Floor plan of Taliesin. Drawing #1104.003. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art|Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

“This will be a nice addition…”

A drawing of Taliesin, executed in June 1911. This drawing is accessible from
https://library.artstor.org/#/asset/28509365;prevRouteTS=1621879846896

110 years ago, on May 25, 1911, the Weekly Home News (the newspaper of Spring Green, Wisconsin), noted on page 4 that:

“Mrs. Hannah Wright is building her home in Hillside valley, adjoining the old homestead, a little north and west of the old millsite. This will be a nice addition to the neat home in the valley.”

“Hannah” was her legal name, but she was known as Anna, and she was Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother.

“Hillside” was the name of the small town south across the Wisconsin river. The valley was lived in by Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother’s side of the family, the Lloyd Joneses (which is why, when Wright’s sister, Maginel, wrote about the family, she named her book, The Valley of the God-Almighty Joneses).

Why did Wright build this home?

The public perception was that Wright was building this home for his mother. He was actually building it for himself and his partner, Mamah Borthwick (she was still in Europe awaiting a divorce from Edwin Cheney, which she would do on August 5). By August1 he referred to the home as Taliesin.

Did Anna ever live there?

I have never figured out if, when, or where, Anna lived at Taliesin. In December 2021, I looked at some of her letters in Arizona at Taliesin West. I wrote about it in my post “Anna to her son“. But there still no hard proof that she was there for the long term.

Regardless of whether she ever lived at Taliesin, Anna did originally purchase the land where her son would start his home (or possibly she bought the land because her son persuaded client, Darwin Martin, to purchase her home so that she had the money to buy the land).

The purchase of the land:

She had purchased 31.561 acres of land on April 10, 1911 from Joseph Reider, a Lloyd-Jones neighbor.2 Frank Lloyd Wright would move to the “Hillside valley” (the Lloyd Jones valley) with Borthwick once she divorced. Thus, she’d be free to live with him.

Obviously, construction had started by late May 1911, thanks to the note in the Weekly Home News. When Wright first drew the building in April, it was labelled Cottage for Anna Lloyd Wright. It had three bedrooms (including one for a servant), a kitchen, a living room, and a “work room” across an open “loggia”.

Taliesin as constructed

By June 1911 (when someone executed the drawing above), Anna’s name no longer appeared on the drawing’s title block. However, the building was still being labelled as a cottage. Nice cottage: its living quarters had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and a living room. At a right angle, it had a workroom and office space. Beyond that were spaces for carriages and animals. Whether or not you’d call it a cottage, the drawing in June is fairly close to what was built.

Wright about Taliesin in his 1932 autobiography:

I wished to be part of my beloved southern Wisconsin and not put my small part of it out of countenance. Architecture, after all, I have learned, or before all, I should say, is no less a weaving a fabric than the trees….

The world had appropriate buildings before–why not more appropriate buildings now than ever before. There must be some kind of house that would belong to that hill, as trees and the ledges of rock did; as Grandfather and Mother had belonged to it, in their sense of it all.

Yes, there must be a natural house, not natural as caves and log-cabins were natural but native in spirit and making, with all that architecture had meant whenever it was alive in times past. Nothing at all that I had ever seen would do…. But there was a house that hill might marry and live happily ever after. I fully intended to find it. I even saw, for myself, what it might be like and begin to build it as the “brow” of the hill.

Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography, in Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings: 1930-32, volume 2. Edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, introduction by Kenneth Frampton (1992; Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York City, 1992), 224-225

About the “brow” of the hill:

Frankophiles know this, but the word “Taliesin”, in the Welsh language, translates as “Shining Brow”. Wright’s family on his mother’s side, the Lloyd Joneses, came from Wales.

Construction photograph of Taliesin

Draftsman Taylor Woolley, who worked at Taliesin in 1911-12, took photographs all around the building. Those photos are now at the Utah Historical Society. I showed one of the photos months ago in my first blog post. Woolley printed some of these photos out. Someone put them into an album now owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society. The link to those photos is here.

So the Weekly Home News said the building was being built for “Mrs. Hannah Wright” in late May. Woolley took the photograph over three months later:

The photo above is taken from the “Hill Tower” at Taliesin, with Wright’s living quarters in the background.

Woolley’s construction photographs

The Ebay auction of an album of Woolley’s photographs (which I wrote about in The Album) were one of the most interesting things in Spring Green, Wisconsin during the winter of 2004-2005. But after that hullabaloo, writer/journalist Ron McCrea found negatives of more at the Utah Historical Society. He sent me chapters of the book he was working on, Building Taliesin: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home of Love and Loss. If you read the book you can find out how McCrea found them, and where more photos by Woolley can be located.3

Woolley took the photograph above shortly after he came to work for Wright. Personally, I have never found photographs of Taliesin dating before that, or of construction earlier in the summer of 1911.

Also, I checked the issues of Weekly Home News newspaper published during the summer of 1911. But unfortunately, I haven’t found anything yet in the “Home News” about “Mrs. Hanna Wright” building in the “Hillside valley”.

Finally, and since I was asked this while working at Taliesin Preservation, there is no photograph of Frank Lloyd Wright “breaking ground” for his home.

Wright didn’t want people to know what he was up to in Wisconsin—so there’s no photo of Wright smiling happily while holding a gold shovel.

Regardless, that small note in the Weekly Home News touched on something that altered Spring Green, and southwestern Wisconsin, permanently.

Originally published, May 24, 2021.

The drawing above is drawing #1104.003, from The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art |Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).


Notes

1  On August 26, 1911, architect John Moore sent Wright a telegram, wanting to visit his home. Wright scrawled at the bottom of the telegram (in preparation for the reply), that Moore and his friends “Will be welcome to Taliesin.” As I was transcribing it, I thought that this might have been the first time that Wright referred in writing to his house by that name.
The telegram is identification #K017E01, The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (Museum of Modern Art|Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). 

2 People often think that the Lloyd Jones family owned the land where Wright built Taliesin. I think that’s what Wright wanted people to believe. The land title shows that it had not been owned at any time by a Lloyd Jones family member before Wright bought it. Until 1911, neighbor Joseph Reider owned it. There’s no bad reason why Wright didn’t tell people the truth; maybe he felt it made a better story.

3 I wrote the captions for many of Woolley’s photos in McCrea’s book, in part because I knew the photographs well (and, as I noted in another blog post: this stuff is fun for me). Unfortunately I lost most of the the emails between McCrea and myself due to something that happened with email at work (most were fubarred←if you don’t know the definition of “fubar”, look it up). Doesn’t matter so much, but it bums me out a bit.

Looking east at Taliesin's agricultural wing.

“This stuff is FUN for me”: Taliesin photographs from Frank Lloyd Wright’s lifetime.

The photograph above was published in a “Flashback” article from December 4 by Ron Grossman at The Chicago Tribune: “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin was a refuge for illicit romance. But tragedy tore apart the love he built”. It’s one of two photographs taken at Taliesin on December 26, 1911. That was is published in my entry, “I looked at stone.”

That’s what I said to journalist Ron McCrea in 2010 after I’d spent my weekend looking at photos of Taliesin (he was writing about them, Wright, and Mamah Borthwick in his book, Building Taliesin, published in 2012). 

What prompted this statement here has to do with the photos on this link.

The photos didn’t just capture my attention. No: I yelled in a way that they show you in movies or cartoons. It’s yelling with lots of special characters: “Holy C*$#!”

What made me yell:

The article’s two photographs—exteriors of Taliesin I (Taliesin 1911-14)—I’d only seen as dark/dusty photos, or drawings made from them.

And it appears the photographer took these the day after Christmas, 1911. On that day, Wright (and his partner, Borthwick) gave an (unintentionally disastrous) press briefing at Taliesin. They did this because they hoped to stave off public damnation. Wright thought he could do that by addressing the press.

(or the “war correspondents” as he called them, in the Day Book newspaper, on Jan. 4).

The “newspaper men” put them back on the front pages because, while they’d left their families in Oak Park, Illinois in 1909, Wright returned alone in late 1910. Everyone reading the newspapers thought Wright and Borthwick had ended their relationship.

That was not true:

Wright was in the US, but acquired land in Wisconsin to build his home. Meanwhile, Cheney was in Europe. She had to wait until she could divorce her husband based on “abandonment”.

Thus, she was Mamah Cheney until August 5, 1911, then reverted to her maiden name, Borthwick.

The “war correspondents” found the two, realized that Wright had not reconciled with wife Catherine, and descended on Taliesin.

The hope by Wright (and Borthwick) that a public statement would calm the press didn’t work out. Even though Wright said in Baraboo News (Baraboo, WI, January 4), “may not the matter be left in privacy to those whose concern it chiefly is?”, it was too late. That newspaper, on December 28, said that Taliesin was “known as Crazy House.”

I encourage you at this point, if you haven’t done so already, to click the link to Grossman’s story so you can look at the “Crazy House” photos.

A drawing in 1914 made from a 1911 photograph

Drawing showing Taliesin's north facade

If you read the article, the first photograph, underneath the article’s title, shows the building’s northern face, with a parapet ending in a stone pier to the immediate left. I had never seen the photo before. But someone took the photo and made it into a drawing. That appeared in the Des Moines Daily News (published August 18, 1914). I put that drawing above. I think I should be ok to publish it. Given its age, it’s now in the public domain.

I wanted to show how you’d see that same part of the building today, but I couldn’t. Almost nothing in the photograph from Taliesin I (or the drawing) is the same. That’s because Wright kept adding on and changing the building. However, I say that, “Taliesin keeps its history within its walls.” So I’ll show where that history marker is, but I’ll orient you first.

A view toward Taliesin’s entry steps

You walk up the steps at Taliesin to Wright’s studio at Taliesin (the north wall of the studio is to the right). The parapet from the Taliesin I photo ended at the stone that is to the left of the tree trunk (the tree trunk is to the left of the window that’s on the extreme right in the photograph) .

The next photo is the other side of that stone wall. That tree trunk I just mentioned is just to the right of the end of wall. 

That little black rectangle you see is where the cap on the parapet terminated into the stone.

The second image in the Grossman article, near the bottom, shows that same wing (the agricultural wing) from its broad western façade. That photograph is at the top of this entry, because it first appeared in print before 1924. The images, while not being unknown to me, are probably pretty rare for fans of Frank Lloyd Wright or even Taliesin. That’s how many changes Wright made to the structure over time.

This second image (showing Taliesin’s far western facade), shows the building’s hayloft ending on the right side with a garage that has the cantilevered roof. I don’t know if the garage ever held cars since there are no photographs of cars in there and no photographs with wheel tracks leading up to the garage either. There are no close up photos of it, but you see the garage across the hill in this photo at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Another photograph used in a newspaper article

Grossman’s article used a second image taken in late December 1911, the day of Wright and Borthwick’s press conference.

I found this image because of a habit I had (and have). I search online for old Taliesin photographs. When I worked, I did this on my Friday afternoons after I had finished any other projects. I would type “Taliesin” and other qualifiers into a search bar to see what came up.

Note to the neophyte: make sure to narrow the search so that you aren’t seeing results regarding Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona; things about the 1914 murders/fire at Taliesin; some movie out there about vampires with a character who is, I guess, named Taliesin*; and information on actor/voice actor, Taliesin Jaffe (I’m sorry Mr. Jaffe, but I’ve never seen anything you’ve been in).

One day that brought me to a newspaper article in the Chicago Evening American, published on December 29, 1911:

I don’t remember my first thought in seeing the agricultural wing photo, but I’m sure I was really excited. And, ultimately a little disappointed, because the photograph was muddy and a little dark and, well, just newspaper print. It’s very likely I looked at it, tried to get what information I could by scanning it, then expanded, lightened, and darkened, and gave up.

I thought that these photographs, if they existed, were in a drawer or a folder, stuck away or mislabeled. After all, I had no idea of the photo of Taliesin’s north facade existed at all out there. But, obviously, I was wrong and the original photos were NOT lost.


* Here’s part of the problem in not exploring what comes up in my website searches: “Taliesin Meets the Vampires” is not a movie. “Taliesin Meets the Vampires”—if I had taken a moment to click on the link—is a “Vampire blog” where you “will find views and reviews of vampire genre media, from literature, the web, TV and the movies.” Well, I’m glad I did that because I prefer looking at a page on a website to finding, then watching, a vampire movie.


First published, 12/11/2020.

The photograph at the heading for this post comes from the Chicago Tribune Historical Images.