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.

Photograph by Kevin Dodds, looking north in the hallway of Taliesin's Guest Wing.

Bats at Taliesin

Last summer I wrote “A Slice of Taliesin“, which described some of the work done by the Preservation Crew at Taliesin. In fact, that work was about twenty feet to the left + 4-6 feet below where Preservation Crew member Kevin Dodds was standing when he took took the photograph above.

Photograph above looks at the west wall in Taliesin’s Guest Wing in December 2006.
Kevin took it after the removal of the non-historic drywall had begun.

Kevin took the photo below a few months later1

The drywall demolition work uncovered a little bat cluster:

Photograph by Kevin Dodds in February 2007 looking at bats found in Taliesin's Guest Wing.

I am typing right now as far away from the screen as I can get because this photo just freaks me out.

Why’s that?

Bats freak me out.

And it’s April, which means that the bats are starting to wake up from their hibernation. Therefore, I’m going to write today about them and about Taliesin. That’s because I did not have a phobia of bats before I started working there.

When I mean phobia

I don’t want them eliminated. And I’m fine with seeing them at a distance. But being around them when they’re flying (or when they fall on the floor, which they can’t get up from), makes me scream uncontrollably. Others will say, “Oh, come on, what’s the problem?” while I’m screaming and running out of the room.

Before Taliesin,

the closest I’d come to seeing them was that scene with the bat in the movie, The Big Chill.

Since I moved to the area in the 1990s to be closer to Taliesin, I would see them flit past my face when I took walks at night in the summers. I was amazed at their echolocation. They’d fly by and it was kind of cool.

So the reaction came on unexpectedly

I believe I had my first negative reaction when cleaning at the Hillside structure later on.

“Nate” (another tour guide) and I were doing some deep cleaning at the Hillside Theater (deep cleaning was another thing I use to do at Taliesin, like I wrote about in the post, “I’m Just a Tour Guide“). We came across a bat sleeping on a wall. Nate slowly gathered the bat up so he could put it in a place away from people. I don’t know if it was the way the bat moved, or its squealing distress call.2 But as Nate kept saying, “It’s no problem, see? He’s just fine. . . “, I kept backing up, replying to him on the edge of hysteria that “it’s ok (!!!!)”

Plus, there were the House openings in April

That was done for years before there was heat inside Taliesin’s living quarters. I mentioned House openings in “Physical Taliesin History“. And more than once, the Opening crew found bats, sluggishly trying to keep warm. So, we designated Tom, a fellow House opener, as the bat catcher. One time, there was one bat that Tom found in the toilet, still alive, but it had fallen in the water.3

Apparently bats would hang on the edge of toilet rims. Most of the time they were fine, but sometimes they fell.

Tom took the wet and cold bat out of the toilet bowl, dried it carefully with a towel, and put it on a rock outside to let it warm up in the sunshine. Then he found another bat. I think it was also hanging from the rim of a toilet bowl, but hadn’t fallen in. He took it outside and put it next to the colder bat.

He swore that he looked over and the second bat had put its wing around the bat who had been wet. And when they warmed up, they flew away.

That’s adorable!

I know. But I still can’t stop screaming when I get around them.

But bats eat bugs!

I know. I know they all don’t have rabies. They are fascinating to watch coming out of chimneys. And I thank my little bat friends for their circumlocution around me when I walk at night. But… you know… screaming.

I also saw them while giving tours

One time, my two guests and I were in a room at Hillside. I saw a bat drop from the ceiling and fly behind them. And I didn’t even squeak.

Another time, I was the first person walking into Taliesin’s Living Room and saw a bat hanging from one of the cypress strips on the ceiling.

Color photograph looking south in Taliesin's living room. Taken October 2003.

Looking south in the living room. I took this photo on Oct. 27, 2003.

The bat hung near the top of the gable in the color photograph above.

I don’t know if anyone on the tour saw the bat (nobody mentioned it), but I did my best to speak about anything that didn’t rise above shoulder height. So I talked about the wood on the tables and the furniture’s low seats. I talked about the piano in the room, the stone on the floors, the fireplace, and the view out of the windows.

And, finally:

There was the story that I told on tours for my last few summers. It has to do with Terry Teachout.

Terry was the culture writer for the Wall Street Journal and died unexpectedly in January of 2022. He and I met in 2005 and became friends. He loved Spring Green, the nearby American Players Theatre, and Taliesin. He was invited to stay one night at the House by Minerva Montooth (a Taliesin resident who lived there with the Wrights in the Taliesin Fellowship).

A few days later, Terry sent me some of the writing he was doing for his post about that night in the House. He related listening to music in Taliesin’s living room (the room you see in the photograph above). He described how, at one point,

“A black bird came in, flew around the ceiling, then fluttered out. I never saw it again.”

I loved telling people on my tours that I replied, “Terry… that was a bat.”

First Published April 5, 2022.
Photographs by Kevin Dodds used with permission.


Studies on bats

The current state of bats on the Taliesin estate has been checked on by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. As you may be aware, brown bats are having problems because of “white nose syndrome”: https://www.batcon.org/about-bats/bats-101/

Long thing about “bat distress vocalizations: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-64323-7

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, on saving Wisconsin bats: https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/WildlifeHabitat/Bats

The USDA on Wisconsin bats: https://wildlifedamage.cals.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/289/2020/10/WildlifeDamage-Bat-6-2020.pdf

The Department of Natural Resources in Wisconsin did a survey of the bats on the Taliesin estate, and I found it on the Wayback Machine from February, 2017:  https://web.archive.org/web/20170315012654/http://www.taliesinpreservation.org/learn/current-recent-projects#bats

It was also put onto the Taliesin Preservation Facebook page, here: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=10154518556099234


Notes:

1. Mostly, the preservation crew did the work that makes a lot of noise and mess during the winter. That way, they wouldn’t bother guests on the estate during the tour season.

2. I’m very proud of myself for staying through the entire recording of the bat’s distress calls even though I imagined bat distress sounds for about 5 minutes afterward.

3. As for how there could be water in the toilets when the whole house was unheated during the winter: All of the water systems were drained at the end of the season, with anti-freeze put into pipes just in case. Then everything was filled back up in the spring.