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

Apprentice to Genius: A Recommended Book

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.”

Photograph of Taliesin's Loggia by Raymond C. Trowbridge

Raymond Trowbridge photos

In my last post I wrote about a photograph of a wall that no longer exists at Taliesin. I wrote that the photo as taken in 1930 and I’d explain it in my next post. That photograph showed the wall in the Loggia fireplace. The photograph above is by the same photographer and shows the other side of that wall. What you’re seeing is Taliesin’s Loggia. Here’s how I (or Taliesin Preservation) got the photos and how I know they were taken in 1930.

First coming across the Trowbridge photographs:

In the winter of 1997-98 (3 years into my employment, then working seasonally at Taliesin Preservation), I had a part-time job in the preservation office working with photographs related specifically to Wright’s home (later his Taliesin estate, which includes the Hillside stucture, Romeo & Juliet windmill, Midway Barn, his sister’s home, Tan-y-deri, along with its landscape). Photographs are among the things used to help understand the history of the Taliesin estate and do restoration/preservation. The work was needed that winter because an Architectural Historian from Taliesin Preservation had apparently left his office in a bit of a mess.

So I got a job in the office  (20 hours a week through the winter). I worked through the winter to bring order to the photocopies he’d left behind. As a result, I saw some amazing images for the first time.

Taliesin Preservation becoming aware of the photographs:

13 of them had been brought to our attention by Wright scholar, Kathryn Smith. She’d come across them while doing work in Chicago, photocopied them, and sent them to us, as part of what was described to me once as “preservation by distribution“. She’d sent the images maybe in the early 1990s. And she included all of the relevant information with the photocopies: collection ID-number, the photographer (Raymond Trowbridge), and who owns them (the Chicago Historical Society, now the Chicago History Museum).

By their details, it looked like someone took them in early Taliesin III; so 1925-32. They looked like the photographer took the images before the Wrights founded the Taliesin Fellowship (in 1932). Trowbridge knew what he was doing with these images. They have wonderful composition and light balance, show the texture of Taliesin’s stucco walls, its wooden banding, and its flagstone.

In my work, I arranged these into the binders of photocopies we’d started to assemble. Then the winter ended, and I went back to my work giving tours.

My first trip to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Archives:

Almost a decade passed. I started working in historic research (along with tours), got a raise and made plans to travel before I found ways to spend it all. This took me on my first of several trips to Wright’s archives, which at that time were located in an archives building at Taliesin West, his winter home in Arizona. The archives included over 22,000 drawings, over 40,000 photographs, correspondence related to his life and his work (letters to and from family, friends, clients, and others), and many other things I’m sure I never saw. While there, I went to the archives every workday. Monday to Friday, I showed up at 8:15 a.m., took an hour for lunch, and stayed until they ended their work every night (usually a little after 6 p.m.). And, bonus, I often got to do this in winter.

Here’s a note for you:

The second time I went to the archives, I thought I would save money by going in the summer. I don’t know how hot all of Arizona gets that time of year, but going voluntarily to Scottsdale in July is not worth any money that you save. That caution on Arizona’s hot temperatures might also apply in May and definitely June, August and early September.

The first find by coincidence:

On one of my trips, I hit my research goals early in the afternoon on Friday. I remembered the name Raymond Trowbridge and went looking for correspondence with him.

The archives has nine letters between Wright and Trowbridge from 1930 to 1933. In the first letter, ID #T001E02 (written September 20, 1930), Trowbridge answered a question that Wright had written to him (that letter’s not extant). Wright had apparently asked what type of photography equipment Trowbridge  had “with me at Taliesin.”

Looking at Trowbridge’s photos, I concluded that he was probably talking about the photographic session he’d just had, in which he took the 13 images. Because the images they were definitely taken during the summer (like the one below). So that made these photos from maybe August or early September of 1930. Cool.

Photograph at Taliesin taken by Raymond Trowbridge.
Looking east at Taliesin during summer. Taliesin’s living quarters in background.

I tucked that info away in my brain. When I returned to Wisconsin, I looked at the Trowbridge photographs, and changed their dates to 1930-33.

A while later I found out more about Trowbridge:

A few years later, when I had some time in the middle of the week, I sent a comment via email “To Whom It May Concern” at the Chicago History Museum. I explained who I was and that they needed to change Trowbridge’s dates on his photos at Taliesin. They’d written that his photos were 1923-35,1 but those dates were wrong. I told them the dates for the images Taliesin should be 1930-33.

The next Monday, I got an email from someone in the Rights and Reproductions Department telling me that Trowbridge didn’t take photos of Taliesin.

I replied that, well actually he did. Then I explained Kathryn Smith, the collection she’d sent, and I emailed a scan of one with its ID number (this scan, seen in my blog post, “Taliesin as a Structural Experiment”, was published in the booklet “Two Lectures on Architecture” in 1931).

Good news from the Chicago History Museum:

I heard back from this person several hours later. She wrote that, oh my god, yeah! They did have these images—as glass negatives. Someone had misfiled them and my email helped them locate them properly. And she told me they’d get high resolution scans & contact me after they put them onto an online photo sharing and storage service. A day or two later I accessed and downloaded these beautiful scans.

The last stroke of luck:

Then in 2018, while putting together a presentation for the annual Frank Lloyd Building Conservancy conference, I wrote again to the Rights and Reproductions Department at the Chicago History Museum. I asked how I could get permission to use one of the images, and how much Taliesin Preservation had to pay.

Even though I wasn’t paid to speak at the conference, I’d have to work out image permissions; I hoped I didn’t have to pay, but you never know.

The told me I didn’t have to pay for or sign anything. The photographer had died 83 years before, making all of his images in the public domain. I only have to give you the information you see on the images: who owns it, its archival number, and the name of the photographer. And I wrote this in the manner that they asked for (which is why the photographs give Raymond Trowbridge’s middle initial).

All of these things:

  • Kathryn Smith sending us the images (and the former staff member leaving the office in a mess);
  • finding the correspondence related to them because I had a couple of hours at Wright’s archives;
  • getting high res scans because I had some time in the winter to write to the image owner, and
  • finding out while I was setting up a lecture that they’re in the public domain

remain some of my best career-related serendipitous experiences as an adult.

First published, 1/28/2021.

Raymond C. Trowbridge took the photograph at the top of this post. It is Chicago History Museum, ICHi-89168, and is in the public domain. This is the larger version of the image on the Keiranmurphy.com website.


1. They gave the dates 1923-35 because Trowbridge became a photographer in 1923 and died in 1935.