

The nearby city of Madison was Wright’s youthful home for 10 years. His parents were founding members of the First Unitarian Society of Madison. In 1946 the congregation commissioned Wright to design a meeting house, which was completed in 1951. It was no easy project; Wright’s legendary cost overruns taxed the resources of the small congregation. Parishioners, many of them professors at the University of Wisconsin, hauled stone and mixed mortar to complete the building. Its triangular façade marks it as one of the world’s most innovative examples of church architecture, and it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2004.

This was Mrs. Wright’s bedroom at Taliesin.

This was Mrs. Wright’s bedroom at Taliesin.

Wright first presented his idea for Madison’s Monona Terrace in 1938. A master plan long had called for a series of government buildings to connect Lake Monona to the Capitol, along with a park and terraces stepping to the shore. When the Board of Supervisors turned down Wright’s plan, the city lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding.

Wright’s revised plan was thwarted by World War II. He predicted that his vision would not be realized in his lifetime, and he was right: “But someday they will build it,” he’d add. Finally, in 1997, the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, an adapted version of Wright’s plan, was completed on the original site.

 Wright’s motifs are evident in the Assembly Hall at Hillside.

Wright’s motifs are evident in the Assembly Hall at Hillside.

Near Taliesin stands The House on the Rock, a vast collection of rooms built by Alex Jordan, a Spring Green local who fell in love with the dramatic location. He began to build atop Deer Shelter Rock in 1945, opened the place to the public in 1960, and didn’t stop adding to it until his death in 1989. The extent of the collection is beyond description—carousels, antique cars, circus memorabilia, dollhouses. The House on the Rock, jaw-dropping as it may be, is light years from the serenity and coherence of its neighbor. Taliesin is not a collection, but Wright’s home.

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