Photograph by Mat Kauten at Taliesin in 1944. Property of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

Gertrude Kerbis – an architect because of Taliesin

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Photographer (and apprentice) Mat Kauten took this photograph looking at Taliesin’s Garden Room in 1944. I think Gertrude Kerbis might have seen Taliesin at the same time of year that Kauten took his photographs.

Here’s the story: a while ago, I received an email from Elizabeth Blasius, an architectural historian and co-founder of Preservation Futures.1

Blasius had questions about a memory that award-winning architect Gertrude Kerbis spoke about on a couple of occasions. Kerbis talked about some obscure things relating to Taliesin, so Blasius had asked people she knew who might know the answer. So, of course she went to someone in the Wrightworld.

she’s in Chicago, a place filled with Frankophiles.

Eric Rogers, Events and Communications Manager at the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, gave her my name and contact info.

Her questions, and my answer, are what this post is about.

In part because they let me do one of my favorite things: walk around Taliesin in the past.

Kerbis was not an apprentice in the Taliesin Fellowship  and apparently never met Frank Lloyd Wright.


circa 1945, she had an encounter with Taliesin that changed her life.

Blasius wrote and told me that while Kerbis was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she:

[R]ead a Life magazine article about Frank Lloyd Wright. She was fascinated with his work, and discovered that Taliesin was not far from Madison.

She then hitchhiked to Spring Green, and found herself on the grounds of Taliesin.

FYI: Spring Green is around 45 miles (72 km) west of Madison.

When Kerbis arrived at Taliesin, no one was there. Still, she walked all around it, and looked in through its windows.

At one point

she heard steps behind her, turned around and there was a white peacock in “full flutter”.

Sounds like the peacock was standing its ground; I doubt it thought she was a mate.

After the peacock incident

Kerbis realized it was late. Since she’d hitchhiked all the way out there, she decided to hunker down and stay at Taliesin.

She said that, luckily, she found an open window into a bathroom and climbed in! Then she spent the night in one of the bedrooms. While she never mentioned what her bedroom was like, she found a record player and played Beethoven.

Blasius told me that “next morning she had decided to become an architect.”

Blasius was of course curious about this. I would be, too:

  • How the hell could she walk around all over the place and not see anyone? She stayed overnight, so it’s not like the Wrights had just gone out for dinner.
  • And were there really peacocks at Taliesin?

Her email made my day.

It was a puzzle with all these pieces that I knew.

So, yes: what Blasius relayed to me made total sense.

First off:

Kerbis didn’t see anyone at Taliesin that day because, after the late 1930s, Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship picked up and left Wisconsin every fall. Therefore, the Wrights and the community of men and women working and living with them migrated to Taliesin West in Arizona. They would settle at T-West, and continue living in their community and working on Wright’s architectural commissions until the following spring.


Kerbis, while walking around Taliesin, saw “floor-to-ceiling” windows at Taliesin according to Blasius.

This also made sense to me.

Since Wright no longer lived in Wisconsin during the winter, he opened up the rooms and put glass into more walls

like I wrote about here and here.

I pictured where Kerbis would have walked around and seen through those windows, like into the room at the top of this post. And in the photo below by famous photographer Ezra Stoller:

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. I showed this photo in my post, “In Return for the Use of the Tractor“.

There’s a black rectangle to the right of the birch trees that’s really a floor-to-ceiling picture window. And the French doors on the left look into the Taliesin Drafting Studio.

As for peacocks:

I knew that some lived at Taliesin. I never heard they were white, but I’ve seen at least one photo of one. And that’s below:

Photograph taken on a roof at Taliesin, with a peacock on the left in mid-view. Taken by Douglas Lockwood, 1945-48. Property of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

Taliesin apprentice Douglas Lockwood took this photo at Taliesin sometime after World War II. The peacock is on the left under the roof outside the Hill Wing apartments.

Was Taliesin totally abandoned every year?

No. While most of the Fellowship went to Arizona, some apprentices stayed in Wisconsin for the winter. They took care of the animals and watched over all the buildings. Their work paid their tuition.

If there were people, why didn’t Gertrude see anybody?

Members of the Fellowship didn’t live at the Taliesin residence in the winter. They inhabited Midway Barn. It’s on the Taliesin estate and is less than half a mile away from Taliesin. But you can’t see Taliesin from Midway.

Kerbis and the bathroom:

Is that true?

Yes, it is. If you were a thin enough.

There’s one place in the building where you could see a bathroom from the outside, with a window that’s large enough to crawl through (for a petite person). There’s another bathroom you could see a little bit, although I don’t think you could crawl into it through the window. But both of them are on the ground floor of Taliesin.

I couldn’t find good photos of either bathroom area. But a good plan of that floor is at ARTSTOR. I’ll show a version of the drawing below with arrows pointing out the bathrooms:

Drawing of the ground floor of Taliesin. Drawing executed in 1936-1939. Drawing #2501.024.The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural  Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). Drawing #2501.024.

This drawing was executed 1936-39. Wright changed a few things on this floor by the time Kerbis came to Taliesin in 1945. But the two bathrooms were and are still where the arrows are pointing. The bathroom on the right has a really, really, small window, so I don’t know if that would have been open when Kerbis was walking around.

While there are two bathrooms, I think only a diminutive person could crawl through into the bathroom on the left.

BY THE WAY you scoundrels: in my 25 years, I never saw those windows open at Taliesin so don’t get any ideas.

The next day when she woke up

Gertrude decided she was going to be an architect.

She tells the story in this video about her.

She starts talking about her experience at Taliesin around 3 minutes in.

More on Gertrude Kerbis:

Here’s the blog post that Blasius wrote about Gertrude Kerbis’s career. Kerbis was remarkable. My thanks to Elizabeth Blasius for asking me questions. It was fun figuring it out.


Posted August 11, 2023
The photograph at the top of this post is in The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

1. Preservation Futures “is a Chicago-based firm exploring the future of historic preservation through research, action, and design.”

Drawing from 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?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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.