Frank Lloyd Wright's bedroom. Photo by Maynard Parker, Huntington Library-Parker Collection.

Anna to her son

Color photo taken in 1955 in Wright’s bedroom at Taliesin. There’s a framed photo on his desk, near the barrel chair.
It shows his aunts (Jennie and Nell Lloyd Jones) on the left, and his mother on the right.

Anna, as in Anna Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother. This post is about Anna in general, but also whether or not she ever lived at Taliesin.

Although, I won’t give a deep analysis on how the architect felt about his mother, or vice versa.

Anna (first named Hannah) Lloyd Jones was born in Wales in 1838 and died in Oconomowoc in eastern Wisconsin in 1923. Wright wrote about her in his autobiography, saying that:

“…. Although she believed Education the direct manifestation of God…, Sister Anna loved—Beauty.

Soon she became a teacher in the countryside, riding a horse over the hills and through the woods to and from her school each day.”

Frank Lloyd Wright. An Autobiography in Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings, volume 2: 1930-32. Edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, introduction by Kenneth Frampton (1992; Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York City, 1992), 108.

Anna’s choices:

She made choices that had a strong effect on her son’s career. In 1876 she went to the Centennial Exposition and discovered the Froebel Gifts.

I wrote about them when I gave history of Hillside on the Taliesin estate.

The Froebel Gifts were an essential part of the new kindergarten method of teaching, and Anna took classes on how to teach her children to use them. They’ll affect Wright’s designs and, he wrote later that, “The smooth shapely maple blocks” of the Gifts, would “never afterward” leave his fingers. “[S]o form,” he wrote, “became feeling….” [Frank Lloyd Wright, 111.]

The first summer the family moved back in Wisconsin (1878, the year Wright turned 11) and lived in Madison. Anna sent her son 45 miles west, to “The Valley” outside of Spring Green where her family lived. Wright lived and worked at Uncle James Lloyd Jones’s farm. As I wrote in “Wright and Nature”, the architect vividly wrote about his memories in The Valley. He wrote that life in The Valley taught him “how to add tired to tired and add tired.” And that he was to learn,

“that the secret of all the human styles in architecture was the same that gave character to the trees.”
Frank Lloyd Wright. An Autobiography in Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings, 126.

Yet,

In spite of these good things, I’m ambivalent about Anna. Did she follow him around too much? Did she put him on too much of a pedestal that leaked into how he felt about himself? Was she abusive to her step-daughter Lizzie?

Why am I bringing this up now? I’m bringing her up because, when we went to Arizona last month,

I read some of her letters.

In December, I read transcriptions of some letters to I look for those things about Wright’s mother as she lived at Taliesin.

Here‘s I wrote about that trip.

I did this because, while I’ve been told over the years that she lived at his home, I wanted to check. That’s because being told things doesn’t always make them true. After all, when I gave tours I was told by a visitor that “my guide at [another Wright site] said that Wright had designed Taliesin with a room for both his wife and his mistress.”

In reply I [HOPE] I said: “His wife and his partner, Mamah Borthwick?” … coz you have to use that vocabulary in order to change the narrative … “No, I’m sorry I don’t remember seeing that in any of Taliesin’s drawings….”

Regardless,

In her biography on the architect, author Meryle Secrest mentioned Anna living at Taliesin. Secrest wrote that Wright contacted his sisters (Jane and Maginel) about the problems that caused. But Secrest didn’t quote from the letters. Given how people can misread and misunderstand, I wanted to check. 

So, in December,

At Taliesin West, I got a chance to look at some of the letters that Anna wrote to her son after he started Taliesin. I read some of what she wrote while he was in Japan working on the Imperial Hotel. And I made notes that do show that she was living at Taliesin while he was away from his home. Of course the problem with that is, when she and her son lived at the house, there was no reason for Anna to write him.

And unfortunately,

I’ve not found anything written by Anna where she described exactly in which room at Taliesin she lived, or what built-ins the room had, or what colors were plastered on which colors.

No, unfortunately, when she wrote to her son, Anna sounded like a normal human. She didn’t write like she was writing for some historian a century later. I mean, really: she wrote to her son and his companion, Miriam Noel, on March 16, 1917 that she was had been found on the floor “in the hall from my room”, but still didn’t mention which was “my” room.1

Grumble grumble….

Yet, in that letter on March 16, Anna did write something interesting. She told her son to allow a new draftsman at Taliesin to live, instead, “in the house on the hill….”

I know what that means

The “house on the hill” is the part of Taliesin that had a kitchen, storage rooms, and the larger dining room.2 The photo below shows this area at Taliesin. It’s a postcard that former apprentice Edgar Tafel owned. He said it was taken 1917-18:

Photograph of Taliesin Hill Wing, in snow.

The apartment that Anna mentioned was on the left in the photograph. The kitchen was at the base of the chimney on the right. Today, if you were to walk past this, you wouldn’t be able to see the room that held the kitchen.

(besides, you can’t walk there because it’s private property and people live there)

But you wouldn’t be able to easily see the room with the old kitchen because Wright added a dining room, blocking most of that view. Sometime after this photo was taken, Wright would add the dining room that he walked out of in 1925 to see the fire at his house (read my post about the fire, here).

First published January 8, 2022
Image screen-grab at the top of this post is by Maynard L. Parker, photographer. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California, from the webpage below:
https://hdl.huntington.org/digital/collection/p15150coll5/id/10269

This photograph on his desk is one of the only ones that Wright had in his home.


Notes:

1 The letter was written March 16, 1917, but I couldn’t find the microfiche number for it.

2 This is where knowing the building well helps out. I read this letter that Olgivanna wrote to Maginel in May 1932. It’s published in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Monona Terrace: The Enduring Power of a Civic Vision, by David V. Mollenhoff and Mary Jane Hamilton (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1999), 82. In the letter Olgivanna wrote:

We are in desperate condition. The Sechrests have shut us out of the hill – nailed all the doors leading to their part, dining rooms, kitchens, storerooms, waiting for money we owe them (three months salary)…. We are cooking and eating in the kitchen below.

I instantly knew what being shut “out of the hill” and what “eating in the kitchen below” meant. The “hill” being the kitchen and dining room on the hill that I talked about above. Eating in “the kitchen below” meant the kitchen in the main living quarters. They weren’t the full-time kitchen any longer and they were “below” because the other kitchen was on the hill.

Photograph of two signs indicating whether Keiran is at her desk, or not

“We like the way you write the history of Taliesin”

My photograph of the two signs that my coworker made for me

Well, yes, of course. But in this case I’m paraphrasing what someone said to me after they’d read my submission for a preservation plan of Wright’s Taliesin structure.

In this post I’m going to look again at some of my writing; in particular, that which analyzes Taliesin.

Why was this said?

They told me this in the fall of 2006 or sometime in 2007. They were employed by the firm Isthmus Architecture and were looking over the “historic chronologies” that I had written of the Taliesin structure. The purpose of the chronologies: determine what the structure looked like in the last years of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life (and at his death). I wrote about this restoration aim back in May of this year.

Knowing Wright’s home (and knowing me) I thought it was better to figure out what the architect had done to the building from c. 1950 to his death (1959). I hoped to clean up some mistakes, misinterpretations, and misrememberings. Maybe.

Did this work?

I think I did a good job. I figured out things that changed a room on the first floor of the structure (this is known as the “Blue Room”), and I assisted in determining what the underside of a terrace looked like, despite what a former Wright apprentice remembered. The terrace underside is seen in a photograph taken in 1955 by Maynard Parker, below:

Photograph of Taliesin taken by Maynard Parker. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

We were talking about this while standing under the Loggia Terrace. The area is under the section with all of the French doors. It was believed (because we were told) that the soffit hadn’t been plastered in Wright’s lifetime. This 1955 photograph has the plastered soffit (the light area under that horizontal line). You can get to a larger version of the image by clicking the photo above.

Good thing I was standing there when someone said, “Wright never had an underside to the terrace.” I probably felt feverish, but still attempted a voice that sounded reasonable when I said, “Uh—yes he did.” Then probably explained one or two photographs that showed the soffit and promised to get them for those who were looking.

At those times—when I can quickly answer the question of “did he have this at Taliesin?”—I felt like a magician pulling things out of a hat.

Anyways…

So, I want to get back to what they said about my writing. I know these things about the building’s history in part because I began writing detailed analytical chronologies of the Taliesin structure in 2004. At first these just covered its residential wing (the part of the building where he lived and that burned in the two fires). And I wrote these chronologies about his drafting studio and attached offices.

How much did I write about?

While just a percentage of the building, Wright’s residential wing totals (let me check) 34 rooms (a room can include the kitchen, but also hallways and vestibules). I also wrote on the rooms in the “Studio/Office” wing (including the first floor of this area). This has 11 rooms.

After I completed that research, my boss gave me the go-ahead to continue on the rest of the building. So, that meant studying five more sections (“areas”) of the building, and 69 more rooms (again, a “room” — something that’s numbered — might be a closet or hallway). Sounds daunting, but I didn’t start out that way. And I grouped things together. Because, really, no one went down to every closet every 5 years taking photographs and measurements. Sometimes, they never touched them.

For example, the whole floor under where the Wrights lived: that was all one document. However, Taliesin’s Living Room and Wright’s Bedroom also received individual documents.

Still: I wrote a lot.

This led to my co-worker (the woman I mentioned last week) making me a little sign that I could put on my desk (an image of the sign, with its two sides, is the photo at the top of this page). It identifies me as “Detective Keiran”. The sign is triangular and I could rotate it to say when “Detective Keiran” was “In” or “Out”. Very sweet.

But back to the chronologies.

I wanted to ensure that anyone could pick up a “doc” (the history of the room or section, sometimes more than one room) and understand any room at Wright’s Wisconsin home now, or 50 years from now. Regardless of whether or not any of us are still around. In addition, I imagined state senators visiting and reading, or maybe people doing preliminary research for that far away “Loving Frank” movie (btw last I heard, it’s not in production).

How I tried to do this:

Each “doc” has an intro and a drawing on what’s being talked about. I could take these analyses, then rearrange them and put them back together if someone wanted detailed information on, say, all of Taliesin’s bathrooms.

The whole building has 18 bathrooms.

But we don’t have a lot of information on them. Wright didn’t keep detailed drawings of them. People didn’t take photos of them, or in them. What can I say? It was a different time.

The person who commented on my writing had read these documents which got deeper and deeper into Taliesin history. And all of them include self-referential writing with, usually, the caution not to trust Wright’s drawings or take any conclusion as absolute fact. Those suggestions were usually in my footnotes. Of which there are dozens. Naturally.

Here are some of them:

It is unknown at this time how accurate these floor plans were, a common problem when approaching Taliesin. An effort has been made to differentiate built from unbuilt elements.

And the same thing, in other words:

An analysis through a combination of floor plans and photographs must be undertaken to understand what existed in the history of the building. An attempt will be made to differentiate that which Wright planned, versus that which was built, both of these conditions usually existing simultaneously on the drawings, especially those of Taliesin I (1911-14) and II (1914-25).

And the first footnote copied in all the docs:

The person who has done the most work on this document is… Keiran Murphy…. All of the conclusions are her conclusions, unless otherwise noted. Phrases or words in brackets or bold are conclusions or statements that highlight the nature of the document as a preliminary draft, and are the conclusions or questions of Keiran Murphy.

These things that I wrote try so hard to underplay everything: “Keiran Murphy, and only Keiran, was the researcher. She researched mightily. She tried really hard to be correct. Unless she was wrong. But the conclusions, correct or otherwise, are hers. She owns them very much, and still might be very very wrong.”

Originally published on July 23, 2021.