Photograph of Taliesin's Entry Foyer taken by Keiran Murphy in May 2004.

When did Taliesin get its front door?

My May 2004 photograph looking at Taliesin’s entry and entry foyer.

I find humor regarding Wright’s placement of his own home’s front door, so my post today is going to be about that.

I say “humor” because of how Wright is praised on his placement of the front doors of his homes. That he placed the entrances in ways that create a journey of surprise to visitors as they seek them out.

Therefore, his houses do not usually have the front doors smack dab in front of you.

Photograph taken from the street looking at Wright's Windlow House in summer

Ok, well there was that one time.

And he was young! The house (the Winslow) was his first independent commission in 1893. He was 25 or 26. Haven’t we all done things as we’re learning the ins and outs of our own lives?

Edward C. Waller apartment building by Frank Lloyd Wright, summer.

Well, THAT’S an apartment building. You gotta make the entry really large to help people to go in —

Chancey L. Williams House by Frank Lloyd Wright

STOP THAT!!

Those are all photographs of Wright buildings, but I’m trying to make a point.

. . . . Against my fictional self.

But, seriously: I find the history of Taliesin’s “front door” funny because, when he first designed his home in 1911, when you arrived at Taliesin’s first courtyard, a door was one of the first things you saw, but it wasn’t the front door.

Let me back up and show you:

So, in 1911, you would drive past Taliesin’s waterfall, and along the carriage path up the hill, and stop under the roof of the Porte-Cochere, in the photo below.1

Photograph of Taliesin's porte-cochere seen in late fall/early spring

This photograph was taken by Wright’s draftsman, Taylor Woolley, in the late fall or early spring, 1911-12.

And once you stopped under the roof, you could get out of your vehicle and walk into the “forecourt”. And here, you saw this door, behind the vertical wood strips there at the low wall near the middle of the photo:

Wisconsin Historical Society, Lynn Anderson Collection
Postcard property of Patrick Mahoney. Published in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin: Illustrated by Vintage Postcards, by Randolph C. Henning, p. 17. It’s a great book of images to get you started on your Frankophile feast.

And yes, behind the vertical pieces of wood are bug screens. Even though Wright supposedly hated them. I think it took only one summer in Wisconsin, with the Taliesin pond, for Wright to understand that the mosquitoes in Wisconsin can be pretty nasty.

Knowing me, if I were invited to Taliesin in 1912 I probably would have walked right up to that door, figuring that was the main house entry. But that’s not where Wright designated the front door. No; apparently Wright’s planned trip for visitors to the main, formal, Taliesin entry was that they would walk straight from the Porte-Cochere, through the forecourt, and up three steps and under the roof on the left that you see in the photo above.

The photo below I think shows you the straight shot he wanted you to take.

The continued walk to the door:

You go up those steps and under that roof. And on your left was another door. Which was not the front door.

Wisconsin Historical Society, Fuermann Collection, ID# 83113

Here’s why I think this is funny: in many of his designs, I get the impression that there is just one door that he intentionally leads you to. But at his home, he’s got these other doors and I think I’d get frustrated after awhile.

Although under the roof, you could see the river

I think he hoped to draw you to the view in the distance to see the Wisconsin River.

Photograph in summer taken by Taylor Woolley at Taliesin.

And, then you’d see the front door. It would be on your right.

The best view of the door is actually in a drawing:

I’ve never seen a photo of that door on the outside during Taliesin I or II.

Elevation of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin I.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).2

You can only see the door at that time from the inside, at Taliesin’s living room. You can see one view on the other side of the inglenook which I wrote about in my last post, 1940s Change in Taliesin’s Living Room.

But the other thing that is really interesting was that when you walked through Taliesin’s “front door” at that time, you walked right into the Living/Dining room of Taliesin.

And before that, you walked passed the kitchen.

This caught my eye starting about three months ago:

That’s because I was writing an article on Wright’s kitchens at Taliesin. This will appear in the Spring 2022 edition of the magazine, SaveWright . SaveWright is the magazine put out by The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy.

Here’s one thing Wright wrote about kitchens in 1907:

… Access to the stairs from the kitchen is sufficiently private at all times, and the front door may be easily reached from the kitchen without passing through the living room.

“The Fireproof House for $5,000”,  in Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings: 1894-1930, volume 1. Edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, introduction by Kenneth Frampton (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York City, 1992), 81-2.

So, he’s not paying attention to this, in his own home. At that time at Taliesin, the only way to get to the front door would be by walking past the kitchen. And, if you were inside the kitchen, the only way to get to that front door would be by going through the living room/dining area.

You’ll see this if you look at the Taliesin drawing in my post, “Did Taliesin Have Outhouses?

And he’s working out these ideas at Taliesin: like I wrote, “The Fireproof House for $5,000” was published in 1907.

In addition,

He does the same thing in Taliesin II 

That is, 1914-1925

Although I think by that time, he tried to hide that first door when you stopped at the Porte-Cochere.

Here are a couple of Taliesin II photos:

Looking east at Taliesin II forecourt. Photograph by Clarence Fuermann.
Wisconsin Historical Society.
Collection Name: Henry Fuermann and Sons Taliesin I and II photographs, 1911-1913, 1915
Looking north in Taliesin II forecourt. Photograph by Clarence Fuermann.
Wisconsin Historical Society,
Collection Name: Henry Fuermann and Sons Taliesin I and II photographs, 1911-1913, 1915

Taliesin’s front door is past the ceramic vase you see in the shadows. The kitchen is through the open windows that you can see above the low, stucco.

Then the 1925 fire happens

So, Wright keeps the door in the same place, but changes how you get there. And, for almost 15 years, he had you drive east of the living quarters to get arrive at the front door. An aerial photograph showing the road is below:

Aerial of Taliesin taken Feb. 7, 1934
From the William “Beye” Fyfe collection at The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives

From the book, The Fellowship: The Unknown Story of Frank Lloyd Wright & the Taliesin Fellowship, by Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman (Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 2006). This image was published in the page opposite page 1.

That road in the aerial brought you to the steps on the way to the front door that you see below in this 1929 photograph.

Photograph of Taliesin's entry steps taken in 1929 by Vladimir Karfik
The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

These steps took (and take) you to Taliesin’s entry. When this photograph was taken you, would walk up the three sets of steps and the door into Taliesin was to the right of the chimney.

Here’s what former apprentice Edgar Tafel wrote about his first experience walking into the house:

At Taliesin, we went through a Dutch door, its top half swinging open. Below, flagstone, and all around us natural stone. The ceiling was low, sandy plaster just above our heads. Wright led the way into his living room. What an impression that room made! It was my first total Frank Lloyd Wright atmosphere. How I was struck by those forms, shapes, materials! It was heartbreaking – I had never imagined such beauty and harmony.

This comes from page 20 in Apprentice to Genius: Years With Frank Lloyd Wright, the book I recommended last year.

In 1943, Wright changed the entrance to where it is now:

Another former apprentice, Curtis Besinger, wrote about his in the book, Working With Mr. Wright: What It was Like.

I mentioned this book when I wrote about books by apprentices. 

He described in in the chapter, “Spring and Summer, 1943”:

It seemed that some students from Harvard had complained to Mr. Wright when visiting Taliesin that they had had difficulty finding the entrance. He was going to correct this.

… These new doors were visually on the center of the garden court, and made a stronger connection between the interior of the entry area and the court.

Curtis Besinger. Working with Mr. Wright: What it was Like (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1995), 147.

Re: “students from Harvard”:

When I gave tours, if I had time after bringing people to the front door, I’d tell them about the Harvard students. I often added that “Wright said Harvard took good plums and turned them into prunes.”3

Here’s a photograph taken in 1945 (I included it in my post, “In Return for the Use of the Tractor“):

Exterior photograph looking northeast at Taliesin. Taken by Ezra Stoller
Photograph in the book, Masters of Modern Architecture, by John Peter (Bonanza Books, New York, 1958), 47.

The formal entry was to the right of the two tall birch trees in the center of the photo. Although people usually went inside through the door to the left of the two tall birch trees.

Although the students from Harvard possibly influenced Wright to take away some of the FIVE DOORS that he had on that side of the house. Seriously: take a look at drawing 2501.048. It shows Taliesin’s living quarters, 1937-43.

First published March 26, 2022.


Notes:

  1. Another word I’ve learned while working at Taliesin. Porte-Cochere: a “carriage porch” and “a covered carriage or automobile entryway leading to a courtyard.”
    The Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, 4th ed. (2006, Cyril J. Harris, ed., McGraw Hill, New York, 1975).
  2. If you click on the drawing, you’ll see it’s characterized as “Taliesin II”. That’s wrong. Architectural details in the drawing show that this was actually 1911-14, Taliesin I. It just hasn’t been corrected. If you know anyone close to the Avery library who wants to contract with me as a consultant to correct these dates on Taliesin drawings, I’m all up for it; please give them my contact information. Thx.
  3. As always, I learned the “gist” of that quote, but I can’t find the actual quote itself.

Wright wrote something about the same in his book about mentor Louis Sullivan, Genius and the Mobocracy. Wright while writing about university education, says that the “creeping paralysis” in ” higher learning” takes “Perfectly good fresh young lives—like perfectly good plums… destined to be perfectly good prunes.”

That’s in the Frank Lloyd Wright: Collected Writings 1939-49, volume 4, 343-344.
I like the way I first heard it, rather than how Wright wrote it. Maybe he said it someplace else.

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:

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.

Looking south in the Hillside Drafting Studio

Hillside Drafting Studio flooring

Looking south in the Hillside Drafting Studio, with its flooring.

The black and white photograph on the right shows the V.C. Morris Gift Shop, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in San Francisco (now it is a men’s clothing store).

In this post, I am diving into the flooring at the Hillside Drafting Studio on Wright’s Taliesin Estate. I wrote about Hillside here. Hillside’s Drafting Studio, added in the 1930s, is 5,000 sq feet of space (1,524 m2). The Hillside Studio became Wright’s main studio in Wisconsin after the Taliesin Fellowship completed it.

There was one real point of curiosity about the studio’s flooring, which has pinstripes. This post concentrates on that flooring.

As I wrote before in my Hillside post, the Taliesin Fellowship apprentices, in the 1930s, wrote about working on the studio. Here, in the September 5, 1937 “At Taliesin”1 article, an apprentice writes that:

“…. Two months of continual and concentrated group activity by the Fellowship should announce the fact that our principal workroom – an abstract forest in oak timber and sandstone – is in order.  Then watch our dust!”2

Uh… not yet

The Fellowship, and Wright, only started using the studio full-time in 1939.

Wait – what? Why not?

Well, the structure had been built, but it didn’t have a finished floor. You can see a photograph of the unfinished floor in a photo below. It was taken in 1937 by Ken Hedrich for the magazine, Architectural Forum. Its January 1938 edition concentrated on Wright.

Ken photographed the Taliesin estate, while his brother, Bill Hedrich, went to Pennsylvania and took the first, famous, photograph of Fallingwater (the house over the waterfall).3

While Bill photographed elsewhere, Ken photographed all over the Taliesin estate. His work included the Hillside Studio and you can see the state of it in the fall of 1937:

Looking north in the Hillside Drafting Studio
Photograph taken by Ken Hedrich of the firm Hedrich-Blessing.

1938 Architectural Forum magazine issue: January 1938, volume 68, number 1, 18.

This photograph looks north in the Hillside Drafting Studio. Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship did not yet use the studio, because the room did not have its finished flooring.

When you walk into the studio today you see a wooden, waxed flooring, that has pinstripes. These pinstripes were not painted on the floor surface. What one sees is the veneered wood on its side. It’s as if you are seeing the edge of a wafer cookie.

To illustrate the “wafer cookie” look

I’ll show a photograph of the edge of some of the flooring:

The edge of the laminated flooring at Wright's Hillside studio in Wisconsin

I took this photograph.

Wright only used this type of flooring in one other place: on the mezzanine in “Wingspread“. That’s the name of a house he designed in Wisconsin for Herbert Johnson. Here are some of my pictures from that:

I took this photograph by the grand fireplace at Wingspread. Most of the people in this photograph worked in the Taliesin tour program.

The photograph below is the flooring of the mezzanine that matches what’s at the Hillside studio.

I took this closeup of the mezzanine flooring.

I don’t know Wright’s thoughts on the flooring.

However:

I know where it came from, when it was installed in the Hillside studio, and when Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship started studio operations in there.

That’s all because of someone else’s work.  

We know the month they moved to the Hillside Drafting Studio because of Kenneth B. Lockhart (1914-1994). He arrived in the Taliesin Fellowship in 1939. The Administrator of Historic Studies of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation interviewed Lockhart several times. In their May 5, 1988 interview, “Kenn” [sic] said that he arrived as an apprentice right after Wright and the Fellowship moved to the Hillside studio in July, 1939.

Where the flooring comes from:

That flooring caused curiosity for years. Where did it come from? And Herbert Johnson’s name floated around in the tour program in relation to that flooring. Did Johnson give the flooring to Wright? Was the flooring first planned for Wingspread? Was the flooring “overdraft” from Wingspread?

The answer to questions one and three, by the way, is NO

Yet, the question on how Wright got the flooring still had to be answered. And it was, by the Administrator of Historic Studies. In 1992, Indira tracked down its history. She started her task by asking former architectural Wright apprentice, Edgar Tafel.

Tafel had worked on the Johnson Wax World Headquarters, also commissioned by Herbert Johnson.

This is the same Edgar Tafel who wrote Apprentice to Genius, which I wrote about.

Tafel told Indira that he thought of a connection between the Evans Products Co. and Frank Lloyd Wright. With that in mind, she went looking in Wright’s correspondence.  

Correspondence between Wright and Evans Products Co.

There are 8 letters between that business and Wright (or his secretary, Gene Masselink).

The first letter (E030C06) was written on March 15, 1940. Their records indicate that they shipped flooring to Wright on November 28, 1938, but hadn’t yet been paid (the bill was $400.00).

Wright replied (E03D01) on March 22, 1940. He wrote that he appreciated their patience regarding the “laminated flooring in our draughting [sic] room.”

And he wrote that it had been difficult getting paid by clients. Yet, the flooring has been doing “good work for you – as well as for us” as at least a hundred people go through the buildings during the summer and have admired the “beauty and durability of the floor.”

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be a record that Wright ever paid the Evans Products Co.

One of the last letters from the Evans Product Co. was written on September 26, 1941. This is #E033E05. The author (apparently a secretary), began by noting how so many things had changed since that day they shipped the flooring to Wright on November 28, 1938.

They emphasized how Europe (then at war) had changed very much since that day. Then, they ended the letter noting that “there will always be an England” but (I’m paraphrasing here) they hoped that there would not always be a $400 outstanding debt from Frank Lloyd Wright to the Evans Products Co.!

Once more

I found this information in 2009 while working at Wright’s archives (then at Taliesin West in Arizona). I had spent months working on the history of Hillside with architectural historian, Anne Biebel (the principal of Cornerstone Preservation). And I finally answered where that flooring came from; which Indira had discovered it 17 years before!

Published October 8, 2021

I took the photograph at the top of this page on August 26, 2009.


1 “At Taliesin” was the name of weekly articles published by Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship in the 1930s. They were found, transcribed and edited by Randolph C. Henning. He published them in a book in the early 1990s. I wrote about the book in my post, “Books by Apprentices

2 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), 273.

3 Not that you’ve never heard of Fallingwater, but it’s a big world out there on the World Wide Web. So, what the hell!

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.

Books by apprentices

Last time I wrote on the book Years With Frank Lloyd Wright: Apprentice to Genius by former Wright apprentice, Edgar Tafel. This week I’m writing about more books by Taliesin Fellowship apprentices.

If you need to remember what the Taliesin Fellowship is, click here

Memoirs by former apprentices:

Reflections From the Shining Brow: My years with Frank Lloyd Wright and Olgivanna Lazovich Wright, by Kamal Amin

Amin came from Egypt to join the Fellowship in 1951 and remained until 1978. Amin gives a unique view about Frank Lloyd Wright, and his wife, Olgivanna.

Working with Frank Lloyd Wright: What it was Like, by Curtis Besinger

This is a nice companion to “Apprentice to Genius”. Besinger became a Wright apprentice in 1939 and stayed until 1955. He brings you year by year through his experience at Taliesin in Wisconsin in the summer, and Taliesin West in Arizona in the winter. He also discussed projects through the years, like the Unitarian meeting House in Madison. Additionally, he talked about activities in the Fellowship: movies the group saw, and about playing and practicing music. And the author wrote about the effect of World War II on the group.

See the book below (A Taliesin Diary, by Priscilla Henken), for the day-to-day Fellowship life during World War II.

Tales of Taliesin: A Memoir of Fellowship, by Cornelia Brierly

Cornelia was an early Taliesin apprentice, and this book contains a collection of her remembrances. Her memories are unique and often humorous. In addition, the book includes interesting photos from her collection.

Picturing Wright: An Album from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Photographer, by Pedro Guerrero

Picturing Wright shows Wright’s openness. “Pete” was 22 years old, with no experience, when he asked Wright if he could work for him. Wright, who was 50 years older, saw Peter’s talent and gave him all the work he wanted.

Check out Guerrero’s website, https://guerrerophoto.com/. This has a great collection of his photographs all through his career.

A Taliesin Diary: A Year with Frank Lloyd Wright, by Priscilla Henken

Most books by apprentices were written years later, but this was an actual diary kept at the time. Priscilla and her husband, David, were in the Fellowship (1942-43) and she wrote in her diary every day. What she saw and felt give a unique perspective on daily life in the group, and on Wright and his family. The book includes photographs taken by the Henkens when they were apprentices, that have not appeared elsewhere.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Taliesin, by Frances Nemtin

“Frances”, was in the Taliesin Fellowship from 1946 until she died in 2015, wrote this book about Wright’s design and about the Taliesin Fellowship. The book contains original photographs.

She wrote a variety of booklets about her life in the Fellowship, but this is one of the few published in hardcover. 

Some of her booklets may still be in gift shop at the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center, so maybe you’ll see them if you take a Taliesin tour this year.

Taliesin Reflections: My Years Before, During, and After Living With Frank Lloyd Wright, by Earl Nisbet

Nisbet was an apprentice under Wright in 1951-1953. His “Taliesin Reflections”—short scenes—are mixed with profiles of people in the Fellowship (Gene Masselink, Wes Peters, Jack Howe, and others). When Nisbet went to work as an architect, he employed lessons from Wright in his practice. The book has original illustrations and photographs.

Autobiographies by former apprentices:

Pedro Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey with Frank Lloyd Wright, Alexander Calder, and Louis Nevelson, by Pedro Guerrero

In this book, “Pete” writes about growing up, as well as his career. He worked not only with Frank Lloyd Wright, but with two other major 20th Century artists. He photographed the sculptors: Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson. Also, Guerrero writes about his work in the magazines House Beautiful, House & Garden, and Vogue among others (while always working at Wright’s request).

Related:

The film documentary, “American Masters — Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey”, was released on PBS, American Masters, in 2017.

Escape Home: Rebuilding a Life after the Anschluss — A Family Memoir, by Charles Paterson (Author), Carrie Paterson (Author, Editor), Hensley Peterson (Editor)

Charles Paterson was in the Taliesin Fellowship from 1958-60. Truthfully, I purchased the book only for its Taliesin Fellowship connection. I read it in its entirety during the Covid-19 lock-down. So, that’s one thing to be grateful for in the year 2020.

Paterson’s life begins in the 1930s in Austria. Then, his father helped him and his sister escape to Australia during World War II. The three were alive at the end of the war and reunited in the United States. Yet, Paterson’s study under Wright was one stop before he moved to the raw Colorado town of Aspen, where he became an architect.

And all of this is without mentioning Paterson’s uncle, architect Adolf Loos!

More Than One Author:

At Taliesin: Newspaper Columns by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship, 1934-1937, compiled by Randolph Henning

Another companion to “Apprentice to Genius”.

The editor found as many of the weekly “At Taliesin” newspaper as he could. Then he typed them up and edited them into this book. The “At Taliesin” articles were written in the 1930s and show Wright and his apprentices as they lived them. The apprentices worked as entertainers, cooks, laborers, and farmhands. Also, imo, the book shows why these kids would move to rural Wisconsin to live and work with a man old enough to be their grandfather. And like it. The book contains photographs found almost nowhere else.

About Wright: An Album of Recollections by Those Who Knew Frank Lloyd Wright, Edgar Tafel, ed., with foreword by Tom Wolfe.

This book has written memories by a wide group of people from all aspects of Wright’s life: friends, co-workers, family, and former apprentices.

Books showcasing photographs and graphics:

A Way of Life: An Apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright, by Lois Davidson Gottlieb.

Gottlieb apprenticed under Wright in 1948-49. She took the photographs of both Taliesins that are in this book. The colors in the photos are amazing and make you really appreciate Kodachrome film.

William Wesley Peters: The Evolution of a Creative Force. Editor emeritus John DeKoven Hill, with text by John C. Amarantides, David E. Dodge, et al.

“Wes” Peters’ “Box Projects” (bi-yearly projects given as presents by apprentices to Frank Lloyd Wright). The projects by Peters are beautifully illustrated, with an essay that explains them.

Websites:

Here are links to blogs written by former apprentices:

JG on Wright, John W. Geiger, Apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright

John Geiger tried to trace apprentices and the years they started under Wright. So, this site includes the list he created. He also had photographs that he gave to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

An explanation of the site is here: https://jgonwright.net/jgdb1.html

Robert M. Green, an apprentice in the last months of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life, kept a website and wrote about his reasons for leaving the Taliesin Fellowship.

https://web.archive.org/web/20011120175318/http://robertgreen.com/robert_green/robert_green.asp


First published April 5, 2021.
I took image at the top of this page.

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.”

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.

Frank Lloyd Wright buildings are smaller than you think

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.”