Winter photograph looking at the Hex Room and spire at the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center.

How I became the historian for Taliesin

Looking west at the Hex Room in the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center. I took this photo in February of 2005. You can see through the Hex Room, which is the room with the red roof and spire straight ahead of you. The clear view through the room is two vertical rectangles. If I had been in the room you’d see me sitting at my desk at the bottom of them.

While I studied Art History in Graduate School, being the Taliesin historian was a career I “fell” into. And that’s what I’m going to concentrate on in this post.

As I’ve written a couple of times, I started at Taliesin in 1994 as a tour guide during the summer. Guiding was all I wanted at that time, since I was in school and hoped to get a Ph.D. eventually. I wanted to teach Art History to other people.

However, I had no teaching experience.

I thought doing tours would help me figure out if I could even speak in front of people. Let alone if I could talk to, eek, strangers.

It turns out

The skills I’d learned in Graduate School were suited to the tapestry of information laid out everywhere at Taliesin. I swallowed it all in huge gulps.

Working exposed me to info on:

And other things I don’t want to bore you with.

Then

There was that winter of 1997-98 that I worked in the Preservation Office on the photographs (I wrote about it in “Raymond Trowbridge Photographs“).

At that time,

the Preservation Office stood in an old horse stable at Taliesin. Apprentice Lois Davidson Gottlieb took a photograph of it in 1948:

Looking (plan) southwest at Taliesin's horse stable in 1948.
By Lois Davidson Gottlieb. Published in her book, A Way of Life: An Apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright, 41.

A link to her book is in my post, “Books by Apprentices“.

The office changed when, in June 1998, a tree hit Taliesin during a storm (photos on Taliesin Preservation‘s facebook page, here). So the Preservation Office moved out and the staff of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation (which owns Taliesin and the estate) moved in. This way they had an office in Wisconsin.

Eventually, the Preservation Office transferred everything to a room on the third floor of the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center. That room was/is known as the “Hex Room” (because it’s literally a hexagonal). A photo showing the Hex Room underneath the spire is at the top of this page.

That office got me closer to being the historian:

When the Preservation Office moved in, they brought all of the historic photographs and other historic information. Yet, they realized that they’d lost the staff person who looked after it, and they needed someone who could sort through it. And, since I had worked with the information before, they brought me in to organize it.

Actually,

they didn’t “bring” me “in”. I was already there. I worked a floor or two below them, in the Taliesin tour program.

So, I spent 2001-02 re-organizing the files, adding more historic photographs, and began writing historic information.

Followed in 2002 by Tours

In that year, people in the Taliesin tour program “tapped” my brain to answer weekly questions from tour guides and staff during the season. My answers were on one page that was included with the weekly schedule. They named this feature “Hey Keiran!”.

Hey Keiran title

This gave me a different cache of historic knowledge.

Like, why I explored whether or not Wright designed outhouses at Taliesin.

Et al.

Then, in 2002-03

They were planning the Save America’s Treasures‘s project at Taliesin.

I wrote about a window found during the SAT’s project in this post.

One day, while all of the infrastructure was being put together for the upcoming project, I was in the Hex Room. The Executive Director and Taliesin Estate Manager1 were talking on things involving the history of Taliesin. One part of the building was going to touch on the area the project.

The history of Taliesin’s Porte-Cochere came up. The Porte-Cochere became the “Garden Room”, which is in this photo. While we all talked, I told them them information about the space that I knew from books that I had read.

(like Curtis Besinger’s Working With Mr. Wright, which is in my “Books By Apprentices” post).

They realized

it was smart to have someone who knew that much sitting there in the office. They asked me to write chronologies on a few rooms at Taliesin that were going to be impacted by the upcoming project.

Eventually

that Executive Director asked me to write histories of every room at Taliesin from c. 1950-2005. Architectural historians told me my work was fantastic, so I kept going. That gave me the freedom to pursue things when I saw something, or came across something, that made me think,

“Huh. I wonder what’s going on there?”

It’s why I figured out that room was in that photograph that “one time before Christmas“.

I mean, Frank Lloyd Wright’s way of teaching his architectural apprentices was to have them “learn by doing”. And I learned the history by studying the spaces. The questions I asked were “what happened there”, and “when”. I often found the answers to the questions in the buildings themselves. This full-sensory experience of learning the history inserted information into my mind.

Around that time, I worked on color-coding the stone in drawings of Taliesin to figure out when he was laying out certain stone sections.  I guiltily made changes to the drawing, but after awhile, it looked pretty cool. The drawing was included in the article I wrote for the Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly, “An Autobiography in Wood and Stone“. You can see that illustration on that page, but I also placed it below:

Color-coded drawing of Taliesin stone changes by Keiran Murphy

I still don’t believe that I

“know more about Frank Lloyd Wright than anyone.”

as told to me by my oldest sister. She never believed me when I said that’s not true.

I mean,

there are “Frankophiles” out there who know every window that Wright ever designed.

They know the layout of every commission he did and his relationship with the clients.

They know all about the furniture designers he worked with (here’s one I know, anyway).

And more things I can’t begin to wonder about.

But the history of Taliesin? Yes: I think I know that very well.

First published April 28, 2022.


1. I mentioned in Jim in the post, “A Slice of Taliesin“. I wrote about Carol (the ED) in my post about “The Album“.

Looking across the Taliesin valley, with the building at Mid-ground

Wright and nature:

Looking (plan) north at Taliesin in the background in The Valley of Wright’s family.
I took this photograph in April 2015.

“Frank Lloyd Wright loved nature” is something a lot of us know (if you didn’t know that until now, just look like you’re thinking deeply about it and the Frankophiles won’t notice).

However, he didn’t always write straightforward statements on how he felt about it.

In fact:

I can’t find evidence that Wright said or wrote this quote currently associated with him:

“study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”

Despite how great this quote is—Frank Lloyd Wright saying to pay attention to nature!! —its origin appears to be Carla Lind’s introduction to her book, The Wright Style: Recreating the Spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright.1

She wrote that “Wright told his apprentices” to “study nature…” But I’ve found no proof that those very words ever came out of his mouth or flowed from his pen. If Lind had not written that in quotation marks, I don’t think we’d see it everywhere.

I have come to the conclusion that the quote is like if I wrote, “Frank Lloyd Wright always said, ‘I love having pancakes on Saturdays.'”2

Anyways,

I’ve been searching Wright’s statements on nature to explain how he thought about it.

In fact, in 1957, Wright told interviewer Mike Wallace on television that,

“I attend the greatest of all churches.

I put a capital N on Nature, and call it my church.”

But, while it’s not a deep secret, you have to dig into Wright’s writings to find an explanation from him on what he loved about nature.

That’s why, in this post, I’ll explore Wright’s thoughts and feelings a bit more.

An example of Wright speaking about nature:

Because when you’re talking about Wright, “nature” doesn’t mean flowers, trees, or sunsets. Wright really meant the underlying geometry in nature. Here’s what he wrote in 1912 in a small book, The Japanese Print: An Interpretation:

Using this word “Nature” in the Japanese sense I do not of course mean that outward aspect that strikes the eye as a visual image of a scene…, but that inner harmony which penetrates the outward form… – what Plato called… the ‘eternal idea of the thing.’

The Japanese Print: An Interpretation, by Frank Lloyd Wright. From Frank Lloyd Wright: Collected Writings, volume 1 (1894-1930). Edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, introduction by Kenneth Frampton (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York City, 1992), 118.

In 1932, he wrote that:

When I say “Nature,” I mean structure seen as a matter of complete design within the thing itself, nature—pattern, that is….

An Autobiography, by Frank Lloyd Wright. 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), 371.

His ideas on nature came in his childhood:

The young Wright was thrown into nature when he was sent out to “The” “Valley” in Southwestern Wisconsin to work on his Uncle James’ farm.

Yup: this area was known to the Lloyd Jones family as The Valley. With capital letters.3

Wright was there every summer from the year that he turned eleven until the year he turned eighteen.

This area, a spot of land south of the village of Spring Green, was settled and farmed in the 1860s by Wright’s maternal grandparents, Richard and Mallie Lloyd Jones. This was followed by their children (Wright’s aunts and uncles) living or working there. You can find out about the family by going to the website http://www.unitychapel.org/

The Valley in his writing:

It was important enough that Wright opened his autobiography with a story taking place in it.

A light blanket of snow fresh-fallen over sloping fields, gleaming in the morning sun. Clusters of pod-topped weeds woven of bronze here and there sprinkling the spotless expanse of white. Dark sprays of slender metallic straight lines, tipped with quivering dots. Pattern to the eye of the sun, as the sun spread delicate network of more pattern in blue shadows on the white beneath.

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), 104.

Referring to himself as “the boy”, he wrote about the link of his experiences to his feelings on nature and architecture:

And the trees stood in it all like various, beautiful buildings, of more different kinds than all the architectures of the world. And the boy was some day 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: 1930-32, volume 2, 123.

Looking up the hill in early spring at Taliesin's Lower Parking Court

What’s above is a photograph of Taliesin, as the building seems to rise from the hill.
This was taken by me in March, 2008 looking up at Taliesin’s Lower Parking Court.

Family connections:

Furthermore, the family of Wright’s mother, the Lloyd Joneses, was really important to Wright. During those summers, Wright stayed with “Uncle James” Lloyd Jones.4

The Lloyd Jones family was Unitarian and very interested in Ralph Waldo Emerson and poet Walt Whitman. Historian William Cronon, from the University of Wisconsin wrote that:

The… popular view today is that romantics like Emerson or Thoreau, or… Wright, celebrated the beauty of nature in a literal sense much as many modern environmentalists do…. In fact, raw nature was… less compelling for most nineteenth century romantics that it is for modern nature-lovers. The romantics regarded plants and animals… as the outward manifestations of an all-encompassing spiritual unity whose name was God.

“Inconstant Unity: The Passion of Frank Lloyd Wright,” by William Cronon (8-30), in Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect, ed. Terence Riley, with Peter Reed (Museum of Modern Art, New York City, 1994), 13.

So nature, God, and underlying geometry. And geometry goes into architecture. It’s all linked. Only took me about two years to really start to understand it.

First published, October 20, 2021.
I took the photographs seen in this post.


1 I wrote one of her publishers asking if she could get back to me on this statement. I want to ask her where that quote came from. They didn’t have her contact info, so I wrote her in care of another former publisher. I’ll change this if I can ask her where she got that.

2 He was NOT devoted to pancakes. I understand that he liked steel-cut oats.

3 And, even though most of the Lloyd Jones descendants are settled throughout the world, they all know what they’re talking about when they say, “The Valley”. The Valley, by the way, is now known as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Estate.

4 You can now rent Uncle James’ farmstead: http://www.aldebaranfarm.us/

Although if that’s not available you can also rent nearby Aunt Margaret’s house. Her house is just across the road from Wright’s Hillside School building.