When the electric sunset broke through the high wraparound windows and surrounding tree canopy, it looked as if pink, orange and green stained-glass panels had suddenly been installed inside the Seth Peterson Cottage. One more reason the place felt more like a cathedral than a small stone cabin in the woods.
Throughout our two-night stay at one of the Upper Midwest’s most unique and historic cabin rentals, I kept thinking of the cottage as a shrine to the two very different men who were behind such a special hideaway — neither of whom lived to see its completion.
One was among America’s most influential architects and Wisconsin’s most famous sons. The other was a modest state government employee who took his own life at 24.
Tucked away into a thickly forested corner of Mirror Lake State Park near Wisconsin Dells in south central Wisconsin, the Peterson Cottage is Frank Lloyd Wright’s last commissioned work in the state he called home. Work began in 1958. It’s also one of the craftsman’s smallest structures anywhere, with only one bedroom and 880 total square feet.
My wife and I rented the cottage this past summer, but we actually made our reservation in October 2013. That’s how far ahead you have to plan if you want to stay there in the warmer months.
We picked up the keys to the cottage in the town of Lake Delton, from Sand County Service Co., a vacation rental company whose offices are lined with pamphlets for all the Dells area’s water, duck and pony shows. That hubbub felt worlds away from where we were headed.
Set only a few hundred yards off a main park road down a gravel driveway, the cabin delivers on seclusion. A sign at the driveway gate warns that the place is off-limits to non-renters except for the second Sunday of each month, when the Seth Peterson Cottage Conservatory hosts tours.
In part because of its modest size, the cottage stands as a major example of how well Wright married his structures to their natural surroundings. And the surroundings in this case are themselves quite spectacular.
Perched atop a hill overlooking the rambling Mirror Lake, the cottage has a sharply angled flying roof and stone walls that make it look like one of the nearby stone bluffs jutting through the treetops. The walls and floor of the cabin are made of Wisconsin sandstone; the wood of the ceilings and sleek detailing also came from the area.
A cooler dilemma
The large windows tie the cottage to the landscape from the inside. I seriously felt more in tune with nature staying in this architectural landmark than I usually do sleeping in a tent in a crowded state park.
On the other hand, there was a certain unnatural quirkiness to spending a few nights in a cabin that has been written about in Architectural Digest.
After we unloaded the car, for instance, I did what every blue-blooded Midwesterner does upon arriving at a cabin: propped the beer cooler upside down outside the front door to let it dry out. Soon, though, I was struck by visions of some uptight architectural society rep showing up and chastising me for ruining the cabin’s visual grace with my ugly blue plastic Igloo.
The cooler got stashed in the car.
In the end, though, our only visitors were the local pack of raccoons, one of whom climbed right up on the stone ledge outside the windows by the dining room as if he wanted to join our Yahtzee game. My daughters, ages 4 and 7, similarly liked scrambling up the sloped stone exterior walls — another reason I was glad no preservationist snobs ever showed up.
Board games, dinner and conversation felt extra special inside the cottage on the angular, Wright-designed furniture, but the most uncommon ordinary experience was sitting around the fireplace. The literal and figurative centerpiece to the cottage lights up the walls and woodwork in magical ways. It works pretty well for s’mores, too.
Dream turned nightmare
Come bedtime for the girls, I pulled out the coffee-table booklets by the fire’s glow and read in depth about the cottage’s tragic history.
Thanks to passion, persistence and the fact that even the master architect had a cash-flow problem, Peterson was able to persuade Wright to build the small cottage. The younger Wisconsinite was little more than an architectural fanboy who worked as one of the state’s first computer operators. He planned the cottage as a hideaway for him and his intended bride.
Whatever the early computer job paid, though, it wasn’t enough to cover the construction once it began in 1958. Peterson soon went into debt. His bride-to-be left him. The young idealist killed himself before seeing his dream finished. Wright died shortly after Peterson, in April 1959.
The cottage was completed but somehow never found a rightful owner. In 1966, when Mirror Lake State Park was designated, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources took it over and proceeded to board up the place. That was its sorry fate for decades, until 1989, when — after falling into dire disrepair — the incomparable cabin was saved by Wright enthusiasts. Renovations took three years.
Peterson was on my mind the rest of our stay. Marveling over his dream pad never got old, but we also found plenty else to do in the surrounding area.
We walked the wooded paths around the cottage several times, even in rain (especially in rain!). We paddled the cabin’s canoe through the narrow channel it sits on to the main hub of the lake and state park, which boasts a nice swimming beach and playground. I also biked the park’s trails, where prairie terrain gives way to thick woods and swampy marsh all in just a few miles.
For dinner one of the nights, we drove to the other side of the lake to dine at another relic of a place, Ishnala Supper Club.
The 1909-designed log-cabin restaurant probably never made it into Architectural Digest, but it does grace the cover of the “Wisconsin Supper Clubs” coffee-table book and charmed everyone in my family. It’s more of a ’50s flashback inside, with sleek vinyl chairs and a giant wraparound, arrowhead-shaped bar. The prime rib is primo, too.
I don’t know if Ishnala would have been Frank Lloyd Wright’s kind of place, but I’m pretty sure Seth Peterson would have dug it. So I lifted a pint of Spotted Cow in his honor for inspiring one of my family’s most enjoyable Midwest getaways yet.