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.
Looking northwest at Frank Lloyd Wright's Hillside building during April 26, 1952 fire

1952 fire at Hillside

Looking northeast at the southern facade of the Hillside building while the smoke still looms in its April 26, 1952 fire.
I don’t know who took this photograph. It came from a newspaper article that was given to the Preservation office probably in the 1990s.

As someone who worked at Taliesin, you got used to dealing with questions about fire on the Taliesin estate. Of course, there were the two Taliesin fires,

but that’s not all!

In 1952, a big fire took place at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hillside building on the south part of the Taliesin estate. That fire happened in April of that year. So, today I’ll talk about the fire and one of Hillside’s rooms affected by it.

I started this after a request:

Someone asked me about the Hillside theater, and its history, a few days ago. As sometimes happens, I know something really well, but don’t know what others don’t know at all. This had great timing, because

the Hillside fire happened nearly 70 years ago

on April 26, 1952.

And I’m trying to push away the knowledge that this means that drummer Stewart Copeland turns 70 this July. Copeland was in the band, The Police (which I adored as a teenager; hence the automatic knowledge on Copeland’s age; he was born on July 16, 1952 btw).

So, follow me while I talk about the original space at Hillside.

The old theater

The Hillside Theater is in the gymnasium Wright designed in 1901 for his Aunts’ Hillside Home School.1 Here’s a photo of the Hillside building when the Aunts ran the school. The gymnasium is on the photo’s far left-hand side:

Page 7 from "In the Valley of the Clan" booklet by William Hudson Harper.
Booklet located in the Wisconsin Historical Society. Collection: Lloyd Jones (Jane Lloyd Jones Correspondence, 1899-1940; Wisconsin Historical Society, Box 1).

The photo is in the booklet, “In the Valley of the Clan: The Story of a School”.

The booklet is on-line

at the Wisconsin Historical Society. The photo above is on page 7.

The inside of the gym is in the next photo:

Photograph looking east at the stage in the Hillside Home School gym.

Circa 1903 photo looking east in the Hillside Home School gym and its stage. The gym’s running track was behind the horizontal boards above the stage. Unknown photographer.
Taken from a Hillside booklet owned by Peggy Travers, whose mother went to the Hillside school.

In 1932, when Wright started the Taliesin Fellowship, he redesigned the gym into a theater that he named “the Playhouse”. So, in the first years his apprentices were changing things at his house so they could live there.

(like Edgar Tafel talked about in the book I recommended, Apprentice to Genius).

But they also immediately started renovating the gym into the Playhouse. Like, they took the gym’s running track and rehung it so it was on several different levels.

I don’t know what good that did, but it looked really cool.

Here’s a good drawing of it:

Drawing of Hillside Playhouse Theater from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives.
Property: The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). Drawing #3303.014.

The modified running track is on the upper right. A modified version of this drawing was painted onto plywood. Every Sunday that plywood placard was put alongside the 2-lane highway (Hwy 23) as advertisement for movies at the Playhouse.
You’ll be able to see the placard once the Hillside Theater opens back up after the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation completes its restoration.
Here’s a video discussion of their current restoration work.

1933 photo of the Playhouse when it was ready to open:

Taken by Angus Vicar. He took the photo the weekend before the Playhouse opened on November 1st, 1933:

Photograph by Angus Vicar. October 27 1933. Property of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Wisconsin Historical Society. Collection name: Photo Copy Service: Photo Copy Service photographs and negatives, 1925-1983.
Collection No.: 4245-B.

All this, despite a lack of Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy saying,

come on! Let’s put on a show!

The simple benches you see were constructed by a furniture maker in the Fellowship, Manuel Sandoval. He made them out of newly-cut oak. The “girls” in the Fellowship sewed the seat cushions.

So, movies at the Playhouse were the first public interface by the Taliesin Fellowship. They ran weekly, with apprentices in charge of manning the projector, introducing the movie, preparing coffee or tea for refreshments, and taking money from patrons.

Movies cost 50¢. For a dollar, you could watch the movie as well as get a tour with an apprentice.

This is how hardy we used to be:

That first winter, the Playhouse didn’t have radiator heat. Read this in an “At Taliesin” newspaper article on February 1, 1934:

“The new heating system is in operation, and made the theatre quite comfortable when weather conditions were unfavorable last Sunday.”
No named author. Transcribed from the published article by Randolph C. Henning, but not published in the 1992 “At Taliesin” book edited by Henning.

Eventually, the Wrights and the Fellowship began going to Arizona in the winter (as I noted in this post). Then, as the NEH story states, Wright found the land in Scottsdale in late 1937. The Fellowship then began building Taliesin West as its winter quarters.

In 1952, the Wrights and the Fellowship were returning from their winter when the Hillside fire happened. It destroyed the Playhouse, plus everything to the east up to the Assembly Hall. A stone foyer to the west of the Playhouse (added a few years before) was also untouched.

Below is a transcription of part of a newspaper story about the fire. It comes from the May 1, 1952 edition of Spring Green’s newspaper, the Weekly Home News:

Taliesin School Re-Born on Paper

As Flames Destroy Old Structure

…. Taliesin’s third major fire (the previous two destroyed the house) started late Saturday afternoon [April 26] when a rubbish fire, left unattended, swept toward the building as the wind shifted. A floor containing living quarters above the student dining room was destroyed first; then the flames spread into the theater and reduced it to ashes.           

“I lit that rubbish fire myself,” Wright readily admitted.

“It was about 30 ft. from the building and the wind was blowing toward the east. I shouldn’t have gone off and left it, but the wind shifted and carried the fire up under the overhang of the roof. When I came back smoke was coming from the roof and upper floor.”         

…. Although a small office adjoining the living room [the Assembly Hall] was badly damaged…, the big room itself suffered only smoke damage. Wright found good in that, too. “That smoke-tone is wonderful,” he said. “I couldn’t have darkened it so evenly if I’d done it myself. Nature is God’s technician.”

Fellowship member “Frances” Nemtin, who joined the Fellowship in early ’46, wrote about it in her booklet, 3 by FLLW. She, then-husband Kenn Lockhart, and their children had been living at the Midway Barns over the winter. On that day in 1952:

… [T]here were a few of us on the grounds…. I was at startled to hear sirens and see fire-trucks and police cars screaming through our valley and turning into Hillside… when I ran onto the nearby roof I saw black smoke rising there. With the children I drove to Hillside fast and found a horrifying scene. The theater was full of flames and the local fire engines were desperately fighting an enormous blaze.

3 by FLLW, by Frances Nemtin (self-published, 2008), 44-45.

As members of the Taliesin Fellowship returned, they cleaned the area, prepping for work. That’s because Wright had already redesigned the space.

The new space, now called the Hillside Theatre/Theater (both spellings are in drawings) pushed out further on the north and south. The apprentices poured concrete and created stadium seating. He designed metal chairs, most of which where put into the concrete.

In 1955, they had a formal evening for Wright’s birthday (June 8) to mark the completion of the work.

Maynard Parker also took photographs at Taliesin that year.

These photographs were published in House Beautiful in November, 1955. One of the photos he took is below:

Photographer, Maynard Parker. Looking northwest at Frank Lloyd Wright's Hillside building in 1955..
Huntington Library–Maynard Parker collection. Call Number. photoCL MLP 1266.

Summer photograph by Maynard Parker looking at the south facade of Hillside. The rebuilt Theater is on the left. An enlarged kitchen at Hillside is on the lower right, under a new roof with a balcony parapet above the stone and wooden doors.

The next year, 1956, the apprentices in the Taliesin Fellowship gave Wright a curtain from his design. Again, here’s Frances Nemtin:

…. It was to be an abstraction of the Wisconsin landscape and executed in felt appliqued on Belgian linen…. Immediately on reaching Wisconsin that April we set out to work in the second floor of Aldebaran, Wes Peters‘ farm, so we could work secretly. We knew if Mr. Wright saw it in progress he’d make constant changes.

3 by FLLW, by Frances Nemtin (self-published, 2008), 49.

Frances and others could not agree on the date of the curtain’s execution. Folks at Taliesin and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation didn’t know if it was made in 1954, ’56, or ’57.

Then I got an email:

A woman wrote me at work (as the Taliesin historian). She told me that her parents were in the Taliesin Fellowship and her mother worked on that curtain. And her mother went into labor with her a few days before they finished. And she was born in June of 1956.

So we had our date.

Not cut in stone, but… good enough I’d say.

First published April 15, 2022.
I do not know who took the photograph at the top of this page, but it appeared in a newspaper story on the Hillside fire.


Notes:

1. The building I wrote about in the post, “Another find at Hillside” was the original gymnasium for the Aunts’ Hillside school. That building became the dormitory for older boys once Wright’s building was constructed.

Contemporary. Looking southwest in Taliesin's living room at the fireplace.

1940s Change in Taliesin’s Living Room

Photograph from the 2000s taken by me in Taliesin’s living room. Looking toward the fireplace with the inglenook (the built-in bench).

Today, I thought about photographs from the book, Apprentice to Genius, by Edgar Tafel that I recommended almost a year ago. Looking through the book reminded me of a change to the inglenook (the built-in bench) at the fireplace in Taliesin’s living room. I’m going to talk about that change in this post.

A moment about Wright’s living room

While I’ve written about his living room before, I haven’t really talked about it much. That’s in part because, while Wright obviously loved it and rebuilt it after his home’s two fires, he didn’t spend a lot of time changing it.

I mean, comparatively speaking.

Because he changed other rooms. A lot. Like the room I talked about in here; I mean, c’mon: it’s inside Taliesin and figuring out where the room stood (or stands. . . it’s still there) can be really difficult.

But, in contrast, there are things in Taliesin’s living room that he kept the same.

For example:

  1. The door from the main hallway was always in the same space.
  2. The room always had almost square windows.
  3. The dining area was always on the south wall.

And,

The fireplace always had an inglenook. In addition, for years (and after each fire), the inglenook ended a bookshelf on the end, farthest from the firebox. Maybe this bookshelf kept the space on the couch warmer when you had a fire.

Here’s the inglenook and bookshelf during the Taliesin I era:

Black and white photograph of inglenook in Taliesin I living room. By Taylor Woolley
Property of Utah Historical Society, Taylor Woolley collection, ID #695922.

Photograph taken 1911-1912 by Taylor Woolley, Wright’s draftsman at Taliesin at that time. Photograph located at the Utah Historical Society, ID #695922.

btw, I have tried to read the titles on the books on the shelf. Unfortunately, when I magnified it, the book titles just got blurry.

The bench was reconstructed for Taliesin II, after the 1914 fire.

Which can see in this Taliesin II photograph from the Wisconsin Historical Society.

And, again, after the fire of 1925.

You can see the inglenook here in an early Taliesin III photo, at Greatbuildings.com.1

And then we come to one of the photographs from “Apprentice to Genius”. The photograph from it below was taken in 1940 by Pedro Guerrero:

Photograph of Taliesin's living room and fireplace. By Pedro Guerrero.
Photograph taken in 1940.
Property: Pedro E. Guerrero Archives.

The bookshelf is the vertical section at the end of the bench.
This photograph is on page 112 of Apprentice to Genius.

In addition, this photograph shows that Wright had a small bookshelf on the opposite side of the bench. You can see the books where the bench terminates into the wall in the living room, to the left of the fireplace mantle.

btw: I’ve looked at the books on that little shelf and can’t read the titles there, either.

I suppose that could be a nice thing to have if you were at that fireplace in the winter, reading.

And then he made changes in the 1940s

Particularly the early 1940s. Why?

Because Wright, his family, and a few others were (more-or-less) confined to Wisconsin after the United States involvement in World War II. This involvement led to rationing, which resulted in his forced residence of Taliesin again year-around.

In addition,

Being forced to stay at his digs in the Midwest allowed Wright to think seriously on how he could change his home to make it more suitable to living in the summer.

Aside from all those stone changes he made in 1942-43 when he got an offer for “a cord or two of stone for every hour that I use the tractor.”

So, along with large changes at Taliesin, he made changes to this part of the living room. 

Here’s what I think happened:

That bookcase probably helped to preserve heat near the fireplace. So, he got rid of the bookcase, since he wouldn’t have to worry about conserving heat there any more, once they could all get back to Taliesin West in the winter. Besides, taking away that bookcase would make the bench more open to people walking around during hors d’oeuvres for Sunday formal evenings.2

He also eliminated the little bookshelf to the left of the fireplace, and put mortared stone in its place.

The removal of both book storage areas, were just two of five or six changes. You can see the cleaned up area in Apprentice to Genius, p. 113. Or in the photo below taken in the 1950s by Maynard Parker. Parker Taliesin took photographs at Taliesin in 1955 for House Beautiful.3

Color photograph taken of bench and fireplace in Taliesin living room, 1955.
Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Call Number: photCL MLP 1266

Now:

I do not know if Wright thought of the changes near the fireplace all at once, or if he made a change at the bookcase, followed by others over time.

Like when you go to wipe up a coffee spill on the counter and three hours later you’re mopping the entire kitchen floor after having wiped down all the cupboards while you rearranged (and threw out) the old spices (oh, you were so naive when you thought you’d use that much Cayenne).

But, maybe this came to him fully formed. From the bookcase, to the mantelpiece, or maybe the mantelpiece to the bookcase.

And, yes,

There’s a water stain on the ceiling. One time, a Taliesin Preservation employee (hey, Bob!) said to us that leaks in Wright buildings were like Alfred Hitchcock making a cameo appearance in his movies.4

I also like the plaster on the back of the built-in: sort of dark gold. I haven’t determined whether he made it lighter the last summer he lived in Wisconsin. Although, one of his former apprentices, David Dodge, said one time that Wright had apprentices redo colors on the walls every year. Although I don’t know if that was for every square inch of every wall in every space, but “David” said he could see why Wright redid the colors.

David said that just because the same flowers grow in the same place as the year before doesn’t mean the red or yellow of that rose will be the exact same shade in every way.

First published March 16, 2022.


Notes:

1. This photograph is published in the Volume 6 Number 1 issue of the Journal of the Organic Architecture + Design archives.

2. Formal evenings were held every Sunday when I started in 1994. Why they were held on Sundays, I don’t know. They were definitely Saturdays later and were held two times a month after I’d worked a season or two.

3. House Beautiful magazine, November 1955, v.97, number 11, p. 233-90 +. Parker gave his collection to the Huntington Library in California.

4. Although I can tell you that, this part of the ceiling has never leaked in my experience with Taliesin. And, while work has always been done to stop them, the roofs of Taliesin do/can leak. I recall one day maybe a dozen years ago, when TPI’s then-executive director told a reporter with excitement that, “Nothing leaked this spring!” [paywall] It’s not that Wright didn’t know what he was doing; he was just always changing things. So he was putting “creases” in the “envelope” of the building.

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.