Looking northwest at Frank Lloyd Wright's Hillside building during April 26, 1952 fire

1952 fire at Hillside

Looking northeast at the southern facade of the Hillside building while the smoke still looms in its April 26, 1952 fire.
I don’t know who took this photograph. It came from a newspaper article that was given to the Preservation office probably in the 1990s.

As someone who worked at Taliesin, you got used to dealing with questions about fire on the Taliesin estate. Of course, there were the two Taliesin fires,

but that’s not all!

In 1952, a big fire took place at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hillside building on the south part of the Taliesin estate. That fire happened in April of that year. So, today I’ll talk about the fire and one of Hillside’s rooms affected by it.

I started this after a request:

Someone asked me about the Hillside theater, and its history, a few days ago. As sometimes happens, I know something really well, but don’t know what others don’t know at all. This had great timing, because

the Hillside fire happened nearly 70 years ago

on April 26, 1952.

And I’m trying to push away the knowledge that this means that drummer Stewart Copeland turns 70 this July. Copeland was in the band, The Police (which I adored as a teenager; hence the automatic knowledge on Copeland’s age; he was born on July 16, 1952 btw).

So, follow me while I talk about the original space at Hillside.

The old theater

The Hillside Theater is in the gymnasium Wright designed in 1901 for his Aunts’ Hillside Home School.1 Here’s a photo of the Hillside building when the Aunts ran the school. The gymnasium is on the photo’s far left-hand side:

Page 7 from "In the Valley of the Clan" booklet by William Hudson Harper.
Booklet located in the Wisconsin Historical Society. Collection: Lloyd Jones (Jane Lloyd Jones Correspondence, 1899-1940; Wisconsin Historical Society, Box 1).

The photo is in the booklet, “In the Valley of the Clan: The Story of a School”.

The booklet is on-line

at the Wisconsin Historical Society. The photo above is on page 7.

The inside of the gym is in the next photo:

Photograph looking east at the stage in the Hillside Home School gym.

Circa 1903 photo looking east in the Hillside Home School gym and its stage. The gym’s running track was behind the horizontal boards above the stage. Unknown photographer.
Taken from a Hillside booklet owned by Peggy Travers, whose mother went to the Hillside school.

In 1932, when Wright started the Taliesin Fellowship, he redesigned the gym into a theater that he named “the Playhouse”. So, in the first years his apprentices were changing things at his house so they could live there.

(like Edgar Tafel talked about in the book I recommended, Apprentice to Genius).

But they also immediately started renovating the gym into the Playhouse. Like, they took the gym’s running track and rehung it so it was on several different levels.

I don’t know what good that did, but it looked really cool.

Here’s a good drawing of it:

Drawing of Hillside Playhouse Theater from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives.
Property: The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). Drawing #3303.014.

The modified running track is on the upper right. A modified version of this drawing was painted onto plywood. Every Sunday that plywood placard was put alongside the 2-lane highway (Hwy 23) as advertisement for movies at the Playhouse.
You’ll be able to see the placard once the Hillside Theater opens back up after the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation completes its restoration.
Here’s a video discussion of their current restoration work.

1933 photo of the Playhouse when it was ready to open:

Taken by Angus Vicar. He took the photo the weekend before the Playhouse opened on November 1st, 1933:

Photograph by Angus Vicar. October 27 1933. Property of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Wisconsin Historical Society. Collection name: Photo Copy Service: Photo Copy Service photographs and negatives, 1925-1983.
Collection No.: 4245-B.

All this, despite a lack of Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy saying,

come on! Let’s put on a show!

The simple benches you see were constructed by a furniture maker in the Fellowship, Manuel Sandoval. He made them out of newly-cut oak. The “girls” in the Fellowship sewed the seat cushions.

So, movies at the Playhouse were the first public interface by the Taliesin Fellowship. They ran weekly, with apprentices in charge of manning the projector, introducing the movie, preparing coffee or tea for refreshments, and taking money from patrons.

Movies cost 50¢. For a dollar, you could watch the movie as well as get a tour with an apprentice.

This is how hardy we used to be:

That first winter, the Playhouse didn’t have radiator heat. Read this in an “At Taliesin” newspaper article on February 1, 1934:

“The new heating system is in operation, and made the theatre quite comfortable when weather conditions were unfavorable last Sunday.”
No named author. Transcribed from the published article by Randolph C. Henning, but not published in the 1992 “At Taliesin” book edited by Henning.

Eventually, the Wrights and the Fellowship began going to Arizona in the winter (as I noted in this post). Then, as the NEH story states, Wright found the land in Scottsdale in late 1937. The Fellowship then began building Taliesin West as its winter quarters.

In 1952, the Wrights and the Fellowship were returning from their winter when the Hillside fire happened. It destroyed the Playhouse, plus everything to the east up to the Assembly Hall. A stone foyer to the west of the Playhouse (added a few years before) was also untouched.

Below is a transcription of part of a newspaper story about the fire. It comes from the May 1, 1952 edition of Spring Green’s newspaper, the Weekly Home News:

Taliesin School Re-Born on Paper

As Flames Destroy Old Structure

…. Taliesin’s third major fire (the previous two destroyed the house) started late Saturday afternoon [April 26] when a rubbish fire, left unattended, swept toward the building as the wind shifted. A floor containing living quarters above the student dining room was destroyed first; then the flames spread into the theater and reduced it to ashes.           

“I lit that rubbish fire myself,” Wright readily admitted.

“It was about 30 ft. from the building and the wind was blowing toward the east. I shouldn’t have gone off and left it, but the wind shifted and carried the fire up under the overhang of the roof. When I came back smoke was coming from the roof and upper floor.”         

…. Although a small office adjoining the living room [the Assembly Hall] was badly damaged…, the big room itself suffered only smoke damage. Wright found good in that, too. “That smoke-tone is wonderful,” he said. “I couldn’t have darkened it so evenly if I’d done it myself. Nature is God’s technician.”

Fellowship member “Frances” Nemtin, who joined the Fellowship in early ’46, wrote about it in her booklet, 3 by FLLW. She, then-husband Kenn Lockhart, and their children had been living at the Midway Barns over the winter. On that day in 1952:

… [T]here were a few of us on the grounds…. I was at startled to hear sirens and see fire-trucks and police cars screaming through our valley and turning into Hillside… when I ran onto the nearby roof I saw black smoke rising there. With the children I drove to Hillside fast and found a horrifying scene. The theater was full of flames and the local fire engines were desperately fighting an enormous blaze.

3 by FLLW, by Frances Nemtin (self-published, 2008), 44-45.

As members of the Taliesin Fellowship returned, they cleaned the area, prepping for work. That’s because Wright had already redesigned the space.

The new space, now called the Hillside Theatre/Theater (both spellings are in drawings) pushed out further on the north and south. The apprentices poured concrete and created stadium seating. He designed metal chairs, most of which where put into the concrete.

In 1955, they had a formal evening for Wright’s birthday (June 8) to mark the completion of the work.

Maynard Parker also took photographs at Taliesin that year.

These photographs were published in House Beautiful in November, 1955. One of the photos he took is below:

Photographer, Maynard Parker. Looking northwest at Frank Lloyd Wright's Hillside building in 1955..
Huntington Library–Maynard Parker collection. Call Number. photoCL MLP 1266.

Summer photograph by Maynard Parker looking at the south facade of Hillside. The rebuilt Theater is on the left. An enlarged kitchen at Hillside is on the lower right, under a new roof with a balcony parapet above the stone and wooden doors.

The next year, 1956, the apprentices in the Taliesin Fellowship gave Wright a curtain from his design. Again, here’s Frances Nemtin:

…. It was to be an abstraction of the Wisconsin landscape and executed in felt appliqued on Belgian linen…. Immediately on reaching Wisconsin that April we set out to work in the second floor of Aldebaran, Wes Peters‘ farm, so we could work secretly. We knew if Mr. Wright saw it in progress he’d make constant changes.

3 by FLLW, by Frances Nemtin (self-published, 2008), 49.

Frances and others could not agree on the date of the curtain’s execution. Folks at Taliesin and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation didn’t know if it was made in 1954, ’56, or ’57.

Then I got an email:

A woman wrote me at work (as the Taliesin historian). She told me that her parents were in the Taliesin Fellowship and her mother worked on that curtain. And her mother went into labor with her a few days before they finished. And she was born in June of 1956.

So we had our date.

Not cut in stone, but… good enough I’d say.

First published April 15, 2022.
I do not know who took the photograph at the top of this page, but it appeared in a newspaper story on the Hillside fire.


Notes:

1. The building I wrote about in the post, “Another find at Hillside” was the original gymnasium for the Aunts’ Hillside school. That building became the dormitory for older boys once Wright’s building was constructed.

Chicago History Museum, ICHi-89163, Raymond W. Trowbridge, photographer

About a Wall at Taliesin That No Longer Exists

I wrote this to myself over a decade ago.

When I was asking questions about the history of Taliesin (as I often do). But, to start off: this post is about the photo at the top of this page.

I’ve been trying to figure out the history of a wall between two rooms in Wright’s living quarters at Taliesin. These rooms, known as the Loggia and the Loggia fireplace, were, in 1911, a guest bedroom and a sitting room (which had a fireplace then, too). Taliesin’s living quarters were destroyed by fire down to the foundations and chimneys in 1914.

Wright rebuilt the living quarters in 1914-15 and renamed them Taliesin II. In the rebuilding, he took the guest bedroom and redesigned it into a room he called the Loggia (then added a guest bedroom to the south of the sitting room). He picked “Loggia” as the name for the room because there were stone piers on one side of the room (and it had a stone floor).

What is a “Loggia”?

Wikipedia has a nice definition of loggia.

Wright noted that the Loggia “looked up the Valley to the Lloyd-Jones Chapel.” [this quote is in his autobiography, published in Frank Lloyd Wright: Collected Writings, v. 2, 241.] The ‘Valley’ is the Wisconsin valley settled by his Lloyd Jones family.

The east side of the Loggia looked toward the family Valley; its west side opened to the Loggia fireplace, and you can see it in a Taliesin II floor plan that’s online here. The room is labelled “sitting room” because it worked with the bedroom to its right.

The living quarters were again consumed by fire in 1925. Reconstruction occurred on the building throughout that year, giving us (as he later named it) Taliesin III. This version of the living quarters is what still exists. Although it looked lot different in 1959 than when he rebuilt in 1925.

I mean, it’s still rectangular and constructed of stone, plaster and wood, with cedar shingles on the roof and plate glass in the windows, but…. The man made changes in almost every part of the building so understanding old photographs takes a little bit of reconfiguring in your brain.

There aren’t many photos for either of these spaces (today’s Loggia and loggia fireplace) before 1950. That’s why, when I first saw the photo at the top of this page, I didn’t know what room I was looking at.

The photo is in the public domain, which is why I feel fine showing it.

You are seeing the interior of Taliesin, though. This is looking northeast from the Loggia fireplace area (the fireplace is behind the photographer). The stone wall you see on the right stood between the Loggia fireplace and the Loggia. It was probably a foot wide, close to 5 feet tall, and about 10 feet long. No other photograph shows it, and Wright removed it some time in the 1930s.

When was the photo taken? Evidence suggests the photograph took it in the summer of 1930. I’ll explain how I know that in the next blog post.

What are you seeing in this photograph?

The photo is cool if you don’t know Taliesin, but it’s probably pretty confusing if you do. If you stood at this same spot at Taliesin today, only two things are the same: the radiator cover to the left of the chair on the left is the same (the radiator cover is what looks like a wooden table with spindles). And the passageway behind the chair, through the wooden door, is still there,

Only the door itself isn’t. That’s because Wright no longer needed it.

When this photo was taken, you would have gone through the door, take a left, then through another door. Then you’d be outside. In the 1940s, Wright changed that entryway. Because of that, he removed the wooden door since he no longer needed it.

What the photograph shows that is now different:

Now that I’ve covered what’s the same, there’s what’s different. Or some of it, anyway.

What’s most noticeably different to anyone at Taliesin today is the stone wall (with wood above it) on the right. The wall had a glass door framed in wood and that doesn’t exist anymore. And, at the top of the photo, there’s the parapet (the stucco wall) with vertical wooden piers.

What you would see today:

If you were at Taliesin today you would not see the stone wall or the parapet. That’s different because of the other major change: the ceiling is much lower. In 1933-34 he lowered ceiling to build rooms above for his daughter, Iovanna (1925-2015).

And of course when I write that Wright “built” anything: the people who did this were either workers or architectural apprentices. And, after 1932, most of the work was by his apprentices in the Taliesin Fellowship.

One of them, Abe Dombar, wrote about the changed that lowerd the ceiling in “At Taliesin”. This was the regular newspaper features. This one was published February 9, 1934:

          Two new rooms added to the pageant of Taliesin’s 40 rooms merely by lowering the ceiling of the loggia and raising the roof above it to get the most playful room in the house.  The boys call it a “scherzo.”  This is little eight year old Iovanna’s room.  Until now she was the only apprentice who didn’t have his or her own room.”

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), 20-21.

That change made everything you see in the upper half of the photograph different. And everything you see in the lower part of the photo is different because of the removed wall and door.

The stone wall that no longer exists:

That wall, though. I’ve spent a lot of energy on trying to figure out when, exactly, he had it removed. And I’ve tried to figure out what was going on underneath it, allowing it to stand without damaging the floor. Because looking at its possible dimensions (I think it was about 1’x5’x10’—30cm x 1.5m x 3m, or so), the wall (built in limestone) probably weighed around a ton (just over 900 kg).  

But I’ve checked, and there’s no wall below taking the weight. You’d think that he would have done something to the floor below to hold something that heavy, but no.  

And, while I often say “Taliesin keeps its history within its walls”,

There’s nothing around this area that tells you a wall was there. I’ve walked along the floor (probably even gotten on my hands and knees and crawled along it). There’s nothing there that lets you know that a substantial wall, about a foot wide, once stood on it. While normally at Taliesin, you can’t just hack a stone wall down and not leave a footprint. But, that’s not what’s going on here.

I think what might have happened is that Wright rebuilt the living quarters in 1925, and after it was done, decided to add the stone wall on top of the preexisting stone floor. Then he later decided to get rid of it.

But there’s no record of anyone taking it down. His apprentices in the Taliesin Fellowship were doing so much that they didn’t have time to note things or take photos of their work.

And studying the building usually doesn’t result in tracking down every change (even if you knew it happened). Or, frequently, figure out how to ask who did what/where/when.

I think the Administrator of Historic Studies at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Indira Berndtson, has done the best job tracking things down in part because she has lived at Taliesin (and Taliesin West), and has known people in Wright’s life so well. Starting in the mid-late 1980s, she began doing interviews with former apprentices, clients, and friends of Wright’s. Because she knew (and knows) so many of these people, she might be speaking to them, and be reminded of something someone else said. Then she could add, “So-and-so said they remembered you all doing this,” and that would push someone’s memory to add to the story.

Information at changes to Taliesin:

The only time you get actual, on-the-spot information is when Taliesin Fellowship apprentices wrote letters to family, wrote the weekly “At Taliesin” newspaper articles (1934-37) or, in the case of one, kept a daily diary (this was Priscilla Henken who was in the Taliesin Fellowship with her husband in 1942-43). There are books and articles that people wrote about their time in the Fellowship, but other than those things, there’s no consistent way of getting information on changes at Taliesin as they were happening.

Sketches of the wall exist, but nothing definitive. There’s one drawing which appears to match reality, but it doesn’t show the wall. I’ve dated that drawing to  1936-37 based on architectural details and you can get to it through this link.

If you look at the drawing, the Loggia fireplace is the fireplace that’s at the lower right, backed up against a rectangular roof.

Back to the wonderful photograph above:

Ken Hedrich took the next, dated, photograph of the space in 1937. That doesn’t show the wall.

btw: he took this photograph (linked through here) for the January 1938 issue of Architectural Forum magazine, which focused on Wright.

In the end, at this moment,1 I have the curiosity that there was a wall at Taliesin that was later removed, for which there really isn’t any evidence and I can’t quite figure out why the wall didn’t mess up the floor (making the stone floor, or the ceiling below, crack with the weight).

Although I always hope that I’ll come across a diary entry where someone wrote, “we were asked to take down a stone wall. I had stone grit in my food for 3 days afterwards.”

First published 1/21/2021

The photograph at the top of this post was by Raymond Trowbridge and is at the Chicago History Museum, ICHi-89166. It is in the public domain. This is a larger version on the keiranmurphy.com website.


1 Although I wrote this originally over a decade ago, I still don’t know how the wall was standing without causing an effect on the floor, I still haven’t come across many photographs of it, and I haven’t come across anyone writing about taking it down.