About a Wall at Taliesin That No Longer Exists

Chicago History Museum, ICHi-89163, Raymond W. Trowbridge, photographer

I wrote this to myself over a decade ago when I was asking questions about the history of Taliesin (as I often do).

I’ve been trying to figure out the history of a wall between two rooms in Wright’s living quarters at Taliesin. These rooms, known as the Loggia and the Loggia fireplace, were, in 1911, a guest bedroom and a sitting room (which had a fireplace then, too). Taliesin’s living quarters were destroyed by fire down to the foundations and chimneys in 1914.

Wright rebuilt the living quarters in 1914-15 and renamed them Taliesin II. In the rebuilding, he took the guest bedroom and redesigned it into a room he called the Loggia (then added a guest bedroom to the south of the sitting room). He picked “Loggia” as the name for the room because there were stone piers on one side of the room (and it had a stone floor).

What is a “Loggia”?

Wikipedia has a nice definition of loggia.

Wright noted that the Loggia “looked up the Valley to the Lloyd-Jones Chapel.” [this quote is in his autobiography, published in Frank Lloyd Wright: Collected Writings, v. 2, 241.] The ‘Valley’ is the Wisconsin valley settled by his Lloyd Jones family.

The east side of the Loggia looked toward the family Valley; its west side opened to the Loggia fireplace, and you can see it in a Taliesin II floor plan that’s online here. The room is labelled “sitting room” because it worked with the bedroom to its right.

The living quarters were again consumed by fire in 1925. Reconstruction occurred on the building throughout that year, giving us (as he later named it) Taliesin III. This version of the living quarters is what still exists. Although as I’ve noted to people, it would look a lot different when he died in 1959 than when he rebuilt in 1925. It’s still rectangular and constructed of stone, plaster and wood, with cedar shingles on the roof and plate glass in the windows, but he made changes in almost every part of the building so understanding old photographs takes a little bit of reconfiguring in your brain.

There aren’t many photos for either of these spaces (today’s Loggia and loggia fireplace) before 1950. That’s why I really didn’t know what the heck I was looking at when I came across the photo that you see at the top of this page (it’s in the public domain, which is why I feel fine showing it). This photo is the interior of Taliesin, and is looking northeast from the Loggia fireplace area (the fireplace is behind the photographer). The stone wall you see on the right stood between the Loggia fireplace and the Loggia. It was probably a foot wide, close to 5 feet tall, and about 10 feet long. No other photograph shows it and it was removed at some point in the 1930s.

When was the photo taken? I think it was taken in the summer of 1930. I’ll explain how I know that in the next blog post.

What are you seeing in this photograph?

The photo is cool if you don’t know Taliesin, but it’s probably pretty confusing if you do. That’s because if you stood at this same spot at Taliesin today, there are only two things that are the same: looking at the chair on the left, the radiator cover to its left is the same (the radiator cover is what looks like a wooden table with spindles), and the there’s still a stone pier like what you see behind the chair to its right.

The passageway behind the chair, through the wooden door, is still there, but the door’s not, because it’s longer needed. That’s because when this photo was taken, you would have gone through that wooden door, then take a left to another door, and then you would be outside. In the 1940s, the changed that entryway, no longer needed the wooden door, so it was removed.

What the photograph shows that is now different:

Now that I’ve covered what’s the same, there’s what’s different. Or some of it, anyway.

What’s most noticeably different to anyone at Taliesin today is the stone wall (with wood above it) that you see in the photograph on the right, the glass door framed in wood, and is parapet (the stucco wall) with vertical wooden piers on the photograph’s right, and top.

What you would see today:

If you were at Taliesin today you would not see the wall or the parapet (and of course there’s no glass door framed in wood). That’s different because of the other major change: the ceiling is much lower. In 1933-34 he lowered ceiling to build rooms above for his daughter, Iovanna (1925-2015).

And of course when I write that Wright “built” anything, it was actually workers who went out and did the physical labor. After 1932 most of that physical labor was done by his architectural apprentices in the Taliesin Fellowship. One of them, Abe Dombar, wrote about this work in an “At Taliesin” newspaper article published February 9, 1934:

          Two new rooms added to the pageant of Taliesin’s 40 rooms merely by lowering the ceiling of the loggia and raising the roof above it to get the most playful room in the house.  The boys call it a “scherzo.”  This is little eight year old Iovanna’s room.  Until now she was the only apprentice who didn’t have his or her own room.”

Randolph C. Henning, ed. and with commentary. At Taliesin: Newspaper Columns by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship, 1934-1937  (Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Illinois, 1991), 20-21.

That change made everything you see in the upper half of the photograph different. And everything you see in the lower part of the photo is different because he removed the wall and the door.

The stone wall that no longer exists:

That wall, though. I’ve spent a lot of energy on trying to figure out when, exactly, he had it removed. And I’ve tried to figure out what was going on underneath it, allowing it to stand without damaging the floor. Because looking at its possible dimensions (I think it was about 1’x5’x10’—30cm x 1.5m x 3m, or so), the wall (built in limestone) probably weighed around a ton (just over 900 kg).  

But I’ve checked and there’s nothing that looks beefed up in the floor below, and there’s no wall below taking the weight. You’d think that he would have done something to the floor below to hold something that heavy, but no.  

And, while I often say that “Taliesin keeps its history within its walls”, in this case you don’t see anything that tells you a wall was there. I’ve walked along the floor (probably even gotten on my hands and knees and crawled along it). There’s nothing there that lets you a substantial wall, about a foot wide, once stood on it. While normally at Taliesin, you can’t just hack a stone wall down and not leave a footprint, that’s not what’s going on here.

I think what might have happened is that Wright rebuilt the living quarters in 1925, and after it was done, decided to add the stone wall on top of the preexisting stone floor. Then he later decided to get rid of it.

But there’s no record of anyone taking it down. His apprentices in the Taliesin Fellowship were doing so much that they didn’t have time to note things or take photos of their work.

And studying the building usually doesn’t result in tracking down every change (even if you knew it happened). Or, frequently, figure out how to ask who did what/where/when.

I think the Administrator of Historic Studies at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Indira Berndtson, has done the best job tracking things down in part because she has lived at Taliesin (and Taliesin West), and has known people in Wright’s life so well. Starting in the mid-late 1980s, she began doing interviews with former apprentices, clients, and friends of Wright’s. It was great that she knew so many of these people because she would speaking to them and be reminded of something someone else said. “So-and-so said they remembered you all doing this,” and that would push someone’s memory so they’ll come out with things.

Information at changes to Taliesin:

The only time you get actual, on-the-spot information is when Taliesin Fellowship apprentices wrote letters to family, wrote the weekly “At Taliesin” newspaper articles (1934-37) or, in the case of one, kept a daily diary (this was Priscilla Henken who was in the Taliesin Fellowship with her husband in 1942-43). There are books and articles that people wrote about their time in the Fellowship, but other than those things, there’s no consistent way of getting information on changes at Taliesin as they were happening.

Sketches of the wall exist, but nothing definitive. There’s one drawing which has been shown to match reality, but it doesn’t show the wall. I’ve dated it 1936-37 based on architectural details. That’s through this link.

If you look at the drawing, the Loggia fireplace is the fireplace that’s at the lower right, backed up against a rectangular roof.

We come back to the wonderful photograph at the top of this page.

The next, dated, photograph was taken in 1937, and that doesn’t show the wall. This later photograph (linked through here) was taken for the January 1938 issue of Architectural Forum magazine, which focused on Wright.

In the end, at this moment,1 I have the curiosity that there was a wall at Taliesin that was later removed, for which there really isn’t any evidence and I can’t quite figure out why the wall didn’t mess up the floor (making the stone floor, or the ceiling below, crack with the weight). Although I always hope that I’ll come across a diary entry where someone wrote, “we were asked to take down a stone wall. I had stone grit in my food for 3 days afterwards.”

First published 1/21/2021

The photograph at the top of this post was by Raymond Trowbridge and is at the Chicago History Museum, ICHi-89166. It is in the public domain.

1 Although I wrote this originally over a decade ago, I still don’t know how the wall was standing without causing an effect on the floor, I still haven’t come across many photographs of it, and I haven’t come across anyone writing about taking it down.