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.

A Trip Into Hillside History

In the late 00’s, I wrote a “comprehensive chronology” of Wright’s Hillside building with the principal of Cornerstone Preservation (which specializes in architectural research and planning). This led me to reading all of those old newspapers I wrote about recently. The post where I detailed some of what you learn by reading old newspapers.1

That work informs the information I’ll write here

It’s a short, intense, introduction to Hillside, a building on Wright’s Taliesin estate. Hillside (the Hillside Home School) was once designed by Wright for a school for his aunts. Then, starting 30 years later, he began making changes to it. The building today includes a dining room and kitchen, an assembly hall, studio, and  theater.

Hillside history:

Frank Lloyd Wright originally designed the Hillside Home School in 1901. It’s on the south part of the Taliesin estate. After he started the Taliesin Fellowship, he added on to it by in the 1930s and ’40s, and then changed it after a fire occurred there in 1952. “Hillside” seems to be the only building by Wright that shows, distinctly, 4 time periods in his work, spread out over half a century.

The oldest part of the building (1901-02) looks over a dining room reconstructed under Wright’s direction in the 1950s. Walk again through the oldest part (a 1901 hallway), into the Hillside Drafting Studio. This was designed and built in the 1930s.

A walk outside brings you to the Hillside Theater foyer; Wright did that in the late 1940s. The foyer is right next to the theater, also redesigned after the 1952 fire.

So, in Hillside, you jump back and forth in time through Wright’s designs from 1901 to the last part, completed in 1955.

The buildings commissioned by the Aunts:

The building was commissioned initially by two amazing women who were aunts of Frank Lloyd Wright’s: Ellen (“Nell”) and Jane (“Jennie”). The structure served their school, which was also known as the Hillside Home School. Everyone in the area (including the schoolchildren) knew them as Aunt Jennie and Aunt Nell, or just “the Aunts”. The school was a coeducational day and boarding school that served children grades 1-12 and ran from 1887 to 1915. Wright actually designed three buildings for the Aunts: the “Home Building”, 2 a dormitory and library, built in 1887 (when Wright was 20); a windmill, “Romeo and Juliet”, 2 built when he was 30; and the Hillside Home School structure, finished when he was 36.

Those three structures were within a school campus that had additional housing, a greenhouse, a laundry, and a barn with horse stables.

Here are some hyperlinks to photos at the Wisconsin Historical Society that show things at the school:

  • A photo looking at most of the campus, with everything but the octagonal barn, the West Cottage, and the windmill.
  • A photo showing some of the buildings with the Romeo and Juliet Windmill in the distance.
  • And a photo of the octagonal barn.

If one were to go through Hillside today, you would just see the Hillside Home School and the Romeo and Juliet Windmill. Wright slowly eliminated the other school buildings, destroying the last one in 1950.

OK! So I gave you the basic background, here’s info on the school and Jennie and Nell Lloyd Jones.

The Aunts:

Both were educators:

Nell (1845-1919) taught instructors in kindergarten education. Jennie (1847/8-1917) was the head of the history department at the River Falls Normal School.

Ok, why did Wright call her “Aunt Jane” in his autobiography when you keep writing “Aunt Jennie”? I think he introduced her as Jane because he had a sister named Jane (Jane Porter), who was apparently known as Jennie.

Two things about my ignorance:

(1) Kindergarten education

It’s more complex than I knew before I started giving tours in the 1990s. To me, kindergarten was that fun school I went to as a little girl where we took a nap each day.

But kindergarten was a method of teaching children invented by Germany Friedrich Froebel (froy-bel). He created these learning devices called the “Froebel Gifts” that were designed to teach children about the underlying geometry in nature.3

Wright’s mother discovered the Froebel Gifts at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and introduced them to her son.

Here’s the 99 Percent Invisible podcast episode about the Kindergarten and Froebel:

Froebel’s Gifts

(2) Normal Schools:

Thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that “Normal Schools” were schools for teaching people how to be teachers. As opposed to how to be, you know, “normal”.

More on the Aunts’ Hillside Home School:

There’s a great book on the Hillside Home School: A Goodly Fellowship, by educator Mary Ellen Chase. You can find the book in libraries, or for purchase through www.abebooks.com.

The Aunts gave Chase her first teaching job. While I wish I could copy everything she wrote, I’ll give you this:

Chapter IV, “The Hillside Home School”, p. 85-121.

p. 90
[D]uring the three years I lived and worked with [the Aunts], they always took me by surprise and left me in wonder…. I was later to understand how together they gave the warmth and the fire, the stability and the strength, the soul and the spirit which for nearly thirty years sustained and supported the most wholesome and abundant of schools….

Some graduates of Hillside:

The students who went to the Hillside Home School included:

  • Future illustrator (and author), Maginel Wright Enright (Wright’s youngest sister);
  • The first woman elected to the state legislature of Illinois (Florence Fifer Bohrer);
  • Future Wisconsin Governor, Phillip LaFolette;
  • A female doctor who was Chief of the Ear, Nose, and Throat Clinic in the 1920s at Long Branch Hospital in Long Branch, New Jersey (Dr. Helen Upham);
  • Wright’s sons, future architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr. (known as Lloyd Wright) and Wright’s second son, John Lloyd Wright (who famously also invented Lincoln Logs).

In 1907, the Weekly Home News (Spring Green’s newspaper), ran a story on the school  and stated that by that year those who graduated from Hillside were automatically accepted into the University of Illinois at Chicago, or to Wellesley College.

Below is the link to the short piece I was asked to write in early 2020 while at Taliesin Preservation. It was from a call from the National Trust for Historic Preservation 1000 Places “where Women Made History”:
https://web.archive.org/web/20200920033632/https://contest.savingplaces.org/egiguylh?_ga=2.51589609.1571769439.1600570401-1325809123.1580253164

The Aunts closed the school in 1915.

Their ages, economic problems caused by poor real estate choices, a lack of a successor and, yes, the murders at their nephew’s home less than a mile away (in August 1914) were among the reasons the Aunts had to close their school. They sold the buildings and land to Wright and died a few years later.

The buildings were unused between 1915 and 1932. In the late ‘teens-early twenties, Wright was working in Japan on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo,* then had commissions in California. Then another devastating fire occurred at his house in 1925, followed by lots of personal, legal, and economic problems (that are too numerous to go into here).

Wright looked back to the Hillside buildings:

In 1928, he started thinking about using the buildings for a school (he called it the “Hillside Home School of the Allied Arts”). That didn’t go anywhere for a variety of reasons. So, in 1932, he and his third wife, Olgivanna, opened the Taliesin Fellowship, an architectural apprenticeship program, with him at the head. 23 apprentices arrived that October to work with Wright. At his home, Taliesin, he converted the former hayloft, horse stable and cow barn into dormitory rooms.

Wright’s career after the Fellowship’s founding in 1932:

Upon founding the Taliesin Fellowship, Wright sent the apprentices to work at Hillside. They built onto the existing school by starting a 5,000 sq. foot drafting studio with eight dormitory rooms on each side. By November of the next year, they had converted the school’s gymnasium into a theater, named the Playhouse by Wright. Here are links to a couple of photographs that show the Hillside Drafting Studio and the Playhouse:

Construction work on the Hillside studio:
https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Image/IM25967

The Playhouse its opening weekend:
https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/the-new-taliesin-hillside-theater-looking-toward-the-rear-news-photo/1139715311

While construction of the Hillside Drafting Studio began pretty early in the Fellowship history (1932? 1933?), Wright didn’t structurally complete until late 1938. It’s cute reading accounts by Taliesin Fellowship apprentices in the mid-’30s: they wrote about how the drafting studio be in use soon!4 However, they didn’t get it all set up and opened until July 1939.

The Hillside Drafting Studio becomes the main studio for Wright in Wisconsin:

Once the Fellowship and Wright moved into the Hillside Drafting Studio, all of the drafting work in Wisconsin was done there (not in his first studio at his house).

Here‘s for a photo of Wright working in the Hillside Drafting Studio. It’s from the collection of photos by his photographer, Pedro Guerrero. I don’t know, but I would imagine that having the larger space with less distraction was a goal for working with young architectural apprentices. The only outdoor light came from clerestory windows above and two doors on the north side of the room.

I’m not sure what happened while World War II was going on, but drafting was definitely done in the studio when World War II was over. I looked at one of the major books cataloguing Wright’s architecture (William Allin Storrer’s The Frank Lloyd Wright Companion) to count the number of commissions. Looks like Wright and the Fellowship designed and executed 240 buildings from 1945 until the architect’s death in 1959. And, in the summer, the Fellowship did all of the design work at the Hillside Studio in Wisconsin.

Wright did more construction at Hillside after World War II:

By 1948 he added a foyer onto the Playhouse. The foyer is made mostly out of stone with no insulation. That’s in part because by 1948, Wright and the Fellowship were spending every winter in Arizona at Taliesin West. I’ve not seen ice inside the building in April, but I have seen my breath in the cold (as of September 2020, tours don’t go into Hillside after Halloween and before May 1).

In 1950, Wright had the Home Building torn down.

Two years later there was a major fire at Hillside:

I don’t know if Wright would have changed things at Hillside in the 1950s, but a fire, caused by brush, happened on April 26, 1952. It destroyed the part of the building that had the 1901 classrooms on the building’s south side. The fire also mostly destroyed the Playhouse. In the edition of The Weekly Home News on May 1, Wright said “… the building will be much better looking…” when he rebuilt it. And that, “That smoke-tone is wonderful… I couldn’t have darkened it so evenly if I’d done it myself. Nature is God’s technician.”

The building was cleaned up in the summer of 1952 with construction happening the following two summers (click here for a photo of Wright by Pedro Guerrero supervising an apprentice Kelly Oliver on the roof at Hillside during reconstruction). The building was apparently complete by Wright’s birthday, June 8, in 1955.

This Hillside Theater (or Theatre depending on how fancy you feel) has two sections of metal seats, set into poured concrete and 90 degrees to each other.

Because this part of the building was constructed during the summer, Wright didn’t seem to care so much about drainage or things of that nature. After more than 50 years, this was a growing concern. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation received a Save America’s Treasures grant for the Theater, announced in 2018. Restoration work began in 2020.

First published 9/23/2020.
The photograph at the top of this post shows the Hillside Assembly Hall. I took this in 2008.


Notes:

1 In part, you learn that a lot of people died 100 years ago from, say, fever, dropsy, appendicitis, or what happens when you lean your loaded shotgun against tree while jumping over a fence (note: if it’s in the newspaper, the loaded shogun probably fell over, shot you and killed you).

2 Disclosure: I initially wrote the Wikipedia entry.

3 The first kindergarten was in Wisconsin.

4 You read these cute accounts in a weekly newspaper column entitled “At Taliesin” that were found, transcribed, then edited into a book by Randolph C. Henning.