Taliesin August 1914 after first fire

The First Fire

The photographer was on the Taliesin Hill Crown looking toward the structure after the first fire. The person seen standing on the left in the white shirt may be Frank Lloyd Wright.

I’ve mentioned the 1914 fire a few times (and wrote about it snarkily), but I thought it’s time to address Taliesin’s first fire.

On August 15, 1914 as Frank Lloyd Wright was in Chicago putting the final touches on his Midway Gardens project (1913-1929), he received a phone call that Taliesin was on fire. His son John (who later became an architect) was working with his father and described that day later in his book, My Father, Frank Lloyd Wright:1

Suddenly all was quiet in the room, a strange unnatural silence, his breathing alone was audible, then a groan. I turned to him, startled, he clung to the table for support, his face ashen.
My Father Frank Lloyd Wright (1946; Dover publications, 1992), by John Lloyd Wright, 80.

Wright asked his son to get a taxi and then the two grabbed the first train back to Spring Green.

Details on that first fire:

For unknown reasons Wright’s servant, Julian Carlton, set fire to the living quarters of Taliesin after serving lunch, and murdered seven people. He killed most of them with a hatchet (one died from his burns).

The names of those who died were: Wright’s partner, Mamah Borthwick; her two children, John and Martha Cheney (ages 11 and eight, respectively); Emil Brodelle (draftsman); Thomas Brunker (foreman); David Lindblom (gardener); and Ernest Weston, the 13-year-old son of carpenter William “Billy” Weston.

The fire mostly burned down Taliesin’s living quarters within an hour. One-third of the building was destroyed.

It’s impossible to know what happened that afternoon

The murderer died on October 7, before a trial could be held. Additionally, the two survivors (Billy Weston and draftsman Herbert Fritz) never talked about the murders. Who’d want to? Carlton not only attacked Weston (who he left for dead), but he murdered Weston’s son, Ernest. Fritz survived by jumping out of a window on the south side of the house, breaking his arm. 

You would think that my history of working at Taliesin—in a place where the woman’s head was “cleft in two”—would leave a creepy feeling. But it doesn’t, not for me. First of all, the Taliesin that stands doesn’t have the floorboards, walls and doors where it all happened in 1914. Those were all destroyed in that fire, after which he rebuilt. Then, that same part of the building was once more almost destroyed in the fire of 1925.

Although, ultimately, I’m left in awe by the beauty of the standing structure, built by one of the greatest architects who has ever lived.2

What some say about the murders:

Some have unsubstantiated theories about the murders. These include: Carlton disapproved of Wright’s lifestyle; Carlton’s paranoia took a bad turn for fear of deportation in order to fight in the first World War; that this was a Chicago mob hit (Wright spoke in his autobiography of disagreements with the “union boys” over Wright’s Midway Gardens); and Wright put out a contract to murder Mamah.

I even had a former guide from another Wright house—after taking a four-hour Taliesin “Estate” tour with me—come up to say that he had been hoping to get the “real story” behind the murders from a Taliesin tour guide.

By the way, just so it’s all said: I have posted the basics of what we know about the first fire, above. There is no secret stash of information given to those at Taliesin about what “really happened” during the 1914 fire. 

The theories that Wright had something to do with the murders make me wonder:

What kind of person do you think Wright was? Sure, he left his first wife, sometimes (maybe a lot of times) had problems with money, and could sometimes say outrageous things about buildings and cities (noted in this article on negative things he said about Pittsburgh).

But any of those things are far away from being a murderer.

Finally, as for Wright ordering a hit on Mamah: putting aside the fact that Wright was not a murderer, (a) what self-respecting mobster would have expected Wright to come through with the money on a hit; and (b) if all else, I don’t think Wright would have destroyed his own home.

As for the other theories:

If Carlton hated Wright so much, why didn’t he just kill him in his sleep? And concerning Chicago mobsters: if they were trying to scare Wright, something else would have happened to him, or somebody would have eventually said something.

Regarding World War I, everyone in Europe that August was saying that it would be over by fall (by the time “the leaves turned”), so probably no one in the world was worried about multiple countries outside of Europe going to battle.

In addition,

Author Paul Hendrickson brought forth evidence that Carlton was born in Alabama (not Barbados) in his book, Plagued by Fire.

Wright’s reaction:

But to get back to the 1914 fire: Wright was devastated. Who wouldn’t be? He left for work in Chicago on a summer’s day in the middle of the week and came back that Saturday to a complete, unreal nightmare. And probably nothing could touch the guilt the man must have felt for hiring Carlton. Finally, the emotional weight of such a horrific and terrifying end to his life with Mamah must have been overwhelming. In fact, as far as I know, his painful and poignant writing about the fire was only done once: in his autobiography. I encourage you to seek out his autobiography to read his words (in three editions: published in 1932 and updated in 1943, which was republished in 1977), but here’s his writing about burying Mamah:

The August sun was setting on the familiar range of hills. I felt, dimly, the far-off shadows of the ages, struggling to escape from subconsciousness and utter themselves… then—darkness…. I filled the grave—in darkness—in the dark.

No monument marks the spot where “Mamah” was buried.

All I had to show for the struggle for freedom of the past five years that had swept most of my former life away, had now been swept away.

Why mark the spot where desolation ended and began?3
Frank Lloyd Wright. An Autobiography, in Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings: 1930-32, volume 2. Edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, introduction by Kenneth Frampton (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York City, 1992), 240.

Wright wrote how the aftermath of the fire caused him to leave Taliesin for a bit and try to work out his grief in Chicago. And, then he writes,

So the rage that grew when I felt the inimical weight of human censure on my soul began to fade away and finally took refuge in the idea that Taliesin should live to show something more for its mortal sacrifice than a charred and terrible ruin on a lonely hillside in the beloved Valley.
An Autobiography, Collected Writings, volume 2, 241.

Some final thoughts about the 1914 fire

I noted at the start of this that the fire doesn’t make me feel weird while being at Taliesin. But I do feel deep, quiet sadness if I go to Mamah’s grave in the family cemetery, particularly standing near her grave and looking toward his house. Some years I’ve made a point of going there on August 15 when the sun is setting, the mist is rising, and the frogs are singing. The physicality of it goes deep in the bones.

But in addition, there’s the knowledge that above it all, he stayed! He rebuilt his living room in the same spot and the same size and rebuilt their bedroom in the same spot and the same size (and kept using it until 19364). What a weird reaction. Well, I used to think it was a weird reaction, anyway. Then September 11 happened.

In the wake of 9-11-01, I came probably as close as I can to fully understanding Wright in the aftermath of the 1914 fire. That desire to rebuild as a fight against obliteration was all around us in talks of rebuilding the World Trade Center. And, that connects very simply to Wright’s closing words about the fire in his autobiography:

There is release from anguish in action. Anguish would not leave Taliesin until action for renewal began. Again, and at once, all that had been in motion before at the will of the architect was set in motion. Steadily, again, stone by stone, board by board, Taliesin the II began to rise from Taliesin the first.
Ibid.

This was first published March 10, 2021.

The photograph above was taken by A.S. Rockwell on the day of, or the day after, the fire. The photograph was placed on Wikimedia Commons as an image in the public domain. See here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taliesin_After_Fire.jpg for information about the origin of the photograph.


 Notes:

1 If you get the chance, you should read John’s book. It’s fun, funny, and insightful. I got a real sense of what Wright was like as a father. You can check out my post, “How did Frank Lloyd Wright feel about Christmas?” to read the scene John about seeing his father on Christmas Eve.

2 I haven’t said so before, I’ll say it here: I don’t think he was the absolute, above all others, greatest architect. The world’s a big place and built human history goes back to, what, 4,000 BCE? That’s a lot of building. So I think it is impossible to pick one person as the greatest architect (or artist). However, if someone made a list of the top 25 greatest architects in history throughout the entire globe, I believe his name would be there.

3 If you go to the Unity Chapel cemetery, you’ll see a grave marker for Mamah. It’s at the base of the tallest pine tree in the cemetery. It was put there in the 1960s under the direction of Wright’s widow, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright.

4 He and Olgivanna moved to separate bedrooms in that year. Those rooms remained their bedrooms in Wisconsin for the rest of their lives.

 

A link to my writing on Taliesin’s second fire.

Photograph by Kevin Dodda of Taliesin in snow.

How did Frank Lloyd Wright feel about Christmas?

Someone asked me that question in early December. Yet, I’ve tried to answer it, with no clear success, for years. After all, Wisconsin can be charmingly Christmas-Themed, with a dusting of snow and a chill in the air.* In addition, in his autobiography, Wright described Taliesin in winter as being a “frosted palace roofed and walled with snow”. But, he didn’t seem especially fond of Christmas, particularly in the first years after he built his Wisconsin home in 1911.

Wright talking about Christmas

In 1924, when Wright had a new love in his life, his future wife, Olgivanna, he wrote her a letter saying that Christmas reminded him of his children he had left in Oak Park, IL in 1909. His letter to her is in The Life of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, 234.

However, less than a decade after they met, the Wrights began the Taliesin Fellowship, and eventually Wright would leave Wisconsin in the winter, spending that time with his family and apprentices at Taliesin West in Arizona. Thus, Christmas became an activity enjoyed by the group in the desert. To read about their Christmases, read The Life of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright.

Wright’s Christmas-card moments

He did have plenty of these in the 1890s/early 1900s with the family in Oak Park. They were described aplenty in the book written by Wright’s second son, John. In John’s the book, My Father, Frank Lloyd Wright (first published in 1946 under the amusing title, My Father, Who is on Earth), he wrote about growing up in Oak Park, and later working with his father. These memories also include how he felt about his dad as a father; the day of Taliesin’s 1914 fire; and the day his dad fired him! It’s unique and you should pick it up.

John wrote memories involving Christmas while growing up. One of these memories is a Christmas Eve night when he was perhaps 5 or 6. I’ll leave you with John’s description of watching his father put the presents out, then his father “caught” him and carried him back to bed:

…. He unboxed toys on a big white sheet under the tree, sat on the floor and played with each one before placing it. When he played with the mechanical donkey that jumped up and down I almost dashed in. When he pulled out a monkey that climbed a string, I giggled so loud the jig was up! Out rushed Papa, swooped me up in his arms, whisked me backed to bed, told me I had been dreaming. I still like to think it was a dream—and good old St. Nick, a reality. And not too long ago, Dad said, “I still believe in Santa Claus.”
John Lloyd Wright, My Father, Frank Lloyd Wright (Dover Publications, Inc., New York; 1992), 40.

First published, 12/23/2020
The winter photograph taken at Taliesin at the top of this post is by Kevin Dodds and was reproduced with permission.


* overlooking the fact that, one time after 1992 (the year I came to live in this state), it reached -25F (-32C) degrees on Christmas day.