Headline describing the April 20, 1925 fire at Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright's Wisconsin home

What a Way to Begin

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Have you ever fallen in love with someone, were blissfully going along, and then

something crazy-bad happened

outside of the control of either of you?

It’s a test of your mettle. And you move beyond your fears and you are all there for that person. It’s a test and you’ve aced it, in this binding experience.

Well,

that is, in short, my completely unauthorized and totally subjective start of the story of Olgivanna Milanoff Hinzenberg (later, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright) and the dashing, brilliant architect, Frank Lloyd Wright1 in the aftermath of the fire that ripped through Taliesin on April 20, 1925.

So, that’s what I’m going to talk about in this post. Because the anniversary is right around the corner.

Let’s go back in history

In 1924, Frank Lloyd Wright was living back in Wisconsin, after his supervision and building of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo Japan, followed by designing and building in California.

He referred to most of these California homes as the Textile Block homes. Wright had a cool idea with these homes. They would be made out of specially-designed concrete blocks, that used material from the site. This way they would be less expensive, and use local material as the aggregate that would normally be displaced during construction. Plus, Wright was trying to think of a way to beautify the “gutter rat” (as he said) of concrete. They were “textile block” because of the way they were “knitted” together. He tried to do this once more in Oklahoma, but it wasn’t as easy or as inexpensive as he thought they would be.

Then, by mid-May, 1924

he was newly single after his second wife, Miriam Noel, had left.

About 6 months later, in late November, Wright went to Chicago and visited friend Jerry Blum. Wright says in his autobiography that Blum was a “diamond-in-the-rough painter” who had been “spoiled” by his parents giving him “too much easy money.”2 Blum brought Wright to an afternoon ballet performance in Chicago.

Afternoon ballet performances might not be the common thing nowadays, but then again, this was 1924. After all, my parents used to drive us to NYC in the late 1970s/early ’80s to see matinees on Broadway on Sunday afternoons. It was inexpensive, but mom made sure we all held hands because at that time, Times Square could be a little sketchy, to say the least.

The theater was packed and Wright and Blum sat in the box seats with one free seat. That’s where Wright and Olgivanna

had a meet-cute.

She was brought in to the only free seat in the theater just as the performance began. Wright wrote that he was drawn to this striking woman with no jewelry, and with dark hair worn straight down on either side of her face. He wrote in his autobiography in 1943 about this chance meeting:

Suddenly in my unhappy state something cleared up—what had been the matter with me came to look me in the face—it was, simply, too much passion without poetry… that was it, the best in me for years and years wasted—starved! This strange chance meeting was it… poetry? I was a hungry man.

An Autobiography (1943 edition), 5093

The photograph below is Olgivanna, apparently on her first visit to Taliesin:

Photograph of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright on her first trip to Taliesin in Wisconsin

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

She’s standing in front of the south wall of Taliesin’s Drafting Studio.

Shortly after the new year, Olgivanna moved into Taliesin with her daughter, Svetlana.

Then, just over 4 months later,

on April 20, 1925, Olgivanna, Wright, Svetlana, and a few others were eating in Taliesin’s dining room up on the hill. At that time, a fire began in Taliesin’s living quarters and would destroy them.

I wrote just about the this fire two years ago, in this post.

Olgivanna wrote about Taliesin’s 1925 fire, later published in her autobiography:

One evening while the three of us were having dinner in the little dining room up on the hill, separate from the residence, I smelled smoke. The telephone rang incessantly. The housekeeper and her husband did not bother about it and said later that they were not conscious that the smoke might spell fire. “There must be something wrong,” I said. “Don’t you think we had better find out? Frank,” I insisted, “I think we had better go down and see what is going on. The smell of smoke is growing stronger.”

            We stepped out and saw Taliesin in flames. We ran down fast. The neighbors began to arrive….

They all fought the flames for hours until rain came, dousing them. Yet, while the studio and offices were untouched, the living quarters, and almost everything in them, were destroyed mostly down to stone.

Olgivanna wrote that Wright had been so concerned about stopping the fire, that he argued against people removing objects from the building. So, he sat on the hill blaming himself for all of the lost art.

Continuing her story,

Olgivanna wrote:

I moved close to him and said, “We will get more works of art. We have each other. Nothing can stop us. We will rebuild Taliesin. you will make it more beautiful now. Let us look at it as a truly fresh beginning of our life, all new. Great opportunities lie before us.” “And,” I whispered to him, “I’m going to have a baby.”

…. He put his hands around me and said, “Nothing matters but you and me – now we will be welded together.”

The Life of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright: From Crna Cora to Taliesin; from Black Mountain to Shining Brow, compiled and edited by Maxine Fawcett-Yeske, Ph.D. and Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, D.H.L. (ORO Editions, 2017), 83.

After this, there would be lots of problems in the press, and with money, and, you know, that weekend Wright spent in jail.

Helped, or created, by problems with Miriam Noel.

But according to Olgivanna, her push (and optimism) immediately after the fire helped him start to rebuild. Talk about a test by fire, man.

 

First published April 19, 2023.
The newspaper headline at the top of this post is from the New Britain Herald and was printed on April 21, 1925.


Notes:

1 Re: Wright as “dashing” – his widow’s peak seen in the photo below is quite respectable. It’s got a flavor of Christopher Walken:

Frank Lloyd Wright with draftsmen outside of Taliesin.
Photograph published in Big Little Nobu. Right No Deshi Josei Kenchikuka Tsuchiura Nobuko

Back: left to right: Kamecki Tsuchiura, Nobuko Tsuchiura, with Silva Moser behind her husband, Werner Moser.
Seated are: Frank Lloyd Wright, Erich Mendelsohn, with Richard Neutra in the front.

2. Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography, new and revised ed. (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1943), 508. I don’t know why Wright wrote that about Blum, but it’s amusing to read.

3. You may have read about this meeting in the book by Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman: The Fellowship: The Unknown Story of Frank Lloyd Wright & the Taliesin Fellowship. And, yes, I have opinions about it.

In fact, my major opinion is that if you haven’t read it, please don’t.

 
Photograph of a section of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin, fall.

Unfinished Wing

Reading Time: 5 minutes

George Kastner took this photograph on November 28, 1928. It’s looking northeast at the far western end of Taliesin.

“I don’t know why you say it was a pigsty,” Minerva said to me (Minerva became a member of the Taliesin Fellowship in the 1950s). “It always had goats.”

She was referring to a section at the end of Taliesin. It’s rectangular, with a shed roof, and stands over a sandy area. It’s never been lived in. I’d heard it was called a pigsty because Frank Lloyd Wright had the label “Hog Pens” in it, the first time it appeared in a drawing. You’ve seen part of this drawing before, but this part (below) shows the far western part of the Taliesin structure. “Hog Pens” is there, in and outline:

Part of the Taliesin II floor plan executed in 1924. Archival number 1403.023
Location of original drawing, unknown.

The drawing was originally published in Wendingen Magazine during issues it published on Wright in 1924 and 1925.
Then the magazine issues were published as a book, The Life-Work of the American Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, by Frank Lloyd Wright, H. Th. Wijdeveld, ed. (Santpoort, Holland: C. A. Mees, 1925).

Most of what you see in the drawing was designed as the “Farm Court”. It had the hog pens, a yard with a circular pool for the pigs, and a room on the right placed there for the boar.

Moreover,

90 degrees to the left of the Hog Pens was the poultry house. This space contained the entire chicken life cycle:

  • the “incubator room” (for hatching eggs),
  • the chicken coop (raising the chickens),
  • and the abattoir (harvesting them).

Between the poultry house and the pigsty/goat pen was the octagonal “Granary” with circular “Silo”.

Those two were never built. Even though Wright had drawings showing them.
See — I told you not to trust the drawings. But you didn’t listen to me, did you.

All of these spaces (for hogs, chickens, and feed) are all related to the photograph that is at the top of today’s post. And that’s what I’m going to write about today.

Architect, Brian A. Spencer gave me the copy of the photograph at the top of this post. This, and other photographs of Taliesin were taken in 1928 by George Kastner.

Kastner appeared in my post “Oh My Frank: I Was Wrong” and one of his photographs is in “Wall at Taliesin’s Garden Court“.

Kastner arrived at Taliesin to work under Wright on November 20, 1928.1 His dated photographs give us a certain date on details at Taliesin. Better yet, Kastner labelled the photographs on the back!

What did he write on the back of the photo at the top of this post?

Unfinished Wing

So, even though this part of the building had been around since 1924 (according to that drawing and photos 2 ) it was, according to Kastner (or Wright), “unfinished”.

Did Wright ever use this part of the building the way he originally planned?

We know this was built after 1920.

How do we (ok: mostly me) know that?

The Pigsty/Goat pen was added after the November 1920 drawing by Rudolph Schindler (I referenced the drawing in a post late last year).

And this part of the building existed by 1924 when the Tsuchiuras (Kameki and Nobuko) were at Taliesin.

But, then what? Did he ever have pigs there?

So, here’s what I did:

I investigated whether or not Wright had the time to finish this part of the building, what with a fire and bankruptcy and all that crap.

Although, I didn’t really do this. I just knew the work of the ones that did. 3

So, Wright’s life in the 1920s is abbreviated below:

1922

In August, Wright comes back from Japan after working on the Imperial Hotel for years. But, he probably didn’t have time to construct the farm wing before the winter set in. And he might have held off while trying to settle into other commissions. Because, in

1923

he’s in Los Angeles working on commissions from February through late September.

Then he was back at Taliesin in October and November, when he married his second wife, Miriam Noel. Then he was in California again from December until

1924

the end of February.

He’s back in Wisconsin near the time of the death of his mentor, Louis Sullivan (Sullivan died in Chicago on April 24).

Miriam Noel left Wright by late April/early May.

Wright stayed put at Taliesin for most of the rest of the year.

He meets Olgivanna in late November after a trip on in late November to see the ballet with a friend.

Looking at the dates and Wright’s availability, I think that 1924 was when Wright built what’s in that drawing: a chicken coop, hog pens, incubator room, and sure, parking spaces. He had the time, and perhaps thought it was time to get some farming done in Wisconsin (Wisconsin is the Dairy State after all).4

1925

In the beginning of this year, Wright, along with his new love Olgivanna and her daughter, Svetlana, was living at Taliesin. In April 20 of that year, the second Taliesin fire happens.

That little fire certainly pulled him away from thinking about the chicken coops on the other end of the building. So, Wright redesigned and rebuilt Taliesin’s living quarters for most of the remainder of 1925.

Then

In early December, Olgivanna gave birth to her and Wright’s daughter, Iovanna. The life of Wright and the three other people in his life (Olgivanna and the two daughters) for lots of reasons having

NOTHING TO DO WITH FIRES

goes off the rails for years. Due to this, Wright sure didn’t have a lot of time to think about being a dandy country farmer. 

And, while that part of the building did eventually have chickens (for years), George Kastner’s 1928 photograph says that the entire western side of the building was not, for years, used for farm work.

Originally published July 25, 2022.
The photograph at the top of this post is the property of Brian A. Spencer, architect. Used with permission.


Notes:

1 Kastner and others lived with the Wrights at the camp Wright designed in Arizona, Ocotillo. Several of Kastner’s photographs are in the article, “Desert Camp Memoir: George Kastner and Frank Lloyd Wright”, in Journal of Organic Architecture + Design, vol. 7, no. 3, 2019

2 I can’t show you the photos of that part of the building in 1924. They’re not owned by me and I have never been in contact with the person or institution that has the rights to them. The owners would be really (and justifiably) pissed off if I showed them. But I was able to show the photo of Taliesin after the 1925 fire photo months ago, because it’s published in a book. Although if anyone wants to get in touch with the owners and give me a call I’m sure I could do a good job writing about them.

3 Wright scholars have figured out Frank Lloyd Wright’s activities 1911-32. I found this information by looking in the books, FLLW: Designs for an American Landscape (185-201) (link to the Library of Congress exhibit web page, here); Meryle Secrest’s biography, FLLW: A Life, the book, FLLW: 1910-22, The Lost Years, by Anthony Alofsin, and “Wright and the Imperial Hotel: A Postscript,” by Kathryn Smith, Art Bulletin 67, no. 2 (June 1985).

4 ALTHOUGH, in some sort of Wisconsin crime against all that is perfect, the website “www.comesmellourdairyair.com” is owned by someone from outside of the state. Why, Vicarious Ranch in California of all things! They’ve got goats, pigs, lambs and a creamery, which sounds wonderful, so I hope they make a good living.