Frank Lloyd Wright was extremely particular about even the furnishings for Taliesin, but could never design a comfortable chair.
, Star Tribune file
TOURS THROUGH OCTOBER
Tours of Taliesin run daily from April 28 to Oct. 31. Final 100th anniversary events include the Centennial Exhibit (rare photos, videos and more; available daily); the Rhapsodie String Quartet Matinee ( Oct. 8); and a Centennial Closing Gala (Oct. 15) (1-877-588-7900; www.taliesinpreservation.org).
Wright's Taliesin celebrates 100th
- Article by: MELANIE RADZICKI MCMANUS
- Special to the Star Tribune
- October 1, 2011 - 11:17 AM
His early building contracts were lengthy, our tour guide said. And, frankly, crazy.
In addition to specifying typical things such as the materials to be used and their prices, they included a clause stipulating the architect would not only design the home, but all of its furnishings, accessories, carpets, draperies and even the exterior landscaping. The home's new owners were to toss all of their belongings before moving in, bringing with them just a toothbrush. And once they moved in, they weren't allowed to change a thing without the architect's express permission. In fact, the contract went on to state, owners had to agree to future surprise inspections by the architect to ensure they were following the rules.
"He sounds like a bit of a control freak," whispered a fellow tourist at Taliesin, the estate of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. The estate is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
Wright was certainly controlling, and much more. The colorful star, who died at age 91 in 1959, has garnered an enormous following over the years for his innovative organic architecture philosophy, which focuses on creating structures that appear to be part of their surroundings, frame landscapes and/or are crafted from materials native to the site, among other criteria. Two of his most notable projects are the Guggenheim Museum in New York and Fallingwater, a Pennsylvania home built over a waterfall.
But he also has his detractors, including locals who remember him as a curmudgeon who often neglected to pay his taxes. Admire him or raise an eyebrow, you have to admit pretty much everything about Wright's life was extraordinary.
Residence, studio and school
Wright was born in 1867 in Richland Center, Wis., a hilly, bucolic pocket of land in southwestern Wisconsin. He moved to Chicago as a young man, became an architect, married three times and had eight children. In 1911, while married to his first wife, he ran off with Mamah Borthwick Cheney and her two children to Spring Green, Wis., a stone's throw from his hometown.
It was for Cheney thatWright built Taliesin, a picturesque, 600-acre estate composed primarily of a sprawling residence, studio and architectural school. Tragically, Cheney, her children and several employees were brutally hacked to death with an ax by a servant in 1914 while Wright was in Chicago. The servant also torched the place. But that's another story.
The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture that Wright established at Taliesin featured no courses, no exams, no teachers (and no accreditation). Students lived on-site and basically paid Wright for the privilege of working on his commissions, plus performing all of the estate's chores. Eventually Wright built a second estate, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Ariz.; he spent the rest of his life living with his students in these two communal settings along with Olgivanna, his third wife, and their two daughters.
Long list of quirks
Whether you're a Wright fan or not, a visit to Taliesin not only gives you an intriguing look at a colorful, controversial character, but offers a bit of American architectural history. You can select from several tour options, ranging from a one-hour tour of Wright's studio and theater ($16) to the four-hour tour of the entire estate ($80). Pricey, yes, but tour guides are well informed, and Wright is so quirky that even if you have no interest in architecture, you'll enjoy the tour.
Besides learning about his obnoxious early contracts, for example, you'll hear how he was obsessed with designing chairs to go with his homes, even though he conceded he couldn't figure out how to build a comfortable one. In fact, in a total betrayal of his beliefs, he ended up purchasing chairs for himself and Olgivanna from Marshall Field's.
"That's the deep, dark secret of Taliesin," joked our guide. Or maybe it's Wright's obsession with Asia and Japan; Wright amassed an impressive collection of Asian and Japanese artifacts over his lifetime, which are sprinkled throughout the estate, seemingly out of place with his organic style.
Wright's architectural insights are also interesting to hear. Wright structures often have low-ceilinged entrances that open onto spacious rooms with cathedral ceilings. This is partially for effect; when you're in a more enclosed space and walk into a more spacious one, you feel a rush of grandeur. But it was also Wright's way of forcing people -- who typically feel claustrophobic in low-ceiling areas -- to quickly move into or out of a home.
Genius. Antagonist. Control freak. People-herder. No matter what your opinion of Wright, a visit to Taliesin is guaranteed to be entertaining.
Melanie Radzicki McManus writes about travel and fitness for a variety of publications. She lives in Sun Prairie, Wis.
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