Winter photograph looking at the Hex Room and spire at the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center.

How I became the historian for Taliesin

Looking west at the Hex Room in the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center. I took this photo in February of 2005. You can see through the Hex Room, which is the room with the red roof and spire straight ahead of you. The clear view through the room is two vertical rectangles. If I had been in the room you’d see me sitting at my desk at the bottom of them.

While I studied Art History in Graduate School, being the Taliesin historian was a career I “fell” into. And that’s what I’m going to concentrate on in this post.

As I’ve written a couple of times, I started at Taliesin in 1994 as a tour guide during the summer. Guiding was all I wanted at that time, since I was in school and hoped to get a Ph.D. eventually. I wanted to teach Art History to other people.

However, I had no teaching experience.

I thought doing tours would help me figure out if I could even speak in front of people. Let alone if I could talk to, eek, strangers.

It turns out

The skills I’d learned in Graduate School were suited to the tapestry of information laid out everywhere at Taliesin. I swallowed it all in huge gulps.

Working exposed me to info on:

And other things I don’t want to bore you with.

Then

There was that winter of 1997-98 that I worked in the Preservation Office on the photographs (I wrote about it in “Raymond Trowbridge Photographs“).

At that time,

the Preservation Office stood in an old horse stable at Taliesin. Apprentice Lois Davidson Gottlieb took a photograph of it in 1948:

Looking (plan) southwest at Taliesin's horse stable in 1948.
By Lois Davidson Gottlieb. Published in her book, A Way of Life: An Apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright, 41.

A link to her book is in my post, “Books by Apprentices“.

The office changed when, in June 1998, a tree hit Taliesin during a storm (photos on Taliesin Preservation‘s facebook page, here). So the Preservation Office moved out and the staff of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation (which owns Taliesin and the estate) moved in. This way they had an office in Wisconsin.

Eventually, the Preservation Office transferred everything to a room on the third floor of the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center. That room was/is known as the “Hex Room” (because it’s literally a hexagonal). A photo showing the Hex Room underneath the spire is at the top of this page.

That office got me closer to being the historian:

When the Preservation Office moved in, they brought all of the historic photographs and other historic information. Yet, they realized that they’d lost the staff person who looked after it, and they needed someone who could sort through it. And, since I had worked with the information before, they brought me in to organize it.

Actually,

they didn’t “bring” me “in”. I was already there. I worked a floor or two below them, in the Taliesin tour program.

So, I spent 2001-02 re-organizing the files, adding more historic photographs, and began writing historic information.

Followed in 2002 by Tours

In that year, people in the Taliesin tour program “tapped” my brain to answer weekly questions from tour guides and staff during the season. My answers were on one page that was included with the weekly schedule. They named this feature “Hey Keiran!”.

Hey Keiran title

This gave me a different cache of historic knowledge.

Like, why I explored whether or not Wright designed outhouses at Taliesin.

Et al.

Then, in 2002-03

They were planning the Save America’s Treasures‘s project at Taliesin.

I wrote about a window found during the SAT’s project in this post.

One day, while all of the infrastructure was being put together for the upcoming project, I was in the Hex Room. The Executive Director and Taliesin Estate Manager1 were talking on things involving the history of Taliesin. One part of the building was going to touch on the area the project.

The history of Taliesin’s Porte-Cochere came up. The Porte-Cochere became the “Garden Room”, which is in this photo. While we all talked, I told them them information about the space that I knew from books that I had read.

(like Curtis Besinger’s Working With Mr. Wright, which is in my “Books By Apprentices” post).

They realized

it was smart to have someone who knew that much sitting there in the office. They asked me to write chronologies on a few rooms at Taliesin that were going to be impacted by the upcoming project.

Eventually

that Executive Director asked me to write histories of every room at Taliesin from c. 1950-2005. Architectural historians told me my work was fantastic, so I kept going. That gave me the freedom to pursue things when I saw something, or came across something, that made me think,

“Huh. I wonder what’s going on there?”

It’s why I figured out that room was in that photograph that “one time before Christmas“.

I mean, Frank Lloyd Wright’s way of teaching his architectural apprentices was to have them “learn by doing”. And I learned the history by studying the spaces. The questions I asked were “what happened there”, and “when”. I often found the answers to the questions in the buildings themselves. This full-sensory experience of learning the history inserted information into my mind.

Around that time, I worked on color-coding the stone in drawings of Taliesin to figure out when he was laying out certain stone sections.  I guiltily made changes to the drawing, but after awhile, it looked pretty cool. The drawing was included in the article I wrote for the Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly, “An Autobiography in Wood and Stone“. You can see that illustration on that page, but I also placed it below:

Color-coded drawing of Taliesin stone changes by Keiran Murphy

I still don’t believe that I

“know more about Frank Lloyd Wright than anyone.”

as told to me by my oldest sister. She never believed me when I said that’s not true.

I mean,

there are “Frankophiles” out there who know every window that Wright ever designed.

They know the layout of every commission he did and his relationship with the clients.

They know all about the furniture designers he worked with (here’s one I know, anyway).

And more things I can’t begin to wonder about.

But the history of Taliesin? Yes: I think I know that very well.

First published April 28, 2022.


1. I mentioned in Jim in the post, “A Slice of Taliesin“. I wrote about Carol (the ED) in my post about “The Album“.

Taken under the oak tree at the Tea Circle looking toward Taliesin's Drafting Studio

First year of tours

I took this photograph in 1994 under the oak tree at the Taliesin Tea Circle. The room with the French doors near the center of the photograph is Taliesin’s drafting studio. Wright used it as an office after he moved drafting operations to Hillside.

“1867. . . . 1886. . . . 1896. . . Oh, shit – 1901? 1902?”

That’s basically a transcription of what came out of my mouth in 1994 while I drove with Alex1 from Madison, Wisconsin to Spring Green and the Taliesin estate. The dates were important in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life and on the Taliesin estate.

The rundown of all those dates

1867: the year Wright was born.

despite how much he lied about the year he was born, which can get you into a rabbit hole on the internet unless you’re judicious

1886: the year Unity Chapel was designed/built.2 It’s the family chapel and can be seen from Taliesin.

1896: the year the Romeo & Juliet Windmill was commissioned by Wright’s aunts.

1901: the year the aunts commissioned Wright for the Hillside Home School stone structure. We were taught 1902 for a while. But, the Weekly Home News (Spring Green’s newspaper) edition of October 1, 1901 said:

“Owing to the increased attendance, the principals [i.e., the Aunts] have decided to build a new school house.  The plans have been drawn and sent from the studio of Frank Ll. Wright, architect, Chicago, and work upon the construction will begin at once.”

I recited those dates to continue my obsessive-studying over the previous week. Alex and I were newly hired tour guides. He and I knew each other because we were students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (he studied Architectural History and I was pursuing my Master’s degree in Art History3).

On that day in the car, however, I had no idea that I would become an expert on Taliesin, and would eventually live in the village of Spring Green.

More about tours:

At that time, Hillside tours were the first ones that all guides learned. An hour long, they gave the basics on Wright’s life and work while going through Hillside’s 14,000+ square feet. Meanwhile, Taliesin House tours were new. They’d only been offered three days a week the season before this. In 1994, they went out 2 times a day, every day but Wednesday. The tours were twice as long as Hillsides, and cost more than four times as much ($35 vs. $8 / $4 for children under 12 4).

Hillside tours were also the most popular. Apparently, one year over 30,000 people took one. Also, there was an architecture firm in the Hillside building, where apprentices at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture worked in the Hillside Drafting Studio.5

Those at the school were literally apprentices working under the licensed architects. Later, the firm closed and the curriculum changed so they became actual students.

Lastly, there was an exterior Walking Tour created in ’86 or so. Before the House tour existed, the Walking Tour was the closest a person could get to Wright’s residence. And that was only while standing at the bottom of the hill around which Taliesin sits.

That summer:

Here are a couple of my Taliesin-related memories from 1994:

The first time I got a laugh on tour. It was when we came up to the exterior roof of the Hillside Theater foyer. Its ceiling rises to just about 6 feet tall. As I brought the group to the foyer, I gave the story I’d been told: that, “Wright always said that ‘People over 6 feet tall are wasted space.'”

Running through a Taliesin courtyard as birds fluttered by me, and chuckling while I thought, “what I did on my summer vacation.”

An interesting group of people

I remember laughing hysterically that summer with those funny, smart people. In fact, most of the people that I’ve encountered at Taliesin through 25+ years were whip-smart and creative, along with being devoted to Wright and his architecture. Another reason to stick around. Here’s a photograph of some from an end-of-the-season party one year at Hillside:

Staff at a party at Hillside
Photograph by Keiran Murphy.

As the buildings were (or are) unheated, closing down the structures commenced in the days after the season’s end. So, having a party allowed the staff to let off steam and prepare for the upcoming work. Plus, most of the staff wouldn’t see each other again until the following spring. Wright’s living quarters are heated now, but not Hillside. That still has to be prepped for Wisconsin winters. Unlike earlier years, the people who now close the buildings are the Preservation Crew.

Plus, my movie-viewing experience expanded:6

Alex and I were invited that summer to watch movies at the home of a Senior guide (who officiated my wedding 23 years later). He showed us The Last Picture Show, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Evil Dead, Part 2, among others I’m sure I’ve missed.

Craig also figured out how to hook the History geek into the Wright world.

uh… that’s me.

So, when a “House Guard” went on vacation, he put me on the schedule with the other guard, Germaine. Germaine, whose father was Wright’s gardener, became friends with Iovanna (the daughter of Frank Lloyd Wright and Olgivanna). Germaine, this elegant older woman, who always wore dresses and her hair in a chignon, spent years in the Taliesin Fellowship and later married apprentice Rowan Maiden.

House Guards (now known as House Stewards) opened the House in the morning, by cleaning and vacuuming. They, then and now, greet people at Taliesin’s front door and, at that time, gave out booties for guests to put on their shoes.

Booties were used to protect the rugs. I guess they do, but maybe not when thousands of feet walk over the rugs every tour season. The booty fuzz—a light blue—gets all over the rugs. You almost have to use your fingernails to scrape it up.

Germaine and I had time to talk that week. She told stories of the life at Taliesin and invited me up to Iovanna’s5 bedroom (in the floor above Frank Lloyd Wright and Olgivanna’s quarters). That’s when she told me that she and Iovanna used to sunbathe outside on a little balcony.

I mentioned this in the on-line presentation I gave in 2020 through The Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center.

Another memory

Photograph of Taliesin Tea Circle in the summer of 1994.
Photograph by Keiran Murphy.

Photograph of the Taliesin Tea Circle with the oak tree. The Chinese bell is hanging off the limb veering to the left.

I remember sitting in the Entry Foyer at Taliesin’s “front” door, waiting for a House tour. A member of the Taliesin Fellowship, architect Charles Montooth, came bounding up the steps of Taliesin’s Tea Circle on break (he usually worked at the Hillside drafting studio). He ran up to the large Chinese bell that hung from the oak tree limb you see in the photo above, then stopped in front of it and drummed it several times with his knuckles. He paused for a moment to listen to its faint ring, then ran back down to where he came out.

Taliesin tours certainly struck me,

as someone who had measured my worth mostly through test scores, as a very nice way to come into adulthood. Plus, giving tours meant that I was judged for the words that came out of my mouth instead of numbers on a page.

You can read here how the tour program became integrated into my life.

First published March 7, 2022.
I took both of the photographs used in this blog post.


1. not his real name

2. We also thought 1886 was the year he designed the first Hillside Home School building for his aunts, a.k.a., the “Home Building“. That was, until being corrected by someone else. The year he designed the Home Building is actually 1887.

3. I received my degree that December with my thesis on David Wojnarowicz.

4. No kids under that age were allowed on tours going into Wright’s Living Quarters at the House. Now tours take kids as young as 10 years old.

5. Now The School of Architecture, no longer at Taliesin.

6. I’m not talking about the biweekly online series, “Welcome to the Basement“.

The Home Page of The Wayback Machine Home Page from Archive.org

Behold: The Wayback Machine

The image above is a screenshot from the home page of “The Wayback Machine“, which is explained below.

Here’s part of the explanation of The Wayback machine in Wikipedia:

The Wayback Machine is a digital archive of the World Wide Web. It was founded by the Internet Archive, a nonprofit library based in San Francisco, California. Created in 1996 and launched to the public in 2001, it allows the user to go “back in time” and see how websites looked in the past. Its founders, Brewster Kahle and Bruce Gilliat, developed the Wayback Machine to provide “universal access to all knowledge” by preserving archived copies of defunct web pages.

Since its creation in 1996, over 603 billion pages have been added to the archive….

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wayback_Machine

If you’ve never heard of the Wayback Machine on the Internet, you may have come across the phrase from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show on television, starting in the 1960s (I watched it on Saturday-morning-cartoons). The Rocky and Bullwinkle show had a short cartoon, “Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History”, which featured a Time Machine known as The Wayback Machine.

Mr. Peabody, a talking, genius dog, is the grownup, taking care of a young boy named Sherman. They use the Wayback Machine to go back in time to correct history. Here’s the intro on Youtube:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6V7M4AfTOrw

Luckily I only wasted about 20 minutes finding, then watching, the intro and an episode of “Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History”.

Nice. You gonna tell us why you’re talking about this today, Keiran?

Yes. Glad you asked.

The Wayback Machine popped into my head because I was thinking about what to post today and remembered a photo I had previously seen on the Internet.

When I post, I look for photos that copyright rules let me show you all. I thought of this great Taliesin exterior that I got off the internet almost 15 years ago. I got the URL, but couldn’t find the image today.

So I went to The Wayback Machine. I put the URL into their archive, and the photo below came up:

Taken from the Hill Crown of Taliesin, looking (true) east at Taliesin’s living quarters. The unknown photographer apparently took this in the spring, based on the green leaves seen on the oak tree on the left hand side of the photograph. Architectural details indicate they took the photo in the 1950s, before Frank Lloyd Wright’s death.

When I found it, I said, “Behold: The Wayback Machine”

Said, most likely, in stentorian tones and accompanied (again, most likely), by a sweep of my arm.

Immediately after this, I thought I should write about this site as well as this on-line image.

Here’s the image through the Wayback Machine:

https://web.archive.org/web/20060127201224/http://studentwebs.coloradocollege.edu/~j_buscaglia/Images/897072.jpg

You see the name “j_buscaglia” in the location information for the image. I have attempted to locate “Buscaglia”, the person who had uploaded this image when they were, perhaps, learning HTML coding, etc. as a student. Years ago I found an email address for them at Colorado College and wrote them, but they never replied. Moreover, I never found information about the web page or anything else. So this is perhaps an “orphaned” image.

Things I find interesting in the photo:

You can see details to the right of the pine tree (detail, below).

A cropped view of the Garden Room

These are the west and south walls of “the Garden Room” in Taliesin’s living quarters. The south wall of the Garden Room has beige/yellow stucco, to the right of the French doors. Next to it is a tree trunk, followed by a limestone pier. The pier supports the edge of the balcony. The beige stucco attracted my eye, because there aren’t many photographs of that wall with stucco.

Before 1959, that wall often had tar paper (as waterproofing)

Look here for another photo of that wall with tar paper. This photo comes from the website of Pedro E. Guerrero, Wright’s photographer.

I don’t know why it took so long before Wright covered the tar paper. Although, in truth, the Guerrero photographs of Taliesin come from 1952-53. While Guerrero took many photographs of Wright and the two Taliesins, he worked on retainer. Wright would send the photographer all over the United States to photograph the architect’s newly constructed buildings. As a result, he could rarely visit just to photograph Taliesin.

If you were to go to Taliesin on a tour today, you would see that this wall has, not tar paper, but a stone veneer (here’s a photo of it). That veneer was applied by a member of the Taliesin Fellowship, Stephen Nemtin. He joined the Fellowship as an apprentice after Wright’s death and was asked to do this by Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, the architect’s widow.

I don’t know why the Fellowship veneered the stucco with stone. Maybe the stucco got too wet in the rain, ice, and snow.

Here’s the detail from that color photo again:

A cropped view of the Garden Room

The photo has a white, almost-vertical line underneath the balcony. That line is the trunk from a birch tree that used to grow there. That tree was originally one of a pair. The photograph below shows those two trees. I took this photo from my copy of the book, Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger State, printed in 1941 as part of The American Guide Series:

Looking from Taliesin's Hill Crown to its living quarters, 1937-1943.

Photograph looking (true) east from Taliesin’s Hill Crown towards its Living Quarters. The birch trees are in the center of the photograph. The roof on the left was later over the Garden Room.

Finding my version of the image:

This book was part of the Federal Writers’ Project. It was a project of the Work Projects Administration in the state of Wisconsin and was sponsored by the Wisconsin Library Association. I took this image from the book, in its photographs between pages 310-311.

The Wisconsin Historical Society has the original image, on-line here.

I found this image, and the book, during another on-line photo-searching project of mine one Friday.1 After finding out about this photograph, and the book in which it was published, I bought the book via abebooks.com.

The book has, among other things, descriptions of driving tours one could take at that time around Wisconsin. The “Madison to Richland Center” drive is “Tour 20”. The book’s write-up gives a brief history of Taliesin, as well as telling you that you can take a tour at Taliesin (really, the Hillside Home School) for $1. In addition it tells you that you could take in a “moving picture, Sun. 3 p.m., included in tour fee; otherwise 50¢ per person.

The birch trees grew there over 15 years, but Wright’s expansion of the room above killed them: the new construction meant that the trees now grew through an interior room. Perhaps he did this just because he wanted to see the effect (and not worry about killing them). In fact, this was not the first time Wright’s expansion of his home killed a tree: his expansion at his first home and studio in Oak Park, Illinois, resulted in the death of a Willow tree.

I hadn’t planned it, but it seems that we stepped into an example of what Bertrand Goldberg characterized as “romantic kitsch” at Taliesin (relayed in my post of May 17, 2021).

Originally published on September 9, 2021.


Notes:

1 I wrote in early December, 2020 about some of my photo searching.

Some ouroboros for you:

Shortly after I posted this, the Internet Archive recently sent me a link to a 2:04 min. video from 1996, in which the Internet Archive staff explained the newly-created Wayback Machine.

Looking (plan) northwest, Taliesin's living room

“I’m just a tour guide”

A photograph looking (plan) northwest in Taliesin’s Living Room. Wright’s Bechstein piano is in the background. There’s a photo of him at this piano, here, at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation website.

In 1994, when I was 26, I started giving tours at Taliesin. But, “I’m just a tour guide” is something I usually never said to people. I didn’t want them to feel obligated to say, “Oh, no! You’re much more than that!”

On the other hand, I was worried they wouldn’t say that at all.

Although, early on in my employment, I absorbed huge chunks of Frank Lloyd Wright information. This was definitely related to the fact that I was nearing graduation for my MA and primed for ingestion of data.

And yet, while I settled on telling people that I was “solely a tour guide”, for years this wasn’t really true.1

My years in the tour program:

1994-2002, in addition to being able to do many of the types of tours at Taliesin (sometimes all), I:

  • Worked as a clerk in the bookstore,
  • Was a Taliesin House Steward,
  • Did deep cleaning at Hillside (on Wednesdays), and,
  • In a pinch, drove the guides in a small shuttle bus holding 14 tour guests (ok, well I only did one whole day that one time).

You can read my thoughts on that first year, here. But, really, I was mostly in tours until the end of 2002. And usually one-day-a-week from 2004-2019.

Tour guiding is a long, complicated thing which I don’t feel I have the wherewithal to address (and how I became “the Historian” is another story, here).

In fact,

Over the years I periodically started writing / adding to an unpublished book about being a tour guide. But I have not completed it. In part this is due to my “voice”. While trying to be funny, I sometimes unintentionally sound misanthropic. The title of my proposed book is an example: What Time Does the 1:30 Tour Leave?

See? Funny, but can be interpreted negatively.

Still, over and again I (and other staff) have marveled at those who wonder why someone would “only” be a tour guide. This statement implies that those asking / wondering can’t figure out “why” you would do something “that doesn’t pay that much”. No, it doesn’t pay much in money (moolah, cheddar, greenbacks).

What Taliesin tour guiding pays is ineffable

The Taliesin estate in Wisconsin is one of the most complex works of art in the world which was designed / worked on / advanced by someone who is, by most counts, one of the greatest architects in human history.

Not that Wright is the best architect who’s ever lived

I’m just saying that, if you came up with a list of 25 people throughout the entire globe in all of human, built history (at least 6,000 years), Frank Lloyd Wright’s name is on the list. And yet Taliesin Preservation pays people to bring visitors through these spaces.1 It’s puzzling to me that anyone wouldn’t see that as something incredible.

Although I’ve got to think that the reason others feel that way is that they never experienced someone in their 70’s or 80’s telling them after their tour, that they’ve been waiting their entire lives to come to Taliesin. And some other things below.

Still, to get back to this post on tour guiding, I wanted to write about things I learned about Taliesin’s history while giving people tours (my current state of not giving tours, and not being the hired historian, is not my choice, by the way; Covid-19 and all). While nothing jumped out at me, what has risen, instead, are the memories of unique moments with guests. Small things that have stayed with me for years. I mentioned one above: the elderly woman who told me that coming to Taliesin was something she’d waited for her whole life. But there are others.

Some stories from tours:

One time, I had taken my group to the room next to Taliesin’s Drafting Studio and directed them toward Taliesin’s front door. We were in the area of the photograph below:

"Front Office" at Taliesin, March 2004

Photographer: Keiran Murphy
Looking west in Taliesin’s “Front Office”, which is next to Taliesin’s drafting studio.

While speaking, I suddenly noticed a woman crying at the back of the line. As a guide, I wanted to make sure that nothing was wrong, but I also didn’t want to stop everything and single her out, saying, “Excuse me: I see that you are crying. Are YOU OK?”

I kept my eye on her and it turned out that she was fine; smiling moments later when she walked by on the way to Taliesin’s front door. I understood immediately that she cried. . . well, because of the beauty of Taliesin. Its enormity had made her burst into tears.

Here are a few other moments:

  • One time I was in Frank Lloyd Wright’s bedroom when someone, with a tone of amazement and discovery, said that Taliesin was as much of an idea as it was a reality (Wright using the building as an experiment). I could hear in her voice that she was coming to this conclusion while articulating that (I tried to tell people but I can’t be sure if it always came across). A photograph of the room is through this link (she was talking to me at the desk in the background).
  • I had a boy who had just turned 12 walk confidently telling me everything about the house and all about Wright’s philosophy (it should come as no surprise that the boy’s 12th birthday present was taking a tour at Taliesin).
  • I also had another 12-year-old on a “tour-as-birthday-present”, a girl with a friend, asking me if I studied under Frank Lloyd Wright. Out of the corner of my eyes I could see the bemused looks on people’s faces around me as I told her (I hope) politely that, no, he was a lot older than me and died before I was born.

Then there were outdoor experiences:

Looking across the Taliesin valley, with the building at Mid-ground
Photographer: Keiran Murphy

The photograph above is one of the distant views that would be seen on the Taliesin Walking Tours that were given through the 2005 tour year (there’s a “Driftless Landscape tour” at Taliesin that they have now). I had my own unique experiences on these tours. Some memories of these experiences are below:

  • being chased by mosquitoes (including one hitting my lower eyelid under the frame of my glasses!);
  • being chased by Canada geese; and
  • smelling cow manure while the farmer was fertilizing the fields. Sorry: it IS Wisconsin so sometimes you gotta smell our Dairy air, y’know.

Other interesting moments on the Walking tour:

  • Seeing a Red Tailed hawk that lived on the estate one summer: it would take off when you walked close to it (I don’t know where it spent its time otherwise);
  • Spotting a fox that lived on the Taliesin estate for a few years;
  • The afternoon I went with my group on a drizzly day to an island on the Taliesin pond. We stood outside as a rain shower came, and the pond looked like diamonds as the water droplets hit its surface;
  • And finally, there was a Blue Heron that stayed by Taliesin’s waterfall that was scared up every time our shuttle drivers went past it
    • hopefully it will be there again when the pond is refilled (work started on the dam in late 2019)
      • A Facebook Live event took place in 2020 that explains the work.

Lastly, another impression from someone on a tour:

One time an Italian gentleman and his partner went through Hillside (Was she his wife? She was a woman around his age.) They didn’t speak a lot of English, which is my major language. I remember the gentleman really well because, as we sat in the Theater at Hillside he said, “there is so much geometry here. . . . But it is so free.”

I looked around the Hillside theater room with his eyes. I could see the “geometry” he mentioned, with round seats (constructed in metal) sitting at an angle, and the a boxed-design on the north and south window walls. And I agreed with him wholeheartedly.

Hillside Theater Foyer, September 2005.
Photographer: Keiran Murphy

I took the photograph above in the Hillside Theater Foyer. The Hillside Theater is in the background.
Originally posted July 5, 2021


1. After 2002,

I began to work more as the historian for Taliesin Preservation, doing research in projects (this preservation work now done by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation).

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.

Frank Lloyd Wright buildings are smaller than you think

Photograph of Fallingwater by Esther Westerveld from Haarlemmermeer, Nederland in 2012.
The people standing on the upper terrace in this photograph are not 7 feet tall. They are normal-sized people.
It’s the architecture that’s messing with your mind.

I’m talking about what everyone—outside of Frank Lloyd Wright homeowners—has experienced: you go to a Wright structure and it’s smaller in reality than what it looks like in photos. I do try to remember that, but it’s always a shock when I walk into any of his buildings.

Why do I always get it wrong? Former apprentice, Edgar Tafel, explained why in his book, “Apprentice to Genius”:

. . . Mr. Wright made one extensive change that affected every physical element—as well as the impressions and reactions of every person who entered the house: He changed the scale and brought it down to his own human reference. He often used to tell us. . . . , “I took the human being, at five feet eight and one-half inches tall, like myself, as the human scale. If I had been taller the scale might have been different.”1
Edgar Tafel. Years with Frank Lloyd Wright: Apprentice to Genius (1985; Dover Publications, Inc.; McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1979), 50.

Wright’s trick in his architecture

Wright apparently said a person only needs 6 inches over their heads so, since he was the “human scale”, when you enter his buildings, the ceilings would be 6 feet 2 inches tall. This creates “compression”. Then the ceilings suddenly get taller in the spaces where you are meant to linger. That creates a “release”.

The ceilings, entryways, and trim (emphasizing the horizontal) create the scale. So, when we see ceilings and doorways  in photographs, we “read” them as 7 feet tall, or taller, because that’s what we’re used to. Since we see them that tall, we read everything else as bigger.1 This element of design is one of the reasons that I like to see people in photographs of Wright buildings: because other people give you a sense of the scale (even when the people mess with the pretty architecture!<–I’m mostly joking right there).

Although, I still laugh at myself when I go to a Wright building because, yup: they’re smaller than I thought they would be.

How this trick played into Preservation work at Taliesin

Over a decade ago, while the Preservation Crew was restoring Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s bedroom, they were planning on reconstructing some of its Wright-designed built-in furnishings.

She and her husband shared a bedroom at Taliesin until 1936, then they moved to adjoining rooms. This was probably because Wright didn’t sleep very much and was almost 30 years older than she was (so he needed even less sleep). Makes sense to me: if I want to sleep while my husband watches movies in bed, I put on my sleep mask.

So, the plan included the Preservation Crew rebuilding a set of small horizontal shelves at a mullion (you can see color photos of the rebuilt shelves below). But the Crew had a problem: no detailed drawings of the room exist. So how would they know how big the shelves should be? Now, if Taliesin had been built for a client, there would have been floor plan and elevation drawings, as well as drawings for furniture and built-ins. All of those things would have measurements. But because Taliesin was his own home (reconstructed after the second fire of 1925), he could simply tell the carpenters and builders what to build. Or he gave them sketches. However, those must have been thrown out, since no drawings existed.

My find at the Wisconsin Historical Society

Luckily at this time, I took a trip to the Wisconsin Historical Society to look at photographs in the John H. Howe collection (“Jack” had been in the Taliesin Fellowship from 1932-64 and took thousands of photographs). Two of his photographs show Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s bedroom, which show the shelves. I emailed the photographs (one at this link) to the onsite collections manager for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. A few days later, he stopped by the office and told me that one of the photos showed a perfume bottle on one of the shelves. And, he said, “We have that perfume bottle.”

Apparently, he also showed the Preservation Crew the photograph and perfume bottle, and they used the perfume bottle to get the scale of the shelves they were going to rebuild.

You can see the rebuilt room in the photograph below, followed by a close-up of the shelves:

Photograph of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s bedroom. The shelves are to the right of the small chair.

Taken by user Stilfehler. Information and a larger version of this image is at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Taliesin_Interior_32.jpg
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Shelves in Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s Bedroom. The perfume bottle, on the top shelf, is green. It’s behind an amber-colored glass jar so you can see just a little bit of it.

Taken by user Stilfehler. Information and a larger version of this image is at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Taliesin_Interior_28.jpg
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

There are other things that the Preservation Crew has done in Olgivanna Lloyd Wright’s bedroom, and on the Taliesin Estate overall, that are inventive and smart. Still, given my contribution to their work, I always liked to tell the story of the perfume bottle while giving tours through her bedroom.

OK, Keiran, that’s a cute trick. But why did he do this with the scale?

I think the full answer to the question probably requires reading Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography to understand his design philosophy,2 but I think he did it for at least two reasons. Firstly, he did it because it makes the space feel larger. Especially when you sit down. And, secondly, the lower scale creates more compression which, upon “release” generates feelings of surprise, drama and delight inside his homes.

First published March 19, 2021.
The image at the top of this post is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. The image is available at Creative Commons, which has its licensing information and a larger version. 


1 Well, then you go, “what – so the guy never designed for people over 5’8″?” He did. For example, Louis Penfield, who commissioned Wright for a home in Ohio, was 6 feet 9 inches tall. Wright made the hallways thinner and the ceilings taller. You can rent the building overnight. It’s the only Wright building I’ve been in where everything, yes, looks as big as the pictures.

2 Or “why did he do this” requires the answer given by another former tour guide (hi again, Bryan): “Oh! Because he was a genius.”