A photograph looking northeast at Hillside. You can see the south wall of his theater with the glass, and a wooden structure over the back steps to the Hillside sound and projection booth, and the Hillside chimney with signs of fire on the chimney stack.
In my last post on November 3 I talked about fire remnants that people can see on tours of the Taliesin estate.
After that, researcher Greg Brewer1 reminded me that, D’UH, there’s a big reminder of Hillside’s 1952 fire that anyone can see if they take a tour.
btw: the “D’UH” didn’t come from him. It’s my own internal dialog. Most people who know me have probably heard “d’uh” come out of my mouth multiple times a day; it’s a reaction to the realization that whatever I had concluded was wrong and/or hilariously incomplete.
Why . . . ?
did I gravitate to the more difficult thing to see at Hillside in that post?
My mind goes for the stuff that’s unusual to me.
The Theater chimney is so average to me that it didn’t jump out in my memory.
See? I’m too smart for my own good sometimes.
So what I’ll write about this post is what Greg Brewer remind me of: what anyone can see outside of the Hillside Theater.
It’s a ghost left over from the 1952 fire, on the outside of the Hillside theater chimney.
When you click on the photo, the date from the library says “1903”, but that’s because they’re going on the date that Wright’s Hillside building was initially constructed. The photo was taken by former draftsmen for Wright (Marion Mahoney Griffen and Walter Burley Griffen) when they visited the U.S.
Then in 1940, Pedro Guerrero took a photo of that part of the building and you can again see the roof at the chimney before the fire of 1952:
I’m going to write today about two places on the Taliesin estate where you can see fire damage.
One place where fire happened, Taliesin, is well known. The other place is Hillside, which you can see in the photograph at the top of this page.
See, there are five buildings on the Taliesin estate. 1 You can see them listed on the aerial below:
This is a screenshot I from Google maps several years ago.
When you take a tour you can see fire damage in both Wright’s residence and in Hillside. You see Hillside and Taliesin on either the Highlights Tour (over 2 hours) or the Taliesin Estate Tour (4 hours). But since all of the tours take place on the Taliesin estate, sometimes people refer to either site as “Taliesin”.
With this paragraph they included a photo of “Frank Lloyd Wright’s home”.
I think the photo they used was by Wright’s photographer, Pedro Guerrero. It showed the building like the one below:
That’s not Frank Lloyd Wright’s home.
I think the Taliesin Preservation‘s media person contacted Time. I’m sure they ran a correction but I don’t remember seeing it.
So, what’s this all about again?
This post is about areas in both the Taliesin structure and Hillside where you can see evidence of fire. First I’ll talk about fire evidence at Taliesin, because it’s easier to see.
It spontaneously came on tour,
because things on tours organically cycle through the narrative. Usually stuff is picked by guides talking to each other.
For instance, at one time guides talked about Wright and Thomas Jefferson: both had Welsh ancestry; had homes they constantly modified; had similar religious beliefs; were farmers as well as architects; and both apparently died in debt.
The reason why Jefferson was brought up is because there’s a plaster maquette of Thomas Jefferson’s bust in Frank Lloyd Wright’s bedroom. It’s in this photo on Wikimedia Commons.
I even added the Thomas Jefferson maquette in my first Nanowrimo novel, “Death by Design“. it’s November 3, so remember that you still have time to write your novel this month.
But, right now
guides pay attention to charred beams at Taliesin.
You see them when you walk in the Breezeway between Taliesin’s studio and the Living Quarters. They are visible through the wooden grate you see in the ceiling below:
I took this photo during the Save America’s Treasures drainage project that took place at Taliesin in 2003-04, so that’s why you see the “Caution” tape. I wrote about some of that project here.
The guide often invites people to look up at the safety light in the ceiling. From there, they see charred beams, like in the photo below:
No one in the tour program deliberately brought the charred beams onto the tour.2 For years, lot of guides might not have known about them.
So: what changed?
I think people noticed after Taliesin got a donated sound system.
In 2005 Bill Costigan of Poindexter’s sound design donated great audio speakers to Taliesin. Bill and an employee set the system up at Taliesin that spring while we were preparing for the tour season.
long-story-short: he had previously seen an old boombox playing music in Taliesin’s Living Room balcony. That made him take pity on us.
At that time, interior tours closed down for 6 months of the year. In April staff cleaned and prepped for the season. Since Costigan and his assistant came in April, they could do everything without running into tours.
While setting up, they took an extra speaker and placed it into the Breezeway to broadcast music.3 The music made people look up, and notice the charred beams. Therefore, the guides brought info about the charred beams onto the tour.
someone read something that Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer wrote about Wright’s reactions to the Taliesin fires. Since Taliesin’s living quarters were destroyed twice but his studio wasn’t touched, Bruce relayed that in 1957,
“God may have judged my character, but never my work.“
Perhaps Wright was inspired by the recent Hillside fire
Hillside’s 1952 fire destroyed classrooms, the dining room, and the Playhouse theater, but didn’t touch the Hillside Drafting Studio.
The day after the fire, Wright gave the Weekly Home News a great quote about that fire. Wright told the Home News that:
“That smoke-tone is wonderful. I couldn’t have darkened it so evenly if I’d done it myself. Nature is God’s technician.“
The Weekly Home News, May 1, 1952, front page.
You can also see why the rest of the building wasn’t damaged in the photo Maynard Parker took in 1955:
There’s a bridge separating the older part from the Drafting Studio on the right. This provided at least a stopping place for flames if the wind had shifted that day.
Tour guides usually don’t have time to point out visible charred wood at Hillside. It’s a bracket under the ceiling.
Tours usually enter the room like Maynard Parker photographed in 1955:
To see the fire-damaged bracket, you’d have to walk into the center of the room and look back. Plus, most of the time tours enter the Assembly Hall, the tour commenced less than 20 minutes before. That’s too much info to give people that early.
I usually talked about the fire when we were looking down into the Hillside dining room. Because the Dining Room’s existence is due to the fire. The photo below is looking toward the dining room from the Assembly Hall. The dining room is under the gable. You can’t see the bracket from here:
If you wanted to point out the burned bracket, you’d have to direct people above what you can see in the balcony. And then telling people to look, “under the ceiling… to the right…. You see that black wood? No, not that one…” is counter-productive.
Although, evidence of the 1952 fire is in the floor boards. Sometimes I noted that if there was time. I put a photo below showing the floor at the edge of the Assembly Hall where you can see the change:
Ghosts of changes are always instructive in the buildings on the Taliesin estate.
First published November 3, 2023. The photo at the top of this post appeared in a newspaper story about the fire. The newspaper image was given to Taliesin Preservation, so I don’t know which one.
1. or seven. Due to the changes that Wright made to Hillside, some count it as three buildings. I learned Hillside as one building so… tomato tomahto?
2. Which is probably good because things coming through the viscous bureaucracy might have robbed it of its vitality.
The Fellowship was due to open on October 1, 1932.2 The month before that, Wright persuaded ladies from a local church to sew a curtain for his planned Hillside Theater. Spring Green’s newspaper, the Weekly Home News, wrote about this on September 22 of that year:
SEWING BEE AT Taliesin
Members of the Congregational Ladies’ Aid are taking an active part in the preparations for the opening of the Taliesin Fellowship.
The ladies assign themselves to groups of twelve and sew on the theatre curtain afternoons at Taliesin. The work consists of appliquéing material on the stage curtain according to an attractive design made by Frank Lloyd Wright….
Here’s the curtain they were working on:
The link goes to the black-and-white image on-line at ARTSTOR
Wright hoped for over 70 apprentices that first year. I hate to break it to you, but Wright was a little too optimistic.
So, yeah: no.
Although they did get 23 apprentices that first October.
I always remember that number. It’s because 23… 1932.
And the curtain done by the Congregational Ladies Aid didn’t get put to work a YEAR later. That’s because the theater (named the Playhouse) opened on November 1, 1933.
Getting a view of the curtain is tough, because most photos show the curtain open. It drives Frankophiles (including myself) crazy.
Or at least it used to.
Drive me crazy, I mean.
Then I started going to Wright’s archives. At that time, they were at his winter home, Taliesin West. Every time before I went, I wrote to the Assistant Director of the archives about which specific photo collections I wanted to see on my trip.
After the fire, he designed the curtain in the room now.
When we started tours, all of us had to learn the interpretation of the curtain.
Interpreting the curtain
I used to tell people:
as far as I know, it’s the only major design that Wright ever did that shows something that actually exists.
not counting presentation drawings.
In other words, it’s not something abstracted: it’s a picture. It’s Taliesin on the hill.
Come, follow me.
Here’s a shortcut of what the guides had to learn:
But here’s the thing
None of this works if you abstract the Wisconsin River, the hill, or Taliesin. All those things are there, but it doesn’t go left-to-right like that.
So I wondered about this for awhile. Then, one day decades ago while I was cleaning in Hillside [yes, I used to do that, too] I realized that
The curtain’s image works if you turn it backwards.
When I thought about this while at work, I remembered something I’d read years before in Art History classes… something about tapestries. This matches what I read on them. It’s from the Met Museum:
Making a Tapestry—How Did They Do That?
by Sarah Mallory
Historically, weavers worked while facing what would be the back of the tapestry. They copied with their colored weft threads the tapestry’s design. The design, referred to as the “cartoon,” took the form of a painting—made on cloth or paper, the same size as the planned tapestry. This cartoon was either temporarily attached to the loom, flush against the backs of the warp threads, and visible in the gaps between the warps; or it was hung on the wall behind the weavers, who followed it by looking at its reflection in a mirror behind the warps. Because weavers copied the cartoon facing on the back of the tapestry, when the piece was finished, removed from the loom, and turned around to reveal the front, the woven image on the front of the tapestry was the mirror image of the cartoon shown. Weavers could avoid this reversal of the design by using the mirror method to copy the cartoon’s design.
And here’s the Hillside curtain design, backwards:
The design has the hill crown. You can see it best in a Taliesin II photo:
Looking north at Taliesin, 1920-24. On the far left is a workman’s apartment. On the far right are Wright’s living quarters. You can’t see Wright’s studio and other apartments for the workmen because the building wraps around the hill the other side of the hill.
I don’t know if Wright was thinking of a tapestry when he drew the design for the curtain, but it does make sense. In the curtain, you can see the top of the hill. You can’t see that if you’re looking at Taliesin from the other side from what you see in the photo above.
So was he thinking about the design backwards?
Possibly. Since working on this post I’ve had to remind myself which way the curtain hangs because I keep getting turned around. Makes me very glad that I learned “left” and “right” in kindergarten.
Although I did ask the Administrator of Historic Studies at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation about my “tapestry” theory. She seemed to “get” what I was talking about, of the curtain being the mirror image of reality, but she said that Wright did not design the curtain as a tapestry. According to Indira, Wright asked “his friend Dorothy Liebes if she could weave it,” but it was too big. So it was done the way it stands at the Hillside Theater.
First published October 17, 2022. I took the photograph on the top of this page.
1 Wait – aren’t I always excited about this?… why, yes, yes I am.
3 I made trips 6 times in as many years. TPI paid for some, but at least half were on my own dime. I did it for work, but also for myself. I wanted to see these things and learn them. PLUS! I got to hang at T-West often in the winter – who needs a fricking vacation when they’ve got to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings, and his letters and drawings, and photos of Taliesin by others?
Looking northeast at the southern facade of the Hillside building while the smoke still looms in its April 26, 1952 fire. I don’t know who took this photograph. It came from a newspaper article that was given to the Preservation office probably in the 1990s.
As someone who worked at Taliesin, you got used to dealing with questions about fire on the Taliesin estate. Of course, there were the two Taliesinfires,
but that’s not all!
In 1952, a big fire took place at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hillside building on the south part of the Taliesin estate. That fire happened in April of that year. So, today I’ll talk about the fire and one of Hillside’s rooms affected by it.
I started this after a request:
Someone asked me about the Hillside theater, and its history, a few days ago. As sometimes happens, I know something really well, but don’t know what others don’t know at all. This had great timing, because
the Hillside fire happened nearly 70 years ago
on April 26, 1952.
And I’m trying to push away the knowledge that this means that drummer Stewart Copeland turns 70 this July. Copeland was in the band, The Police (which I adored as a teenager; hence the automatic knowledge on Copeland’s age; he was born on July 16, 1952 btw).
So, follow me while I talk about the original space at Hillside.
The old theater
The Hillside Theater is in the gymnasium Wright designed in 1901 for his Aunts’ Hillside Home School.1 Here’s a photo of the Hillside building when the Aunts ran the school. The gymnasium is on the photo’s far left-hand side:
The photo is in the booklet, “In the Valley of the Clan: The Story of a School”.
at the Wisconsin Historical Society. The photo above is on page 7.
The inside of the gym is in the next photo:
Circa 1903 photo looking east in the Hillside Home School gym and its stage. The gym’s running track was behind the horizontal boards above the stage. Unknown photographer. Taken from a Hillside booklet owned by Peggy Travers, whose mother went to the Hillside school.
In 1932, when Wright started the Taliesin Fellowship, he redesigned the gym into a theater that he named “the Playhouse”. So, in the first years his apprentices were changing things at his house so they could live there.
(like Edgar Tafel talked about in the book I recommended, Apprentice to Genius).
But they also immediately started renovating the gym into the Playhouse. Like, they took the gym’s running track and rehung it so it was on several different levels.
I don’t know what good that did, but it looked really cool.
Here’s a good drawing of it:
The modified running track is on the upper right. A modified version of this drawing was painted onto plywood. Every Sunday that plywood placard was put alongside the 2-lane highway (Hwy 23) as advertisement for movies at the Playhouse.
You’ll be able to see the placard once the Hillside Theater opens back up after the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation completes its restoration. Here’s a video discussion of their current restoration work.
1933 photo of the Playhouse when it was ready to open:
Taken by Angus Vicar. He took the photo the weekend before the Playhouse opened on November 1st, 1933:
All this, despite a lack of Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy saying,
The simple benches you see were constructed by a furniture maker in the Fellowship, Manuel Sandoval. He made them out of newly-cut oak. The “girls” in the Fellowship sewed the seat cushions.
So, movies at the Playhouse were the first public interface by the Taliesin Fellowship. They ran weekly, with apprentices in charge of manning the projector, introducing the movie, preparing coffee or tea for refreshments, and taking money from patrons.
Movies cost 50¢. For a dollar, you could watch the movie as well as get a tour with an apprentice.
This is how hardy we used to be:
That first winter, the Playhouse didn’t have radiator heat. Read this in an “At Taliesin” newspaper article on February 1, 1934:
“The new heating system is in operation, and made the theatre quite comfortable when weather conditions were unfavorable last Sunday.” No named author. Transcribed from the published article by Randolph C. Henning, but not published in the 1992 “At Taliesin” book edited by Henning.
Eventually, the Wrights and the Fellowship began going to Arizona in the winter (as I noted in this post). Then, as the NEH story states, Wright found the land in Scottsdale in late 1937. The Fellowship then began building Taliesin West as its winter quarters.
In 1952, the Wrights and the Fellowship were returning from their winter when the Hillside fire happened. It destroyed the Playhouse, plus everything to the east up to the Assembly Hall. A stone foyer to the west of the Playhouse (added a few years before) was also untouched.
Below is a transcription of part of a newspaper story about the fire. It comes from the May 1, 1952 edition of Spring Green’s newspaper, the Weekly Home News:
Taliesin School Re-Born on Paper
As Flames Destroy Old Structure
…. Taliesin’s third major fire (the previous two destroyed the house) started late Saturday afternoon [April 26] when a rubbish fire, left unattended, swept toward the building as the wind shifted. A floor containing living quarters above the student dining room was destroyed first; then the flames spread into the theater and reduced it to ashes.
“I lit that rubbish fire myself,” Wright readily admitted.
“It was about 30 ft. from the building and the wind was blowing toward the east. I shouldn’t have gone off and left it, but the wind shifted and carried the fire up under the overhang of the roof. When I came back smoke was coming from the roof and upper floor.”
…. Although a small office adjoining the living room [the Assembly Hall] was badly damaged…, the big room itself suffered only smoke damage. Wright found good in that, too. “That smoke-tone is wonderful,” he said. “I couldn’t have darkened it so evenly if I’d done it myself. Nature is God’s technician.”
Fellowship member “Frances” Nemtin, who joined the Fellowship in early ’46, wrote about it in her booklet, 3 by FLLW. She, then-husband Kenn Lockhart, and their children had been living at the Midway Barns over the winter. On that day in 1952:
… [T]here were a few of us on the grounds…. I was at startled to hear sirens and see fire-trucks and police cars screaming through our valley and turning into Hillside… when I ran onto the nearby roof I saw black smoke rising there. With the children I drove to Hillside fast and found a horrifying scene. The theater was full of flames and the local fire engines were desperately fighting an enormous blaze.
3 by FLLW, by Frances Nemtin (self-published, 2008), 44-45.
As members of the Taliesin Fellowship returned, they cleaned the area, prepping for work. That’s because Wright had already redesigned the space.
The new space, now called the Hillside Theatre/Theater (both spellings are in drawings) pushed out further on the north and south. The apprentices poured concrete and created stadium seating. He designed metal chairs, most of which where put into the concrete.
In 1955, they had a formal evening for Wright’s birthday (June 8) to mark the completion of the work.
Maynard Parker also took photographs at Taliesin that year.
These photographs were published in House Beautiful in November, 1955. One of the photos he took is below:
Summer photograph by Maynard Parker looking at the south facade of Hillside. The rebuilt Theater is on the left. An enlarged kitchen at Hillside is on the lower right, under a new roof with a balcony parapet above the stone and wooden doors.
The next year, 1956, the apprentices in the Taliesin Fellowship gave Wright a curtain from his design. Again, here’s Frances Nemtin:
…. It was to be an abstraction of the Wisconsin landscape and executed in felt appliqued on Belgian linen…. Immediately on reaching Wisconsin that April we set out to work in the second floor of Aldebaran, Wes Peters‘ farm, so we could work secretly. We knew if Mr. Wright saw it in progress he’d make constant changes.
3 by FLLW, by Frances Nemtin (self-published, 2008), 49.
A woman wrote me at work (as the Taliesin historian). She told me that her parents were in the Taliesin Fellowship and her mother worked on that curtain. And her mother went into labor with her a few days before they finished. And she was born in June of 1956.
So we had our date.
Not cut in stone, but… good enough I’d say.
First published April 15, 2022. I do not know who took the photograph at the top of this page, but it appeared in a newspaper story on the Hillside fire.
1. The building I wrote about in the post, “Another find at Hillside” was the original gymnasium for the Aunts’ Hillside school. That building became the dormitory for older boys once Wright’s building was constructed.
Whenever I have a question regarding anything Taliesin-related Keiran Murphy is the first person I turn to.
—Randolph C. Henning — Architect and author
Never in my life have I been given a more sensitive and comprehending tour of anything, anywhere. Listening to her talk about Wright and looking at everything she pointed out, I felt as if my eyes had opened to twice their normal size.
—Terry Teachout — Culture Writer, Wall Street Journal, Author, Libretti, and Playwright
… her knowledge of Frank Lloyd Wright is close to astonishing. Over many years she has simply absorbed him—and his beloved Taliesin—into her bones.” “I am in awe at her willingness—her delight—in sharing what she knows with others.
—Paul Hendrickson — Senior Lecturer, University of Pennsylvania and Author
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