Wisconsin: Taliesin Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A National Historic Landmark, this is the home and studio of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, designed by the architect himself. The six hundred-acre estate also includes the Hillside Home School, built in 1902 and now home of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, founded as the Taliesin Fellowship by Wright and his wife Olgivanna in 1932. The site also features Midway Farm, built in 1938; the Romeo and Juliet Windmill, built in 1897; and Tan-y-deri, the home that Wright designed in 1907 for his sister, Jane Porter.

Site Office

Taliesin Preservation Commission

Spring Green, WI 53588-0397

ph.: (608) 588-7900

Web site: www.talisenpreservation.org

e-mail: visitctr@mhtc.net

In 1911, American architect Frank Lloyd Wright built a home for himself in the Helena Valley of Wisconsin, where his Welsh ancestors had settled a century before. Since then, Taliesin has come to symbolize the genius as well as the eccentricity of one of America’s greatest architects. Known as much for his flamboyant lifestyle as for his revolutionary architectural designs, Wright fell in love with one of his clients. In fact, Mamah Borthwick Cheney and her husband, Edwin, were friends of the Wrights in Oak Park, Illinois. The liaison between Wright and Cheney scandalized the community, and when the two traveled to Europe together in 1909, the newspapers covered the tryst with delight.

When Wright returned to the home he shared with his wife, Catherine, and their six children, he found that his unorthodox behavior was costing him customers. Faced with debts incurred by his growing family and his extravagant spending habits, he decided to convert half of his Oak Park home and studio into rental property. He also persuaded his mother to sell her home in Oak Park and purchase property in Spring Green, Wisconsin, on which he planned build a home with the understanding that she could live there as well. Because Wright was also planning to divorce his wife and bring Mamah Cheney to Taliesin, he tried to keep the construction site a secret. The media fascination with his private life was too intense, however, and a Chicago newspaper exposed his plan in 1911. Although Catherine Wright refused to agree to a divorce, the architect moved into his new home with Cheney.

“Taliesin” in Welsh Mythology

Named for a poet-prophet in Welsh mythology, Taliesin means “shining brow” and was built into the side of a hill using limestone from a nearby quarry. In Taliesin Wright found the perfect palette on which to practice his theory of “organic architecture.” Overlooking the Wisconsin River and surrounded by garden walls, stone pavements, terraces and open porches, Taliesin was built, in Wright’s words, “the way nature builds.” It has been suggested that Wright was inspired by Villa Medici, a beautifully terraced home in the Tuscan countryside outside Florence, Italy. Built low to the ground in Wright’s trademark Prairie Style, the limestone and stucco structure is accentuated with dark cypress trim and hundreds of casement windows that flood the rooms with light. Inside, the combination of stone and wood dominates the fifty-one rooms. Many of the rooms were designed with secluded terraces and balconies so that their inhabitants could enjoy nature in private. Pools and fountains are fed from the stream below, and flower beds are in abundance.

Wright had spent his childhood in the valley outside Spring Green working on his uncles’ farms. There he acquired his love for nature and began to develop his idea that buildings should blend in with their surroundings. By the time he built Taliesin, he already had designed other structures in the valley, including the Romeo and Juliet Windmill and the Hillside Home School for his aunts, Jane and Nell Lloyd Jones. Built in 1902, Hillside Home School was one of the first coeducational boarding schools in the United States and was considered progressive for its time. The sixty-foot windmill was part of the school’s water system and used a diamond and octagon configuration, hence the name “Romeo and Juliet.” Wright described it this way: “Each is indispensable to the other…neither could stand without the other.” In 1907 he designed a house called Tan-y-deri (Welsh for “under the oaks”) for his sister Jane and her husband.

Murder, Fire, and Rebuilding

In the summer of 1914, Mamah Cheney, her two children, and five members of Taliesin’s building crew were murdered by the estate’s gardener, who then set the living quarters on fire. Wright was in Chicago supervising the construction of Midway Gardens, an elaborate European-style cafe and entertainment restaurant, and returned home to find his love and his dream destroyed. Only his studio and a small bedroom behind it survived. Cheney was buried in the Unity Chapel on the grounds of Taliesin. Wright overcame his grief by rebuilding immediately. Taliesin’s second phase included an enlarged studio, new living quarters for draftsmen, farm buildings, stables, guest quarters, servants’ quarters, and a new residence for Wright that boasted immense roofs and massive fireplaces.

The costs of building and rebuilding Taliesin as well as those of maintaining the residence in Oak Park for Catherine and the children were mounting rapidly. Wright’s refusal to check his reckless spending habits exacerbated the problem. The buildings at Taliesin contained his extensive collection of furniture, expensive carpets, and artifacts. The estate was a showcase of Japanese screens, sculptures, and prints, and the rooms were kept filled with fresh flowers.

Wright’s Marital Problems

A year after Cheney’s death, Wright began a stormy romance with Miriam Noel. Over the next nine years, the relationship was marked by explosive fights and tearful reunions. Wright’s mother, Anna, did not like Noel and would not stay at Taliesin when Noel was there. Wright’s housekeeper at the time, Nellie Breen, also disapproved of Noel’s presence at the house and charged him with violating the Mann Act, which prohibited transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. Wright hired Clarence Darrow to act on his behalf, and the charges were ultimately dropped. The gossip, however, continued. Noel, for her part, did not like the plainness of Taliesin’s furnishings and insisted on adding embellishments of her own. In spite of it all, the relationship continued and Noel accompanied Wright to Japan to assist him in the supervision of the Imperial Hotel construction from 1919 to 1922.

In 1923 Catherine Wright finally agreed to a divorce, and Frank Lloyd Wright married Miriam Noel in November of that year. The marriage was short-lived: The Wrights were separated six months later. In the meantime, Wright met Olgivanna Lazovich Hinzenberg, the daughter of the chief justice of Montenegro, part of what is now Bosnia-Hercegovina. Once again, Wright brought his lover to Taliesin and more scandal into his life. During this time, in 1925, parts of Taliesin were again destroyed by fire. This one was blamed on faulty electrical wiring. Wright rebuilt, incorporating elements of the previous construction.

By mid-1925, Olgivanna was pregnant and Miriam Noel was contesting the divorce. Miriam held press conferences, hired private detectives, and appeared at Taliesin demanding admittance. The publicity did not help Wright’s image or income, and he feared that Olgivanna could be deported.

In August, 1926, Wright and Olgivanna, their baby daughter Iovanna, and Olgivanna’s daughter Svetlana retreated to Minnesota, where Wright began to work on his autobiography. By October, Miriam had tracked them down and they were arrested. Ironically, Miriam charged Wright with violating the Mann Act and demanded that Olgivanna and Svetlana be deported. Wright and Olgivanna were released from jail as the investigations continued. At the same time, the Bank of Wisconsin was threatening foreclosure on Taliesin. Wright arranged for many of his valuable prints to be sold, but the profits were disappointing. He then devised a plan to sell shares in his own future and set about to find ten investors with $7,500 each. With these investors, the Frank Lloyd Wright Corporation was created. Taliesin suffered still another fire, albeit a minor one, in the midst of the chaos.

Wright hired another well-known attorney, Philip F. La Follette, to defend him against the legal charges and to help him save Taliesin. La Follette was a member of a prominent Wisconsin family and later served two terms as governor of the state. He negotiated an agreement with the bank that allowed Wright to work in his studio so that he could meet his financial obligations and provided him with a year’s grace on the loan. La Follette also negotiated a divorce settlement with Miriam and worked to get the deportation investigation halted. The ownership of Taliesin was divided between Wright’s major benefactor, Darwin Martin, and Chicago businessman Benjamin Aldridge Page. Martin and Page also agreed to meet the cash payment requirement of fifteen thousand dollars. As co-owners, they were responsible for the mortgage payments, taxes, and interest on the property.

Wright and Olgivanna spent the next year in Arizona while he was working on the construction of a hotel, and they were married in La Jolla, California, in August, 1928. Upon returning home to Taliesin, the Wrights found the home in disarray and damaged by water. Wright himself accused the Bank of Wisconsin of holding parties at Taliesin and causing extensive damage.

The Depression Years

The 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression resulted in a dearth of architectural work. Wright sought to make a living by writing and lecturing. Hillside Home School had fallen into disrepair after Wright’s aunts died, and Olgivanna seized on the idea to create the Taliesin Fellowship, a school for aspiring architects. The first class of students was put to work rebuilding the Hillside Home School. The drafting studio was designed with the stone fireplaces and oak trusses that are characteristic of Wright’s architecture. Wright said he wanted the studio to be “an abstract forest with light pouring from the ceiling.” The leaded glass windows that had been part of the original structure were replaced with plate glass donated by the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. New roofing tiles were also laid. The gymnasium was converted to a theater. After a fire in the late 1940’s, Wright rebuilt the theater and lowered the stage.

Wright’s fervent need to create and revise meant that Taliesin was constantly in a stage of reconstruction. The architectural apprentices who came to study with Frank Lloyd Wright found that they were expected to learn by doing. In his book Apprentice to Genius, Edgar Tafel, who spent ten years at Taliesin, recalled the building of the drafting studio:

We apprentices furnished much of the labor. We dug foundations, brought sand from the river bottom, felled trees and cut them into lumber, burned the lime and mixed plaster, laid the roof, did all the millwork, built the furniture, laid the floors, stained the trusses, did finished grading and cleaned away the debris.

In addition to Tafel, early Fellowship students included Herbert Fritz, the son of one of the survivors of the 1914 massacre; Karl Jensen; Henry Klumb, who designed the University of Puerto Rico; and William Wesley Peters, who later married Olgivanna’s daughter Svetlana.

Fellowship members also were expected to help with the day-to-day running of Taliesin. During the years of the Great Depression, Taliesin was virtually self-sustaining. The grounds included Midway Farm, where food was grown organically; a facility to generate electricity; a fuel yard; and a water works.

Fallingwater

While cash flow continued to be a problem, Wright’s success with the Imperial Hotel in Japan brought much-needed commissions. In 1935 Wright designed Fallingwater, a weekend home cantilevered over a waterfall, for Mr. and Mrs. Edgar J. Kaufmann in Bear Run, Pennsylvania. Edgar Kaufmann had made a fortune in department stores and soon became Wright’s primary benefactor. This development was providential because Darwin Martin died later that same year. Wright then convinced Benjamin Page to sell his interest in Taliesin for one dollar; however, Martin’s family refused to surrender their share. Once again, fate stepped in. Wes Peters was by this time married to Svetlana and had recently come into a substantial inheritance from his father. Some of the money was used to buy out Martin’s share, and the mortgage was put in Peters’s name. After another threat of foreclosure in 1939, the mortgage and all of Wright’s possessions were transferred to The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, a nonprofit educational corporation. Martin’s family continued to seek compensation for another decade but ultimately admitted defeat in 1949. Once the financial arrangements were settled, Wright and Peters began to purchase much of the original Lloyd family holdings in the valley. They managed to acquire three thousand acres, including three miles of waterfront property.

Wright’s Interest in Communal Living

Throughout his life, Wright believed in a communal way of living. In fact, the community at Taliesin was very close to the socialistic ideal that was espoused by many intellectuals of the time. Wright’s pacifism had never been a secret either, and in the 1930’s his opposition to the growing war in Europe was evident in his public appearances. This opposition was shared by the Fellowship apprentices who consequently applied for draft exemption when the United States entered World War II in 1941. The applications were denied; three apprentices served prison terms for refusing to report for active duty, and two others spent time in camps for conscientious objectors. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) initiated an investigation into Wright and the Fellowship in an attempt to prove that hehad exerted undue influence on his young students and that he was guilty of sedition. The federal government, however, refused to prosecute.

During the war years, the market for architectural commissions came to a grinding halt. Most of the other apprentices were serving in the armed forces. Wright spent his time revising his autobiography and working on a winter home for the Fellowship, Taliesin West, near Scottsdale, Arizona. Work on Taliesin West had begun in 1937 and the first phase was finished by 1940, but Wright continued to expand and modify his western site until his death in 1959. The Fellowship divided its time between the two locations; a small group of apprentices stayed in Wisconsin during the winter months to tend farm animals. Olgivanna’s aunt and uncle, Vlado and Sophie Lazovich, stayed at Taliesin West in the summer to supervise the maintenance and care of the buildings. When the war ended, aspiring architects flocked to Taliesin for the chance to study with Wright.

Wright’s Problems with the FBI

The FBI continued its probe into the Fellowship, and in 1951 Wright’s name was placed on the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ blacklist. This time the target was the school itself. Taliesin had been awarded G.I. Bill accreditation, and the FBI investigated reports that the school was more a religious cult that a genuine school. Once again, however, the federal government declined to take legal action. At the same time, Wright was embroiled in a fight with the city of Spring Green over the issue of tax-exempt status for Taliesin. He lost the case and was ordered to pay more than eighteen thousand dollars in back taxes. Infuriated, Wright threatened to burn Taliesin to the ground, a thought that horrified his friends and supporters to the extent that they raised the money to pay the outstanding tax bill.

When Wright died in 1959 in Arizona, he was working on plans to build Unity Temple at Taliesin as the site of his final resting place. His body was brought back to Spring Green, and he was buried temporarily in the Unity Chapel. The apprentices vowed to complete the temple, but it never came to fruition. Just before Olgivanna died in 1985, she made known her desire that Wright’s body and hers be cremated and the ashes kept in Arizona. Iovanna signed the necessary papers, and Wright’s body was quickly exhumed and cremated. The cremation caused an uproar among some members of the family and the Fellowship who believed that Wright’s remains belonged in Wisconsin. Others observed that after Svetlana’s death, Oglivanna spent less and less time at Taliesin and seemed to feel more at ease in the home in Arizona that she and Wright had built together. Svetlana had been killed in a traffic accident in 1946.

After Wright’s death, Taliesin Associated Architects was formed to carry on the work already under way. The Fellowship became the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, which continues to use both Taliesin and Taliesin West as campuses.

Modern Preservation Efforts

The entire Taliesin estate was given National Historic Landmark status in 1976. A commission created by Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson in 1989 rebuilt the Romeo and Juliet Windmill. The Hillside drafting studio is currently used by the Taliesin Associated Architects and the students of The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. Hillside also houses an extensive collection of photographs and models, including a twelve-foot-square model of Broadacre City, Wright’s idea of a utopian community. Wright’s Wisconsin residence is now home to the students and architects of Taliesin who still gather in the 28-by-32-foot living room for evening concerts. Taliesin West, also a national historic landmark, houses The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and The Frank Lloyd Wright Archives.

For Further Information
  • Kruger, Marilyn. “Taliesin.” Gourmet, February, 1991. A beautifully written piece that traces Wright’s professional and personal life while evoking clear images of the Wisconsin estate.
  • Secrest, Meryle. Frank Lloyd Wright. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. A comprehensive examination of the architect that balances his genius with his idiosyncracies. The book covers his ancestry and his childhood years as well as the more than seventy years of his architectural career.
  • Tafel, Edgar. Apprentice to Genius. Reprint. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. An account of the author’s years as an apprentice in the Taliesin Fellowship. Although Tafel is clearly a ardent supporter of Wright, the author does touch on some of the more controversial aspects of his time at Taliesin, including his decision to leave to start his own practice. Also noteworthy for its abundance of photographs.
  • Wright, Frank Lloyd. An Autobiography. Reprint. New York: Horizon Press, 1977. Written in 1932 and revised in the 1940’s.
  • _______. Letters to Apprentices. Fresno: Press at California State University, Fresno, 1982. Also recommended.
  • Wright, Olgivanna Lloyd. Our House. New York: Horizon Press, 1959. Written by Wright’s third and last wife. While obviously a loving tribute to her husband, it presents an insider’s perspective on life at Taliesin. It is written in an easy-to-read story form and contains many anecdotes.
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