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

Charred Beams at Taliesin

Reading Time: 6 minutes

I’m going to write today about two places on the Taliesin estate where you can see fire damage.

One place where fire happened, Taliesin, is well known. The other place is Hillside, which you can see in the photograph at the top of this page.

See, there are five buildings on the Taliesin estate. 1 You can see them listed on the aerial below:

Screenshot from Google aerial. Names of buildings on Taliesin estate added by Keiran Murphy.

This is a screenshot I from Google maps several years ago.

When you take a tour you can see fire damage in both Wright’s residence and in Hillside. You see Hillside and Taliesin on either the Highlights Tour (over 2 hours) or the Taliesin Estate Tour (4 hours). But since all of the tours take place on the Taliesin estate, sometimes people refer to either site as “Taliesin”.

So, just like Taliesin gets mixed up with Taliesin West, or the House on the Rock, the Hillside building gets mixed up with residence Taliesin.

Speaking of,

This happened with Time Magazine.

I know you’re shocked.

On June 8, 1998, the Volume 151, No. 22 issue of Time came out, and it concerned the “Artists and Entertainers of the Century“.

They picked Le Corbusier as the greatest architect of the century. We weren’t heartbroken. Their choice makes sense: Corbusier had a lot of influence on overall building design.

Yet,

in the issue, they added a paragraph entitled, “Frank Lloyd Wright: A Maverick Who Believed in Form With Feeling“.

With this paragraph they included a photo of “Frank Lloyd Wright’s home”.

I think the photo they used was by Wright’s photographer, Pedro Guerrero. It showed the building like the one below:

That’s not Frank Lloyd Wright’s home.

I think the Taliesin Preservation‘s media person contacted Time. I’m sure they ran a correction but I don’t remember seeing it.

So, what’s this all about again?

This post is about areas in both the Taliesin structure and Hillside where you can see evidence of fire. First I’ll talk about fire evidence at Taliesin, because it’s easier to see.

It spontaneously came on tour,

because things on tours organically cycle through the narrative. Usually stuff is picked by guides talking to each other.

For instance, at one time guides talked about Wright and Thomas Jefferson: both had Welsh ancestry; had homes they constantly modified; had similar religious beliefs; were farmers as well as architects; and both apparently died in debt.

The reason why Jefferson was brought up is because there’s a plaster maquette of Thomas Jefferson’s bust in Frank Lloyd Wright’s bedroom. It’s in this photo on Wikimedia Commons.

I even added the Thomas Jefferson maquette in my first Nanowrimo novel, “Death by Design“. it’s November 3, so remember that you still have time to write your novel this month.

But, right now

guides pay attention to charred beams at Taliesin.

You see them when you walk in the Breezeway between Taliesin’s studio and the Living Quarters. They are visible through the wooden grate you see in the ceiling below:

Looking (plan) south in Taliesin's Breezeway. In view: the lit ceiling grating, the top of the pier in the Breezeway; and a "caution" tape as Taliesin was under construction during Save America's Treasures in 2003-2004

I took this photo during the Save America’s Treasures drainage project that took place at Taliesin in 2003-04, so that’s why you see the “Caution” tape.
I wrote about some of that project here.

The guide often invites people to look up at the safety light in the ceiling. From there, they see charred beams, like in the photo below:

Seeing charred beams at Taliesin sistered next to fresh beams. As viewed through a wooden ceiling grate. Photo by Keiran Murphy.

No one in the tour program deliberately brought the charred beams onto the tour.2 For years, lot of guides might not have known about them.

So: what changed?

I think people noticed after Taliesin got a donated sound system.

In 2005 Bill Costigan of Poindexter’s sound design donated great audio speakers to Taliesin. Bill and an employee set the system up at Taliesin that spring while we were preparing for the tour season.

long-story-short: he had previously seen an old boombox playing music in Taliesin’s Living Room balcony. That made him take pity on us.

At that time, interior tours closed down for 6 months of the year. In April staff cleaned and prepped for the season. Since Costigan and his assistant came in April, they could do everything without running into tours.

While setting up, they took an extra speaker and placed it into the Breezeway to broadcast music.3 The music made people look up, and notice the charred beams. Therefore, the guides brought info about the charred beams onto the tour.

I believe the beams were damaged after the Taliesin II fire.

Then,

someone read something that Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer wrote about Wright’s reactions to the Taliesin fires. Since Taliesin’s living quarters were destroyed twice but his studio wasn’t touched, Bruce relayed that in 1957,

Wright said

God may have judged my character, but never my work.

Letters to Apprentices by Frank Lloyd Wright. Edited and introduction by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, p. 3.

Perhaps Wright was inspired by the recent Hillside fire

Hillside’s 1952 fire destroyed classrooms, the dining room, and the Playhouse theater, but didn’t touch the Hillside Drafting Studio.

The day after the fire, Wright gave the Weekly Home News a great quote about that fire. Wright told the Home News 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 Weekly Home News, May 1, 1952, front page.

You can also see why the rest of the building wasn’t damaged in the photo Maynard Parker took in 1955:

Looking west at Frank Lloyd Wright's Hillside Home School. Assembly Hall on left, Hillside Drafting Studio on the right under the "serrated" roof line. Photograph by Maynard Parker. Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

There’s a bridge separating the older part from the Drafting Studio on the right. This provided at least a stopping place for flames if the wind had shifted that day.

Unfortunately,

Tour guides usually don’t have time to point out visible charred wood at Hillside. It’s a bracket under the ceiling.

Tours usually enter the room like Maynard Parker photographed in 1955:

Looking east in the Hillside Assembly Hall. Photograph Maynard Parker taken in 1955. Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California. 

To see the fire-damaged bracket, you’d have to walk into the center of the room and look back. Plus, most of the time tours enter the Assembly Hall, the tour commenced less than 20 minutes before. That’s too much info to give people that early.

I usually talked about the fire when we were looking down into the Hillside dining room. Because the Dining Room’s existence is due to the fire. The photo below is looking toward the dining room from the Assembly Hall. The dining room is under the gable. You can’t see the bracket from here:

If you wanted to point out the burned bracket, you’d have to direct people above what you can see in the balcony. And then telling people to look, “under the ceiling… to the right…. You see that black wood? No, not that one…” is counter-productive.

Although, evidence of the 1952 fire is in the floor boards. Sometimes I noted that if there was time. I put a photo below showing the floor at the edge of the Assembly Hall where you can see the change:

Looking south at the floor on the edge of the Hillside Assembly Hall. This part of the floor shows changes made after the 1952 fire at Hillside.

Ghosts of changes are always instructive in the buildings on the Taliesin estate. 

 

First published November 3, 2023.
The photo at the top of this post appeared in a newspaper story about the fire. The newspaper image was given to Taliesin Preservation, so I don’t know which one.


1. or seven. Due to the changes that Wright made to Hillside, some count it as three buildings. I learned Hillside as one building so… tomato tomahto?

2. Which is probably good because things coming through the viscous bureaucracy might have robbed it of its vitality.

Like when I first started giving tours and used Narciso Menocal‘s interpretation of the Flower in the Crannied Wall sculpture at Taliesin.
Menocal’s interpretation, too, was viscous. I was newly-minted out of Grad School but even I realized that my folks on tour were just being polite. What can I say?

3. They put one over Taliesin’s Loggia, too, but I don’t know what happened to it.


But wait! There’s more!

Right after I published this, I was reminded of another, easy reminder of fire damage at Hillside. Read that post, “More evidence of Hillside fire damage“.

Photograph of Keiran with a tour group on Taliesin's Hill Crown. Keiran has white pants on.

Tour guides and trust

Reading Time: 6 minutes

A photo of me on Taliesin’s Hill Crown while giving the Loving Frank Tour in 2008. I’m wearing white pants.

When people on tours would ask me how long I’d worked there, sometimes I’d say, “Since I dyed my hair for fun instead of covering up the gray.” I was definitely covering up the gray in the photo above.

I stopped dyeing my hair in 2015. So I was doing it before it was cool!1

For years, as a tour guide, I was part of the public face of Taliesin Preservation. It was important to me to try to explain to people why the hell giving us their money was worth it. And I felt I had to be worthy of the trust that visitors put in me.

So, my post today is going to be about the trust I endeavored to earn as a tour guide.

On tour

Giving a tour meant that I brought people through the spaces, explained what the spaces were, hopefully gave them time to enjoy them, then move them through (without cutting their times short by any of my timing mistakes). Then got them back to the shuttle bus on time, and to the Visitor Center so the next tour left on time.

I called guides who were really bad on timing “chronometrically challenged”.

I came up with that term while my timing was impeccable. I know former guides and staff don’t believe me, but I was practically flawless in the ’90s.

in my defense,

two more rooms were later opened to tours inside Taliesin. So, really, 7-10 minutes had to be carved out someplace else.

At the same time,

I had to make sure that

  • people didn’t walk away while on their cellphones,
  • smoke cigarettes,2
  • go into any of the apartments or dormitory rooms (which are private);
  • walk down into the Guest Wing of the House (the first floor),
    • if you really need to see the Guest Wing, watch Kyle Dockery of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation give a virtual tour of it in 2020 on their Facebook page.
  • hit their heads,
  • sit on drafting stools that are over 100 years old,
  • go into the silos at Midway Barn,
  • or stand in the path of an oncoming car owned by a Taliesin resident.
    • more people lived on the Taliesin estate before the Covid-19 pandemic; but the Taliesin shuttle bus is still zooming around.

In addition, I wanted people to have confidence on where I was taking them. And I wanted them to be carried along without worrying about the time.

Someone told me once that the 4-hour Estate Tour with me didn’t feel like it was 4 hours long, so I keep that happy memory.

And also, as guides we directed people’s attention to certain places so that they wouldn’t go where they shouldn’t.

For example,

If you told people to stay away from the parapet at the edge of the Lower Court

(because the wall is too low)

people seemed to walk to the edge of the parapet that you just told them to stay away from.

Exterior photograph of Taliesin by Maynard Parker. Taken in 1955. Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Maynard Parker took this photo on Taliesin’s Lower Parking Court in 1955. I added the arrow to point out the parapet.

The Preservation Crew made changes on the edge to create positive pitch. So, if I backed up to the parapet, I would be able to sit on it. I’m not that tall so the height could be dangerous for someone much taller than me.

The best way

I controlled the movement of folks on tour was by sweeping my hand back to the building. This encouraged people to look at the building and stop walking to the wall.

One of my photographs showing the building is below. You’ll have to imagine me sweeping my arm:

Color photograph of Lower Court at Taliesin. Taken by Keiran Murphy on April 6, 2005.

This photograph is on the Lower Court. Apprentice Louis Davidson Gottlieb took a photo looking in the same direction and published it in her book, A Way of Life: An Apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright. I posted her photo in my post, “How I became the historian for Taliesin“.

Still, you don’t have complete control

In some cases, a person comes in with their own interpretation of the site, or the staff.  

You just never know.

I read a blog post last year by a woman from Great Britain who was completely put off about the lack of bathrooms on a Taliesin tour. Her inability to deal with the lack of common bathrooms formed the major part of her post. I wondered: was it really that bad, or was this her interpretation?3

Another case in point:

Talking about the murders that took place at Taliesin in 1914:

For years I did not talk about the cause of the deaths in the 1914 Taliesin fire without being asked.

It’s not that I want to ignore that it happened. I really didn’t know how to talk about them (and I still don’t). Because it’s like, “Taliesin – so amazing and incredible and beautiful and full of delights! It’s on UNESCO‘s World Heritage list!…” … And then, you know: axe murders.

Truly, my own reaction on first hearing about them was like, “WHAT?!” A woman’s head nearly “cleft in two”. A child murdered where he sat and incinerated.

I didn’t want anyone to find themselves on a tour at Taliesin and hearing me talk about this when they had no idea ahead of time.

Plus,

there’s the erroneous “Julian killed them when they jumped out of the one window” story.

Still: it did happen. You can’t talk about Taliesin and NOT talk about fires.

So,

in my early years of tour guiding, I phrased it as, “as a result of the events surrounding the fire, Mamah and six other people would die.

After that,

I would talk about Taliesin’s second fire. Consequently, someone on the tour would often ask what caused the fires. Therefore, I could prepare people for what they would hear. I felt this was an organic approach that wouldn’t stun people.

But, then in 1998,

Ken Burns released his Frank Lloyd Wright documentary.

When I gave my first House tour the following May, I gave my standard line of “as a result…”

someone said,

“that’s not all that happened.”

I said, “Oh, yes, the first fire was set by a servant….” But inside I was like, “OH… CR…ud.”

I realized that if more people now knew about the 1914 murders, they would figure I was lying to them if I didn’t address it immediately.

          So I actively brought that information in.

Then,

there was the bigger deal as of 2007. That’s when the book Loving Frank came out. 

sorry that Nancy beat you Ken, but that’s the way it goes

So eventually I found the best time to talk was in the first major courtyard at Taliesin.4

State it quickly, with no overt gore…

well, you do have to say “ax” (or “hatchet”), but you don’t give details.

Personally,

what made this more important to me was maintaining the trust of those on my tours.

Trust

IMO is an intrinsic part of the bargain. If I do not answer truthfully, why should anyone, who was paying the organization that runs tours, place further trust in me?

In the end, the only way I could do it for years was to stick to being honest and give what I could. I think that helped me to not obsess about everything I said incorrectly, or what I forgot, or… etc., etc.

I have to turn my brain off; otherwise I’d never get to sleep at night.

 

First published July 24, 2023.
The photograph was taken by someone from Taliesin Preservation while I was leading the first Loving Frank tour. That was a special event with author, Nancy Horan.


Notes

1. actually a friend in college started going gray by the time she was 19 and she never dyed her hair. So, Lauren was way cooler than all of us.

2. I don’t know if that’s such a problem today. I recall giving group tours to people from Germany and Japan (not at the same time) and they were confused because they couldn’t smoke cigarettes on the estate. My memory comes from before the turn of the twentieth century for goodness sakes.

3. And, yes, they take people to the bathrooms if they ask (plus, there’s a bathroom break on the 4-hour Estate Tour). But we didn’t tell people, because when you mention bathrooms, everyone’s going to go, “oh, yeah: I should use one now.” Which you can do when you have 2 people on your tour as opposed to 21, or 25. By the way: most of the bathrooms on the Taliesin estate were not designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. He had bathrooms where most of them are today, but they were changed and modified over the years. Truth is, for the most part we don’t know what the bathrooms looked like when Wright was alive. He didn’t leave detailed plans.

4. I don’t talk about the murders on this video of me at Taliesin over on Taliesin Preservation’s website. But I can’t remember if I talked about it in 2009 while doing the video and if that was just cut out. Or if we decided it wasn’t best to bring up the murders in a video.

 

Photograph of landscape around Taliesin in late winter. Grass, trees, and the building in view.

My March Madness

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I took this photograph in March 2005, showing the landscape around Taliesin. There was a work-related reason for it: I was photographing the area to see how it matched up with Taliesin in 1911. That’s because the Wisconsin Historical Society had just won the bid for “The Album” of Taliesin photos from 1911-1912 (here’s my post on The Album).

I think if I were standing at that spot today, it would be a little duller and

[as I look out the windows to confirm]

it would be cloudy. And there would be more blobs of snow. Of course, there has been (and continues to be) lots of snow on the East Coast, so I imagine that others are getting tired of the winter, too.

But what I am writing about today is not winter. I want to write about March Madness.

Not the March Madness

those in the United States know. That is, rooting for men’s and women’s college basketball teams during the NCAA championship tournaments.

No.

For me, March Madness has to do with Frank Lloyd Wright

I know that’s a surprise to my readers.1

But at least it helps explain the photo of Taliesin that’s at the top of this page.

You see, for decades following 1994 (when I started working at Taliesin), I came to expect tour dreams in the late winter/early spring.

That is:

I would have dreams in the spring about giving tours at Taliesin.

Now, I know that for many other adults, they have dreams in which they find themself back in high school, with a bunch of stressful things happening.

  • Trying to get to class
  • Finding out that there’s a huge test that they didn’t prepare for
  • Or that there’s a big test in a class that they never even showed up in
    • I think being naked is sometimes in there, too.

For me, however,

My stress dreams involved, ostensibly, leading tours and things all going wrong.

Although, just to get this out there: I never had a dream where I was giving a tour naked.

I had TWO FLAVORS of tour-stress dreams each spring:

1.) I was doing something wrong

Most often, I would dream that I was leading a tour and was outrageously late.

How late?

SO LATE.

Like, I would be one-and-a-half hours into leading a two-hour tour and I wasn’t near the front door. Yet–despite that fact that my dreamself  knew this–I could never get the group closer to the inside of the building.

Although, we did have this one guide IRL. I’ll call him Tom. He would be so late on his tours that the bus drivers regularly left him and his group on the Taliesin Estate.

Let me tell you: all the shuttle bus drivers were really patient with guides. So, you know that someone has to be really chronometrically-challenged for bus drivers to regularly leave them.

In fact, one time Tom was left at Hillside on the south end of the Taliesin estate. When he walked out of Hillside and his shuttle bus driver wasn’t there, he just WALKED with his group to Taliesin (which is about half a mile away).2

The other dream subjects:

2.) Either staff or visitors messed with me

Most of the time, these dreams were just where visitors did things they should not do on tours.

Like, people sitting in chairs they shouldn’t sit in.3 That is: people on my tours plopping down on the original, delicate, Frank Lloyd Wright-designed “barrel” chairs (like the chairs in the foreground of the photo below) –

Frank Lloyd Wright's bedroom. Photo by Maynard Parker, Huntington Library-Parker Collection.
Maynard L. Parker, photographer. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Call Number photCL MLP 1266

At least one of my dreams included someone leaning back on one of Wright’s barrel chairs, and they almost tipped backwards. Oh, in this case, into the Chinese painting you see in Taliesin’s Guest Bedroom, below:

Photograph of the Guest Bedroom at Taliesin. Taken by Keiran Murphy.

That photo reminds me:

one time I had a dream where a student at the School of Architecture4 took over the Guest Bedroom (the room in the photo). When I walked into the room with my group, the room looked like any college dorm room. There were empty food plates on the floor and posters on the walls.

There was one dream where someone on the tour was eating Doritos.

In one dream, something happened at tickets:

I was escorting my tour group onto the shuttle bus to take us all to the Taliesin estate. But the line wouldn’t stop: people just kept walking past me toward the shuttle. I went to the ticket seller to ask and she replied,

Oh! Well 45 Japanese tourists came in, so I just put them on your tour.

I think–hope–that in all these dream-tours I tried to keep the peace.

Instead of, you know, using foul language, a.k.a., four-letter-words.

Like this [NSFW] guy.

Amazingly,

I don’t have these dreams anymore. I dreamed almost nightly about Taliesin and giving tours in 2020, the year of Covid. So I assumed I would just keep having tour dreams.

Well, one of my last tour dreams took place in that year (2020). I wrote about this dream on a social media site:

I had a dream last night that I was taking people on a tour of Taliesin, but when I got out of the bus and started walking with these people, I could never find it. We walked through all of these marble rooms and just kept going on, thinking it was through the next door.

I can’t explain it. Hopefully I’ll dream of it again. Preferably happy dreams. And when spring finally comes to Wisconsin.

 

Posted originally on March 16, 2023.
I took the photograph at the top of this post in March, 2005.


Notes:

1. that was a joke.

2. To those who are reading this who I used to work with: “Tom” was there in the 1990s, so most of you never met him.

3. We had a few places where people could sit at Taliesin. Mostly in Wright’s Living Room. But, while members of the Taliesin Fellowship could sit in the chairs, we couldn’t let those on tours do so. In part because we had thousands of people coming through every tour season.

4. Formerly the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. They used to live on the Taliesin Estate in the summer.

Photograph taken at Taliesin in late summer. The structure has been built, although not all of the windows are in. One man is bending working on teh ground.

What is the oldest part of Taliesin? Part I

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Looking (plan) east at Taliesin from the balcony of its hayloft, fall 1911. Taken by Taylor Woolley, who worked as a draftsman for Wright at Taliesin. I showed this image in the post, “This will be a nice addition“.

While people don’t ask that question at other Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, it’s part and parcel of his personal home in Wisconsin.1 After all, he was already changing things after 1912, and he probably would have made changes at his home even if it never suffered two major fires.

And, remarkably, there are things at Taliesin that go back to 1911-12. Even where there wasn’t any fire.

Why am I bringing this up?

I thought I would share what people asked me sometimes while I gave tours. Hopefully I didn’t overwhelm them with info. But while “don’t talk about what you can’t see” is one of the tour-guiding rules, change was a part of Taliesin.

In fact, that’s true even in the photo at the top of this post. Wright changed almost all of the stone piers and chimneys that you see there.

Now, while Wright didn’t sit down in April of 1911 and say, “I want to change my home with Mamah all the time!”, he liked the flexibility of changing things as he had new ideas. He refined his ideas all the time, and his home was the best place see these new things.

After all, I’ve heard people say that –

Taliesin is like a life-sized model.

Even Taliesin’s most consistent feature, the Tea Circle, would change.

The Tea Circle

It’s a semi-circular stone bench where Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship used to have tea.

In the photo at the top of this post, the Tea Circle will be eventually built on the right, where you can see the man working under the two oak trees. They wouldn’t finish it until 1912.

So, the photo shows that they had removed all of the dirt around those oak trees, and built the retaining walls. Then they gave the roots of the oaks a chance to settle before making more disruptions.

But Wright’s plans included the Tea Circle at Taliesin almost from the beginning.

However, you can see that unfinished Tea Circle in another photo by Taylor Woolley, below. He took this in the spring of 1912. Taliesin’s basically been built, but the Tea Circle steps, and its stone seat, don’t yet exist:

Photograph at Taliesin in early spring. In view: pool on left, Flower in the Crannied Wall statue at Tea Circle.
By Taylor Woolley. Courtesy of Utah State History, Taylor Woolley Collection, ID 695904.

Looking west toward the Tea Circle. The chimney at Taliesin’s Drafting Studio is on the right. The Hayloft is under the horizontal roof in the background.

I used to look for the Tea Circle on plans to orient myself when I was first learning about Taliesin. I put one of Taliesin’s early drawing below, with an arrow pointing at the stone bench. Western Architect magazine published this drawing in February 1913:

Drawing of Taliesin complex. Published in February 1913.
Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York), 1403.011.

In fact, here are links to Taliesin plans that have the Tea Circle seat.

ARTSTOR says the drawings are from Taliesin II, but that’s wrong. I noted before that the former director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives, the late Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, was wrong on the structural details of the building. But I never got the chance to talk to him about how he came up with the dates for the drawings.2

The Preservation Crew at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation carried out restoration, preservation, and reconstruction on the Tea Circle in 2019.3 They had to replace a lot of the degraded/missing stone work there. Its form (and as much stone as possible) now matches what was there in when it was originally finished.

Anyway, here I was,

trying to figure out the date of Woolley’s photo showing the forecourt and unfinished Tea Circle.

that’s the problem with black & white photos: they make late fall and early spring look the same!

And, HOORAY! Wright’s scandals gave me the info.

See, on December 23, 1911, the Chicago Tribune sent a telegram to Wright asking to confirm or deny that he was living in Wisconsin with Mamah Borthwick.

(by then, she and Edwin had divorced, and she legally took back her maiden name)

The Tribune published his reply on Dec. 24,

Let there be no misunderstanding, a Mrs. E. H. Cheney never existed for me and now is no more in fact. But Mamah Borthwick is here and I intend to take care of her.

Since Wright’s telegram made things even worse, the next day, Wright and Borthwick invited the reporters inside Taliesin so he could give a public statement. He hoped doing this would explain things and take pressure off himself and his family.

It didn’t go well.

In part because Wright said, “In a way my buildings are my children”. The guy needed a publicist. But it was 1911; whatcha gonna do?

This disaster with the press answered my question:

As Wright escorted the reporters to the forecourt (now the Garden Court), he talked about upcoming work on the building and grounds. He said:

There is to be a fountain in the courtyard, and flowers. To the south, on a sun bathed slope, there is to be a vineyard. At the foot of the steep slope in front there is a dam in process of construction that will back up several acres of water as a pond for wild fowl.

Chicago Daily Tribune, December 26, 1911, “Spend Christmas Making ‘Defense’ of ‘Spiritual Hegira.'”

AHA!

There it is: at Christmas 1911, they hadn’t yet finished Taliesin’s dam! So the hydraulic ram wasn’t yet working to bring water to the reservoir behind the house, giving Taliesin running water and water for the pools!4

In contrast, Woolley’s photo has the fountain (on the left in the photo above). That means the water system was working.

More Taliesin photos

In January 1913, Architectural Record published photos taken in the previous summer. Click on the photo below for the link to a .pdf of that magazine. The link is the whole magazine for the first half 1913, so you’ll have to go through it.

Image from opening pages of "The Studio-Home of Frank Lloyd Wright". Includes a photograph looking West at Taliesin in the summer of 1912.

You go to the link (which has 6 months of the issues). You can find page 44 of the January issue, and that’s the start of 10 pages of Taliesin photos, like the screenshot above.

These Fuermann photos are what a lot of people envision when they think of Taliesin I.

You can also find them at the Wisconsin Historical Society in the Fuermann and Sons Collection.

And if you love them and want All The Fuermann Photos, you can buy the special issue on them that was published in the Journal of the Organic Architecture + Design Archives. They’ve got the photos Fuermann took in three photographic sessions. Architectural Historian, Kathryn Smith, explains their history.

More to come

I was ready to post this when I realized there are a few more things that you can see on tours that go back to 1911-12. So I’ll publish another post with more.

 

Taylor Woolley (then Wright’s draftsman), took the photograph at the top of this post. It’s at the Utah Historical Society, here.
Published November 16, 2022

Here’s “What’s the oldest part of Taliesin, Part II“.


Notes

1 I don’t think they’ll be offering tours underground any time soon, in part because the openings into some places are only accessible by crawling on your hands and knees. Like what I wrote on in “A slice of Taliesin“.

2 I didn’t want to come off as a snotnosed smarty pants. Although maybe we could have talked about it. He seemed to trust my opinion by the end. He respected my opinions on one drawing I asked about.

3 The restoration work is due to a donation by educator and Architectural Historian, Sidney K. Robinson.

Watch Ryan Hewson, of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation talking about the restoration of the Tea Circle the “Frank Lloyd Wright x Pecha Kucha Live 2020” event. Pecha Kucha is a fast-paced slide show, and Hewson’s presentation is just over 6 minutes. It explains the work really well.

4 I wrote about my study of the dam in the post, “My dam history“.

Screen grab of actress, Bonnie Hunt as a tour guide walking with a group through the White House.

“Well, the guide told me….”

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Screen-grab of actress Bonnie Hunt in the 1993 movie, Dave. The scene shows Hunt as a White House tour guide with a group going through the “People’s House” [the White House]. I guarantee most of you, tour guide or not, have this going through your head right now: “We’re walking… we’re walking….

In this post, I’ll write some of what people on tours told me, or other guide staff, during the almost-26 years that I worked at Taliesin Preservation.

In addition to being the Taliesin historian, I gave tours every season from 1994-2019 (except for the 2004 season and most of the 2014 season).

Giving tours exposes you to many things. In this case, visitors on tours told me things about architect Frank Lloyd Wright, his buildings, his personality, the murders at his house, etc.

In a way, that’s the beauty of it: you come into contact with so many different people and you’re all on a journey that lasts 1 to 4 hours. You’re all experiencing the same space at the same time and are interacting with each other. Even if they aren’t looking at—or listening to—each other.

Fortunately, though, I never expected people on tours to listen to me like I was a drill sergeant. So I didn’t take it personally if people on tour weren’t looking at me. I usually only asked them to keep their voices down if they were interrupting others on the tour.

That’s because I knew people were coming with their own backgrounds. Some loved Frank Lloyd Wright since they were 7 years old, and were now in their 70s.

On the other hand,

others might not know anything. Maybe they were on tour because their partners, children, or friends brought them. Maybe they were driving to The House on the Rock and thought they’d stop in….

Although, honestly, I really felt for the husbands who came on the Loving Frank Tour when that was offered for a few seasons.

The book, Loving Frank, really appealed to women, and – at least from my perspective – the men on those tours mostly seemed to be the husbands/partners/boyfriends/friends of those women who had read, and loved, the book.

My job on those tours was walking the group around and describing what was there in 1911. Then I brought them to Taliesin’s Living Room and another guide (Margaret) did a book reading.

There were moments I had with the husbands/male partners at the end of those tours. I usually asked if they were there because their wives wanted the tour.

They all answered yes.

I’d often give a small nod and said that I hoped they were having a good time.

Yet,

sometimes the guests had preconceptions. Hopefully, if those preconceptions were, well, on the wrong side, the guests didn’t argue on the facts. And I think I tried to be nice when there were some real zingers out there, but I honestly can’t be sure.

That’s because guides, for the most part, are on their own with guests.

And while I thought I was pretty nice, those are only my memories and interpretations. Perhaps someone on the tours thought I answered things like a b****y a-hole.

As an example,

This one time I thought that I made a joke with a group. They were being slow and I said that,

Boy you folks are harder to move than 2nd grade school teachers.

yeah, that wasn’t a great line, but this is live, folks!

I said that because a week or two before this I was trying to move a group of women and one said,

Oh, I know it’s hard to move us. We’re all 2nd grade school teachers!

Apparently, this other group took what I said as an insult. Fortunately I didn’t have to handwrite an apology to them.

No: I never heard of any tour guide having to handwrite apologies to tour guests.

But on the other hand,

no one complained the year I was going through a really painful time when I know I was bitchy for at least half of that season.

I’d ended a relationship before the season started and was not in the best of moods.
I liked giving tours b/c they got me away from the pain for a while, but I was constantly on the verge of bursting into tears.

There were sometimes, though….

When things like this happened:

“My guide told me at [another Wright site]

“The back of Wright’s chairs were so tall because he didn’t want people to look at the back of his head.”

“He had a room at Taliesin for both his wife and his mistress.” 

“He designed uncomfortable furniture because he didn’t want people sitting too long.”

Or:

“It’s basically accepted that Wright was responsible for Mamah’s death, right?”

“Did Frank Lloyd Wright do a painting for Guggenheim or something?”

“Oh, I know that you guides all have some ‘script’ that you have to follow, but…?”

“No – he killed them all.”

“I heard that Joseph Stalin’s daughter is a bag lady living in London.”

OK: I’ve got to unpack that last one there:

Joseph Stalin’s daughter—Svetlana Alliluyeva—lived at Taliesin for a few years in the early 1970s.

She came into the Taliesin universe in 19701 when she was invited to Taliesin West by Wright’s widow, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright.

Svetlana married William Wesley Peters soon afterward. Peters was the former son-in-law of Olgivanna and Frank Lloyd Wright. He had married their daughter, Svetlana (who died in a car accident in 1946).

Now, while marrying two women named Svetlana is probably not wildly unusual for people living in the former Soviet Union, it’s rather odd for people in the United States. 

Which is why

some people conflate all of the facts about Svetlana, and hear about Taliesin, and think that Frank Lloyd Wright married Stalin’s daughter.

After all,

some people think that Frank Lloyd Wright killed his second wife.

Back to the bag lady comment:

We were at the end of our tour and driving up to the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center. I asked those on the bus if they had any other questions. And one woman said,

“I heard that Joseph Stalin’s daughter is a bag lady living in London.”

As it so happens

At that time, I was renting my apartment from Svetlana’s daughter. She lived on the ground floor with her mother, and I lived on the second floor.

So, my I answer to “I heard Joseph Stalin’s daughter…” was

“No. Joseph Stalin’s daughter is not a bag lady living in London.”

The woman on the bus replied, “Well, I read it in the newspaper.”

And I believe I replied, more or less that,

“No. Believe me: she lives nearby, I’ve seen her, and had tea with her in her apartment last week.”

And, happily, this happened to be true!2

Originally published August 5, 2022.
The screenshot at the top of this post if from the movie, Dave, from Warner Brothers. I am not posting this to make money off of the movie, or any of its stars.


Note:

1 Thanks, again, to the Administrator of Historic Studies at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, who gave me the correct year on Alliluyeva’s first visit. She has also helped me here, here, and I’m sure elsewhere if you search this blog.

2 I know this is true because I don’t usually drink tea and and I felt pretty good about having tea with her. 

Updated:

In the theme of “well, the guide told me…,” after I posted this, I read on a Wright page on Facebook that someone heard a Taliesin tour guide tell people that the Guest Bedroom of Taliesin housed Eleanor Roosevelt and Elizabeth Taylor (on separate occasions, of course). I posted as calmly as I could that, um, NO.

Those two women never stayed there.

That this was a case of

“the telephone game of tour guiding”

[I should copyright that term]

I’ll show you why I call it that:

Lady Bird Johnson, then First Lady of the United States, was invited to Taliesin. It was during her whirlwind “Crossroads USA tour“. Olgivanna Lloyd Wright invited her, but the Crossroads USA tour went so quickly (7 states in 4 days), that she didn’t stay at Taliesin overnight. So, one First Lady got confused with another First Lady.

In addition,

movie producer Mike Todd and then-girlfriend (later wife), actress Joan Blondell stayed at Taliesin in the late 1940s.

Todd later married Elizabeth Taylor. SO: Todd coming to Taliesin + (later-)wife = Todd’s later wife, Elizabeth Taylor, actually coming to Taliesin.

whew. Now everything will be fine and no one will ever get anything wrong on tours again.

Stage and audience before the beginning of The Rivals at The American Players Theatre

Up the Hill

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Photograph taken in the American Players Theatre on June 11, 2022, before the start of the show, The Rivals. Members of APT belong to the Actors Equity Association, so photographs are prohibited during performances.

I’m not writing this week about Frank Lloyd Wright, the Taliesin estate, or other non-Wright things I’ve delved into. I’m going to write about something close to the estate that contributes to the area around Wright’s Wisconsin home. This is the American Players Theatre.

Founded in the 1970s, “APT” is a repertory theater that operates during the warmer months. It puts on 8-9 plays each year, many of them simultaneously. 5 of these shows are “up the hill”: an outdoor, 1,089-seat amphitheater that you get to by literally walking up a hill (there are snacks once you get there, I promise).1 APT has a smaller theater near the base of the hill called the “Touchstone Theatre“. It seats 201, opened in 2009 and has 4 plays running during the season.

APT is made up of a core-acting company, as well as cast members coming from around the country each season. Its regular season starts in mid-June, and runs until the last night of the first weekend in October.

Perhaps Wright/Taliesin changed the town, or the town was changed due to so many other Wisconsinsites. However, APT is a notable factor in the town’s

current character.

In addition to many core acting members and the Stage, Production, and Operations Managers, in residence in/around town, every summer Spring Green’s population increases with more actors, directors, and everyone else involved in

Putting on a show!

Also, a yearly audience of around 100,000 people come to the shows, see the town, etc etc.

Now, I could keep going on with every stage person I could possibly think of that was/is involved. But I stopped because I realized I wasn’t writing a piece for Morning Edition. I apologize to those I left out.

And me? Well…

For a few years in the late 1990s I had a part-time job at APT (which, at that time, was only on the stage “up the hill”).2 In no way did I do anything important.

‘Coz informing people that Wright didn’t kill his second wife is important enough, man!3

No, I just worked on the House staff, 12-15 hrs a week. Getting over $300+ bucks a month was nice.4

Here’s what I did the majority of time:

  • Told people where to park in the lot before the show
  • Stood near the top of the hill and ripped the top off of tickets when theater goers got up there
  • Worked the concession stand during intermissions
  • Following the play, went through the stands with the rest of the House staff and collected trash.

Really — why did I do this?

I thought it would be cool to see the APT shows, despite not having a background in theater

(except for being surrounded by friends in college who were actors, and taking a couple of acting classes)

And, as I worked completely in tours (as a guide, a House steward, and in the bookstore), it was refreshing to be completely anonymous.

The freedom to observe different plays through an entire season:

Gave me the chance to watch my favorite scenes over and over throughout the season. And see the actors play with their line delivery from night to night.

Or just slog along while the actors dealt with the wind, rain, heat, and cold.

Well, yes, and everyone who was in the stands had to deal with this, too. But the actors and other staff had to be there.

In particular,

there was a Saturday during a summer heat wave the season that one actor played both Richard III and Cyrano de Bergerac. This one day, Lee Ernst acted in Richard III—a play lasting several hours with the battle scene at the end—in the mid-afternoon show. And this was followed by him as “Cyrano” in the 8 p.m. show. The play in which Cyrano fights with a sword in his first scene.

These engendered moments of fascination. I knew a little of what it was like to be outside giving tours through spaces lacking climate control on hot and humid days. However, I wasn’t holding a sword and wearing a costume that covered me from my neck to my ankles.

APT eventually added a sunshade over part of the stage (as in this 2011 photo through Foursquare). I was told that at these times, the stage itself could be over 100F (38C). You could only wonder at the physical brutality that the actors went through.

My one full season

To get back to my easy work: I worked at the end of APT seasons (like the season with Cyrano and Richard III), and one whole season (1998). The plays at that time were:

I remember

It rained a lot that year. A LOT.

Oh, and June of that year saw an oak tree at Taliesin’s Tea Circle oak tree crash onto Wright’s front office, next to the Taliesin studio. Which was followed 10 days later by a landslide at Taliesin.

I think all the staff got to know the lines in the plays that referenced rain.

btw: Since APT’s Hill Theatre is exterior, they have lots of ways to deal with rain and do everything they can to make sure the show goes off. In fact, APT’s weather policy has its own webpage.

At the end of that season, there was a private party of APT staff, with awards that staff members gave each other.

A note about me in the Taliesin tour program:

The APT awards inspired me to start awards for our end-of-the-season parties. I put the awards together for about 5 seasons.

Some awards: “most chronometrically challenged tour guide”, “Answers the question, ‘Is this the House on the Rock?‘ with patience and aplomb,” etc. etc.

Another note on weather in another season:

One time while working on the House crew at the end of September, I watched snow flurries during “Much Ado About Nothing“. Not what’s envisioned:

Screen capture from the 1993 movie of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing"

That’s why the costumes allow actors to wear either heat or cold packs.

However,

Enough days and nights are magical that they make up for everything. There are nights at APT that are warm with the call of Whipporwills and the audience sees distant clouds discharging silent thunderbolts. Nights in which the lights come up at the end of the show and you look up and there are stars over your heads.

And, during one performance (as an audience member in 2017), a bat flew near the stage during the farce, “A Flea in Her Ear“. The actress playing the character of Olympe (a proprietor of the slightly run-down hotel, Coq d’Or), following the overhead visit by the flying little rodent, casually said, “don’t mind the bats” to her patrons while she walked out.

Lastly,

APT is the way I got introduced to my friend, Terry Teachout. He came out to Spring Green to review shows from APT and saw Taliesin, for the first time and met me. I can’t go too much into it since he died unexpectedly this past January. He just loved APT, and thinking about him gets me teary-eyed.

First published July 15, 2022.

 


Notes:

1 There are buses that drive people up the hill starting 45 minutes before showtime. We’re only hardy in Wisconsin; not sadistic, or murderous.

2 and given my post-Covid situation, $300/month sounds nice, too.

3 No: he didn’t kill his wife.
I thought we went over this.
Plus, she wasn’t his wife; she was his mistress/partner.

3 I’ve heard this at least once from staff over the years: sometimes APT receives complaints from people who have seen a show, and would like the “volume of the whippoorwill” to “be turned down.”

Granted, I have been in all-inclusive amusement parks where you don’t know what sounds or events are planned/piped in. However, in this case I can tell you: the whippoorwills at APT are real.

Photograph by Kevin Dodds, looking north in the hallway of Taliesin's Guest Wing.

Bats at Taliesin

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Last summer I wrote “A Slice of Taliesin“, which described some of the work done by the Preservation Crew at Taliesin. In fact, that work was about twenty feet to the left + 4-6 feet below where Preservation Crew member Kevin Dodds was standing when he took took the photograph above.

Photograph above looks at the west wall in Taliesin’s Guest Wing in December 2006.
Kevin took it after the removal of the non-historic drywall had begun.

Kevin took the photo below a few months later1

The drywall demolition work uncovered a little bat cluster:

Photograph by Kevin Dodds in February 2007 looking at bats found in Taliesin's Guest Wing.

I am typing right now as far away from the screen as I can get because this photo just freaks me out.

Why’s that?

Bats freak me out.

And it’s April, which means that the bats are starting to wake up from their hibernation. Therefore, I’m going to write today about them and about Taliesin. That’s because I did not have a phobia of bats before I started working there.

When I mean phobia

I don’t want them eliminated. And I’m fine with seeing them at a distance. But being around them when they’re flying (or when they fall on the floor, which they can’t get up from), makes me scream uncontrollably. Others will say, “Oh, come on, what’s the problem?” while I’m screaming and running out of the room.

Before Taliesin,

the closest I’d come to seeing them was that scene with the bat in the movie, The Big Chill.

Since I moved to the area in the 1990s to be closer to Taliesin, I would see them flit past my face when I took walks at night in the summers. I was amazed at their echolocation. They’d fly by and it was kind of cool.

So the reaction came on unexpectedly

I believe I had my first negative reaction when cleaning at the Hillside structure later on.

“Nate” (another tour guide) and I were doing some deep cleaning at the Hillside Theater (deep cleaning was another thing I use to do at Taliesin, like I wrote about in the post, “I’m Just a Tour Guide“). We came across a bat sleeping on a wall. Nate slowly gathered the bat up so he could put it in a place away from people. I don’t know if it was the way the bat moved, or its squealing distress call.2 But as Nate kept saying, “It’s no problem, see? He’s just fine. . . “, I kept backing up, replying to him on the edge of hysteria that “it’s ok (!!!!)”

Plus, there were the House openings in April

That was done for years before there was heat inside Taliesin’s living quarters. I mentioned House openings in “Physical Taliesin History“. And more than once, the Opening crew found bats, sluggishly trying to keep warm. So, we designated Tom, a fellow House opener, as the bat catcher. One time, there was one bat that Tom found in the toilet, still alive, but it had fallen in the water.3

Apparently bats would hang on the edge of toilet rims. Most of the time they were fine, but sometimes they fell.

Tom took the wet and cold bat out of the toilet bowl, dried it carefully with a towel, and put it on a rock outside to let it warm up in the sunshine. Then he found another bat. I think it was also hanging from the rim of a toilet bowl, but hadn’t fallen in. He took it outside and put it next to the colder bat.

He swore that he looked over and the second bat had put its wing around the bat who had been wet. And when they warmed up, they flew away.

That’s adorable!

I know. But I still can’t stop screaming when I get around them.

But bats eat bugs!

I know. I know they all don’t have rabies. They are fascinating to watch coming out of chimneys. And I thank my little bat friends for their circumlocution around me when I walk at night. But… you know… screaming.

I also saw them while giving tours

One time, my two guests and I were in a room at Hillside. I saw a bat drop from the ceiling and fly behind them. And I didn’t even squeak.

Another time, I was the first person walking into Taliesin’s Living Room and saw a bat hanging from one of the cypress strips on the ceiling.

Color photograph looking south in Taliesin's living room. Taken October 2003.

Looking south in the living room. I took this photo on Oct. 27, 2003.

The bat hung near the top of the gable in the color photograph above.

I don’t know if anyone on the tour saw the bat (nobody mentioned it), but I did my best to speak about anything that didn’t rise above shoulder height. So I talked about the wood on the tables and the furniture’s low seats. I talked about the piano in the room, the stone on the floors, the fireplace, and the view out of the windows.

And, finally:

There was the story that I told on tours for my last few summers. It has to do with Terry Teachout.

Terry was the culture writer for the Wall Street Journal and died unexpectedly in January of 2022. He and I met in 2005 and became friends. He loved Spring Green, the nearby American Players Theatre, and Taliesin. He was invited to stay one night at the House by Minerva Montooth (a Taliesin resident who lived there with the Wrights in the Taliesin Fellowship).

A few days later, Terry sent me some of the writing he was doing for his post about that night in the House. He related listening to music in Taliesin’s living room (the room you see in the photograph above). He described how, at one point,

“A black bird came in, flew around the ceiling, then fluttered out. I never saw it again.”

I loved telling people on my tours that I replied, “Terry… that was a bat.”

First Published April 5, 2022.
Photographs by Kevin Dodds used with permission.


Studies on bats

The current state of bats on the Taliesin estate has been checked on by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. As you may be aware, brown bats are having problems because of “white nose syndrome”: https://www.batcon.org/about-bats/bats-101/

Long thing about “bat distress vocalizations: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-64323-7

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, on saving Wisconsin bats: https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/WildlifeHabitat/Bats

The USDA on Wisconsin bats: https://wildlifedamage.cals.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/289/2020/10/WildlifeDamage-Bat-6-2020.pdf

The Department of Natural Resources in Wisconsin did a survey of the bats on the Taliesin estate, and I found it on the Wayback Machine from February, 2017:  https://web.archive.org/web/20170315012654/http://www.taliesinpreservation.org/learn/current-recent-projects#bats

It was also put onto the Taliesin Preservation Facebook page, here: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=10154518556099234


Notes:

1. Mostly, the preservation crew did the work that makes a lot of noise and mess during the winter. That way, they wouldn’t bother guests on the estate during the tour season.

2. I’m very proud of myself for staying through the entire recording of the bat’s distress calls even though I imagined bat distress sounds for about 5 minutes afterward.

3. As for how there could be water in the toilets when the whole house was unheated during the winter: All of the water systems were drained at the end of the season, with anti-freeze put into pipes just in case. Then everything was filled back up in the spring.