Abstract drawing. Property: The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

Gene Masselink

Abstraction looking (plan) north at Taliesin against the hill in Wisconsin.
Pen, ink, and paint. By Gene Masselink.

Eugene Meyer “GeneMasselink (1910-1962): Taliesin Fellowship, 1933 until his death. This post will be about him, and why I like him.

Gene was born in South Africa, then his family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he grew up with his brother, Ben. A talented visual artist, Gene came into the Fellowship with a BS in painting from Ohio State University. The Taliesin Fellowship wasn’t only a group for architectural apprentices, and Gene didn’t join intent on doing architecture. He did, however, paint and illustrate within the group for years, including the image of Taliesin up at the top of this page.

And, as many Fellowship members did, he helped build models. Here’s a 1936 photograph by Edmund Teske showing Gene working a model of the Johnson Wax building:

Property: The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).
Photograph of Gene Masselink taken in 1936 by Edmund Teske.

How Gene became the secretary:

When he came into the Fellowship in 1933, Karl Jensen was the secretary (this is a photo of Jensen at Taliesin). Gene became Karl’s assistant. Therefore, when Karl left in 1934, Gene took over the job. Subsequently, Gene became was one of the “triumvirate” of crucial Fellowship members. This triumvirate was composed of Gene, Wes (Peters, engineer), and Jack (Howe, head draftsman). The Fellowship wouldn’t have been the same without Gene, just like it wouldn’t have been the same without Wes & Jack.

He:

  • Kept Wright’s correspondence—with friends, family, and clients—on track and up-to-date through all of the traveling back and forth from Wisconsin to Arizona.
  • Followed the bills—which, as you can imagine, were quite complicated when it came to Wright.
  • Learned to how to run the printing press. Thus, Gene became the resident pressman, printing the 1943 edition of Wright’s autobiography.1

In fact, on the last page of his 1943 autobiography, Wright specifically thanked Gene:

Gene (Masselink) of the Fellowship and his helpers have untangled day by day, month by month, the mass of inter-lined and defaced scripts that would tease anyone, especially myself. Gene is the only one who could read them.

Having both seen Wright’s handwriting, and his small edits that are hard to keep track of, I applaud Wright’s recognition of Gene’s work.

Here’s Gene with a couple of “the boys” and The Master:

Frank Lloyd Wright and 4 apprentices in Taliesin's Drafting Studio, 1930s.Looking (plan) northwest at Wright at a drafting table in the Taliesin studio. Standing behind him are (L-R): Gene Masselink, Bennie Dombar, Edgar Tafel, and Jack Howe. This photograph is from the Associated Press and is in the public domain. The Library of Congress says the photo was taken in 1953. However, they’re wrong. Wright was not in his 80s in the photograph above, and both Bennie and Edgar left the Fellowship in 1941. This photograph, on the other hand, has Gene and Wright in this same room in the 1950s.2

Yet, this is not a post about him just as an artist. No, I decided to write about Gene today because I just genuinely like the man (who passed away before I was born). Gene’s way of keeping everything together at Taliesin reminds me a little of the character of Walter “Radar” O’Reilly from M*A*S*H*.

He jumped in as, I think, Wright envisioned the Fellowship—everyone together, all for one, one for all. And he seemed to have a sense of humor about all of it. You’ll see it in his “At Taliesin” article from 1935 below.

Examples:

Below, Gene writes about his responsibilities as the secretary in the August 4, 1935 “At Taliesin”:

“Have I a little list?  Koko was only an amateur with his.

Remember in “Physical Taliesin history” (fn1) how I said that working at Taliesin made me learn about things? I just learned how “I have a little list” is related to Gilbert and Sullivan musicals.

Lists – lists everywhere and lists for everything.  Large important Madison lists on large white paper.  Spring Green lists on any old paper.  Dodgeville grocery and butcher lists on ruled note-pads from the kitchen.  Lists typewritten and lists handwritten in every kind of pen and or pencil within reach.  Lists lost and half remembered – they flutter about me dominating my kingdom of letters and articles and filing cards and endless odds and ends of what is bravely called “business”.  The word should be spelled busy-ness, or why not busy-mess.  But the list is only embryo compared with the listers actually getting what the list lists.  There are so few who will stand to wait longer than three days for what they’ve listed and at the end of that time a package of cigarettes or “Plowboy” or “Red Man” or one spool of thread or a pound of 6-penny casing nails will assume terrific proportions.  Not my peach only but my life is continually jeopardized by little lists.

….

EUGENE MASSELINK

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), 147-148.

Gene about listening to the radio!

This links to my love of Old Time Radio that I wrote about in this post.

Gene was in the hospital after breaking his hip and was bedridden. He wrote about his experience in the hospital, and about passed the time listening to the radio:

AT TALIESIN, June 11, 1937

. . .  After this is all over and I’m selling apples on some street corner, this Radio will sell apples with me.  My mind has become so controlled by its direction that any sudden break from its supervision would be fatal.

         The Life problems of Bill and Mary and Susan and Jim of all the Tom Dick and Harrys radio story tellers can think of are my problems now.  And let me say that these problems are without parallel in the history of literature.  Each day fresh heartaches and new situations keep the agony of life constantly on the run and bring vicarious sorrow into the lives of Americans, incidentally make my own hip-problem only the most minor consideration for me to think of. . . .

It has opened the walls of this tiny room to a world many times removed and I maintain wherever I go it shall go.

Its love me, love my Radio from now on.

EUGENE MASSELINK

Randolph C. Henning, 267-268.

Gene by someone else:

Gene showed up in Taliesin Diary: A Year With Frank Lloyd Wright, by Priscilla Henken. Here’s Priscilla on November 16, 1942 (p. 59):

… Gene always speaks hurriedly & nervously as if he were doing ten things at once & only nine were getting done.
 
Former apprentice Curtis Besinger dedicated his 1995 book, Working With Mr. Wright: What it Was Like, to Gene Masselink. Besinger wrote,

As Mr. Wright’s secretary for many years, Gene’s grace, awareness, and sense of humor served to anticipate and ameliorate many of the strains of Fellowship life. Unfortunately he didn’t live to write the book which in some stress-filled situation he threatened to write: “Mr. Wright goes to New York…, to Italy… to Paris

Curtis Besinger. Working with Mr. Wright: What It Was Like (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1995), xiv.

Finally, his work:

In the 1950s, Gene began designing murals for the following buildings by Wright:

While Masselink’s original icons were removed from the altar, they can still be seen in the basement. See Mark Hertzberg’s blog post about the church to see photographs of the icons.

Others have investigated his work. Check these out:

Published January 31, 2022.
The drawing at the top of this post is the property of The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).


Notes:

1. I can’t imagine that would have been possible for him to print all of the copies of the 1943 edition of the autobiography. However, I’ve seen letters that Gene wrote to Jack Howe, describing the activities. Plus, “Gene’s Press Room” is the name of a room at Taliesin.

2. Bonus: the Wisconsin Historical Society has another photograph taken of Gene that day. He’s seen in the same clothes walking in Taliesin’s Garden Court with another Fellowship member, Kay Rattenbury (1918-1996).

Looking across the Taliesin valley, with the building at Mid-ground

Wright and nature:

Looking (plan) north at Taliesin in the background in The Valley of Wright’s family.
I took this photograph in April 2015.

“Frank Lloyd Wright loved nature” is something a lot of us know (if you didn’t know that until now, just look like you’re thinking deeply about it and the Frankophiles won’t notice).

However, he didn’t always write straightforward statements on how he felt about it.

In fact:

I can’t find evidence that Wright said or wrote this quote currently associated with him:

“study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”

Despite how great this quote is—Frank Lloyd Wright saying to pay attention to nature!! —its origin appears to be Carla Lind’s introduction to her book, The Wright Style: Recreating the Spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright.1

She wrote that “Wright told his apprentices” to “study nature…” But I’ve found no proof that those very words ever came out of his mouth or flowed from his pen. If Lind had not written that in quotation marks, I don’t think we’d see it everywhere.

I have come to the conclusion that the quote is like if I wrote, “Frank Lloyd Wright always said, ‘I love having pancakes on Saturdays.'”2

Anyways,

I’ve been searching Wright’s statements on nature to explain how he thought about it.

In fact, in 1957, Wright told interviewer Mike Wallace on television that,

“I attend the greatest of all churches.

I put a capital N on Nature, and call it my church.”

But, while it’s not a deep secret, you have to dig into Wright’s writings to find an explanation from him on what he loved about nature.

That’s why, in this post, I’ll explore Wright’s thoughts and feelings a bit more.

An example of Wright speaking about nature:

Because when you’re talking about Wright, “nature” doesn’t mean flowers, trees, or sunsets. Wright really meant the underlying geometry in nature. Here’s what he wrote in 1912 in a small book, The Japanese Print: An Interpretation:

Using this word “Nature” in the Japanese sense I do not of course mean that outward aspect that strikes the eye as a visual image of a scene…, but that inner harmony which penetrates the outward form… – what Plato called… the ‘eternal idea of the thing.’

The Japanese Print: An Interpretation, by Frank Lloyd Wright. From Frank Lloyd Wright: Collected Writings, volume 1 (1894-1930). Edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, introduction by Kenneth Frampton (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York City, 1992), 118.

In 1932, he wrote that:

When I say “Nature,” I mean structure seen as a matter of complete design within the thing itself, nature—pattern, that is….

An Autobiography, by Frank Lloyd Wright. In Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings: 1930-32, volume 2. Edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, introduction by Kenneth Frampton (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York City, 1992), 371.

His ideas on nature came in his childhood:

The young Wright was thrown into nature when he was sent out to “The” “Valley” in Southwestern Wisconsin to work on his Uncle James’ farm.

Yup: this area was known to the Lloyd Jones family as The Valley. With capital letters.3

Wright was there every summer from the year that he turned eleven until the year he turned eighteen.

This area, a spot of land south of the village of Spring Green, was settled and farmed in the 1860s by Wright’s maternal grandparents, Richard and Mallie Lloyd Jones. This was followed by their children (Wright’s aunts and uncles) living or working there. You can find out about the family by going to the website http://www.unitychapel.org/

The Valley in his writing:

It was important enough that Wright opened his autobiography with a story taking place in it.

A light blanket of snow fresh-fallen over sloping fields, gleaming in the morning sun. Clusters of pod-topped weeds woven of bronze here and there sprinkling the spotless expanse of white. Dark sprays of slender metallic straight lines, tipped with quivering dots. Pattern to the eye of the sun, as the sun spread delicate network of more pattern in blue shadows on the white beneath.

Frank Lloyd Wright. An Autobiography in Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings: 1930-32, volume 2. Edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, introduction by Kenneth Frampton (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York City, 1992), 104.

Referring to himself as “the boy”, he wrote about the link of his experiences to his feelings on nature and architecture:

And the trees stood in it all like various, beautiful buildings, of more different kinds than all the architectures of the world. And the boy was some day to learn that the secret of all the human styles in architecture was the same that gave character to the trees.

Frank Lloyd Wright. An Autobiography in Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings: 1930-32, volume 2, 123.

Looking up the hill in early spring at Taliesin's Lower Parking Court

What’s above is a photograph of Taliesin, as the building seems to rise from the hill.
This was taken by me in March, 2008 looking up at Taliesin’s Lower Parking Court.

Family connections:

Furthermore, the family of Wright’s mother, the Lloyd Joneses, was really important to Wright. During those summers, Wright stayed with “Uncle James” Lloyd Jones.4

The Lloyd Jones family was Unitarian and very interested in Ralph Waldo Emerson and poet Walt Whitman. Historian William Cronon, from the University of Wisconsin wrote that:

The… popular view today is that romantics like Emerson or Thoreau, or… Wright, celebrated the beauty of nature in a literal sense much as many modern environmentalists do…. In fact, raw nature was… less compelling for most nineteenth century romantics that it is for modern nature-lovers. The romantics regarded plants and animals… as the outward manifestations of an all-encompassing spiritual unity whose name was God.

“Inconstant Unity: The Passion of Frank Lloyd Wright,” by William Cronon (8-30), in Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect, ed. Terence Riley, with Peter Reed (Museum of Modern Art, New York City, 1994), 13.

So nature, God, and underlying geometry. And geometry goes into architecture. It’s all linked. Only took me about two years to really start to understand it.

First published, October 20, 2021.
I took the photographs seen in this post.


1 I wrote one of her publishers asking if she could get back to me on this statement. I want to ask her where that quote came from. They didn’t have her contact info, so I wrote her in care of another former publisher. I’ll change this if I can ask her where she got that.

2 He was NOT devoted to pancakes. I understand that he liked steel-cut oats.

3 And, even though most of the Lloyd Jones descendants are settled throughout the world, they all know what they’re talking about when they say, “The Valley”. The Valley, by the way, is now known as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Estate.

4 You can now rent Uncle James’ farmstead: http://www.aldebaranfarm.us/

Although if that’s not available you can also rent nearby Aunt Margaret’s house. Her house is just across the road from Wright’s Hillside School building.

Photograph of Taliesin's Loggia by Raymond C. Trowbridge

A slice of Taliesin:

1930 photo looking south in Taliesin’s Loggia. Notice the vertical water stain on the horizontal band of plaster in the background.

Many photos taken inside Taliesin during Wright’s lifetime show water stains. That’s why I’m showing this photograph by Raymond Trowbridge again: it shows Taliesin’s Loggia with a vertical water stain in the background. Personally, I’ve never seen that part of the roof leaking, but I have seen water coming into Taliesin. I start this post with scary water, then give you a short version of what the Preservation Crew did about that (that jumps over a bit of the story), which changed into an even bigger fix.

That can happen with historic preservation. One problem can highlight other problems. It was overwhelming even though I didn’t work on the Preservation Crew – I just researched Taliesin’s history!

Regardless, the way to approach preservation at Taliesin is how you “eat an elephant“: sometimes it’s just best to go after the smaller things until the resources are there to complete the project.

Here’s (most of) my part in the story:

I was eating lunch in Olgivanna Lloyd Wright‘s bedroom one summer day. I worked as a Taliesin House Steward one-day-a-week at that time, and Olgivanna’s Bedroom wasn’t yet on tours. So it was nice to take a break there. As I watched a summer downpour, I looked out the windows onto the Loggia Terrace (here in a recent photo from Flickr). While the roof didn’t (doesn’t) leak, I watched as buckets of water poured into the space between a stone half-wall on the terrace, and the wall that it leaned away from.

Wright added the half-wall in the 1950s, so it wasn’t attached to the taller stone wall behind it.

Check out the photo below to see this noticeable crack:

A stone wall at Taliesin with Olgivanna Lloyd Wright's Bedroom in the background.

Taken on the Loggia Terrace. The red framed windows at Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s Bedroom are in the background.
Kevin Dodds took this photograph in November, 2002.

Remember I wrote about how Wright buildings are smaller than you think? That’s not true here: that crack is as big as it looks

As I stood there in Olgivanna’s bedroom, I tried not to think about how much water was pouring into the building, and where it was going. I didn’t have the resources to do anything about the problem, and worrying would drive me crazy.

Fortunately, the Preservation Crew did do something.

In fact, they started doing something right after that photo above was taken. Kevin, a Preservation Crew member, photographed this in the beginning of their work.

They took the pier apart, looking into the building. On the other side of that stone wall above, they saw that the hearth at Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s Bedroom fireplace was deflecting. To fix the hearth, the Preservation Crew went under the building.

Why?

They had to support the hearth. But they didn’t want to support it on the floor below, in “the Gold Room”.1 They had to go into the crawlspace under the Gold Room to create support for its floor.

But, see, after its second fire Wright rebuilt Taliesin on the ashes of Taliesin II. So this crawlspace was a mess. The man who spearheaded the project2 explained it to me.

Imagine it:

Wright had recently spent over eight years of his life on a consuming project (the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo), and had acquired tons of art. That he brought home. And just under three years later his living quarters were, once again, consumed by fire.3

Wright wrote in his autobiography about that fire’s aftermath:

Left to me out of most of my earnings, since Taliesin I was destroyed, all I could show for my work and wanderings in the Orient for years past, were the leather trousers, burned socks, and shirt in which I stood, defeated, and what the workshop contained.

But Taliesin lived wherever I stood! A figure crept forward from out the shadows to say this to me. And I believed what Olgivanna said.

Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York, 1943), 262.

So, Wright moved on. Because what else was he going to do? Therefore, when the Preservation Crew (really, two men) started work, the crawlspace was full of dirt and ash. Literally: the ashes from the Taliesin II fire.

This photo shows the crawlspace.

It was taken a month after that photo showing the stone pier on the Loggia Terrace:

A crawlspace with dirt and stone piers underneath Taliesin

Photograph taken in December, 2002, by Kevin Dodds.

The “after” photo is below.

Kevin took this after the debris and ash (but NOT the stone piers) were removed. Then they built a support for the vertical section they built in the floor above:

Wooden platform in Taliesin's crawlspace.

Photograph in Taliesin’s crawlspace taken in February, 2003 by Kevin Dodds.

With that, they were able to put the structure in the Gold Room to support the hearth in Olgivanna’s Bedroom.

The support in the Gold Room.

This structure supported the stone hearth at Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s fireplace:

Photograph of a fireplace in the room at Taliesin known as "the Gold Room".

Photograph looking north in the room at Taliesin known as “the Gold Room”. Taken March 2004, by Kevin Dodds.

With that, they left it alone until they could get back to it.

In 2004, a year after this work, students from the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture (now The School of Architecture), working under the direction of the Preservation Crew, repaired the terrace outside of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s Bedroom (that’s the light blue area you see in the the first photo of the half-wall).

In 2005, the half-wall was rebuilt

Here’s a photo of the pier, rebuilt (with two layers of flashing):

Stone half-wall on Loggia Terrace at Taliesin

Photograph by Kevin Dodds taken May 2005. Looking southwest at the rebuilt half-wall on the Loggia Terrace. The dark membrane at the bottom of the photograph is waterproofing. This was covered by flagstone once the Loggia Terrace was restored.

In 2006, the crew continued in the crawlspace

After creating wooden forms, they prepared to pour concrete piers in it. Here’s one photo I took:

Concrete being brought in a hose to Taliesin.

I wasn’t usually involved with this stuff. But I had to get out and see the pumper truck. That photo above is showing the arm bring the concrete in. They brought it in through a little passageway (out of sight on the photograph’s left side). The passageway goes to the crawlspace where the forms were set for the concrete pour.

The concrete supports were created and set.

When that was done, they put jacks on top of them, then devised a way to bring steel beams into the crawlspace. It’s cool: hollow, rectangular, steel pieces were about two feet long were brought in, then bolted together.

Looking at a new beam in Taliesin's crawlspace

Jacks supporting the beams in the crawlspace that the Preservation Crew had constructed and prepared. Photograph taken March 2007 by Kevin Dodds.

The crawlspace looked like this for awhile.

The Preservation Crew had to wait until the next phase: jacking up the beams to correct the deflection.

Once this was accomplished, they contracted with Custom Metals (Madison, WI) to permanently weld the steel I-beams in the crawlspace.

Welding posts to concrete pads in crawlspace

Photos that show welding are so cinematic!
Taken by Kevin Dodds in February, 2010.

New posts and beams in crawlspace at Taliesin.

Photograph of the metal posts, beams, and concrete pads in Taliesin’s crawlspace. Taken February, 2010 by Kevin Dodds.

Once this was settled, they worked upstairs.

The Preservation Crew restored Olgivanna’s Bedroom in 2010. The bedroom was prepped and put on Taliesin House tours.

In 2011, Taliesin turned 100 years old.

After the tour season finished that year, the Preservation Crew began to completely restore Taliesin’s Loggia. After this, they restored all of the spaces in Taliesin’s Guest Wing rooms.

So now the Guest Wing is level, warmer, doesn’t smell like mildew, and the crew rebuilt amazing pieces of furniture. While you can’t see the crawlspace on a tour, you can go on a Virtual Tour through Taliesin’s Guest Wing (via Facebook), here.

When I look back on these things, I’m a little amazed. And I was only the sidelines for most of it!

Published August 31, 2021
The photograph at the top of this post is by Raymond C. Trowbridge at the Chicago History Museum, ICHi-89168. It is in the public domain.
Thanks to Kevin Dodds and Ryan Hewson from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation for allowing me to publish the work photographs.


1 It’s unknown why the room was given that name. Taliesin Preservation asked members of the Taliesin community (members of the Taliesin Fellowship) why it was given that name and the people they asked didn’t know.

2 Jim, the former Estate Manager who brought me to the crawlspace, is written about here.

3 This was an electrical fire.

A photograph I took of a stone wall inside Taliesin.

I looked at stone

A stone wall on the north side of Taliesin’s entry foyer. Based on the red wash across most of the stones, the bottom of the wall survived Taliesin’s 1925 fire.

Sometimes, while working at Taliesin (as I wrote once before), my answer to the question, “What did you do at work today?” was, “I looked at stone.” I’ll explain that here, because it engendered some interesting conclusions.

In order to understand that, you’ve got to know Frank Lloyd Wright’s stone at Taliesin.

(what? You didn’t think I’d say that?).

It should be no surprise that Wright employed local stone when building his home; the stone came from about a mile down the road to the north. And, as he built his home in Southwestern Wisconsin, he had plenty of dolomite limestone indicative of the surrounding Driftless Area. He used it in Taliesin’s foundations, chimneys, walls (when he didn’t use plaster or glass), and flagstone floors.

He also wanted it laid a certain way

The stone had to be in the same orientation that was in the quarry (it was kept horizontal; not orientation like facing east or south, etc.). And, on walls, he told the masons to vary its depth. This way, it would echo the look of stone outcroppings (and is gorgeous with snow on it). You see the snow on the stone in the photo below from my entry about newly seen photos:

A photograph of Taliesin in winter, published in the Chicago Tribune

Posted in a “Flashback” article from December 4 by Ron Grossman at The Chicago Tribune: “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin was a refuge for illicit romance. But tragedy tore apart the love he built.”

Hey, at least he took notice:

Wright later wrote that the stonemasons –

[L]earned to lay the walls in the long, thin, flat ledges natural to it, natural edges out. As often as they laid a stone they would stand back to judge the effect. They were soon as interested as sculptors fashioning a statue. One might imagine they were, as they stepped back, head cocked to one side, to get the effect.

An Autobiography, published in Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings, volume 2: 1930-32. Edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, introduction by Kenneth Frampton (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York City, 1992), 227.

This wonderfully unique stonemasonry allows you to see crags and details of individual stones from a dozen or so feet away. As a result, I learned to “read” the walls, quickly finding their stone configurations to follow through time. I mean: pick a stone (or several) in a wall, and see how the building changed around it/them—walls getting longer or taller; things appearing and disappearing.

Although, honestly, it’s easier to figure out when the walls got longer. You can see the vertical lines in the masonry when Wright had stonemasons (and, later, his apprentices) expand the walls. While it seems that Wright wanted things done quickly, both I and others have thought that Wright also wanted people to know the changes that were done.

How I figured this out

I first studied the individual stones when I began writing the history of one room at Taliesin, the Garden Room.1

Its chimney has been in the same location since Wright started his home in 1911. But a former coworker, looking at the chimney in archival photographs, concluded Wright must have completely rebuilt the chimney after the first fire of 1914. That’s because the stone didn’t match what was under its capstone.

Originally, I was set to put what she wrote into my historic doc.2 But then I asked myself: did Wright completely dismantle the 1911-14 chimney? I had the archival photos, and the time, so I started to study them (probably with a magnifying glass and/or a loupe).

I discovered that the chimney today, while changed, is the same chimney that existed in 1911. After Taliesin’s 1914 fire, Wright made it taller and that’s what confused Kelly. I’ll show the images below with the stones pointed out (with “circles and arrows on the back of each one explaining what each one was…”).

Someone took this photo of the chimney below in the Taliesin I era:

Looking east at the chimney for what became the Garden Room (in the foreground) with stones pointed out. Photo owned by Wisconsin Historical Society.

Then, look at the photo below from the Taliesin II era, with the stones, again, circled and numbered:

This photograph was originally published in 1915. It can be found in multiple places, included at the Wisconsin Historical Society, here.

You can see in the photo why Kelly got confused: there are two capstones (two horizontal lines) in the photo taken in 1915. She tried to match the stones under the lower capstone with what existed in 1911-14. But no. They must have heightened the chimney while constructing Taliesin II, and then Wright decided, “it needs to be a little higher”, so they added a few stone courses. Fortunately, I figured this out because I looked until I found the correct stones.

Finding stones that way was probably the first time I did that (and the first time I spent that much time staring at stone).

This work, and more like it, eventually trained my eye to catch things. And, not just with individual stones: it trained my eyes to find specific stone groupings/configurations. Now I can look at an old photo of a wall, see one squarish stone and two little ones to the right, quickly find that place on the wall IRL, and know where I am. It’s like one of those tricks I talked about last time that makes me sound like a magician.  

On the Other Hand

One of the easiest things to find at Taliesin are its wall sections that went through one of the fires (most likely the second fire). See, the limestone at Taliesin has iron, which turns red when it goes through fire. It can be quite lovely.

Taliesin walls that survived the second fire are all red (those built after the fire have select, red, stones built into them). A photo of one of the walls that went through the second fire at the top of this post.

First published July 29, 2021.
I took the photograph at the top of this page on September 1, 2003.


Notes:

1 There’s a “Garden Room” at Taliesin West, but that Garden Room is Wright’s living room at his winter home in Arizona (here’s a link to a photo of it). This Garden Room (the one in WI) is not his living room. It’s the former porte-cochere that Wright turned into an informal sitting room in the 1940s. I believe Wright called it the Garden Room because it looks out onto the Garden Court.

2 As I wrote on July 23, this is done in the hope that I did this work so, say, in 20 or 50 years someone else won’t have to.

Mies van der Rohe Farnsworth House on top and part of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin on bottom.

“Treat him well and love him as I do”—Frank Lloyd Wright on Mies van der Rohe

Two pictures of the Midwest in Spring: the top shows the Farnsworth House, by Mies van der Rohe, in Plano, IL in early April. The bottom shows Taliesin, and was taken in early June. Taliesin, in Wisconsin, is 3 hours north of the Farnsworth House.

I looked into architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) and Taliesin/Wright after May 12. That was the day I saw the talk about Mies’ Farnsworth House: “Past, Present, and Future of Farnsworth House” on-line through the Vernon Area Public Library (Illinois).

Mies van der Rohe in the U.S.:

German-born “Mies” came to the United States in 1937. The next year he became the head of architecture at the Armour Institute in Chicago, which later became the Illinois Institute of Technology. He was at IIT until 1958, and remained in Chicago for the rest of his life (he became a United States citizen in 1944).

Mies visited Taliesin around the time that he started to teach at IIT in 1938. Mies was visiting with two young architects (Bertrand Goldberg and Bill Priestley) in his new home of Chicago, when the two men decided to call Frank Lloyd Wright on the telephone and see if they could bring Mies to visit Taliesin (three and a half hours away).

That must have been exciting for all of them. Even at that time, Mies and Wright were major figures in world architecture. I hope it was worth their while because, while not planning to, Mies and Goldberg spent four days at Taliesin (Priestley left after one day). All the while, Goldberg acted as a translator, since Mies did not yet speak English.

Mies at Taliesin:

Taliesin Fellowship member, Edgar Tafel, wrote about this four-day excursion in Apprentice to Genius (I wrote about the book when I recommended it in March). Wright, Tafel wrote,

… had a great deal of respect for Mies’ work. He’d seen the Tugendhat house and the Barcelona pavilion in publications, and he viewed Mies as an individualist, not as part of a foreign school or movement.

Edgar Tafel. Years with Frank Lloyd Wright: Apprentice to Genius (1985; Dover Publications, Inc.; McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1979), 69.

Tafel went on to say that during the trip from Mies, Wright, “felt Mies’ warmth and was happy to have his work viewed with understanding.” [Apprentice to Genius, 71] Tafel also wrote that while,

Mies didn’t ask questions or make any comments, … he kept smiling and nodding his head in understanding. For a man of stolid, Germanic character, he was positively radiating.… We could see Mies sorting out each explanation and filing each experience away in the proper mental drawer.

Edgar Tafel. Years with Frank Lloyd Wright: Apprentice to Genius (1985; Dover Publications, Inc.; McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1979), 79.

Despite this spontaneous sojourn (with no toothpaste or clean clothes), Mies must have done ok. Aside from being an important guest (and probably getting to sleep in Taliesin’s “Big Guest Room” that tours walk through), he got to wander all over the Taliesin estate for days.

Be grateful it’s here

Bertrand Goldberg, however, had become the full-time translator with no way to leave. By the third day, Goldberg was complaining to Mies, in German, about Taliesin.

[Goldberg said later that he thought Wright’s home was “romantic kitsch”.]

Mies apparently got tired of listening to Goldberg’s complaints and finally said to him, “Shut up, Goldberg. Just be grateful it’s here.”

[Look at the table of contents in Bertrand’s oral history linked to above after Goldberg’s name to find where he discussed Taliesin]

Yet, while Mies appreciated Taliesin, Wright was unable to persuade the German architect to visit again.

This wasn’t for lack of trying

Mies took advantage of Taliesin’s proximity and, on five different occasions, asked Wright to entertain visitors.1 Every time Mies asked, Wright said yes, often including an invitation. But Mies never took him up on it. In 1944, Wright even invited Mies to celebrate Thanksgiving at Taliesin.2 Mies didn’t reply to that letter.

The most surprising exchange between the two came in 1947. That year there was an exhibition on Mies’ work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Both men were at its opening and Wright, while there, (famously) said that the exhibit was “much ado about your next to nothing” (Mies was famous as saying, “Less is more”). Wright wrote to Mies3 soon afterwards, making sure that he hadn’t hurt Mies’ feelings with the remark.

I transcribed this letter on one of my trips to Wright’s archives. When I got to Wright’s words that

“I didn’t want to hurt your feelings,”

I had to stop and read them again. Because I wasn’t sure I was seeing it correctly. Biographer Finis Farr wrote that the “twinkle” in Wright’s eyes when he said things didn’t translate. But still, I never thought I’d see Wright actually say he didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.

Regardless, there was nothing for Wright to worry about. In his reply,4 Mies wrote that he hadn’t remembered Wright’s crack, but if he had, he would have laughed with him. Mies ended the letter by saying that he would enjoy coming back to Taliesin (where Wright had again invited him). However, as far as I know, Mies never returned.

First published May 17, 2021.

“… Love Him As I Do”: Wright said that was his introduction for Mies van der Rohe at a dinner at the Armour Institute. The story is in An Autobiography, by Frank Lloyd Wright, new and revised ed. (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1943), 429.

I took the two photographs at the top of this post: the photograph of the Edith Farnsworth house (the structure of glass and steel) on April 6, 2006; and the photograph of Taliesin (the yellow/beige structure surrounded by greenery with a blue sky) on June 6, 2005.

 


Notes:

1 The letters, with dates and the microfiche identification numbers:

From Mies to Wright arranging trips for friends or students to Taliesin:
10/12/1940 (ID #M108A01);
10/24/40 (ID #M108C09);
11/26/40 (ID #M110A09);
10/17/41 (ID #M120B04);
ID #M120D06 (I forgot the date, but it’s after Wright’s 10/22/1941 letter);
1/29/43 (ID #M127A09);
2/1/46 (ID #M152E03);
10/11/46 (ID #M155E03);
10/15/47 (ID #M167B07)

Wright’s replies to Mies’ requests:
10/14/1940 (ID #M108A04);
4/14/41 (ID #M116D07—this was a thank you letter from Wright in which he invited Mies to Taliesin, maybe that summer?);
10/22/41 (ID #M120B10);
10/13/46 (ID #M155E04).

2 Invitation for Thanksgiving at Taliesin, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Mies van der Rohe, 11/15/1944 (ID #M135E04)

3  Letter written 10/25/47 from Wright to Mies (ID #M167D09) in which Wright was making sure that Mies van der Rohe wasn’t hurt by his own statements at the opening of the Museum of Modern Art exhibit.

4 Reply written 11/25/1947 from Mies to Wright (ID #M168D08), telling Wright that he didn’t remember Wright making a “crack”, and that is would be pleasurable to see him “sometime in Wisconsin”.

This is an interesting page about Mies.

Taliesin from the south. circa 1920

Taliesin’s 1925 Fire

Looking north at Taliesin, 1920-24. On the far left is a workman’s apartment. The vertical tower to the right of the apartment is called the “Hill Tower”. On the far right are Wright’s living quarters. The workman’s apartment and Wright’s living quarters are connected under roofs. But, you can’t see it all because the building wraps around the hill.

April 20 is the anniversary of the second fire at Taliesin: April 20, 1925. That fire (like the first one in 1914) pretty much destroyed Frank Lloyd Wright’s living quarters down to the chimneys and foundation. Fortunately no one was hurt.

Part of what Wright said about the fire:

In his autobiography, he wrote:

[O]ne evening at twilight as the lightning of an approaching lightning storm was playing and the wind rising I came down from the evening meal in the little detached dining room on the hill-top . . . to find smoke pouring out of my bedroom. Again–there it was–Fire!

Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography, in Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings: 1930-32, volume 2. Edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, introduction by Kenneth Frampton (1992; Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York City, 1992), 294.

The “little detached dining room”? Where was that?

The “little detached dining room” isn’t connected to Taliesin’s living quarters. It’s connected to its Hill Tower. So you can find the room in the photograph at the top of the page by following the line of the tower down. The room is under the low-hipped roof above a horizontal rectangle of stone. Here’s a link to a photograph of the room, available at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

What was the cause of the 1925 fire?

According to Wright: “. . . . The fire had originated in a house-telephone that had given trouble as it stood by the head of my bed.” [An Autobiography in “Collected Writings,” volume 2, 295.]

Wright and the others at Taliesin that day spent several hours fighting the fire. And Wright was so desperate to save the building that, along with burning the soles of his feet, he burned his eyebrows off.

Description of one of those at Taliesin that day:

Draftsman Kameki Tsuchiura, who worked at Taliesin with his wife (draftsperson Nobuko Tsuchiura), wrote this on April 211:

We carried water in buckets but how helpless, we were only, Mr. Wright, I and Nobu, Mrs. Ohlson and Jack and [Mel, the chauffeur]. . . . We connected the hose to the water pipe and firemen came, but too late. His apartment, and all the guest apartment [sic] were burning. Strong wind blew from east to west. Such a smoke and flame that no one could get in the house to bring anything out. We could only cut the roof [that connected] Mr. Wright’s kitchen and studio and prevent the fire from spreading west. After 9 o’clock, wind changed, rain started to drop. And what a night we had till midnight, fire, thunderstorm, lightening and more fire!!

William Blair Scott Jr Collection, OA+D Archives

There is a book in Japanese on the architecture of Nobuko Tsuchiura. While I don’t know the full title (I don’t read Japanese), it translates in part as, “Big Little Nobu”. But the book include a photograph that shows the Taliesin living quarters after that second fire. So I put that below. It was taken at floor level, looking north. The fireplace you see on the right is now the fireplace in what became  Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s bedroom.

Photograph looking across the main floor after Taliesin II was destroyed by fire in 1925.
Photograph taken by Kameki or Nobuko Tsuchiura.
In the book, “Big Little Nobu, Right No Deshi Josei Kenchikuka Tsuchiura Nobuko”
ISBN: 9784810705416.

You can find the book on-line. Its ISBN is 9784810705416. ⇐I originally wrote that number incorrectly. Thanks to one of the readers for catching that and contacting me.

While no one got hurt, Wright lost a lot of the art he collected while working in Japan

He wrote:

Left to me out of most of my earnings, since Taliesin I was destroyed, all I could show for my work and wanderings in the Orient for years past, were the leather trousers, burned socks, and shirt in which I stood, defeated, and what the workshop contained.

[An Autobiography in “Collected Writings,” volume 2, 295.]

Personally, it would be difficult not to think that the universe had something out for me. However, then Wright wrote this:

But Taliesin lived wherever I stood! A figure crept forward from out of the shadows to say this to me. And I believed what Olgivanna said.

[An Autobiography in “Collected Writings,” volume 2, 295.]

Olgivanna would become his third wife. I think it’s kind of cool that his description—when Olgivanna said “Taliesin lived wherever” he stood—is the first time that Frank Lloyd Wright mentioned Olgivanna.

Wright starts building “Taliesin III”

During Taliesin’s rebuilding, Wright put pieces of destroyed statuary into the walls:

Smoldering or crumbled in ashes, priceless blossoms-of-the-soul in all ages—we call them works of Art—lay broken, or had vanished utterly. . . .

A few days later clearing away the debris to reconstruct I picked up partly calcined marble heads of the Tang-dynasty, fragments of the black basalt of the splendid Wei-stone, Sung soft-clay sculpture and gorgeous Ming pottery turned to the color of bronze by the intensity of the blaze. The sacrificial offerings to—whatever Gods may be.

And I put these fragments aside to weave them into the masonry—the fabric of Taliesin III that now—already in mind—was to stand in place of Taliesin II. And I went to work.

[An Autobiography in “Collected Writings,” volume 2, 295.]

First published April 16, 2021

The photograph at the top of this post appears with the essay, “The Story of Taliesin: Wright’s First Natural House,” by Neil Levine, in Taliesin 1911-1914, Wright Studies, v. 1, ed. Narciso Menocal (Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Illinois, 1992), fig. 1, p. 3.


1 I mentioned this couple in my post, Taliesin II: The Forgotten Middle Child of Taliesin.

Photograph by Kevin Dodda of Taliesin in snow.

How did Frank Lloyd Wright feel about Christmas?

Someone asked me that question in early December. Yet, I’ve tried to answer it, with no clear success, for years. After all, Wisconsin can be charmingly Christmas-Themed, with a dusting of snow and a chill in the air.* In addition, in his autobiography, Wright described Taliesin in winter as being a “frosted palace roofed and walled with snow”. But, he didn’t seem especially fond of Christmas, particularly in the first years after he built his Wisconsin home in 1911.

Wright talking about Christmas

In 1924, when Wright had a new love in his life, his future wife, Olgivanna, he wrote her a letter saying that Christmas reminded him of his children he had left in Oak Park, IL in 1909. His letter to her is in The Life of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, 234.

However, less than a decade after they met, the Wrights began the Taliesin Fellowship, and eventually Wright would leave Wisconsin in the winter, spending that time with his family and apprentices at Taliesin West in Arizona. Thus, Christmas became an activity enjoyed by the group in the desert. To read about their Christmases, read The Life of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright.

Wright’s Christmas-card moments

He did have plenty of these in the 1890s/early 1900s with the family in Oak Park. They were described aplenty in the book written by Wright’s second son, John. In John’s the book, My Father, Frank Lloyd Wright (first published in 1946 under the amusing title, My Father, Who is on Earth), he wrote about growing up in Oak Park, and later working with his father. These memories also include how he felt about his dad as a father; the day of Taliesin’s 1914 fire; and the day his dad fired him! It’s unique and you should pick it up.

John wrote memories involving Christmas while growing up. One of these memories is a Christmas Eve night when he was perhaps 5 or 6. I’ll leave you with John’s description of watching his father put the presents out, then his father “caught” him and carried him back to bed:

…. He unboxed toys on a big white sheet under the tree, sat on the floor and played with each one before placing it. When he played with the mechanical donkey that jumped up and down I almost dashed in. When he pulled out a monkey that climbed a string, I giggled so loud the jig was up! Out rushed Papa, swooped me up in his arms, whisked me backed to bed, told me I had been dreaming. I still like to think it was a dream—and good old St. Nick, a reality. And not too long ago, Dad said, “I still believe in Santa Claus.”
John Lloyd Wright, My Father, Frank Lloyd Wright (Dover Publications, Inc., New York; 1992), 40.

First published, 12/23/2020
The winter photograph taken at Taliesin at the top of this post is by Kevin Dodds and was reproduced with permission.


* overlooking the fact that, one time after 1992 (the year I came to live in this state), it reached -25F (-32C) degrees on Christmas day.