Taliesin: Whimsy in Wisconsin
On a warm, calm summer’s day the air had a luminescence about it. I entered the gates into the whimsical world of Taliesin in western Wisconsin. Over the next two hours I toured the grounds of the once-private domain of a man whom experts have hailed as the greatest American architect of the 20th century: Frank Lloyd Wright.
Wright’s “Fallingwater” house, built in 1939 in Pennsylvania, is one of the masterpieces of 20th century art, and in 1991, members of the American Institute of Architects voted it “The best all-time work of American architecture.” (Wright’s Johnson Wax Administration Building, 1936-9, in Racine Wisconsin is his most famous industrial project.)
A newly opened spacecraft-like Monona Terrace in the Wisconsin capital, Madison, was built to Wright’s 1938 design and bears testimony to his continued legacy here.
Wright’s architectural prowess came not from scholarly learning (he only attended university in Madison briefly) but from practical training, having been apprenticed to a builder and worked as a draftsman. Wright was a gifted artist and, aided by his acquired knowledge of building materials and practical savvy, he became recognised widely for his modernistic, elongated Prairie-style houses, which were commissioned throughout Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois in the first decade of the 20th century.
When one looks upon Taliesin (Welsh for ‘Shining Brow’) it is hard to believe one is looking at a building first built in 1911, such is its modern appearance. Wright constructed Taliesin from local stone and he intended it to be like a fortress, a haven in a heartless world, for he was besieged by scandals at the time, having left his wife and six children for a mistress. What evolved was a building so modern in appearance in 1911, it appeared to leapfrog six decades into the future.
Wright by all accounts was a complex person, serious, and yet full of childlike folly. The spectacular ‘birdwalk’ of Taliesin is a supported ramp, jutting into the atmosphere, underpinned by two giant steel girders taken from a large battle cruiser. It is practical evidence that Wright was a man not to be deterred by what others thought to be impossible.
The walking tour passes below and to the west of Taliesin homestead itself before diverting towards the distinctive Cheyenne-red (Wright’s favourite colour) barn structure called “Midway,” with its distinctive low profile and Pagoda-style minaret on the west end. Then one saunters between cornfields and pastures up to “Hillside,” the site of Wright’s first commissioned building, a school built for his aunts. Hillside is now a complex, housing the drafting and design facilities and theatre of the creative community of the Taliesin Foundation.
The whimsy of Wright can be seen in the manner in which he re-designed the roofline of the theatre to butt firmly into a large oak tree in the courtyard, after the original complex was partially burnt down in 1925. Then the eye catches another structure; ‘Romeo and Juliet’, a most delightful, wooden windmill tower, which stands like a romantic sentinel against the wild Wisconsin winter winds, looking for all the world like a giant child’s plaything, as no doubt Wright intended.
The Taliesin estate can enchant one on a summer’s day with its calm deep lakes, soft undulating oak-wooded hills and green pastures, being tended by nothing more dangerous than butterflies and swallows. From this dream-like counterpane came to me memories of another time when tragedy struck Taliesin (something the walking tour guide never revealed!). It was on a similar summer’s day, August 15, 1914, that seven people, including Wright’s mistress and her two children, were murdered at the Taleisin estate.
The murderer was Julian Carleton, a Barbados-born manservant who went berserk without apparent reason. He set fire to a staff dining room attached to Taliesin, occupied by five men and a 13-year-old boy. Only two survived either the flames or the blade of the shingling hatchet used by Carleton on those who tried to escape.
Upstairs, on the landing off the main lounge-room, Wright’s mistress Mamah Borthwick, her son (12 years) and daughter (9) were struck by Carleton with the shingling hatchet, then doused with petrol and set alight. Carleton later drank acid and was found half-dead in the basement of Taliesin. He barely escaped a lynching on the spot, but died in gaol seven weeks later, refusing to eat.
Wright was in Chicago and avoided the massacre. The body of Wright’s mistress was taken by horse-drawn wagon to the Unity Chapel for burial, a mile from Taliesin. When Wright died in 1957, aged 90 years, his body was also transported in the same manner to this very site.
Rather than abandon Taliesin(‘Shining Brow’) after the tragedy, Wright re-built it and expanded the estate around it. In so doing Taliesin became a powerful talisman for Wright, a retreat from which to reflect and then sally forth, to shine himself, through amazing architectural creations which spread across the American nation and beyond for another half century.
I had been to somewhere special, a place with a powerful spirit: Taliesin.
Taliesin is located just south of the township of Spring Green, 3.5 hours NW from Chicago, Illinios on Highway 90 interstate. It is 45 minutes west of Madison Wisconsin.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Centre is located on the Wisconsin River at the intersection of Highway 23 and county C.
Six different tours leave from the Visitors Centre. The two hours walking tour is $US14 ($A24) and tickets are sold on the day of tour. The Taliesin house tour is $US35 and must be reserved. FLWright enthusiasts can take the Wisconsin Heritage Tour of nine of his buildings, driving from one site to another.
For further information on tours, opening hours, etc.: www.TaliesinPreservation.org.