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?

Photograph from Taliesin's Hill Crown to its Living Quarters. September 2005.

False Clerestory at Taliesin

I took this on Taliesin’s Hill Crown in September 2008.

What’s a clerestory?

Clerestory—

“1. An upper zone of wall pierced with windows that admit light to the center of a lofty room.
 2. A window so placed.”

My definition comes from Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, 4th edition (McGraw-Hill, New York, 2006)—

Yes, I own that volume. I don’t understand everything in it, but I feel super prepared.

The Art History teacher who introduced the term to me said it was pronounced “Clear-story”. But I’ve also heard it pronounced, “Cler-eh’-story”.
Yet, I only found the first pronunciation (the way I was taught). So, a big “whew” toward our teacher, Dulcia, and my own memory.

Or, easily, we’ll just look at a pretty picture from Wikimedia, of what a clerestory looks like from inside a building:

Interior clerestory view at Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, California. Photo by John Lloyd of Concrete, Washington, United States.

Where you see Taliesin’s false clerestory:

That’s in the photo at the top of this post, under the tallest roof you see.

You’ve also seen current photos of it in several of my posts already.

What – you didn’t realize I would constantly pull out my posts like baseball cards? Then my sneaky job of edumification is going along nicely.

Well, either that, or you’ve left the page b/c I write too f*****g much.

Oh, and that is one area where Wright, imho, changed things in ways I’m not crazy about.

You see the clerestory on tour

when you enter the living quarters.

As I wrote in the post, “Why did you have to do that Mr. Wright?”, that clerestory didn’t come in until the 1950s.

To see an early appearance in photographs, we’ll play a game of “spot the difference“.

First I’ll show you the “before” photo. The photo below was taken by former Wright apprentice, John Geiger (1921-2011), when he was in the Taliesin Fellowship (1947-1952).

Color photograph from Taliesin's Hill Crown to its Living Quarters. 1947-1952.
Photograph by John Geiger. 1947-52.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

Taken from the Taliesin Hill Crown. Looking in the same direction as my photo at the top of this post.

There’s no clerestory at the roof over Taliesin’s Living Quarters.

Compare that, with what’s below.

This is the “after” photo. The photographer took this on April 3, 1953. It was also taken on the Taliesin Hill Crown and the Living Quarters has the clerestory:

Black and white photograph from Taliesin's Hill Crown to its Living Quarters. April 1953
Taken by Richard Braun or his brother.
Property: Taliesin Preservation, Inc.

While the Taliesin Fellowship was still at Taliesin West, Richard Braun and his brother came out to Taliesin and took a bunch of photographs. Years later, he took a tour at Taliesin and decided to give his photos to Taliesin Preservation.

Here is the kooky thing about this particular clerestory

The clerestory didn’t, and doesn’t, do anything.

Clerestories are there to bring in sunlight. This clerestory does not.

When you see the clerestory from the outside it looks as if light is coming in to Taliesin’s living quarters. Like the light coming taken at the “Winchester Mystery House” that I showed above.

Take a look at the photo I took in Taliesin’s Living Room that I posted in “Bats at Taliesin“:

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

If the clerestory were doing its job, you’d see a line of light in the balcony behind the Buddha that stands back there. Yet, there’s only blackness.

And the photo I took below shows what you’d see if you were standing in that balcony:

Photograph from balcony at Taliesin. Taliesin's living room is in the background, past the Buddha under the white sheet.
By Keiran Murphy. Taken February 27, 2004.

I took this photograph in February 2004.
Scanning my memory, I was probably there while working on a chronology of this part of the building. That was a crazy assignment I should write about some time.

So, why did Wright do this?

There isn’t any evidence that Wright added the clerestory for a photograph, like he did maybe for Architectural Forum (like I talked about in my last post, “Taliesin West Inspiration“).

And, while I went looking for things in my copy of Frank Lloyd Wright: Complete Works, volume 3, 1943-1959 it wasn’t helpful. Because I thought maybe he was thinking about clerestories at entrances.

But then I thought:

in order for someone to get to “the front door” at Taliesin, they’ve got to walk quite a long way.

But, I found one building that might have been part of the process. It came at around the right time. That’s –

The Harold Price, Jr residence:

a.k.a., “Hillside”. The link I put above takes you to one of Maynard Parker’s photos of Hillside, but I put a color photo of this area, below. It comes from Frank Lloyd Wright: Completed Buildings, v. 3, 340.1

Photograph by Maynard Parker of the entryway at the Harold J. Price, Jr. home, Bartlesville, OK

I took this photo in the book with my smartphone; that’s why the photo almost looks like a painting.

There’s not a clerestory above the entrance, but a balcony. However, the view looks similar to what Wright did at Taliesin. So, when you come to the Price Jr. house, there’s what looks like a clerestory right above the door. Maybe Wright made the change because he was testing out the composition?

I mean, there were things he apparently did at Taliesin to test things out, or maybe because he liked what he did for someone else. And, like I wrote in my last post, he changed things for a photograph. But, despite how practical these things were, people at Taliesin could usually more-or-less use them when he was done.

But there’s no mistake: this design change that Wright made at Taliesin is completely unusable. Hey – it’s Taliesin Trompe l’oeil!2

First published July 4, 2022.


Note:

  1. Yes, I own all of the volumes from the “Completed Buildings” series (there are 3). I had stopped smoking, and was rewarding myself. Plus, I was hoping the books would become as valuable as the Frank Lloyd Wright Monograph series (c. $8k for the full set of the monographs in hardcover – girl’s gotta dream, right?).
  2. Maybe not, really. But I like those words. And Wright playing tricks with Taliesin always pleases me.
Exterior Taliesin photograph by Richard Vesey from 1957. In the Wisconsin Historical Society - Vesey Collection.

Taliesin West inspiration

Looking (plan) southeast from the Taliesin Hill Crown toward the Plunge Pool terrace, with Wright’s newly-expanded bedroom on the left. Most of the landscape you see in the distance is the Taliesin estate.

I think something that Wright did at Taliesin West (in Arizona) inspired him in a change he made at Taliesin (in Wisconsin). That change was within the work as he expanded his bedroom in 1950.

Expanded?

Yes: here’s a quick and dirty history of the room:

It was originally constructed in 1925, then became his bedroom in 1936.

(he probably did some more changes at that time, but I haven’t figured them out yet)

And, in 1950 he expanded his bedroom to its current configuration (that one sees on tours). That change was accomplished by further building out the room onto the existing stone terrace that he had initially constructed in 1936.1

While Wright himself didn’t specifically say this, the change was apparently made for a photograph. That’s because Architectural Forum magazine was doing a piece on Wright that included an insert on Taliesin.

I like to say that Wright was “sprucing up the house” for the photo.

The photo shows Wright sitting at his desk in the bedroom and was taken in the fall of 1950 by Ezra Stoller and published in the January 1951 issue.

(Since the firm that Stoller founded, ESTO, is specific about people using their images

[like, I wouldn’t be surprised if they came after my ass for showing the photo even if I linked to their org, and even if followed “fair use” ]

so I’m not gonna show it here. But you can find that issue of Architectural Forum online. That issue is scanned & reproduced here.
It’s a 190 MB pdf [Portable Document Format], to give you a sense of how long it would take to download.  

Anyway, that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

I’m here to talk about other changes he made at the same time around his bedroom.

That’s because I was lying in bed a couple of nights ago when it occurred to me that the changes that Wright made in 1950 right outside of his bedroom were influenced by the spatial arrangements he had used at his winter home, Taliesin West.

I do some of my best Taliesin thinking at night. Unfortunately, I often forget a lot of what I think about,2 but on this occasion, I got out of bed and wrote it down.

So on this post, I’m going to explain that.

Here’s part of what Wright wrote in his autobiography in 1943 about Taliesin West:

Taliesin West is a look over the rim of the world….
There was lots of room so we took it…. The plans were inspired by the character and beauty of that wonderful site. Just imagine what it would be like on top of the world looking over the universe at sunrise or at sunset with clear sky in between…. It was a new world to us and cleared the slate of the pastoral loveliness of our place in Southern Wisconsin. Instead came an esthetic, even ascetic, idealization of space, of breadth and height and of strange firm forms, a sweep that was a spiritual cathartic for Time if indeed Time continued to exist.

Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography, new and revised ed. (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1943), 453.

In fact, Wright changed a lot of things at Taliesin based on his winters in the Arizona desert. Only some of those things took place in the 1940s, like what I wrote in the post, “In Return for the Use of the Tractor“, he took advantage of the fact that he didn’t have to deal with Wisconsin winters anymore.

However, I hadn’t thought about changes that he made to the vistas around Taliesin due to what he’d observed in Arizona.

Not until that recent night.

Part of what I’ve noticed at Taliesin West (and I’m not alone) that he was using the exteriors of the structures to point your eyes to certain places. I think that’s part of being on the “rim of the world.”

So, while I laid in bed I remembered how, when one is in Wisconsin, the terrace outside of his bedroom (changed when he did things in 1950) gives you views that frame the nature around it that kind of look like what he did at Taliesin West.

Summer photograph of Wright's bedroom and terrace taken in 1957. Property: Scott Architectural Library

Courtesy, Scott Architectural Archives. Taken during the Spring Green Centennial of 1957. On that summer day, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship opened up the Taliesin estate to “locals” and let them walk around all over. The photograph shows Wright’s newly-expanded bedroom on the left, with the hills across the highway (HWY 23) in the distance. By the time this photograph was taken, Wright and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation owned almost everything that can be seen.

Compare to the photograph below that I took at Taliesin West early one morning in February 2007. Wright’s office is to the left, with steps leading to an upper level, with the McDowell Mountains in the background.

Keiran Murphy's exterior photograph of Taliesin West taken on February 15, 2007.

Compare the photo above to the Taliesin photo at the top of this post.

See? Pool—Steps—Hills

Moreover, about the photo at the top of this post:

I was confused about the puddles on the terrace (around and behind the Buddha) until I saw the photo from the Wisconsin Historical Society, below:

Property: Wisconsin Historical Society - Vesey collection
Wisconsin Historical Society – Vesey Collection, WHi-64877.

You can see the stream of water, the white vertical line from the pool, and in front of the balcony. The puddle on the flagstones is in the foreground from that little fountain. It’s to the right of the metal Buddha in the middle of the photograph.

It you were standing at that spot then turned around, you’d see the landscape and fields just south of the Taliesin structure.

You see Tan-y-deri,

another building on the estate. That’s the house that Wright designed for his sister, Jane. The photograph below was taken toward Tan-y-deri by Janet Caligiuri Brach. She took it on Sunday, April 24, 2022 while on a tour:

Photograph taken April 24, 2022. Taken on Frank Lloyd Wright's Bedroom terrace at Taliesin.

Photo by Janet Caligiuri Brach. Used with permission.

Taken at the edge of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bedroom Terrace, looking (plan) south. At the mid-point is the tower. This is the Romeo and Juliet Windmill. Tan-y-deri stands to the lower right of “R&J”.

Oh, and before I go:

Here’s something else from Taliesin West that Wright brought to Taliesin in 1950. That terrace with the pool (called “the Plunge Pool Terrace”) ends with the same kind of masonry that’s used at Taliesin West.

This was a dry concrete that the apprentices put into forms, with the limestone facing out. They put newspaper or other things over the stone, so when they took away the forms, you could still see the rock.

You can see this masonry in another Taliesin West photograph of mine, that I showed in, “Taliesin is in Wisconsin

I can show this type of masonry in a photo of the terrace that I took in 2005, below:

Taken by Keiran Murphy on May 17, 2005.

Looking (plan) northwest at the edge of the Plunge Pool Terrace with the that’s inspired by Taliesin West. This terrace was also apparently executed in 1950.

Published June 18, 2022.
The photograph at the top of this post is from the Wisconsin Historical Society – Vesey Collection, WHi-64841. Click here to get to their page with the image.


Notes:

  1. Since it’s been awhile since I wrote this, I’ll add it again: when I write, “he/Wright constructed this-or-that”, or “he/Wright expanded this-or-that”, what I mean is that he was designing or directing the work. His apprentices in the Taliesin Fellowship were doing the physical work. 
  2. That’s why my husband wants to get me something to write on at night.