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

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


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….”

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-25 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.

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.