Looking outside in the summer the dissected boiler from Taliesin's Living Quarters.

Blue smoke at Taliesin

A photograph I took in 2007 while the Preservation Crew removed the boiler from Taliesin’s living quarters. Taliesin’s living room is one floor up and to the right.

Didn’t I write in here about the time there was blue smoke inside Taliesin’s Living Quarters one fall day in 1995?

[searches this blog for the words “blue” and “smoke”, but to no avail.]

I don’t mean blue smoke like decorative smoke that’s supposed to go along with cartoon Taliesin smurfs.1 No: this blue smoke filled the living quarters one day after the heat was turned on.

So, while I don’t know the details, this post is going to be about the new heating system that was installed at Taliesin. Because it’s the first weekend of September and I remember the fact that it’s going to get cold again.  

As I recall,

it happened one day in the autumn of 1995. I arrived at Taliesin’s front door with my House Tour guests and was greeted by the House Steward. She told us it might be a little chilly because they’d turned off the heat. That was because blue smoke filled the house after they turned it on that morning.

I checked online to find out what “blue smoke” coming from a heating system means. “Just Answer” told me the smoke was from an “accumulation of dust that can cause fumes.” I read that and went, “Well, sh*t – if that’s all it was, we should have just kept using the heater.”and right there is why it’s best for Taliesin that I stayed in research and writing instead of MAKING MATERIAL DECISIONS ON FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT’S HOME.

Following the blue smoke

the Preservation Crew investigated the system. While there wasn’t a sign of imminent catastrophe, they concluded that the presence of smoke and fumes was not a matter of just getting a new “panel” and fixing things easily.

I don’t know the age of the former radiators that comprised the heating system at Taliesin’s Living Quarters, but they were old.2 Maybe they didn’t date to Frank Lloyd Wright’s lifetime (he died in 1959), but, since I’m talking about Taliesin in the mid-1990s? Possibly.

Therefore,

Preservation turned off the heat inside Taliesin’s living quarters. They understood that the heat could not be turned on again until many problems were solved,

like, what I wrote about in “A Slice of Taliesin” is only a small part

and an appropriate system was researched, prepared, and acquired.

In fact, they didn’t even remove the old boiler until things veered closer to getting heat in the building.

That happened in 2007.

That’s when I took the photograph of the dismantled boiler at the top of this post.

Just so you know: NO, the boiler that was removed was not “the boiler” where Julian Carlton hid in 1914 – what the hell are you thinking?

Following this,

the only way the Taliesin Living Quarters were heated was through little space heaters placed in the rooms.

Hence, part of the reason that I’m still attuned to the question, “Did Wright ever live in Wisconsin the winter?
Wright had radiators from the beginning. Yet, people didn’t usually see them because the little heaters drew their attention.

Obviously, the space heaters were only plugged in/turned on when tours were going on. Which saved money and ensured that Taliesin House Stewards could monitor the devices.

Man,

I felt for the House Stewards and the tour guides when the weather was cold. I didn’t have to go to the house every day, since I hadn’t worked full-time in the tour program since 2002. But it was hard to talk about Wright’s genius in his house with little electric heaters. Although, while they didn’t make the space nice and toasty, they gave the “aura” of heat. The sense that, “Well, we’re doing the best we can.”

And so,

since Taliesin’s living quarters didn’t have heat until 2014, the building was shut down after October 31.3 In order to prepare for the winter, the tour staff moved the artifacts, rugs, and furniture into separate areas. The work by the tour staff took several days in November, and two weeks in the spring.

I mentioned “House opening” in my post, “Physical Taliesin history“.

Here’s a hint on what Taliesin’s Living Room looked like when it was almost set:

Looking (plan) northwest in Taliesin’s Living Room. Taken by me on the first day of House opening in 2006.

I confess that seeing this photograph squeezes my heart. Not in a good way. Man, I hated House opening.

Honestly,

I sometimes doubted that I’d ever see heat in Taliesin again. Not that the folks in Preservation weren’t making lists and slowly going through improvements, but I had worked there so long while things changed incrementally, and tour guides/staff still gave tours when outside temps were 40F (4.45C) the night before.

I felt like, “You don’t care about us!!!”

A panel from Calvin and Hobbes of Calvin laughing and pointing at his friend/rival, Susie

My alteration of a panel in a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon detailing how I felt while opening Taliesin in the spring following the removal of the boiler in Taliesin’s living quarters.

so.

I just realized

that the managers in the Preservation Crew were speaking like the pilot on your airplane while you’re waiting to take off. You get into your seat and they tell you you’ll be leaving shortly. Then sometimes you seem to sit there interminably on the “apron” before moving. But the pilot always has a positive attitude, telling you that you will be on your way in just a moment. Even when you aren’t. I guess with the Preservation at Taliesin, the crew did enough work (over 20 years) to remove the airplane chocks, then get onto the taxiway for takeoff.

You can get some more understanding by looking at a Preservation Report first loaded onto Taliesin Preservation‘s website in 2011.

Altho,

I just looked at the Wayback machine,4 and they don’t have the Preservation Report. Here, you can have my copy of the issue I’m thinking of.

p.s.: these were written by Ryan Hewson. He works for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation as the Preservation Director of Taliesin (Wisconsin). He had me proofread these, which I why I had an electronic copy.

The installation of the geo-thermal system at Taliesin was summarized here. And here’s an “after” photograph from the boiler room:

If that geothermal system seems familiar, it’s because I mentioned it in, “Why Did You Have to do That, Mr. Wright?!

To reiterate:

  • As I remember it, the heat was turned off in 1995,
  • The radiator was removed in 2007,
  • The geo-thermal heating system was fully installed and switched on in 2014.5

First published September 4, 2022.

 


Notes:

1 Yes, I did just spend time imagining Taliesin Blue Smurfs: Smurfs with canes, porkpie hats and capes. Did you?

2 Here’s information for those working in Preservation on the Taliesin estate: the large hole in the Hillside Theatre foyer is NOT a drain for water.

Since almost no guides were around when hot air used to come out of the vent, I’ve heard many “newer” guides (I mean, those who came after 1997) wonder out loud if that was for water.

That hole used to be a hot air vent. It worked when I first gave tours. You would walk in on a chilly day in September or October, and hot air came out of that hole. I think it helped people emotionally to know that Wright tried to make the space warm. I mean, it’s all stone and has no insulation.

3 While the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation is working on Wright’s Hillside Theater, there’s still no heat inside most of the rest of the Hillside School building.

4 Here’s my post about the Wayback Machine.

5 It wouldn’t have made sense to move things ahead of time, since Preservation was just going to have to do a bunch of work later.

Daylight photograph in the Arizona desert with a waxing moon.

Reading Correspondence, 2021

A desert landscape outside of Scottsdale, Arizona.
Taken December 2021.

Beating the wave of the Omicron variant of Covid-19, we went to Arizona the second week of December. We went there for the Open House at the Organic Architecture + Design Archives. The OA+D Archives was founded by people who have wanted to secure the future of information on those who practice “Organic Architecture“. So, they have assembled objects—drawings, photographs, models, etc.—particularly by those architects who worked with, or apprenticed under, Frank Lloyd Wright.

The OA+D recently acquired the Taliesin Architects collection. “TA” were members of the Taliesin Fellowship and Frank Lloyd Wright’s former apprentices. After his death in 1959, they completed his ongoing projects. This naturally led to people coming to these former Wright apprentices to design their own homes and buildings. These former apprentices incorporated the firm in 1960 and ran it until 2003. The collection has many things from the firm; basically thousands of objects.

By the way, former apprentices constructed buildings all around Spring Green, Wisconsin. This was on the Spring Green Traveler’s Guide (which has been folded into the website for the Spring Green Chamber of Commerce). Although I went to the Chamber of Commerce site through the Wayback Machine to show you the web page with the

Architectural Driving Tour

Tour guides had to learn about the Traveler’s Guide since it was the easiest handout when helping visitors figure out the area. I think I learned about it the first weekend I ever gave tours. I’ve seen guides flip automatically to the page with the Architectural Driving Tour if someone came looking for a tour after the last one had left for the day.

But the trip last week brought us close to Wright’s winter home, Taliesin West.

So I made an appointment

Not to go on a tour (I’ve taken Taliesin West tours about 10 times). I went to transcribe some of “the correspondence”. This is the correspondence from Frank Lloyd Wright’s archives. It’s over 200,000 pieces (so a postcard is one piece, and a 10-page letter is another piece). It’s to/from Wright, his family, his business associates, et al.

Over 30 years ago, all of the correspondence was photographed and put on Microfiche. Then it was indexed in a five-volume set of books. You can look for the names of people who wrote to Wright, who he wrote to, when they wrote, what building they were writing about, etc. Every piece has an index number. You want to check out that piece of writing, you write down the identification number and look for it on the piece of Microfiche.

I think even if you were the President of all Historians, you wouldn’t get a lot of chances to physically pick up the “real stuff”.

The Avery Fine Arts & Architectural Library, along with many things, has a copy of the Mircofiche. As does Taliesin West.

As well as the Getty Research Center in Los Angeles.

I first looked at the correspondence (and other things in Wright’s archive) almost 15 years ago (I wrote about it in my post about photographer, Raymond Trowbridge). And yet, looking at letters and telegrams from all these people associated with Wright / Taliesin—to discover his activities on his whole estate—is like seeing the streamers shooting out from the sun’s corona. You can’t closely see what’s going on at the sun itself; you see its outer edge and its effects.

In other words,

relatively few of the letters and telegrams deal with the actual buildings on the Taliesin estate. There just aren’t that many letters of him acquiring stone or writing down a formula for a plaster color. When he wanted something anywhere at Taliesin, he could just tell people what he wanted because he was often there.

Yet, I have dug around in ways over the years to find answers.

That’s how I found the letter where Herb Fritz offered Wright some stone “In Return for the Use of the Tractor“.

While I didn’t know what I’d find this time around, I looked for stuff related to Wright’s “Midway Barn” on the Taliesin estate.

The greatest find:

Happily, I found the only piece of correspondence that specifically related to Midway Barn! In May 1938, the Gillen Woodwork Corp shipped material for roofing, they said, on “your Midway Barn.” That 1938 date explained why the director of the Archives, the late Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, had said for years that the building was begun in 1938. But in the Frank Lloyd Wright: Complete Works, vol. 2, 1917-42 (2009), Pfeiffer wrote that Midway’s date is c. 1920.

I always hoped it was because Pfeiffer had seen my writing somewhere about Midway, in which I gave evidence that the building existed by 1920. And, thus, was persuaded by my genius. (Or perhaps something else. I don’t know, but I prefer “genius”.)

Or possibly,

Because “Bruce” took a look at a drawing they have in the Archives. It’s drawing Number 3420.005,  first executed in 1920 by draftsman, Rudolph Schindler. Schindler left this at Taliesin, and, like many drawings of the estate, Wright continuously drew on it. Still, when you look at the copy at the link from ARTSTOR, you see a building right in the middle of the drawing, under the scribbles. It looks suspiciously like Midway.

Now, I don’t trust Wright’s drawings of Taliesin, because he often drew what he wanted to exist at Taliesin along with what was actually there.

I wrote about that (of course I did) in my post, “Exhibiting Patience“.

But Schindler’s original drawing appears to show what stood there in reality.

Here’s a crop from the drawing, below:

Drawing 3420.005 from The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

Crop of drawing 3420.005. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

Schindler’s drawing is the darkest part in the middle. Now this makes me wonder who originally wanted that structure built.

Wright, maybe, but his brother-in-law, Andrew Porter, had owned that piece of land until about a month before Shindler made the drawing.1 And as I said, Schindler seemed to draw what actually existed. Not all of those scribbles that Wright added later.

Well, as I’ve said for years: if Wright had made it easy, I wouldn’t have a career.

Originally posted December 19, 2021.
I took the photograph at the top of the post on December 12, 2021.


1 November 8, 1920.

Looking west in Taliesin's Garden Room. Photograph by Keiran Murphy.

Physical Taliesin history

Looking (plan) west in Taliesin’s Garden Room. Everything you see in the room (except for the plant and thermometer) was designed or owned by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright, re-use

I thought about this yesterday when seeing a link to a video through Taliesin Preservation’s Facebook page. Their link went to a video put up by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation (the Taliesin Estate owner) a couple of years ago. The video was about Frank Lloyd Wright and recycling. In the piece, two staff members from the Foundation sit in Taliesin’s living room talking about Wright’s reuse of materials at his home.

My post today will be about another time I noticed that Wright reused materials at Taliesin.

Now, one of the things staff from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation points out is a music chair of Wright’s design in Taliesin’s living room. The sign was plywood, and Wright used this and other signs in his buildings to go along with his models.

And, if you take a tour at Taliesin (tours start on the weekends in April), you see there’s this chair with a cushion tipped up, showing that the seat of the music chair is made from scrap from an old sign. I put a photograph below of a sign, that I took from one of my old magazines.

At the time the magazine was published (Architectural Forum in 1938), people took tours given by Wright’s architectural apprentices. The photograph below shows one of the rooms people went through, with signs and some models.

By the way: you still go through this room on Taliesin tours. It’s in the Hillside building and you see it on Taliesin’s Estate tour and the Highlights tour.

The font on the sign in the background above, that says “A New Freedom”, is the same font as that on the chair:

Photograph by Roy Peterson from p. 18 of the January 1938 Architectural Forum magazine issue devoted to Wright.Photographer: Roy Peterson.
1938 Architectural Forum magazine, January 1938, volume 68, number 1, 18.

Getting back to what I thought of:

That talk (between Ryan and Jeff) from the Foundation reminded me about something else that was reused inside Taliesin. I found it while cleaning the furniture before tours.

Prepping for tours:

See, back in the olden days, before the start of every tour season, staff from Taliesin tours would clean and arrange everything at Hillside and Taliesin. In addition to the buildings not being used on tours for 6 months, the tour space of both buildings (except for Wright’s drafting studio at Taliesin) were not heated.

It’s not that Wright didn’t know enough not to heat his Wisconsin buildings —

I wrote about that in the post, “Did Wright Ever Live in Wisconsin in the winter?

no: these tour spaces weren’t heated because the mechanical systems had broken down after decades of use.

As a result of no building heat,

after the end of the tour season (on Halloween at that time), everything had to be broken down (or rolled up), stored, or moved. Then, before the beginning of the tour season (May 1 at that time) everything was cleaned and moved back. “Opening” took place in April.

Since the Taliesin tour space is now heated, tours go through the Taliesin residence on the weekends in November and April before completely shutting down (Wisconsin winters, you know).

“Closing” took 3 days or so. Opening the buildings took longer. That’s because everything (furniture, floors, doors, windows, and all horizontal surfaces) had to be washed by hand.

Oh yes: I killed a lot of spiders during my years of Opening the House. I apologized to them while squishing them and hope I don’t have to pay for that in my next life.

This work was done in spaces that, in April, were in the low 50sF (about 10-16C). Sounds pleasant, but not when the air, windows, and walls have soaked up the winter cold, and you’re sitting on stone floors that are colder than 50F.

Sometimes on nice days in mid-April, we’d open up the windows and doors to bring in warmer air.

Back to cleaning:

One April day, I was cleaning in a room known as the Garden Room. The Garden Room is in the photograph at the top of this post.

The Garden Room was initially added in 1943 and expanded 1950-52. A drawing of the room shows which part I’m talking about. It’s drawing #2501.051 (the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives; Museum of Modern Art | the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

A drawing:

I’ve taken a crop of the drawing and wrote where in the room I was cleaning:

Drawing 2501.051 cropped. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (the Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architecturel & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives #2501.051. Note that this drawing has been cropped.

I was lying on the stone floor cleaning the underside of the bookshelves, which I pointed to in the drawing above. The photograph at the top of this page shows the shelf that I was lying under.

While was working, I saw this dark mark on the underside of the shelf.

What I saw:

I don’t have a photograph, but my illustration below is basically a drawing of the shape I saw:

It took me a moment or two to realize what it was. I was seeing a burn mark from an iron. Someone had been ironing, put the iron down, got distracted and left this mark. Later on, the piece of wood was turned over and re-used as the bookshelf.

The “sad” iron

Writing this post made me look up information on irons.1 It appears that, given the solid dark color, that this was from a “sad” iron. The “sad” iron was the solid metal iron that wasn’t plugged in (“sad” is Old English for “solid”).

According to what I read online, irons have been around for millennia and they started to become electrified in the 19th century. And, while the “first electric iron was invented in 1882”, for decades,

… most regions of the United States didn’t have electricity, and those that did, only had it only at night for lighting. Earl Richardson in Ontario, Canada, was the first to convince the local electric company to run electricity on Tuesday, ironing day. However, a good number of women, particularly in rural areas that were late getting electricity, held onto their sad irons well into the 1950s.

https://www.collectorsweekly.com/tools-and-hardware/sad-and-flat-irons

Given how Taliesin, by the early 1950s, was no longer getting electricity from the Taliesin dam,2 electricity still might have been spotty. So it’s possible that members of the Taliesin Fellowship had the older type of iron on hand for consistent use in ironing. Or maybe the burn mark happened decades earlier, and this was a piece of wood that had been saved for any future need.

As a note:

I hope you enjoy yourself if you ever take a tour at Taliesin. However, please do NOT get on the floor on your hands and knees looking for the burn mark from the iron. It’s on the underside of the shelf and, aside from alarming everyone around you, you’ll have to get back up off the ground, without leaning on any of the original Frank Lloyd Wright-designed furniture in the room.

Originally posted, December 4, 2021.
I took this photograph at the top of the post on May 26, 2006.


1 I should try to remember all the things I’ve learned while working around Taliesin. The “sad” iron is one of them. I’ve also learned what the Wisconsin state bird is (the Robin, natch); about the flooding of the Seine River in Paris in 1910 (written about by Wright in his autobiography); the history of Unitarian Universalism (the religion of Wright’s Welsh family); and what “Sloyd” is (his aunts used it in their Hillside Home School).

And that’s just off the top of my head.

2 Not that electricity from Taliesin’s hydroelectric plant at the dam was good or consistent. Lights went out a lot, and apparently if someone ran the saw on the western end of the building, the lights would flicker in Taliesin’s living quarters on the opposite end of the building, over 300 feet away.

Broadacre City model in the Dana Gallery at Hillside

Preservation by Distribution

The model of Broadacre City, Wright’s idea/design for decentralized living. Photo taken while the model—mentioned in the post below—was displayed against the north wall of the Dana Gallery at the Hillside building on the Taliesin estate. Raggedkompany took this photograph in 2008/09.1

One day over 16 years ago, a woman came in for a tour of Taliesin.

She did a kind and thoughtful thing

She brought photocopies of letters that her aunt, Lucretia Nelson, had written to her parents (this woman’s grandparents) while Nelson was in Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship in 1934. So this woman wanted to give this to someone associated with Taliesin.

Fortunately I was on hand to take these from her.

Her act caused me to name this post, “Preservation by distribution”. That is: you try to get copies of things out there, in order to help them survive.

I spoke briefly to Lucretia’s niece (Lois) before she took her tour of Taliesin. While she was on tour, I read her aunt’s letters as quickly as possible, while getting what info I could on Lucretia Nelson. It turns out that in 1934, Nelson had written an article for “At Taliesin”. These were weekly newspaper articles that the Taliesin Fellowship had written in the 1930s. So I copied that for her and had it when she came off the bus after her tour.

Architect and writer, Randolph C. Henning, collected, transcribed and edited these columns, which he put into a book. I wrote about this book in my post on books by apprentices.

That day I got Lois’s address, since I wanted to absorb some of what Lucretia Nelson had written. I felt I should give her more information once I had a some time to look things over. So when I did, I told her who Lucretia had mentioned, and pointed out an important event in Wright’s career that Nelson had written about.

I’ll talk about that further below. First of all, I should mention Lucretia and some of those people. And why she was at Taliesin.

Who was Lucretia Nelson?

Nelson (1912-1991) received a B.A. in painting at University of California-Berkeley in 1934. Apparently after graduation, she came into the Fellowship with a college friend, Sim “Bruce” Richards. Frank Lloyd Wright had seen Bruce’s work in Berkeley during a lecture and had encouraged the young man to join the Fellowship. So the two friends (Bruce and Lucretia) headed to Taliesin, where they met up with another former UC-Berkeley student, Blaine Drake (Drake had entered the Fellowship the December before).2

Lucretia was there in 1934, possibly into 1935. The men, who later became architects, stayed longer. Bruce until 1936; and Blaine until 1941. Meanwhile, Lucretia returned to UC-Berkeley, received a Master’s degree, then taught in its department of decorative arts, where she also became an administrator.

Her year in the Taliesin Fellowship was something that she often remembered and one can understand why: she was devoted to the connection between life and art, which she saw around her when in the Taliesin Fellowship.

Two things that stuck out in Lucretia’s letters:

She wrote about one change to Taliesin. It was planned for her room, and she told her parents that:

“You see it gives me instead of one small window on the north side under the deep eves [sic]… a south exposure and a wall almost entirely of windows.”*

This change is going to cause a problem.

The upcoming change altered the room. The southern wall in the room was moved further south. The that was the wall that she said would be “almost entirely of windows”. Then-apprentice, Edgar Tafel, wrote about this change for the July 4th, 1935 “At Taliesin”. He said that,

Fortunately, Taliesin is in an ever state of change.  Walls are being extended and new floors are being laid to accommodate our musical friends.  We are trying out the new concrete mixer – which marks a new day in our building activities.

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), 139-40.

This concrete caused a problem decades later:

Unfortunately for Taliesin, this concrete work blocked a drain behind this south wall. Water going behind the wall would freeze in the winter. This created a wedge from 1935 until the early 1990s. My understanding is that the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation (the site owners) began trying to figure out this problem in the late 1980s.

By that time, the back wall (visible on tours of Taliesin) was protruding seven inches out of plumb. Here’s a drawing that Taliesin Preservation did before the start of the project, just to give you a sense of things:

Drawing of a section of Taliesin during preservation work in 1993-94.

The part people saw was to the right of the stone wall.

During the preservation work, earth was removed from the back of the wall, which was slowly pushed back into place using jacks. This made the wall once again plumb. Then two drainage systems (one behind the wall) were installed.

This big project was done the winter before I started giving tours at Taliesin (1993-94).

Lucretia’s other important note:

In that same letter where she mentioned the upcoming work, Lucretia said that “a guest last week” who “has his son here” gave $1,000 for the construction of Wright’s “Broadacre Citymodel.

Every Frankophile (in other words, a Wrightfan) in the audience might have done a double-take at that last sentence.

The model of Broadacre City was Wright’s thought project about decentralized living (not tied to any real site). This $1,000 gave Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship the resources to construct it.

And the guest was Edgar Kaufmann, Sr.

Who was Kaufmann?

Edgar Kaufmann, Sr. was visiting Taliesin (with his wife, Liliane), because their son, Edgar, Jr., had joined the Fellowship a couple of months before. Edgar Sr. ran Kaufmann’s, a department store in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Most importantly, in less than a year, he and Liliane would receive plans for their weekend home near Pittsburgh. That home is known as Fallingwater.

Fallingwater: the building that started to put Wright back on the forefront of architecture.

Kaufmann’s $1,000 check not only meant that the architect had the money so his apprentices could build the 12 foot X 12 foot model. The money seemed to signal that Kaufmann believed in Wright’s ideas and work. And that, perhaps, he might hire Wright for that home they were thinking of building.

Originally published, November 21, 2021.
Thanks to Raggedkompany for permission to use his photograph at the top of this post.

* I changed this post on May 7, 2020 when I realized I’d incorrectly identified a photograph. I deleted the photograph here, but talked about what room it was really showing in my post “Oh my Frank – I was wrong“.

There’s an earlier version of “Preservation by Distribution”, with the mistake. It’s on the Wayback Machine, here.

**Bonus—See my post about the glorious Wayback Machine, here.


1 In 2012 the model became part of the collection of The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (Museum of Modern Art | The Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). 

2 In case you’re wondering: as far as I know, Lucretia was just friends with both Bruce and Blaine.

A red door at the alcove at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin studio

Found window:

I took the photograph above on May 14, 2004.
Looking (plan) north at the door to the alcove of Taliesin’s Drafting Studio.

Recently, I came across what I wrote to myself during Taliesin’s Save America’s Treasures project in 2003-04. It reminded me of one of the “finds” during that project. That’s what I’m going to write about in this post.

This is not the same as Save America’s Treasures Hillside Theatre project. That project, begun in 2020, is being undertaken by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

This other “SATs” project was carried out by Taliesin Preservation. The project’s purpose was to construct a drainage solution to the Taliesin residence. The Taliesin residence is at the “brow” of a hill (Taliesin, meaning “Shining Brow” in Welsh), so all the water had to get from the top of the hill to the bottom.

What – Wright didn’t think about rain going downhill?

Wright initially installed drainage at Taliesin. However, because he continuously changed Taliesin—and he never used gutters—the water, eventually, went through the building.

Not an ideal circumstance

One of the things I discovered in preservation is that water, in its liquid and solid form, is the most pernicious substance. It can expand, creating pressure. In humidity it can encourage mold. It can turn plaster into mush and wooden beams into fibrous soggy filaments.

Taliesin had all of these things and more.

Taliesin’s Save America’s Treasures project was designed, then, to move water, ice, and snow around the building, while not completely rebuilding or destroying it. Therefore, in order to do this, all of the flagstone in the main court was removed, and drainage was added under it to move the water around it. In addition, concrete walls were constructed under the main building, to help the drainage. This removed stone included that in Taliesin’s Breezeway (that’s the area under the roof between his home and his studio). So, the construction firm that worked with Taliesin Preservation removed the stone, while the Preservation Crew removed a door and door jam of the alcove in Taliesin’s Breezeway. A photograph of that door at the alcove is at the top of this post.

When the crew member removed the door and frame, he found a window hidden in the stone column on the west (or on the left in the photo above).

A completely unexpected find

We had no idea the window was there.

Although, things being “uncovered” and “found” during this project happened so much that when the crew member found this window, I was like, “Oh, yes. Of course. Something else. Thanks, Frank!

How he found the window was by removing the door jamb from the stone pier. As it turned out, the top foot (or so) of the stone pier was hollow, with a 1′ 3″ window tucked inside.

I’ll show a couple of photos to explain. First, is a photograph showing the alcove with the door removed:

The stone alcove outside of Wright's Taliesin Drafting Studio.

Looking (plan) north into the alcove outside of Taliesin’s Drafting Studio. You can see where the frame was removed. The found window is at the top on the left. I took this photograph.

Next is a photo looking at the column with the window:

Stone pier outside of Taliesin drafting studio in November, 2003.

Looking (plan) northwest at the column with the window. To the right of the window is where the door to Wright’s drafting studio usually is.

Then a close-up looking at the window:

The window found in the pier outside Wright's Taliesin studio.

I took this photograph of the newly discovered window (with a red frame) in November 2003.
The stone on either side hid the window. The wooden board has the word “Spring Gr…” written on top of it. 

The newly discovered window explained some things:

We had already noticed a gap between the top of the pier and the ceiling above it. We had wondered if there was a problem at all. But this window proved that the pier had never supported anything in the ceiling.

So: Wright had the pier built, then at some point he decided he didn’t want the little window there anymore. Therefore, he just had his apprentices enclose it by slapping some stone on one side, then on the other. It was probably the simplest solution.

After finding this, I embarked on my usual activity:

I looked for evidence of this little window in floor plans, elevations, and photographs. Although, the pier is underneath a deep overhang, thus any glancing photographs of the area didn’t show a tiny window like this.

And, while I’ve noted that Taliesin’s drawings are unreliable, they can be helpful.

For that reason, I looked at drawings hoping to catch something. One of those drawings was a Xerox. It’s a hand-drawn floor plan, with written measurements alongside everything (maybe Wright had one of his early apprentices do this early in the history of the Taliesin Fellowship).

This drawing, #2501.035, is below:

Drawing 2501.035.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). Drawing #2501.035.

Looking at the drawing with a magnifying glass I saw “1′ 3″ window” written and it was pointed right at “our” window. I’ve put a close-up of the drawing to show it, below (with the words 1′ 3″ highlighted):

Drawing 2501.035, cropped

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). Drawing #2501.035.

I saw this notation on the drawing at the end of the day, when I was alone in the office. When I saw it, I just started laughing. This amazing thing that we found. . . and there it sat for years, unnoticed, in a drawing.

After laughing, I wrote up the information, and sent that, as well as the scans showing photos, floor plans, and elevations, and my new photos, in an email to my supervisor.

That day was a hell of a lot of fun.

Published September 31, 2021.

Photograph of Taliesin's Loggia by Raymond C. Trowbridge

A slice of Taliesin:

1930 photo looking south in Taliesin’s Loggia. Notice the vertical water stain on the horizontal band of plaster in the background.

Many photos taken inside Taliesin during Wright’s lifetime show water stains. That’s why I’m showing this photograph by Raymond Trowbridge again: it shows Taliesin’s Loggia with a vertical water stain in the background. Personally, I’ve never seen that part of the roof leaking, but I have seen water coming into Taliesin. I start this post with scary water, then give you a short version of what the Preservation Crew did about that (that jumps over a bit of the story), which changed into an even bigger fix.

That can happen with historic preservation. One problem can highlight other problems. It was overwhelming even though I didn’t work on the Preservation Crew – I just researched Taliesin’s history!

Regardless, the way to approach preservation at Taliesin is how you “eat an elephant“: sometimes it’s just best to go after the smaller things until the resources are there to complete the project.

Here’s (most of) my part in the story:

I was eating lunch in Olgivanna Lloyd Wright‘s bedroom one summer day. I worked as a Taliesin House Steward one-day-a-week at that time, and Olgivanna’s Bedroom wasn’t yet on tours. So it was nice to take a break there. As I watched a summer downpour, I looked out the windows onto the Loggia Terrace (here in a recent photo from Flickr). While the roof didn’t (doesn’t) leak, I watched as buckets of water poured into the space between a stone half-wall on the terrace, and the wall that it leaned away from.

Wright added the half-wall in the 1950s, so it wasn’t attached to the taller stone wall behind it.

Check out the photo below to see this noticeable crack:

A stone wall at Taliesin with Olgivanna Lloyd Wright's Bedroom in the background.

Taken on the Loggia Terrace. The red framed windows at Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s Bedroom are in the background.
Kevin Dodds took this photograph in November, 2002.

Remember I wrote about how Wright buildings are smaller than you think? That’s not true here: that crack is as big as it looks

As I stood there in Olgivanna’s bedroom, I tried not to think about how much water was pouring into the building, and where it was going. I didn’t have the resources to do anything about the problem, and worrying would drive me crazy.

Fortunately, the Preservation Crew did do something.

In fact, they started doing something right after that photo above was taken. Kevin, a Preservation Crew member, photographed this in the beginning of their work.

They took the pier apart, looking into the building. On the other side of that stone wall above, they saw that the hearth at Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s Bedroom fireplace was deflecting. To fix the hearth, the Preservation Crew went under the building.

Why?

They had to support the hearth. But they didn’t want to support it on the floor below, in “the Gold Room”.1 They had to go into the crawlspace under the Gold Room to create support for its floor.

But, see, after its second fire Wright rebuilt Taliesin on the ashes of Taliesin II. So this crawlspace was a mess. The man who spearheaded the project2 explained it to me.

Imagine it:

Wright had recently spent over eight years of his life on a consuming project (the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo), and had acquired tons of art. That he brought home. And just under three years later his living quarters were, once again, consumed by fire.3

Wright wrote in his autobiography about that fire’s aftermath:

Left to me out of most of my earnings, since Taliesin I was destroyed, all I could show for my work and wanderings in the Orient for years past, were the leather trousers, burned socks, and shirt in which I stood, defeated, and what the workshop contained.

But Taliesin lived wherever I stood! A figure crept forward from out the shadows to say this to me. And I believed what Olgivanna said.

Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York, 1943), 262.

So, Wright moved on. Because what else was he going to do? Therefore, when the Preservation Crew (really, two men) started work, the crawlspace was full of dirt and ash. Literally: the ashes from the Taliesin II fire.

This photo shows the crawlspace.

It was taken a month after that photo showing the stone pier on the Loggia Terrace:

A crawlspace with dirt and stone piers underneath Taliesin

Photograph taken in December, 2002, by Kevin Dodds.

The “after” photo is below.

Kevin took this after the debris and ash (but NOT the stone piers) were removed. Then they built a support for the vertical section they built in the floor above:

Wooden platform in Taliesin's crawlspace.

Photograph in Taliesin’s crawlspace taken in February, 2003 by Kevin Dodds.

With that, they were able to put the structure in the Gold Room to support the hearth in Olgivanna’s Bedroom.

The support in the Gold Room.

This structure supported the stone hearth at Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s fireplace:

Photograph of a fireplace in the room at Taliesin known as "the Gold Room".

Photograph looking north in the room at Taliesin known as “the Gold Room”. Taken March 2004, by Kevin Dodds.

With that, they left it alone until they could get back to it.

In 2004, a year after this work, students from the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture (now The School of Architecture), working under the direction of the Preservation Crew, repaired the terrace outside of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s Bedroom (that’s the light blue area you see in the the first photo of the half-wall).

In 2005, the half-wall was rebuilt

Here’s a photo of the pier, rebuilt (with two layers of flashing):

Stone half-wall on Loggia Terrace at Taliesin

Photograph by Kevin Dodds taken May 2005. Looking southwest at the rebuilt half-wall on the Loggia Terrace. The dark membrane at the bottom of the photograph is waterproofing. This was covered by flagstone once the Loggia Terrace was restored.

In 2006, the crew continued in the crawlspace

After creating wooden forms, they prepared to pour concrete piers in it. Here’s one photo I took:

Concrete being brought in a hose to Taliesin.

I wasn’t usually involved with this stuff. But I had to get out and see the pumper truck. That photo above is showing the arm bring the concrete in. They brought it in through a little passageway (out of sight on the photograph’s left side). The passageway goes to the crawlspace where the forms were set for the concrete pour.

The concrete supports were created and set.

When that was done, they put jacks on top of them, then devised a way to bring steel beams into the crawlspace. It’s cool: hollow, rectangular, steel pieces were about two feet long were brought in, then bolted together.

Looking at a new beam in Taliesin's crawlspace

Jacks supporting the beams in the crawlspace that the Preservation Crew had constructed and prepared. Photograph taken March 2007 by Kevin Dodds.

The crawlspace looked like this for awhile.

The Preservation Crew had to wait until the next phase: jacking up the beams to correct the deflection.

Once this was accomplished, they contracted with Custom Metals (Madison, WI) to permanently weld the steel I-beams in the crawlspace.

Welding posts to concrete pads in crawlspace

Photos that show welding are so cinematic!
Taken by Kevin Dodds in February, 2010.

New posts and beams in crawlspace at Taliesin.

Photograph of the metal posts, beams, and concrete pads in Taliesin’s crawlspace. Taken February, 2010 by Kevin Dodds.

Once this was settled, they worked upstairs.

The Preservation Crew restored Olgivanna’s Bedroom in 2010. The bedroom was prepped and put on Taliesin House tours.

In 2011, Taliesin turned 100 years old.

After the tour season finished that year, the Preservation Crew began to completely restore Taliesin’s Loggia. After this, they restored all of the spaces in Taliesin’s Guest Wing rooms.

So now the Guest Wing is level, warmer, doesn’t smell like mildew, and the crew rebuilt amazing pieces of furniture. While you can’t see the crawlspace on a tour, you can go on a Virtual Tour through Taliesin’s Guest Wing (via Facebook), here.

When I look back on these things, I’m a little amazed. And I was only the sidelines for most of it!

Published August 31, 2021
The photograph at the top of this post is by Raymond C. Trowbridge at the Chicago History Museum, ICHi-89168. It is in the public domain.
Thanks to Kevin Dodds and Ryan Hewson from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation for allowing me to publish the work photographs.


1 It’s unknown why the room was given that name. Taliesin Preservation asked members of the Taliesin community (members of the Taliesin Fellowship) why it was given that name and the people they asked didn’t know.

2 Jim, the former Estate Manager who brought me to the crawlspace, is written about here.

3 This was an electrical fire.

Frank Lloyd Wright on balcony at Taliesin.

Mortar Mix

This post is about figuring out where Wright was standing in the photo at the top of this page.

And, several years ago, “Looked at some mortar,” was my answer to the question, “What did you do at work today?”

Wait – what? Why?

A collection of images in Delaware:

Earlier that day someone from the Hagley Museum and Library (Wilmington, Delaware) wrote me (as the historian for Taliesin Preservation) looking for a date on some images they have. It’s a collection of negatives by John Gordon Rideout.

According to the Hagley Museum,

John Gordon Rideout (1898-1951) was a noted industrial designer and architect based primarily in Ohio. The images in this digital collection come from an album of negatives in a collection of Rideout’s papers. Some of the images, likely dating to the early 1930s, depict Frank Lloyd Wright and his Spring Green, Wisconsin, estate, Taliesin.

There are 192 negatives from Rideout. Most of the images don’t show Taliesin, but I hope I had something to do with that date that’s on that page. 1933-34 is the date I gave for Rideout’s Taliesin images.

Figuring the date out from the other photos was easy. However, there was one photograph in the collection that I couldn’t immediately figure out. That photo is at the top of this page. That’s what led to me to look at mortar. In that photograph Wright stands against a stone wall with a ceiling over his head, and the frame of a window on the photograph’s left hand side. I figured I could find the wall where he was standing by looking for some of those mortar blobs. Turns out I was correct.1

Finding the site of the photo:

If I hadn’t seen the rest of the Rideout’s collection I might have thought Rideout had taken the image years earlier. That’s because Wright doesn’t look like the man we know: the fashionable, well-known man from the 1930s surrounded by his apprentices in the studios in Wisconsin or Arizona. The man in the photograph above looked like someone maybe 15 years before. I think it was his tie, billowy shirt, and the magnifying glass (like a monocle) that hangs around his neck.

Fortunately, according to Taliesin Fellowship member, Dr. Joseph Rorke:2

. . . [O]ne of the first things that Olgivanna did was to persuade Frank to abandon his flowing artist’s tie and shorten his hair, presumably because he was beginning to look faintly quaint and old-fashioned.
Meryl Secrest. Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography (1992; HarperPerennial, HarperCollins, New York City, 1993), 428. 

Regardless of when the photo was taken I had to figure out where Wright was standing. I knew he was at Taliesin (because of the stone, stucco, and wood) and despite what I thought, the photo comes from the early 1930s. So, I mentally walked through the structure to figure out his location.

Why didn’t I just know where he was?

Since Wright changed walls, doors, windows, etc., all the time at Taliesin, sometimes things in photographs no longer exist. And I don’t trust Taliesin’s drawings 100% of the time (he used the drawings to work things out; or he changed the designs as the construction proceeded). Based on what I know, I thought Wright was standing on a balcony off of his private office (the balcony no longer exists; he expanded the room).

So I drove to Taliesin to see if I was correct.1

Finding the mortar

I printed the photo and went to the room at Taliesin where I thought it was taken. Luckily two employees of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation were there working so I could ask them what they thought. The three of us went back and forth on it until we agreed to go over to the back of Wright’s vault.

Here’s the area we looked at:

Stone wall in Wright's private office with this studio in the background.

This was a photograph taken by me (thanks to Kyle for letting me inside the space to take photos).

Near the upper right portion of the photograph, under the horizontal pieces of stone, you can match the mortar to what’s in the photo with Wright. The stones are on the outside of his vault. In the photo with Wright, the top blotch of mortar is at around the same level as the top of his head.

So, there you go: the stone & mortar didn’t change. Just the stuff to the left of it did.

To the left of the stone you see into Taliesin’s drafting studio. The desk in the photo is where Wright would answer his mail in later years.

It’s not a working studio

Well, d’uh Keiran. I know it’s not a working studio. You do realize that Frank Lloyd Wright is dead, don’t you?

Yes I know that (about Wright’s relationship to life). But Wright stopped using this room as a drafting studio after 1939. In that year, another studio of his in Wisconsin was finished. That’s the 5,000 square foot drafting studio at Hillside on the Taliesin estate. So, it’s on the estate, but about half a mile away.

I talked about the studio in my post about Hillside. In fact, most of the photos you’ve seen where Wright is working in a studio in Wisconsin were taken at Hillside, not at Taliesin. You can also read this post at Wikipedia (the post that I, um, wrote), which is on Hillside and has an exterior photograph of that studio.

After the drafting was moved to Hillside, Wright used the Taliesin studio as his office.

Photographs taken in Wright’s studio (later his office) back to what was just shown:

Wright's desk in his office (his former studio).

This was a photograph taken by me (thanks to Kyle for letting me inside the space to take photos).

Here’s Wright’s office desk from the other side. The stone on the left is his vault. I put in an arrow to show where I took the other photograph from. When Rideout took the photo of Wright, Wright was standing about where the arrow is pointing. Out through the windows there’s the beige-colored wall. That wall didn’t exist when Rideout took the photo of Wright. At that time, Wright’s private office was further to the left. The place where the beige wall is today was, at that time, an exterior balcony.

Originally published April 10, 2021.

The photograph of Frank Lloyd Wright at the top of this page was taken by John Gordon Rideout. Courtesy of the Hagley Museum & Library. The photograph is available from this URL: https://digital.hagley.org/2701_negalbum_strip22_004.


1 I tend to say “correct” instead of “right” when I’m talking/writing about things related to Taliesin because. . . Wright, y’know. I’ve noticed that others who work/ give tours at Wright buildings also say “correct” instead of “right”. It’s a way to keep one’s sanity. Because when you give tours of a Wright building, you’re already saying his name and also saying, “And to your right. . . . “

2 Taliesin Fellowship, 1957-2013. “Dr. Joe” was 95 when he passed away.

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.”

Dam, waterfall, and hydro-house at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin

My Dam History

In early fall 2019, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation began work on Taliesin’s dam on Wright’s estate in Wisconsin. Hopefully, they’ll finish the work in 2022. Then, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation will again fill Taliesin’s pond. Once that happens, visitors will see the waterfall running on the north side of the stream.

Those working in preservation for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation did a segment on the work in a Facebook feed in August 2020 that’s pretty cool. It included an explanation of what they were doing and why.

This recent work made me think about the historic photographs of the waterfall (like the one above) and my study of them, so that’s what my post is about today. My study of the dam led into how I approached the study of Taliesin’s history overall.

My start in the dam history

I first came across a lot of photographs (or photocopies) of the dam and waterfall that winter I worked in the Preservation Office. My work was mostly arranging photos into binders so people could find them later.

I wrote about arranging those photographs associated with Taliesin a couple of blog posts ago. Those photos included 33 of the dam/waterfall. As those features weren’t near the building at all, I worked to figure out when the photos were taken. Sometimes the photos would be postcards that had been sent, so I could get a “taken by” date on them. Other than that a lot of times I figured out things at Taliesin by a game of “spot the difference” (like those cartoons you used to see in the newspaper on Sundays).

Since I only found four photographs with dates attached to them, I figured out their dates by looking at things around them. I looked closely at the stone, the heights of trees, and the thickness of tree branches. When I finished (and so I could keep the memory of what I learned) I wrote these things down into a short document. I named it: “Preliminary research into the construction history of the Lower Dam on the Taliesin Estate”.

Or, as I called it, “My Dam History” (usually said loudly to anyone who would listen). What I put below is based on the things I learned then, and what I found out in the years since.

Wright on his dam:

Wright began construction on his home in April or May 1911 and began building the dam by the end of that year or the beginning of the next. He wrote that, aside from creating the pond,

[T]he stream… had a great dam. A thick stone wall 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,1 up to a big stone reservoir built into the higher hill, just behind and above the hilltop garden. . . .

Frank Lloyd Wright. An Autobiography (Longmans, Green and Company, London, New York, Toronto, 1932), 173.

So, because of the hydraulic ram, Taliesin had running water.

It’s also the reason why Taliesin probably didn’t have outhouses. I wrote about that in a post in August, 2021.

Early Dam photos:

A photo of the dam in its initial construction is below:

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

Wright’s draftsman, Taylor Woolley, took the photo in the winter of 1911-12. It shows Taliesin at the top photograph and at least one wall built for the dam/pond at the bottom. You can see photographs of the early completed waterfall if you look at the book, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin: Illustrated by Vintage Postcards, by Randolph C. Henning.

A Hydro-house Constructed for Electricity

Close to 15 years after Wright first started Taliesin, he decided to take advantage of the waterfall’s power. So, he designed and built a hydro-electric generator at the dam. This was finished in early 1926.2

The hydro-house is in the photo at the top of the page

It’s the little structure to the right of the falls in that photograph. The hydro-house was similar to Taliesin: it had the same materials and angle on the roof, and the same color plaster on the parapet like what you found on the stucco walls at the house. People made postcards showing it, which is how I got the image above. A former co-worker gave it to me after finding it in a box of postcards while he and his wife were at a county fair.

But the stucco wall that you see wasn’t at the falls for very long. Water from the falls probably sprayed the stucco wall constantly. However, the hydro-house machinery was safer under under the roof. So the generator ran more-or-less successfully for about 20 years before Wright had it taken out.

Bad photocopies made for interesting lessons:

Oh, and I forgot this: for the most part, I was looking at 3rd, 4th, 7th generation photocopies. So I had to figure out images from what were basically blotchy dots.

To give you a sense of what I was seeing, I took the scan of that dam photo above and messed with it. I changed contrast and kept making copies of it. That’s what I below. Actually the image here looks better than what I remember seeing (eventually, I got better versions of most of the images).

But, the initial poor quality of the images made me really work on my analytical side. And it taught me to stop and start looking very closely at things. It’s think:  was that one stone a little bit different than one seen in another photo? Did it look like it had a few chunks taken out of it compared to what I saw before? Is there a new stone to the left of those three stones there? Is there less plaster on the wall?

Another thing about this work (looking at stone and the size of tree branches to figure out which photograph was taken earlier or later) was trying to block out preconceived notions on what I might expect to see in an image.

The end of my work days:

I might spend the afternoon looking at three photographs, going from one to the other with a loupe (a magnifier). The office used to be a horse stable at Taliesin, and had the sound of Taliesin’s waterfall as my backdrop.

It’s helpful especially with Wright’s home, because Wright often had things drawn there that never existed; or would change things while the features were being built. Like that hydro-house: it looks really cool in that photograph but as I wrote above, the waterlogged plaster was probably coming off it within a week. Trying to clear my brain when I looked at spaces hopefully stopped me from wasting time on some theory.

In addition, the end of this process meant that at times when people (tour guides, visitors to Taliesin, architects, other Frankophiles) asked something about a room, I could walk them through it at different times (because I’d spent hours walking through the spaces in my head). I found myself on at least one occasion saying, “It doesn’t look like that now, but it used to.”

And most of these people have never been there when I answered “what did you do at work today?” with, “I looked at some stone. And figured stuff out.”

Links below:

Here are hyperlinks at the Wisconsin Historical Society of photographs showing Taliesin’s waterfall with the hydro-house, after the removal of the parapet:

https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Image/IM25845

https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Image/IM60721

https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Image/IM25573

First published February 24, 2021

I own the postcard seen at the top of this post. I don’t know who the photographer was. They probably took the photo in 1926 or 1927.


Notes:

1 A hydraulic ram is one of the many things I’ve learned about while working at Taliesin. If you’ve ever been near a hydraulic ram you hear a constant clicking sound as the water is forced up vertically. I think about that when people talk about the sounds of Taliesin. It gets pretty darned quiet at night in the country so the hydraulic ram would have a sound, I imagine, close to the sound of the ticking of a distant clock.

2 Architectural historian Kathryn Smith wrote an article with former Wright apprentice Don Kalec on photographs taken of Taliesin, apparently by Clarence Fuermann, on three occasions. One of these is a photograph showing the hydro-house. It was published in the Journal of the Organic Architecture + Design Archives and includes over 50 archival photos.