Frank Lloyd Wright and Alexander Woollcott standing outside of Taliesin. Photograph in the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Edgar Tafel collection.

A room at Taliesin

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Alexander Woollcott with Frank Lloyd Wright outside of Taliesin. 

a room that existed before we (or I) knew it existed.

I’m going to write about my discovery of that room’s appearance today. It’s the room with the windows that you see behind Wright, Woollcott, and the birch trees.

It was thought that the room was originally designed for Wright’s youngest daughter Iovanna (born to Olgivanna in December 1925).

Meryle Secrest wrote in her Wright biography that in March 1925, Wright and Olgivanna “made an impulse decision to start a family of their own.” [Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography, 315]

Secrest gave no evidence for this “impulse decision”. Obviously something impulsive happened and Olgivanna was young and pretty, so I’m like, “Yeah… Sure.”

Here’s where it is:

The room is one floor above Olgivanna’s bathroom, so you walk by it as you go into her room on a tour through Taliesin.  

FYI: The bathroom was dismantled, so it’s not on tours.

You can see the outside of Iovanna’s sitting room when you’re on the Hill Crown at Taliesin. Wright added the parapet1 which you can see in this photo I took:

Looking at Taliesin living quarters on a sunny day in spring. Iovanna's sitting room is behind the parapet. Photograph by Keiran Murphy

Taliesin Fellowship apprentices did the construction of the rooms in 1933-34. Abe Dombar wrote about it in this February 9, 1934 article:

Two new rooms were 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.

Several new apprentices, with the aid of two carpenters, were working on the job continuously from the architect’s first sketch on a shingle to designing and building in of the furniture.  And the girls made the curtains.  In celebration of the completion of the room we had a “room-warming” in the form of a surprise party for Iovanna. 

Abe Dombar. “At Taliesin,” February 9, 1934. Reprinted in At Taliesin: Newspaper Columns by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship, 1934-1937, ed. by Randolph C. Henning, (Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), p. 20-21.

It makes you think:

While kids may have been more hardy in the past, that is a lot of space for a little girl. Here’s one drawing that shows it:

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York), #2501.008.

Although the rooms in the 1930s were smaller, there was still a bedroom, sitting room, and bathroom.

That makes sense

when you think of the playroom he scaled down for his kids in his first home in Oak Park, Illinois.  

I was told years ago that it was originally scaled down for Iovanna when she was 8, but I’ve never seen an interior photo taken at that time.

Not that this would matter anyway. Remember: Wright’s building scale already messes with your mind.

However,

The number of rooms is also due to things happening in the Wright family.

See,

when the Wrights started the Taliesin Fellowship in 1932, Olgivanna’s oldest daughter, Svetlana (“Svet”), was 15. So the next summer, Wright designed those bedrooms for both Svet and Iovanna (then 7 years old).

But things got complicated.

One of those complications was related to one of the first Taliesin Fellowship apprentices: Wes Peters.

No doubt

Olgivanna made sure to keep her pretty young daughter away from all of the architectural apprentices in 1932 and ’33. But it was all intense and, even if you had them working 15 hours-a-day, young is young and those two (Wes and Svet) fell in love.

They wanted to get married and Svet’s parents said absolutely not.

And, yes, Frank Lloyd Wright fell in love with Catherine Lee Tobin when he was, maybe 19-20 (Kitty was 16-17); and Olgivanna got married when she was 19, but the marriages for those two ended in divorce, so….

But, come on:

check out the screenshots from the film apprentice Alden Dow made in 1933, the first summer those two knew each other. They’re so cute:

Screenshots of William Wesley Peters and Svetlana Wright Peters in 1933 film by Alden B. Dow.

The movie is the property of the Dow Archives, but you can see it in sections through this link.

So, in September 1933,

Wes and Svet left the Fellowship, even though Svet couldn’t get married until she was 18. You can read about their history in this book, “William Wesley Peters: The Evolution of a Creative Force“.

Svet’s age (15 or 16), gets me scandalized, but then again: I’m no longer a teenager.

I mean: I was completely bummed when—in grade school in the spring of 1980—I found out that Sting was 28 years old and married. But then I realized that, “uhh… Keiran? Sting’s not waiting for you.” [I may remember this moment because I was surprised by that grown-up thought]. 

You can read my teenage thoughts about Sting in my post: “Dune, By Frank Herbert“. I wrote this about the second installment of the Dune movie by Denis Villeneuve coming out in March 2024.

To get back to Iovanna’s bedroom:

For years, we thought that before that area had rooms and a bathroom, there was just a mezzanine up there that ended above Taliesin’s Living Room.

You can see it at the top of this post.

And that it ended on the other end just over Wright’s bedroom.

To picture it, you can see part of the mezzanine in this post.

However, in 2004-5, I was asked to research the entire history of that floor up there.

So I did what I usually try do:

I try to wipe my mind of preconceptions2 and look at photos. And so, for the the first time, I saw something earlier photos at Taliesin that shouldn’t have existed at that time. I saw in these earlier photos a chimney flue for the fireplace that’s in Iovanna’s Bedroom. Among other photos,3 the flue appears in one taken in 1928:

Photograph by architect George Kastner of Taliesin. Taken on November 11, 1928.

This photo is published on p. 4 in the Journal of the Organic Architecture + Design archives, Vol. 7, no. 3, 2017 in the article for that issue, “Desert and Memoir: George Kastner and Frank Lloyd Wright,” by Randolph C. Henning.

That flue I pointed out goes to only one fireplace: the one for Iovanna’s Bedroom. Yet George Kastner took this photograph in 1928, 5 years before the apprentices even started working in that area. So it didn’t match what I thought I knew. I thought that, before 1933, this stone mass was simply… stone. That it was like the stone mass that’s on the south side of Taliesin’s living room. That this part was only stone.

Like what was in Hillside’s Dana Gallery on the Taliesin estate that I wrote about in “Truth Hiding in Plain Site“. That it was mostly stone before the Taliesin Fellowship.

But since I couldn’t deny what was in photographs,

I got in my car and drove to Taliesin to see what I could find.

I went upstairs, looking for evidence that things had changed. First thing I noticed was that the stone was executed at one time, as opposed to being changed later. See my photo of the fireplace below:

Interior photograph of fireplace in Iovanna Lloyd Wright's Bedroom. By Keiran Murphy on 9-24-2003.

Contrast this

With the fireplace in the adjacent room. In 1933-34, Apprentices built that fireplace out of the existing chimney. And it certainly looks like it.

I took the photo below where you see the side of the chimney. On the left hand side you see stone that used to be outside. The red stones were those that went through the Taliesin fires in 1914 and 1925. The lighter stone on the right is stone placed there by apprentices when they built the fireplace mantelpiece:

Side of the chimney in Iovanna Lloyd Wright's sitting room. Photo by Keiran Murphy in 2003.

 

After looking at the two fireplaces, I thought about that “At Taliesin” article. In the article, Abe Dombar says,

Two new rooms added to the pageant of Taliesin’s 40 rooms….

But there weren’t two rooms on that floor in 1934. There were three: Iovanna’s bedroom, the bathroom, and the sitting room (the room at the newer fireplace).

In fact, the drawing doesn’t label Iovanna’s bedroom. It only labels “Iovanna’s room”, which is the sitting room with the new mantelpiece.

And one more thing: the bathroom

You can see the bathroom in the plan above. When I started thinking maybe Iovanna’s Bedroom was there before 1933-4, I thought how it doesn’t make a lot of sense for Wright to build a bathroom out of line with the bathroom one floor below. Often bathrooms are in line with each other because this makes laying the plumbing lines easier.

yeah, yeah, yeah: we can talk about how impractical Wright could be as an architect, but at Taliesin he had to live with whatever he designed. And bathrooms are expensive, even if the labor was free….

Moreover,

in 2007, I looked at Taliesin’s drawings for real in Wright’s archives. Luckily for me, Taliesin’s estate manager suggested I take photocopies of Taliesin’s drawings so I could take notes on what I saw in them.

In drawing #2501.007, I saw the word “nook” in pencil with a line going about where Iovanna’s Bedroom was:

Elevation of Taliesin. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). #2501.007.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York), #2501.007.

I can’t tell you when 2501.007 was drawn, but the details say 1925-32. I think that in the early Taliesin III period, what became Iovanna’s Bedroom was originally a sitting room, a “nook”, that could be used as a bedroom if needed.

alas, we don’t have Wright’s design for the couch/bed simplicity of a futon frame

3 more things:

coz: in for a penny, in for a pound

One Taliesin drawing shows the “sash details” of the windows in Taliesin’s Living Quarters. This is drawing #2501.032. See the detail of it below:

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). 2501.032.

The three windows I pulled out from the drawing match the three windows currently on the east wall of Iovanna’s Bedroom. The drawing labels these windows as being for—not a clerestory or above the mezzanine, but—”Gallery Bed Room”.

Also, in 2006

The Taliesin Preservation crew worked in a closet in Iovanna’s Bedroom and found remnants of pipes going through the floor above Olgivanna’s bathroom. I asked what those pipes could be, and one crew member (I forget who) said they were small enough to be used for a sink, but not a toilet or tub.

Wright could have had this little room up there and if someone were just staying overnight, they could use the sink in the morning to brush their teeth.

One of those people might have been architect Philip Johnson

See, back in the 2000s someone emailed me at work. He was working on a book of interviews conducted by architect Robert A.M. Stern with Philip Johnson.

Stick with me here

At one point, Stern talked to Johnson about Wright:

Robert A.M. Stern: And in researching for the book [on the International Style] you also went to visit Wright?

Philip Johnson: …. We went to see Wright in 1930 in Taliesin East [sic]. I stayed overnight in the part that’s now all closed in and ruined, in the upper terrace there, just above the big room. We visited and had a great time and we realized that he was a very, very great man.

The Philip Johnson Tapes: Interviews with Robert A.M. Stern (The Monacelli Press, printed in China, 2008), 41.
The book’s price tag is over $40, but I’m that crazy: I got the book on sale for $10.

He mentions “the big room”. In 1930, there wouldn’t have been any other “big room” on the Taliesin estate except for the Taliesin Living Room.5 He was wrong about the placement of the room on that floor, but there was nothing else up there in 1930 that matches it.

OK!

I hope I explained what I found/think.

That is:

When Wright rebuilt his living quarters after the 1925 fire, he built a mezzanine above the main floor that ended in a small room with its own fireplace, three windows on the east wall, and windows (or possibly French doors) on the other side.

The windows above and behind where Alexander Woollcott and Frank Lloyd Wright are standing in the photo at the top of this post might have looked into this “nook”.

 

The photo at the top of this post was taken 1937-41 and published in Apprentice to Genius: Years with Frank Lloyd Wright, by Edgar Tafel, p. 179.
First published October 22, 2023.


Notes

1. He expanded the space and added the parapet in 1943 for an anticipated visit by Solomon Guggenheim (of the Guggenheim Museum commission) and curator, Hilla Rebay.

2. Which I remember every damned time I think about the window found in Taliesin’s guest bedroom that was staring me in the face for years in photos. I’ll write about it another time to go over it in detail. It’ll be penance.

3. I think I first noticed it in a photo that I can’t show because I don’t think it’s ever been published. It’s Whi(x3)48218, an aerial photograph in the Howe Collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

4. Her personal spaces were featured in a Wright Virtual Visit in 2021, which is on Facebook, here.

5. It wasn’t at Hillside because Johnson said they visited it and while it was a great building, he described Hillside in 1930 as “a total wreck”.  

Black and white photograph of apprentices Edgar Tafel and Jack Howe sitting on Taliesin's Hill Crown.

Apprentice to Genius: A Recommended Book

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Apprentices Edgar Tafel (left) and Jack Howe (right) sitting on Taliesin’s hill crown. Wright’s bedroom is to the right of Howe’s left elbow.

“You’ve made it,” I whispered to myself. At the far end of the room, on a raised platform serving as a stage, stood Mr. Wright. It was like coming into a presence. And what presence he had! He shot out electricity in every direction.

Near him were a grand piano and an old wind-up phonograph screeching out a Beethoven symphony. He was testing the acoustics. I crossed the room, still holding my breath, and said, “Mr. Wright, I’m Edgar Tafel. From New York.”

. . . . “Young man,” he addressed me, “help move this piano.”
Edgar Tafel. Years with Frank Lloyd Wright: Apprentice to Genius (1985; Dover Publications, Inc.; McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1979), 19-20.

At first, I thought about recommending the book, “Understanding Frank Lloyd Wright’s Architecture“, by Donald Hoffmann, because it talks about the specifics of Wright’s design. But what would I recommend to someone who has no idea who he was, and why they should care? What book out there explains him, and is a bit fun? Finally, this book came to mind: Years with Frank Lloyd Wright: Apprentice to Genius , by Edgar Tafel

The author of “Apprentice to Genius”, architect Edgar Tafel (March 12, 1912-January 18, 2011), apprenticed under Frank Lloyd Wright in the Taliesin Fellowship for nine years. Then, in the early 1970s, he began lecturing on his experiences in the Taliesin Fellowship, developed this book and published it in 1979.

Hold on: I should explain the Taliesin Fellowship.

You can’t look at Wright after 1932 without taking the “Fellowship” into account. Wright and his wife, Olgivanna, founded the Fellowship in 1932. Wright, 65 years old at the time, had only completed two commissions in the previous eight years. Encouraged by his wife, the two created an apprenticeship program with himself as the master architect. Open to men and women, apprentices would live on site with the Wrights at Taliesin in Wisconsin. Eventually, the apprentices would live in almost all of the buildings on Wright’s Taliesin Estate. Not a commune, they comprised a community that participated in almost every daily aspect of the life of Frank Lloyd Wright and Olgivanna. They worked in construction, had social activities (such as making music), did all-around maintenance (heating, plumbing, etc.) as well as garden and farm work, all while also working in the drafting studio.

In 1937 (after spending several winters in Arizona with the group), Wright bought land in Scottsdale. He and the Fellowship began building a winter compound there: “Taliesin West“. The construction of Taliesin West led to a yearly “migration” between the two compounds: Wisconsin in the spring-summer-fall, and Arizona from late fall to early/mid-spring. (I mentioned these migrations in my blog post, “Did Wright ever live in Wisconsin in the winter?“)

Oh, and I should mention: apprentices paid tuition. Tuition in 1932 was $650, but Wright took $400 from Tafel, because that’s all the young man could afford.

The first book by a former apprentice:

“Apprentice to Genius” was also the first book on Wright that I read when I started giving tours in 1994. Tafel, 20 years old in 1932 when he became an apprentice, stayed until 1941. When Tafel arrived, Wright had only completed two buildings in the previous eight years. Whereas, by the time Tafel left, Wright was becoming nationally famous. He was the architect for (among many other buildings) Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, and the world headquarters for Johnson Wax (Johnson Wax Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin).

One of the world’s most famous houses, you saw a photo of Fallingwater on my blog post last week; and, if you’ve never seen the “Great Room” of Johnson Wax, click the hyperlink for the Administration Building, because it’s incredible.

On top of that, Wright had appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

“App to Gen” was the first book-length publication on what it was like in the group with Wright as its leader. Woven throughout the book is a biography on Wright, an explanation of the architect’s philosophy of design, and stories of the every day life of the Taliesin Fellowship. Tafel took time to write about how he cared for Wright, and why.

Tafel’s book:

  • Showed Frank Lloyd Wright’s humor, passion and intelligence;
  • Told the story of the lean years of Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship, the start of the desert compound, and the start of Wright’s career resurrection;
  • Showed these young men and women, 18-24 years old, acting like goofballs with the Wrights mostly allowing it (although Wright did force a tablespoon of castor oil on Edgar1 the morning after Edgar drank too much);
  • Published unique photographs from Tafel’s own archive;
  • And told the Fallingwater story.

The “Fallingwater story”

The story is that Wright drew Fallingwater, one of the world’s most famous buildings, in two-and-a-half hours while the client drove to Taliesin.

There are arguments on whether the story actually happened the way Edgar told it. In fact, those also in Wright’s drafting studio that day continuously argued in good humor about the story’s truthfulness, probably for the rest of their lives.

But did Wright actually take crisp pieces of paper and, for the first time, delineate a masterpiece while the clients drove to his home? Some said that he had sketches for the design and that’s what he presented to the client, Edgar Kaufmann, Sr.; not the beautiful presentation drawing of the home over the waterfall on the cover of Time. Regardless, as Wright told his grandson one time: “It makes a great story.”2

You can read details on the Fallingwater story (and decide how right if might be) at the Post-Gazette here.

Lastly, on the book and its author:

The book, printed by Dover publication as a paperback, was sold for years—decades—at $12.95 or so. Edgar Tafel autographed my paperback version when he came to Taliesin in 2005. The paperback is still available, mostly through Amazon.com, but I later bought the hardcover original through www.abebooks.com. My hardcover came for only about $18, delivered. That version also has some of the book’s photographs in color, which was a nice surprise.

Edgar Tafel was interviewed in the documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright by Ken Burns (the documentary that led my friends to say, “I Never Knew He was Such an S.O.B.!“).

Here are further appearances by Tafel on YouTube:

Next week I’ll give a list of books by former Taliesin Fellowship apprentices. But for now, here’s a link to the Taliesin Fellows, an organization of former apprentices.

Originally published March 27, 2021.
The photograph at the top of this post was in “Apprentice to Genius,” page 38. The photograph is now in the Edgar Tafel architectural records and papers, 1919-2005 in the Avery Drawings and Archives Collection.


1  Most apprentices in the Fellowship were known by one name; usually not their last name. So, you weren’t a private in the army; you were part of a community. This did sometimes lead to people going by names other than what they were born with (or known by) before walking in. Although I don’t know how many “John”s or “William”s had to change their names to something else.

2 And yes: I did actually really hear his grandson say that. Brandoch asked his grandfather about one of the apocryphal Wright stories (I’ll tell you some time). He said his grandfather replied that [more-or-less], “did I say that? I don’t remember saying it. But… it makes a great story.”

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.

Frank Lloyd Wright buildings are smaller than you think

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Photograph of Fallingwater by Esther Westerveld from Haarlemmermeer, Nederland in 2012.
The people standing on the upper terrace in this photograph are not 7 feet tall. They are normal-sized people.
It’s the architecture that’s messing with your mind.

I’m talking about what everyone—outside of Frank Lloyd Wright homeowners—has experienced: you go to a Wright structure and it’s smaller in reality than what it looks like in photos. I do try to remember that, but it’s always a shock when I walk into any of his buildings.

Why do I always get it wrong? Former apprentice, Edgar Tafel, explained why in his book, “Apprentice to Genius”:

. . . Mr. Wright made one extensive change that affected every physical element—as well as the impressions and reactions of every person who entered the house: He changed the scale and brought it down to his own human reference. He often used to tell us. . . . , “I took the human being, at five feet eight and one-half inches tall, like myself, as the human scale. If I had been taller the scale might have been different.”1
Edgar Tafel. Years with Frank Lloyd Wright: Apprentice to Genius (1985; Dover Publications, Inc.; McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1979), 50.

Wright’s trick in his architecture

Wright apparently said a person only needs 6 inches over their heads so, since he was the “human scale”, when you enter his buildings, the ceilings would be 6 feet 2 inches tall. This creates “compression”. Then the ceilings suddenly get taller in the spaces where you are meant to linger. That creates a “release”.

The ceilings, entryways, and trim (emphasizing the horizontal) create the scale. So, when we see ceilings and doorways  in photographs, we “read” them as 7 feet tall, or taller, because that’s what we’re used to. Since we see them that tall, we read everything else as bigger.1 This element of design is one of the reasons that I like to see people in photographs of Wright buildings: because other people give you a sense of the scale (even when the people mess with the pretty architecture!<–I’m mostly joking right there).

Although, I still laugh at myself when I go to a Wright building because, yup: they’re smaller than I thought they would be.

How this trick played into Preservation work at Taliesin

Over a decade ago, while the Preservation Crew was restoring Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s bedroom, they were planning on reconstructing some of its Wright-designed built-in furnishings.

She and her husband shared a bedroom at Taliesin until 1936, then they moved to adjoining rooms. This was probably because Wright didn’t sleep very much and was almost 30 years older than she was (so he needed even less sleep). Makes sense to me: if I want to sleep while my husband watches movies in bed, I put on my sleep mask.

So, the plan included the Preservation Crew rebuilding a set of small horizontal shelves at a mullion (you can see color photos of the rebuilt shelves below). But the Crew had a problem: no detailed drawings of the room exist. So how would they know how big the shelves should be? Now, if Taliesin had been built for a client, there would have been floor plan and elevation drawings, as well as drawings for furniture and built-ins. All of those things would have measurements. But because Taliesin was his own home (reconstructed after the second fire of 1925), he could simply tell the carpenters and builders what to build. Or he gave them sketches. However, those must have been thrown out, since no drawings existed.

My find at the Wisconsin Historical Society

Luckily at this time, I took a trip to the Wisconsin Historical Society to look at photographs in the John H. Howe collection (“Jack” had been in the Taliesin Fellowship from 1932-64 and took thousands of photographs). Two of his photographs show Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s bedroom, which show the shelves. I emailed the photographs (one at this link) to the onsite collections manager for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. A few days later, he stopped by the office and told me that one of the photos showed a perfume bottle on one of the shelves. And, he said, “We have that perfume bottle.”

Apparently, he also showed the Preservation Crew the photograph and perfume bottle, and they used the perfume bottle to get the scale of the shelves they were going to rebuild.

You can see the rebuilt room in the photograph below, followed by a close-up of the shelves:

Photograph of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s bedroom. The shelves are to the right of the small chair.

Taken by user Stilfehler. Information and a larger version of this image is at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Taliesin_Interior_32.jpg
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Shelves in Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s Bedroom. The perfume bottle, on the top shelf, is green. It’s behind an amber-colored glass jar so you can see just a little bit of it.

Taken by user Stilfehler. Information and a larger version of this image is at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Taliesin_Interior_28.jpg
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

There are other things that the Preservation Crew has done in Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s bedroom, and on the Taliesin Estate overall, that are inventive and smart. Still, given my contribution to their work, I always liked to tell the story of the perfume bottle while giving tours through her bedroom.

OK, Keiran, that’s a cute trick. But why did he do this with the scale?

I think the full answer to the question probably requires reading Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography to understand his design philosophy,2 but I think he did it for at least two reasons. Firstly, he did it because it makes the space feel larger. Especially when you sit down. And, secondly, the lower scale creates more compression which, upon “release” generates feelings of surprise, drama and delight inside his homes.

First published March 19, 2021.
The image at the top of this post is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. The image is available at Creative Commons, which has its licensing information and a larger version. 


1 Well, then you go, “what – so the guy never designed for people over 5’8″?” He did. For example, Louis Penfield, who commissioned Wright for a home in Ohio, was 6 feet 9 inches tall. Wright made the hallways thinner and the ceilings taller. You can rent the building overnight. It’s the only Wright building I’ve been in where everything, yes, looks as big as the pictures.

2 Or “why did he do this” requires the answer given by another former tour guide (hi again, Bryan): “Oh! Because he was a genius.”