Maple pie was yet to come, but the real sweet finale was already being served.
Beyond a series of long white tables, the sun was making its grand exit. Soft caramel light blanketed the rolling hills of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, the landscape that moved famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright to build Taliesin, his residence and studio, here.
I gazed out over the expanse, soaking it up. Along with a few dozen other lucky diners, I was nearing the culmination of an event that had inspired me to trek from Minneapolis to tiny Spring Green, Wis.: dinner in a field outside the home and studio of Wright. This was one of a series of farm dinners put on by Taliesin Preservation — a nonprofit organization that supports Taliesin and promotes Wright’s architectural legacy and holds many artistic, musical and culinary events each season at Taliesin Estate. The evening could only be lovelier, I thought, had Mr. Wright designed it himself.
As I learned during the two-day trip, Wright — vain though he was — might have believed that even he couldn’t improve the scene. To the pioneer of the Prairie School, a brand of architecture that is synonymous with the Midwest, nothing was lovelier than the world around him. For him, success in design meant reaching as close to the outdoors as possible and inviting the real architect — nature — into the home.
How fitting, then, that the dinner celebrating his life’s work was set not in one of his remarkable buildings but amid the inspiration itself.
Wright developed a reputation as an unorthodox but masterful architect over an impressive seven decades. His works — featuring long, low, open floor plans, a multitude of windows and stark connections to the environment — remains among the most influential of all American architecture.
Even now Wright’s handicraft feels anything but dated; the buildings housed in Taliesin, I’d soon discover, are remarkable in their ability to blur the lines between what’s inside and what’s outside.
It was a theme that would be steadily reinforced throughout an October evening that was magical from the start, with the typical autumn chill replaced by 70-degree warmth and sunny skies.
Drinks under fruit trees
The night began at the FLW visitor center, where a shuttle picked up diners and transported us to the cocktail hour locale: a small orchard grove, peppered with apple trees that Wright planted. On the drive, we wove through lush, green hillsides on a road carved out in meandering loops, by Wright, to mimic its surroundings. Just before the grand house appeared on the undulating horizon, we pulled up to a babbling stone waterfall that Wright built within ear’s reach of the several balconies in his estate.
“Wright loved the sound of falling water,” our shuttle guide told us, hinting at one of his most famous house designs, the Pennsylvania masterpiece called Fallingwater. “So this probably means you’re in for a good evening.”
Her prediction proved true minutes later when we arrived at the grove, where antique-style chairs, cocktail tables and wine barrels sat in clusters under the fruit trees’ rustling branches. There, we sipped whiskey and apple cider cocktails, munched on grilled corn flatbread hors d’oeuvres, and marveled at our dining hall.
On one side of the modest hill, the browning stalks of a harvested cornfield rippled with each passing breeze. The other showed off the landscape’s depth and texture, the hills painted in shades of green, amber and rust.
We walked slowly from the grove to the hill where Wright’s home sat. Long tables, bedecked with crisp tablecloths and flickering candles, awaited us.
“I’m fascinated by his architecture,” said a woman from Chicago. “But I always wanted to see the landscape that inspired his work — to understand that connection and to see it.”
A locavore menu
Accordingly, the food was also inspired by the land. Crusty baguettes and bowls of grilled bacon salad with greens, roasted pumpkin and candied pepitas were passed around the table, family-style. For the main course, we ate braised beef daube with root vegetables and curried lentils with sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts.
Most of the produce highlighted by the featured chef — on this night, Kelly McNabb of Colorado — was grown in the nearby fields.
We leisurely enjoyed both the land and its bounty as the sun dipped behind the rows of grapevines and field grasses and fell out of view, sending streaks of pink through the sky.
It proved an idyllic introduction, perhaps one that Wright would choose, to his estate — starting on the outside and moving in.
The following day, I took the “highlights tour” through his house and the Hillside architecture school. The beauty Wright saw in the world around him was evident in everything from the stonework he created — irregular, like it would occur in nature — to the placement of the home itself, built on the brow of the hill, not the crest, “so that the home became part of the hill and the hill became part of the home,” our tour guide told us.
Inside the school’s drafting studio, the rafters cross over paned windows and send sunlight down in rays, giving the impression of sitting under a tree’s canopy. In one of the living areas in his house, Wright built a bird walk, extending out like a partial bridge to the treetops so his wife could “walk among the birds.”
Appropriately, nothing was roped off — due in part to the fact that the school is still lived in by students and professors. Visitors could touch the walls and sit on the benches.
“So you can connect with the space,” our guide said, “just as he would have wanted it.”
It was a relic of a unique kind — a living, breathing museum.
The night before, though, I was still enjoying the original treasury of artifacts surrounding Wright’s works.
After savoring maple pie, complete with nutmeg, cream and syrup, we sauntered to the courtyard abutting Wright’s house. There, hot coffee and artisanal truffles were served among the season’s last shock of bright orange zinnias.
The sky was growing dark, and the hills and the sky were fading to gray. But just beyond the courtyard, on a rock overhang where one of the balconies jutted out, I could make out a glimmering lake in the near distance. And listening closely, I heard the babble and the rush of the waterfall.
A good evening, indeed, I thought. A good evening, indeed.