Image logo courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

Death by Design

The logo for NaNoWriMo

Here’s the start:

Over 15 years ago, I read the book, The Girl With the Botticelli Eyes and was furious. I wasn’t mad about the novel’s plot; I was angry because I felt the author completely misunderstood art restoration.

The Girl With the Botticelli Eyes takes place around an exhibition on early Renaissance painter, Sandro Botticelli (the man who painted The Birth of Venus, a.k.a., “Venus on the half-shell”). Among other things, a violent Italian fascist mutilates two Botticelli paintings… and puts the “Girl” of the book’s title into a dangerous position. I don’t remember the rest of the novel: I just remember how pissed off I was.

Why so mad, Keiran?

That’s because—after the crazed Fascist slashed through the eyes on a painting (or two), and left the piece barely intact—the curator gives the painting to some genius restorer who does magnificent work in, like, 2 days. In time for the exhibition opening.

While there are world experts in art restoration in NYC, there’s no way in hell that someone could restore a painting—executed in Italy in the late 1400s—in two f***ing days. I knew that and I didn’t even know the particulars about restoration experts of Renaissance painting.

So

As you can see by my continued annoyance

I wrote a couple of pages on a novel with a Taliesin house steward as the main character to show people what someone who knows the damned details about an artwork could do. But then got lost and did nothing more.

Until 2005

That’s the year that I wrote my first novel during NaNoWriMo, which is the subject of my post today.

What’s NaNoWriMo?

It takes place every November and stands for:

NAtional

NOvel

WRIting

MOnth

Some friends started it in 1999 after giving each other a challenge: write a 50,000 word novel in November from scratch.

In the lead up to November 1, you can do character development, plotting, planning etc., but you CANNOT write anything on the novel until 12:00 a.m., November 1.* And you must SUBMIT your 50,000-word novel by 11:59 p.m., November 30.

* I wrote earlier that you couldn’t start writing until 12:01 a.m. I’ve got no idea where I got that mistake came from. Well, yes, aside from coming from my own brain.

Do you win anything?

You win a link to a certificate that you can print. The certificate says you WROTE A 50,000 WORD NOVEL IN A MONTH.

What’s all?

Yup: that’s all.

No, really: don’t you get anything? Doesn’t anyone look at your novel?

The majority of people who look at the novel will be those who wrote it, and/or those who know the NaNoWriMo novelist.

Why the hell would you do this?

The folks who came up with Nanowrimo have dealt with these questions longer than me, so read their FAQ page from the Wayback Machine.

But,

Aside from knowing that you WROTE A NOVEL, there are people who participated in NaNoWriMo and took their 50k-words-(or more)-novel, and edited it, expanded it, found an agent and had it published. Novels written initially during Nanowrimo include:

Check out this web page mentioning some novels started at NaNoWriMo:

8 Bestselling Books Written During NaNoWriMo

 

Here’s my experience (experiences):

In October 2005, a friend online mentioned signing up for Nanowrimo. I’d heard about it, and among all of my “no I can’t do that,” this popped into my head:

Hey – why the hell couldn’t I do that? After all, I’d spent a week PO-‘d about The Girl With the Botticelli Eyes because “The writer wasn’t qualified to write what he did!!!”

Even in 2005 I knew I was an expert on Taliesin. And I knew my typing wasn’t bad.

so I could type like the wind!

And, oh yeah: there was my college degree. In writing.1

So: I wrote my first Nanowrimo novel.

Or, as I called it:

“The Book About a Murder at Taliesin… But Not That Murder

Lisa is the novel’s narrator. She’s a tour guide who works at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, and lives in Spring Green Wisconsin. She isn’t me… exactly. She’s shorter and has blond hair. I think she was a little younger than me when I first started this in 2005. And she went to Graduate School in Art History, but never got her degree.

She does smoke and drink too much. I probably did when I first wrote it, but not as much as Lisa did.

But that wasn’t really my fault:

NaNoWriMo means you have to write 1,667 words a day. Writing about lighting up cigarettes gives you a chance to change the character’s location. And drinking gives you a place to hang out with other characters. And just having a character look at their cigarette pack and realize they’re getting low, adds to your total word count.

I mean, look:

I checked my cigarette supply. I was down to half a pack. I thought, “Oh, man,… I’ll have to stop soon.” But I figured I would deal with it later.

That’s 30 words right there!

Regardless, I did finish the novel. My word count was over 70,000.

I named the novel Death by Design

An online friend suggested it after I asked for input.

Why was Death by Design a murder novel?

It was the easiest thing for me to think up. Murder mysteries (as I learned) are easy… in ways. Particularly when you are attempting to write 1,667 words per day for 30 days straight.

Because 50,000 divided by 30=1,666.6666666667

I found that murder mysteries are easy because you (the author) figure out the clues and you can dab them in throughout the text, only to have them solved in the exciting denouement. Plus, I’d already spent years listening to murder mysteries on Old Time Radio Drama.

Death by Design‘s plot:

Main character, Lisa, is opening up the Hillside buildings one morning2 in May 2000.3 She walks into the Hillside Theater and finds the body of a man who’s been murdered.

Hilarity ensues since she has to call the programs director (at that time, a former guide who ran all the programs), while keeping the Taliesin Estate Tour guide with her group from accessing the Theater.

Over the following days, Lisa tries to deal with everything. Along with drinking too much (just beer, I swear). Additionally, she befriends a member of Taliesin’s Preservation Crew who she’s known for years. They end up dating by the end of the novel.

ALONG THE WAY:

Aside from every theory and every thought about Taliesin that came to mind, the book gave me a chance to write details about every fricking thing in the local area. I wrote in the novel information about the local bar, The Shed (sadly, closed this year) and the Spring Green General Store cafe. I took the opportunity to mention a yearly tradition at the General Store: BobFest.

And I invented a few obnoxious apprentices at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.4 That gave me a chance to write about the Taliesin Fellowship and its history. I then poisoned all of them with arsenic at dinner one night.

I pulled out “arsenic” after reading advice from another “Nanowrimer”: death and violence is a good way to switch up the story. Plus, by this time my book already had one murder. Maybe two.

UNTIL, finally, Lisa (and the love interest/Pres Crew guy, Jake5) get invited to a Taliesin formal dinner, in which the murderer tries to set fire to Taliesin.

Yes, I know: that old chestnut.

The murderer is caught of course. Lisa and Jake are together at the end. Lisa has started on a nicotine patch to quit smoking, and a new tour has been created based on the murderer trying to set fire to Taliesin.

Apparently, like the book Loving Frank, publicity about the murder in the Hillside Theater Foyer increases sales for tours that go to Hillside!


I participated in NaNoWriMo several more times:

2006:

The plot of the novel starts with Jake and Lisa as newlyweds. They’re on their honeymoon, which consists of going to other Frank Lloyd Wright sites.

as one does

I was also inspired in this novel by the destruction of two historic buildings in 2006. One was a destructive fire at a church by architects Dankmar Adler & Louis Sullivan in Chicago. Later that same month (January), a newly rediscovered house by Wright, the Wynant House, in Gary, Indiana was pretty much destroyed. Also by fire. So, the bad fortunes of these two pieces of architecture were put into the novel. 

In addition,

Lisa later defends herself (I think) with a heavy reproduction of a Frank-Lloyd-Wright-designed “Weedholder” vase. This particular moment of brutality comes at the Wright-designed Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, New York. I remember something else with furniture by Steelcase being used as a weapon at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Meyer May house, Grand Rapids, Michigan. And, lastly, Lisa finds the drowned body of a professor in Architectural History in the guest pool at Fallingwater.6 And she finds the Executive Director of Fallingwater after the E.D.’s been suffocated. She’d had Johnson’s paste Wax stuck into her nose and mouth.

Don’t worry if this makes no sense. I don’t expect anyone to know this unless they, like me, are Frankophiles.

2007:

That was a sci-fi novel where my character lived on a satellite of a gas giant. I never made it past 15,000 words. I had fun with it, but didn’t “Win”. The main character got stranded somewhere and I couldn’t figure out how to move the story on.

2009:

That October, I asked others what I should write for the upcoming NaNoWriMo. A friend suggested I write, “Frank Lloyd Wright in space!

Predictably,

I just relied on the trope of the Time Travel Police. That is, some police-like force exists to keep the “timelines” clear. In my book, the MC gets picked up by the Time Travel Police whose job it is to find clones that cultural geeks have made of their idols so they can remove the clones from timelines that they could mess up. The MC is brought to a clone of Frank Lloyd Wright living on a spaceship filled with other anachronistic clones.

Like Jane Austin. And Leonardo Da Vinci.

So you can see, that there was a reason why I felt I have done what I could with NaNoWriMo.

Now, remember:

If you’re interested in the idea, November starts in a few days. Go to the site. You can read about the rules (or not), and the organization, in “Help Desk” on the NaNoWriMo page. And you can just sign up, and you can check on your word count as you go.

If you get through it, if nothing else at least you can say that for once in your life, you wrote a novel. You’ve got a month to write it, and all the time you need afterwards to edit it.

October 28, 2022
The image at the top of this is the logo for NaNoWriMo.


Notes:

1 I didn’t figure out the Art History interest until I was a junior in college.

2 Regardless of whether of not apprentices/students were at Hillside, tour guides used to open the Hillside structures in the morning, and shut the building down at the end of the day.

3 I chose to set the novel in the year 2000 because this eliminates any discussion of 9/11/2001.

4 One of the apprentices, who is a big, lying jerk, isn’t based on anybody I know or knew.

5 For those who know me IRL, Jake started out based on a real person. But I got grossed out when I realized the main character and Jake would have a romantic relationship. So, I changed most things about him.

6 The murdered Architectural Historian was real. But, that’s ok: he passed away years ago.

 

Photograph of the curtain in Frank Lloyd Wright's Hillside Theater.

Curtains at the Hillside Theater

Standing in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hillside Theater looking east at the curtain. I took this photo in 2007.

I’m excited1 to write about the curtains at the Hillside Theater today for a couple of reasons.

1: I can show a few photos of Hillside’s original theater curtain. And,

2: I get to give you one of my theories on the curtain.

Theory?!

Oh, man, you gorram egghead.

Yea, I know, but this is my website, so….

Original curtain? What original. There was more than one?

Why, gosh, so glad you asked. There have been two made for the Hillside Theater. The first one was destroyed.

The first theater –

I did a nice write up on the first theater in my “1952 Fire at Hillside” post. It’s got cool photos and a drawing!

Like I wrote a while ago, Wright designed Hillside in 1901 for his aunts, Jennie and Nell Lloyd Jones,2 and their Hillside Home School. The building was built 1902-03. What became the theater was originally the school’s gymnasium.  

The Hillside Home School closes in 1915.

Then, two years later, Wright paid the school’s outstanding debts and acquired the school’s land and buildings.

Yes, I know: he paid some debts. The man was full of surprises.

As I used to say on tour:

After that, he was too busy to do anything with the building because he was working. Then, in the late ’20s, he had lots of time (no work). But you know that also means: no money.

Regardless, 17 years after the Aunts closed the school, Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife, Olgivanna started

The Taliesin Fellowship

(just over 90 years ago!)

The Fellowship was due to open on October 1, 1932.2 The month before that, Wright persuaded ladies from a local church to sew a curtain for his planned Hillside Theater. Spring Green’s newspaper, the Weekly Home News, wrote about this on September 22 of that year:

SEWING BEE AT Taliesin

Members of the Congregational Ladies’ Aid are taking an active part in the preparations for the opening of the Taliesin Fellowship.

The ladies assign themselves to groups of twelve and sew on the theatre curtain afternoons at Taliesin. The work consists of appliquéing material on the stage curtain according to an attractive design made by Frank Lloyd Wright….

Here’s the curtain they were working on:

The design for the first curtain at Frank Lloyd Wright's Hillside theater (then called the Playhouse).

The link goes to the black-and-white image on-line at ARTSTOR

Wright hoped for over 70 apprentices that first year. I hate to break it to you, but Wright was a little too optimistic.

So, yeah: no.

Although they did get 23 apprentices that first October.

I always remember that number. It’s because 23… 1932.

And the curtain done by the Congregational Ladies Aid didn’t get put to work a YEAR later. That’s because the theater (named the Playhouse) opened on November 1, 1933.

Getting a view of the curtain is tough, because most photos show the curtain open. It drives Frankophiles (including myself) crazy.

Or at least it used to.

Drive me crazy, I mean.

Then I started going to Wright’s archives. At that time, they were at his winter home, Taliesin West. Every time before I went, I wrote to the Assistant Director of the archives about which specific photo collections I wanted to see on my trip.

I kept a running list of collections that I would request.3 Actually, I still do, if anyone wants to invite me to Wright’s archives at the Avery.

I scanned as much as I could, and got a few scans of photos showing the old curtain in full.

Here’s one:

Photo of the Hillside Playhouse and its curtain. circa 1936.

Looking south/southeast. Taken 1936-40.

And then that fire happened at Hillside in 1952

NO WONDER the guy said, “All my life I have been plagued by fire.”

After the fire, he designed the curtain in the room now.

When we started tours, all of us had to learn the interpretation of the curtain.

Interpreting the curtain

I used to tell people:

as far as I know, it’s the only major design that Wright ever did that shows something that actually exists.

not counting presentation drawings.

In other words, it’s not something abstracted: it’s a picture. It’s Taliesin on the hill.

Come, follow me.

Here’s a shortcut of what the guides had to learn:

Frank Lloyd Wright's drawing of the curtain at the Hillside Theater in Wisconsin

But here’s the thing

None of this works if you abstract the Wisconsin River, the hill, or Taliesin. All those things are there, but it doesn’t go left-to-right like that.

So I wondered about this for awhile. Then, one day decades ago while I was cleaning in Hillside [yes, I used to do that, too] I realized that

The curtain’s image works if you turn it backwards.

When I thought about this while at work, I remembered something I’d read years before in Art History classes… something about tapestries. This matches what I read on them. It’s from the Met Museum:

 

Making a Tapestry—How Did They Do That?

by Sarah Mallory
….
Historically, weavers worked while facing what would be the back of the tapestry. They copied with their colored weft threads the tapestry’s design. The design, referred to as the “cartoon,” took the form of a painting—made on cloth or paper, the same size as the planned tapestry. This cartoon was either temporarily attached to the loom, flush against the backs of the warp threads, and visible in the gaps between the warps; or it was hung on the wall behind the weavers, who followed it by looking at its reflection in a mirror behind the warps. Because weavers copied the cartoon facing on the back of the tapestry, when the piece was finished, removed from the loom, and turned around to reveal the front, the woven image on the front of the tapestry was the mirror image of the cartoon shown. Weavers could avoid this reversal of the design by using the mirror method to copy the cartoon’s design.

And here’s the Hillside curtain design, backwards:

The present Hillside Theater curtain, shown backwards.

The design has the hill crown. You can see it best in a Taliesin II photo:

Taliesin from the south. circa 1920
Published in “Wright Studies: Volume 1, Taliesin 1911-1914”, p. 3.

Looking north at Taliesin, 1920-24. On the far left is a workman’s apartment. On the far right are Wright’s living quarters. You can’t see Wright’s studio and other apartments for the workmen because the building wraps around the hill the other side of the hill.

I don’t know if Wright was thinking of a tapestry when he drew the design for the curtain, but it does make sense. In the curtain, you can see the top of the hill. You can’t see that if you’re looking at Taliesin from the other side from what you see in the photo above.

So was he thinking about the design backwards?

Possibly. Since working on this post I’ve had to remind myself which way the curtain hangs because I keep getting turned around. Makes me very glad that I learned “left” and “right” in kindergarten.

Although I did ask the Administrator of Historic Studies at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation about my “tapestry” theory. She seemed to “get” what I was talking about, of the curtain being the mirror image of reality, but she said that Wright did not design the curtain as a tapestry. According to Indira, Wright asked “his friend Dorothy Liebes if she could weave it,” but it was too big. So it was done the way it stands at the Hillside Theater. 

First published October 17, 2022.
I took the photograph on the top of this page.

 


Notes

1 Wait – aren’t I always excited about this?… why, yes, yes I am.

2 Some “early birds” – William Wesley “Wes” Peters, John “Jack” Howe, Yen Liang and Edgar Tafel arrived earlier that summer. Tafel wrote about the early time in Apprentice to Genius, the book I recommended a year ago.

3 I made trips 6 times in as many years. TPI paid for some, but at least half were on my own dime. I did it for work, but also for myself. I wanted to see these things and learn them. PLUS! I got to hang at T-West often in the winter – who needs a fricking vacation when they’ve got to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings, and his letters and drawings, and photos of Taliesin by others?

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.