The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York), 1104.003

Did Taliesin have outhouses?

A 1911 Taliesin floor plan showing Wright’s living room, kitchen, and his bedroom. The kitchen has a sink and his bedroom had a bathroom with a toilet, sink, and bathtub.
This Taliesin I floor plan, 1104.003, is at the Avery Library in New York City and can be seen online at ARTSTOR.

People want to know: over 110 years ago when Frank Lloyd Wright was building his home out in the country (and public utilities were so not a thing), did Taliesin have an outhouse at any time? Even early on?

I was asked this question many times while giving tours, and asked again last week while giving a presentation, so that’s why I decided to address it.

Taliesin probably didn’t have an outhouse

The floor plan you see above (and shown, completely, online here) shows a large section of Wright’s living quarters as he was designing it in 1911. I showed it because you see that he planned for a home that had a sink in its kitchen, as well as running water in the bathrooms.1

although he didn’t design faucets or hardware for his home

Wright’s approach to getting water to Taliesin was quite ingenious. You see, Taliesin stands about 3 miles (just under 5 kilometers) from the village of Spring Green in Southwestern Wisconsin. So there was no help there even if Spring Green had had a water tower. In 1911, then, if he wanted running water he had to do some tricks.

His aunts’ school (the Hillside Home School, less than a mile away) got its water by using watermills (including Wright’s Romeo and Juliet windmill). Wright did not do that at Taliesin. There was, however, a creek in the valley in which Taliesin sits. He used a hydraulic ram to pump water from the creek up to a reservoir on the hill behind it. The hydraulic ram worked when a drop in the water happened, which took place via a waterfall. He created a waterfall by damming up the creek running through the valley. He completed damming up the creek in early 1912.

The press hearing about Taliesin’s dam

We know his timetable for getting the water going because on December 26, 1911, Wright told visiting reporters about the dam. That’s when they bombarded came to Taliesin upon finding out he was living there with Mamah Borthwick. This is written at the end of that Chicago Tribune story:

Then Mr. Wright called to a worker to bring the visitor’s horses. As he stood waiting in the courtyard he talked a little of his bungalow. . . .

There is to be a fountain in the courtyard, and flowers. To the south, on a sun bathed slope, there is to be a vineyard. At the foot of the steep slope in front there is a dam in process of construction that will back up several acres of water as a pond for wild fowl.

Note that the newspaper story says that the dam is “in process of construction”.

Taylor Woolley (draftsman for Wright in 1911-12) took a photograph around that time. It shows the state of the dam’s construction:

Taliesin photograph by Taylor Woolley.
© 2011 Utah State History. All Rights Reserved.

This is a cropped photograph by then-draftsman Taylor Woolley. The internet address of this at the Utah Historical Society is here. The photograph looks (true) southwest at the dam being constructed (at the bottom of the photo), with Taliesin seen against the hill above. This photograph is one of over 40 photographic negatives by Woolley that show Taliesin and the Taliesin grounds. Those negatives are available here.

Another photograph by Woolley shows the new waterfall:

Photograph by Taylor Woolley of dam and pond at Taliesin
© 2011 Utah State History. All Rights Reserved.

Looking (true) east over the Taliesin dam and waterfall. Photograph taken in early 1912 by then-draftsman, Taylor Woolley. This photograph is online here. All of these photographs can be seen in the book, Building Taliesin: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home of Love and Loss, by Ron McCrea.

Looking at the weather, it looks like the photo was taken in later winter (maybe February?). The hydraulic ram (getting water to the house) was powered by the waterfall.

Wright, about the dam

Wright wrote about the dam, and getting water to Taliesin, in his autobiography (first published in 1932):

Each court had its fountain and the winding stream below had a great dam. A thick stone wall was thrown across it, to make a pond at the very foot of the hill, and raise the water in the Valley to within sight from Taliesin. The water below the falls thus made, was sent, by hydraulic ram, up to a big stone reservoir built into the higher hill, just behind and above the hilltop garden, to come down again into the fountains and go on down to the vegetable gardens on the slopes below the house.

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), 226.

The Chicago Tribune (on December 26, 1911) tells us he was working on the dam. Woolley’s photograph show the waterfall, which means the hydraulic ram was working. So, it appears that Wright had running water at Taliesin by midwinter.

And, while it no longer works, Taliesin’s dam educated me about hydraulic rams.

Thus, the short answer to the question, “Did Taliesin have outhouses”? appears to be NO.

Plus, he (and then Mamah) were only living there for months before he got water running. Where the heck could they go to the bathroom? Well, his sister lived across the way in the house that he designed for her and her husband. In fact, the two homes: Taliesin and Tan-y-deri, are in view of each other (the word Tan-y-deri, like the word, Taliesin, is Welsh; see the Tan-y-deri link for the definition of the word).

Originally published August 5, 2021


1 There were two bathrooms on the main floor of Taliesin’s living quarters.

Looking east at Taliesin's agricultural wing.

“This stuff is FUN for me”: Taliesin photographs from Frank Lloyd Wright’s lifetime.

The photograph above was published 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”. It’s one of two photographs taken at Taliesin on December 26, 1911. That was is published in my entry, “I looked at stone.”

That’s what I said to journalist Ron McCrea in 2010 after I’d spent my weekend looking at photos of Taliesin (he was writing about them, Wright, and Mamah Borthwick in his book, Building Taliesin, published in 2012). 

What prompted this statement here has to do with the photos on this link.

The photos didn’t just capture my attention. No: I yelled in a way that they show you in movies or cartoons. It’s yelling with lots of special characters: “Holy C*$#!”

What made me yell:

The article’s two photographs—exteriors of Taliesin I (Taliesin 1911-14)—I’d only seen as dark/dusty photos, or drawings made from them.

And it appears the photographer took these the day after Christmas, 1911. On that day, Wright (and his partner, Borthwick) gave an (unintentionally disastrous) press briefing at Taliesin. They did this because they hoped to stave off public damnation. Wright thought he could do that by addressing the press.

(or the “war correspondents” as he called them, in the Day Book newspaper, on Jan. 4).

The “newspaper men” put them back on the front pages because, while they’d left their families in Oak Park, Illinois in 1909, Wright returned alone in late 1910. Everyone reading the newspapers thought Wright and Borthwick had ended their relationship.

That was not true:

Wright was in the US, but acquired land in Wisconsin to build his home. Meanwhile, Cheney was in Europe. She had to wait until she could divorce her husband based on “abandonment”.

Thus, she was Mamah Cheney until August 5, 1911, then reverted to her maiden name, Borthwick.

The “war correspondents” found the two, realized that Wright had not reconciled with wife Catherine, and descended on Taliesin.

The hope by Wright (and Borthwick) that a public statement would calm the press didn’t work out. Even though Wright said in Baraboo News (Baraboo, WI, January 4), “may not the matter be left in privacy to those whose concern it chiefly is?”, it was too late. That newspaper, on December 28, said that Taliesin was “known as Crazy House.”

I encourage you at this point, if you haven’t done so already, to click the link to Grossman’s story so you can look at the “Crazy House” photos.

A drawing in 1914 made from a 1911 photograph

Drawing showing Taliesin's north facade

If you read the article, the first photograph, underneath the article’s title, shows the building’s northern face, with a parapet ending in a stone pier to the immediate left. I had never seen the photo before. But someone took the photo and made it into a drawing. That appeared in the Des Moines Daily News (published August 18, 1914). I put that drawing above. I think I should be ok to publish it. Given its age, it’s now in the public domain.

I wanted to show how you’d see that same part of the building today, but I couldn’t. Almost nothing in the photograph from Taliesin I (or the drawing) is the same. That’s because Wright kept adding on and changing the building. However, I say that, “Taliesin keeps its history within its walls.” So I’ll show where that history marker is, but I’ll orient you first.

A view toward Taliesin’s entry steps

You walk up the steps at Taliesin to Wright’s studio at Taliesin (the north wall of the studio is to the right). The parapet from the Taliesin I photo ended at the stone that is to the left of the tree trunk (the tree trunk is to the left of the window that’s on the extreme right in the photograph) .

The next photo is the other side of that stone wall. That tree trunk I just mentioned is just to the right of the end of wall. 

That little black rectangle you see is where the cap on the parapet terminated into the stone.

The second image in the Grossman article, near the bottom, shows that same wing (the agricultural wing) from its broad western façade. That photograph is at the top of this entry, because it first appeared in print before 1924. The images, while not being unknown to me, are probably pretty rare for fans of Frank Lloyd Wright or even Taliesin. That’s how many changes Wright made to the structure over time.

This second image (showing Taliesin’s far western facade), shows the building’s hayloft ending on the right side with a garage that has the cantilevered roof. I don’t know if the garage ever held cars since there are no photographs of cars in there and no photographs with wheel tracks leading up to the garage either. There are no close up photos of it, but you see the garage across the hill in this photo at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Another photograph used in a newspaper article

Grossman’s article used a second image taken in late December 1911, the day of Wright and Borthwick’s press conference.

I found this image because of a habit I had (and have). I search online for old Taliesin photographs. When I worked, I did this on my Friday afternoons after I had finished any other projects. I would type “Taliesin” and other qualifiers into a search bar to see what came up.

Note to the neophyte: make sure to narrow the search so that you aren’t seeing results regarding Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona; things about the 1914 murders/fire at Taliesin; some movie out there about vampires with a character who is, I guess, named Taliesin*; and information on actor/voice actor, Taliesin Jaffe (I’m sorry Mr. Jaffe, but I’ve never seen anything you’ve been in).

One day that brought me to a newspaper article in the Chicago Evening American, published on December 29, 1911:

I don’t remember my first thought in seeing the agricultural wing photo, but I’m sure I was really excited. And, ultimately a little disappointed, because the photograph was muddy and a little dark and, well, just newspaper print. It’s very likely I looked at it, tried to get what information I could by scanning it, then expanded, lightened, and darkened, and gave up.

I thought that these photographs, if they existed, were in a drawer or a folder, stuck away or mislabeled. After all, I had no idea of the photo of Taliesin’s north facade existed at all out there. But, obviously, I was wrong and the original photos were NOT lost.


* Here’s part of the problem in not exploring what comes up in my website searches: “Taliesin Meets the Vampires” is not a movie. “Taliesin Meets the Vampires”—if I had taken a moment to click on the link—is a “Vampire blog” where you “will find views and reviews of vampire genre media, from literature, the web, TV and the movies.” Well, I’m glad I did that because I prefer looking at a page on a website to finding, then watching, a vampire movie.


First published, 12/11/2020.

The photograph at the heading for this post comes from the Chicago Tribune Historical Images.