Frank Lloyd Wright and Alexander Woollcott standing outside of Taliesin. Photograph in the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Edgar Tafel collection.

A room at Taliesin

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Alexander Woollcott with Frank Lloyd Wright outside of Taliesin. 

a room that existed before we (or I) knew it existed.

I’m going to write about my discovery of that room’s appearance today. It’s the room with the windows that you see behind Wright, Woollcott, and the birch trees.

It was thought that the room was originally designed for Wright’s youngest daughter Iovanna (born to Olgivanna in December 1925).

Meryle Secrest wrote in her Wright biography that in March 1925, Wright and Olgivanna “made an impulse decision to start a family of their own.” [Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography, 315]

Secrest gave no evidence for this “impulse decision”. Obviously something impulsive happened and Olgivanna was young and pretty, so I’m like, “Yeah… Sure.”

Here’s where it is:

The room is one floor above Olgivanna’s bathroom, so you walk by it as you go into her room on a tour through Taliesin.  

FYI: The bathroom was dismantled, so it’s not on tours.

You can see the outside of Iovanna’s sitting room when you’re on the Hill Crown at Taliesin. Wright added the parapet1 which you can see in this photo I took:

Looking at Taliesin living quarters on a sunny day in spring. Iovanna's sitting room is behind the parapet. Photograph by Keiran Murphy

Taliesin Fellowship apprentices did the construction of the rooms in 1933-34. Abe Dombar wrote about it in this February 9, 1934 article:

Two new rooms were added to the pageant of Taliesin’s 40 rooms merely by lowering the ceiling of the loggia and raising the roof above it to get the most playful room in the house.  The boys call it a “scherzo.”  This is little eight year-old Iovanna’s room.

Several new apprentices, with the aid of two carpenters, were working on the job continuously from the architect’s first sketch on a shingle to designing and building in of the furniture.  And the girls made the curtains.  In celebration of the completion of the room we had a “room-warming” in the form of a surprise party for Iovanna. 

Abe Dombar. “At Taliesin,” February 9, 1934. Reprinted in At Taliesin: Newspaper Columns by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship, 1934-1937, ed. by Randolph C. Henning, (Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), p. 20-21.

It makes you think:

While kids may have been more hardy in the past, that is a lot of space for a little girl. Here’s one drawing that shows it:

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York), #2501.008.

Although the rooms in the 1930s were smaller, there was still a bedroom, sitting room, and bathroom.

That makes sense

when you think of the playroom he scaled down for his kids in his first home in Oak Park, Illinois.  

I was told years ago that it was originally scaled down for Iovanna when she was 8, but I’ve never seen an interior photo taken at that time.

Not that this would matter anyway. Remember: Wright’s building scale already messes with your mind.

However,

The number of rooms is also due to things happening in the Wright family.

See,

when the Wrights started the Taliesin Fellowship in 1932, Olgivanna’s oldest daughter, Svetlana (“Svet”), was 15. So the next summer, Wright designed those bedrooms for both Svet and Iovanna (then 7 years old).

But things got complicated.

One of those complications was related to one of the first Taliesin Fellowship apprentices: Wes Peters.

No doubt

Olgivanna made sure to keep her pretty young daughter away from all of the architectural apprentices in 1932 and ’33. But it was all intense and, even if you had them working 15 hours-a-day, young is young and those two (Wes and Svet) fell in love.

They wanted to get married and Svet’s parents said absolutely not.

And, yes, Frank Lloyd Wright fell in love with Catherine Lee Tobin when he was, maybe 19-20 (Kitty was 16-17); and Olgivanna got married when she was 19, but the marriages for those two ended in divorce, so….

But, come on:

check out the screenshots from the film apprentice Alden Dow made in 1933, the first summer those two knew each other. They’re so cute:

Screenshots of William Wesley Peters and Svetlana Wright Peters in 1933 film by Alden B. Dow.

The movie is the property of the Dow Archives, but you can see it in sections through this link.

So, in September 1933,

Wes and Svet left the Fellowship, even though Svet couldn’t get married until she was 18. You can read about their history in this book, “William Wesley Peters: The Evolution of a Creative Force“.

Svet’s age (15 or 16), gets me scandalized, but then again: I’m no longer a teenager.

I mean: I was completely bummed when—in grade school in the spring of 1980—I found out that Sting was 28 years old and married. But then I realized that, “uhh… Keiran? Sting’s not waiting for you.” [I may remember this moment because I was surprised by that grown-up thought]. 

To get back to Iovanna’s bedroom:

For years, we thought that before that area had rooms and a bathroom, there was just a mezzanine up there that ended above Taliesin’s Living Room.

You can see it at the top of this post.

And that it ended on the other end just over Wright’s bedroom.

To picture it, you can see part of the mezzanine in this post.

However, in 2004-5, I was asked to research the entire history of that floor up there.

So I did what I usually try do:

I try to wipe my mind of preconceptions2 and look at photos. And so, for the the first time, I saw something earlier photos at Taliesin that shouldn’t have existed at that time. I saw in these earlier photos a chimney flue for the fireplace that’s in Iovanna’s Bedroom. Among other photos,3 the flue appears in one taken in 1928:

Photograph by architect George Kastner of Taliesin. Taken on November 11, 1928.

This photo is published on p. 4 in the Journal of the Organic Architecture + Design archives, Vol. 7, no. 3, 2017 in the article for that issue, “Desert and Memoir: George Kastner and Frank Lloyd Wright,” by Randolph C. Henning.

That flue I pointed out goes to only one fireplace: the one for Iovanna’s Bedroom. Yet George Kastner took this photograph in 1928, 5 years before the apprentices even started working in that area. So it didn’t match what I thought I knew. I thought that, before 1933, this stone mass was simply… stone. That it was like the stone mass that’s on the south side of Taliesin’s living room. That this part was only stone.

Like what was in Hillside’s Dana Gallery on the Taliesin estate that I wrote about in “Truth Hiding in Plain Site“. That it was mostly stone before the Taliesin Fellowship.

But since I couldn’t deny what was in photographs,

I got in my car and drove to Taliesin to see what I could find.

I went upstairs, looking for evidence that things had changed. First thing I noticed was that the stone was executed at one time, as opposed to being changed later. See my photo of the fireplace below:

Interior photograph of fireplace in Iovanna Lloyd Wright's Bedroom. By Keiran Murphy on 9-24-2003.

Contrast this

With the fireplace in the adjacent room. In 1933-34, Apprentices built that fireplace out of the existing chimney. And it certainly looks like it.

I took the photo below where you see the side of the chimney. On the left hand side you see stone that used to be outside. The red stones were those that went through the Taliesin fires in 1914 and 1925. The lighter stone on the right is stone placed there by apprentices when they built the fireplace mantelpiece:

Side of the chimney in Iovanna Lloyd Wright's sitting room. Photo by Keiran Murphy in 2003.

 

After looking at the two fireplaces, I thought about that “At Taliesin” article. In the article, Abe Dombar says,

Two new rooms added to the pageant of Taliesin’s 40 rooms….

But there weren’t two rooms on that floor in 1934. There were three: Iovanna’s bedroom, the bathroom, and the sitting room (the room at the newer fireplace).

In fact, the drawing doesn’t label Iovanna’s bedroom. It only labels “Iovanna’s room”, which is the sitting room with the new mantelpiece.

And one more thing: the bathroom

You can see the bathroom in the plan above. When I started thinking maybe Iovanna’s Bedroom was there before 1933-4, I thought how it doesn’t make a lot of sense for Wright to build a bathroom out of line with the bathroom one floor below. Often bathrooms are in line with each other because this makes laying the plumbing lines easier.

yeah, yeah, yeah: we can talk about how impractical Wright could be as an architect, but at Taliesin he had to live with whatever he designed. And bathrooms are expensive, even if the labor was free….

Moreover,

in 2007, I looked at Taliesin’s drawings for real in Wright’s archives. Luckily for me, Taliesin’s estate manager suggested I take photocopies of Taliesin’s drawings so I could take notes on what I saw in them.

In drawing #2501.007, I saw the word “nook” in pencil with a line going about where Iovanna’s Bedroom was:

Elevation of Taliesin. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). #2501.007.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York), #2501.007.

I can’t tell you when 2501.007 was drawn, but the details say 1925-32. I think that in the early Taliesin III period, what became Iovanna’s Bedroom was originally a sitting room, a “nook”, that could be used as a bedroom if needed.

alas, we don’t have Wright’s design for the couch/bed simplicity of a futon frame

3 more things:

coz: in for a penny, in for a pound

One Taliesin drawing shows the “sash details” of the windows in Taliesin’s Living Quarters. This is drawing #2501.032. See the detail of it below:

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). 2501.032.

The three windows I pulled out from the drawing match the three windows currently on the east wall of Iovanna’s Bedroom. The drawing labels these windows as being for—not a clerestory or above the mezzanine, but—”Gallery Bed Room”.

Also, in 2006

The Taliesin Preservation crew worked in a closet in Iovanna’s Bedroom and found remnants of pipes going through the floor above Olgivanna’s bathroom. I asked what those pipes could be, and one crew member (I forget who) said they were small enough to be used for a sink, but not a toilet or tub.

Wright could have had this little room up there and if someone were just staying overnight, they could use the sink in the morning to brush their teeth.

One of those people might have been architect Philip Johnson

See, back in the 2000s someone emailed me at work. He was working on a book of interviews conducted by architect Robert A.M. Stern with Philip Johnson.

Stick with me here

At one point, Stern talked to Johnson about Wright:

Robert A.M. Stern: And in researching for the book [on the International Style] you also went to visit Wright?

Philip Johnson: …. We went to see Wright in 1930 in Taliesin East [sic]. I stayed overnight in the part that’s now all closed in and ruined, in the upper terrace there, just above the big room. We visited and had a great time and we realized that he was a very, very great man.

The Philip Johnson Tapes: Interviews with Robert A.M. Stern (The Monacelli Press, printed in China, 2008), 41.
The book’s price tag is over $40, but I’m that crazy: I got the book on sale for $10.

He mentions “the big room”. In 1930, there wouldn’t have been any other “big room” on the Taliesin estate except for the Taliesin Living Room.5 He was wrong about the placement of the room on that floor, but there was nothing else up there in 1930 that matches it.

OK!

I hope I explained what I found/think.

That is:

When Wright rebuilt his living quarters after the 1925 fire, he built a mezzanine above the main floor that ended in a small room with its own fireplace, three windows on the east wall, and windows (or possibly French doors) on the other side.

The windows above and behind where Alexander Woollcott and Frank Lloyd Wright are standing in the photo at the top of this post might have looked into this “nook”.

 

The photo at the top of this post was taken 1937-41 and published in Apprentice to Genius: Years with Frank Lloyd Wright, by Edgar Tafel, p. 179.
First published October 22, 2023.


Notes

1. He expanded the space and added the parapet in 1943 for an anticipated visit by Solomon Guggenheim (of the Guggenheim Museum commission) and curator, Hilla Rebay.

2. Which I remember every damned time I think about the window found in Taliesin’s guest bedroom that was staring me in the face for years in photos. I’ll write about it another time to go over it in detail. It’ll be penance.

3. I think I first noticed it in a photo that I can’t show because I don’t think it’s ever been published. It’s Whi(x3)48218, an aerial photograph in the Howe Collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

4. Her personal spaces were featured in a Wright Virtual Visit in 2021, which is on Facebook, here.

5. It wasn’t at Hillside because Johnson said they visited it and while it was a great building, he described Hillside in 1930 as “a total wreck”.  

Black and white photograph of John and Marybud Lautner outside at Taliesin, 1933-34. By Hank Schubart.

Taliesin Kitties

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Photograph of future architect (then apprentice) John Lautner (1911-1994) and wife Mary Faustina Roberts Lautner (“Marybud”, 1913-1995) standing at the southwest corner of Taliesin’s hill crown.  Behind them is the chimney that served the dining rooms of the Taliesin Fellowship and the Wrights. I wrote about this space, here. The photo was taken by apprentice and later architect, Hank Schubart (1916-1998).

This is going to be a cat-themed post. But it does have a connection to Frank Lloyd Wright, I swear!

Let me explain….

Here are my cats, Wes and Gene:

Color photo of cats Wes and Gene on the floor.

This is a photo of them lying on the kitchen floor. My husband says they’re competing in the synchronized cat napping nationals.

Now, the names “Wes” and “Gene” are related to Frank Lloyd Wright and Taliesin. But I was not completely in charge of them being named Wes and Gene.

— well, ok, yes, actually, I was, since I was the one who first decided to name them that.

However —

I was not the person who focused my attention on names related to Taliesin.

You see,

in 2015, 5 kittens showed up on the Taliesin estate. Cats aren’t there all the time, but they do (and can) show up. Sometimes they are owned by residents at Taliesin. Or, sometimes they take up residence. At least one of these cats became internationally famous.

In fact,

anyone who took a tour at Taliesin starting in the late 1990s up to the twenty-teens met this cat. She was a long-haired calico named Sherpa.

Color photograph of the calico cat, Sherpa at Taliesin on a stone wall. Photo by Keiran Murphy

Sherpa laying on a stone wall outside of the old Taliesin Fellowship dining room (it functions currently as an office and sometimes a guest room).

Sherpa appeared in the Taliesin tour program in the late 1990s. She lived at the Hillside structure and had one litter of kittens that delighted visitors.

the summer at Hillside with Sherpa and her kittens meant lots of real-time lessons on working with animals. There was no way you could talk about Wright’s history or ideas when there were 3 or 4 adorable kittens playing and jumping over each other on the deck at the edge of Hillside’s dining room (a photo of the deck is in a photo at Flickr, here).

After the season’s end, Sherpa was caught and spayed. By this time, she already walked in front of several tours at Taliesin, so she was given the name Sherpa. Since the Taliesin estate was basically her home, she settled in closer to the Taliesin building and began to “lead tours” there.1

That was because she knew where the guides went on tours, so she would walk ahead of the guides and group.

She appeared on a magazine cover

after a group of Japanese architects took a tour. They were as delighted by Sherpa as by the architecture. So one photo they took of her ended up on the cover of a magazine, below:

Back to Wes and Gene:

I hadn’t known about the kittens until I mentioned the desire for cats to a coworker at Taliesin Preservation. I was searching for a home, and having cats was on the agenda. Then she asked, “did you hear about the Taliesin kittens?”

The kindle of five domestic shorthaired kittens had arrived in late spring. They were big enough to make themselves known to the students at the School of Architecture, who were then in session and living at Wright’s Hillside building.

Since they appeared on the Taliesin estate, my coworker, the students, and staff at the local vet clinic knew them as the “Taliesin kittens”. As I had already decided I wanted two male kittens, it took me less than 10 minutes to come up with the names Wes and Gene.

PLEASE NOTE: I decided immediately that I was NOT going to name them Frank and Lloyd, or Lloyd and Wright.

No, I’m not a cat lady! I’m just a Frankophile!

While I have not written on my blog about Wright’s son-in-law and engineer, Wes Peters, I did write about Gene Masselink last year.

Are they worthy of their names?

Wes is a little like Wes Peters, because he’s really big. But, while I love the guy, Gene is not worthy of the memory of Eugene Masselink.

And how did Wright feel about cats?

I don’t know.

In fact, I don’t know how Wright felt about domesticated animals overall. Except for horses. He long admired them and rode them as long as he was able.  The photograph below is Wright on a horse outside of the Hillside school building.2 The photo was taken in the 1950s.

Color photograph--Frank Lloyd Wright at the Hillside Home School on a horse with his wife Olgivanna and apprentice, Joe Fabris. Photo by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer.

Photograph of Wright on a horse to the east of the Assembly Hall at the Hillside Home School. Olgivanna Lloyd Wright stands on the right and apprentice, Joe Fabris, is wearing the t-shirt.

However, there is the doghouse:

That’s right: in 1956, 12-year-old Jim Berger wrote Frank Lloyd Wright. He was the son of clients Robert and Gloria Berger, who built their Wright house in San Anselmo, California. Jim asked Wright to design a home for their dog, Eddie. Jim would pay for the plans and materials through money he earned on his paper route. This link from the Smithsonian Magazine shows you the whole story, and Jim’s initial letter to Wright.

In addition,

Olgivanna Lloyd Wright liked dogs and you can find photos online of the Wrights sitting together outside at Taliesin West with her dog, Casanova. Casanova appears with Frank Lloyd Wright in the Garden Room (the living room) at Taliesin West. They’re on the webpage, “Five stylish men with dogs“. 

 

First published February 8, 2023.
The photograph at the top of this post was taken by Hank Schubart and is in The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). Hank Schubert collection, 6501.0140.


Notes:

1 We used to do a 1 mile, all exterior Walking Tour. Sherpa would show up when we were with our groups on the road below Taliesin, and walk in front of us to Hillside. She would hang out at Hillside until the Walking tour came by in the afternoon. Then she would lead the later tour back to Taliesin, where the tours began.

2 This link shows you 94-year-old Joe Fabris at Wright’s Price Tower in Bartlesville, OK. It gives you a nice overview of that space. Joe is seen speaking to the Price Tower curator of Collections and Exhibitions (Hi, Scott!).

 
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.

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

1952 fire at Hillside

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Looking northeast at the southern facade of the Hillside building while the smoke still looms in its April 26, 1952 fire. I don’t know who took this photograph. It came from a newspaper article that was given to the Preservation office probably in the 1990s.

As someone who worked at Taliesin, you got used to dealing with questions about fire on the Taliesin estate. Of course, there were the two Taliesin fires,

but that’s not all!

In 1952, a big fire took place at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hillside building on the south part of the Taliesin estate. That fire happened in April of that year. So, today I’ll talk about the fire and one of Hillside’s rooms affected by it.

I started this after a request:

Someone asked me about the Hillside theater, and its history, a few days ago. As sometimes happens, I know something really well, but don’t know what others don’t know at all. This had great timing, because

the Hillside fire happened nearly 70 years ago

on April 26, 1952.

And I’m trying to push away the knowledge that this means that drummer Stewart Copeland turns 70 this July. Copeland was in the band, The Police (which I adored as a teenager; hence the automatic knowledge on Copeland’s age; he was born on July 16, 1952 btw).

So, follow me while I talk about the original space at Hillside.

The old theater

The Hillside Theater is in the gymnasium Wright designed in 1901 for his Aunts’ Hillside Home School.1 Here’s a photo of the Hillside building when the Aunts ran the school. The gymnasium is on the photo’s far left-hand side:

Page 7 from "In the Valley of the Clan" booklet by William Hudson Harper.
Booklet located in the Wisconsin Historical Society. Collection: Lloyd Jones (Jane Lloyd Jones Correspondence, 1899-1940; Wisconsin Historical Society, Box 1).

The photo is in the booklet, “In the Valley of the Clan: The Story of a School”.

The booklet is on-line

at the Wisconsin Historical Society. The photo above is on page 7.

The inside of the gym is in the next photo:

Photograph looking east at the stage in the Hillside Home School gym.

Circa 1903 photo looking east in the Hillside Home School gym and its stage. The gym’s running track was behind the horizontal boards above the stage. Unknown photographer.
Taken from a Hillside booklet owned by Peggy Travers, whose mother went to the Hillside school.

In 1932, when Wright started the Taliesin Fellowship, he redesigned the gym into a theater that he named “the Playhouse”. So, in the first years his apprentices were changing things at his house so they could live there.

(like Edgar Tafel talked about in the book I recommended, Apprentice to Genius).

But they also immediately started renovating the gym into the Playhouse. Like, they took the gym’s running track and rehung it so it was on several different levels.

I don’t know what good that did, but it looked really cool.

Here’s a good drawing of it:

Drawing of Hillside Playhouse Theater from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives.
Property: The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). Drawing #3303.014.

The modified running track is on the upper right. A modified version of this drawing was painted onto plywood. Every Sunday that plywood placard was put alongside the 2-lane highway (Hwy 23) as advertisement for movies at the Playhouse.
You’ll be able to see the placard once the Hillside Theater opens back up after the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation completes its restoration.
Here’s a video discussion of their current restoration work.

1933 photo of the Playhouse when it was ready to open:

Taken by Angus Vicar. He took the photo the weekend before the Playhouse opened on November 1st, 1933:

Photograph by Angus Vicar. October 27 1933. Property of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Wisconsin Historical Society. Collection name: Photo Copy Service: Photo Copy Service photographs and negatives, 1925-1983.
Collection No.: 4245-B.

All this, despite a lack of Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy saying,

come on! Let’s put on a show!

The simple benches you see were constructed by a furniture maker in the Fellowship, Manuel Sandoval. He made them out of newly-cut oak. The “girls” in the Fellowship sewed the seat cushions.

So, movies at the Playhouse were the first public interface by the Taliesin Fellowship. They ran weekly, with apprentices in charge of manning the projector, introducing the movie, preparing coffee or tea for refreshments, and taking money from patrons.

Movies cost 50¢. For a dollar, you could watch the movie as well as get a tour with an apprentice.

This is how hardy we used to be:

That first winter, the Playhouse didn’t have radiator heat. Read this in an “At Taliesin” newspaper article on February 1, 1934:

“The new heating system is in operation, and made the theatre quite comfortable when weather conditions were unfavorable last Sunday.”
No named author. Transcribed from the published article by Randolph C. Henning, but not published in the 1992 “At Taliesin” book edited by Henning.

Eventually, the Wrights and the Fellowship began going to Arizona in the winter (as I noted in this post). Then, as the NEH story states, Wright found the land in Scottsdale in late 1937. The Fellowship then began building Taliesin West as its winter quarters.

In 1952, the Wrights and the Fellowship were returning from their winter when the Hillside fire happened. It destroyed the Playhouse, plus everything to the east up to the Assembly Hall. A stone foyer to the west of the Playhouse (added a few years before) was also untouched.

Below is a transcription of part of a newspaper story about the fire. It comes from the May 1, 1952 edition of Spring Green’s newspaper, the Weekly Home News:

Taliesin School Re-Born on Paper

As Flames Destroy Old Structure

…. Taliesin’s third major fire (the previous two destroyed the house) started late Saturday afternoon [April 26] when a rubbish fire, left unattended, swept toward the building as the wind shifted. A floor containing living quarters above the student dining room was destroyed first; then the flames spread into the theater and reduced it to ashes.           

“I lit that rubbish fire myself,” Wright readily admitted.

“It was about 30 ft. from the building and the wind was blowing toward the east. I shouldn’t have gone off and left it, but the wind shifted and carried the fire up under the overhang of the roof. When I came back smoke was coming from the roof and upper floor.”         

…. Although a small office adjoining the living room [the Assembly Hall] was badly damaged…, the big room itself suffered only smoke damage. Wright found good in that, too. “That smoke-tone is wonderful,” he said. “I couldn’t have darkened it so evenly if I’d done it myself. Nature is God’s technician.”

Fellowship member “Frances” Nemtin, who joined the Fellowship in early ’46, wrote about it in her booklet, 3 by FLLW. She, then-husband Kenn Lockhart, and their children had been living at the Midway Barns over the winter. On that day in 1952:

… [T]here were a few of us on the grounds…. I was at startled to hear sirens and see fire-trucks and police cars screaming through our valley and turning into Hillside… when I ran onto the nearby roof I saw black smoke rising there. With the children I drove to Hillside fast and found a horrifying scene. The theater was full of flames and the local fire engines were desperately fighting an enormous blaze.

3 by FLLW, by Frances Nemtin (self-published, 2008), 44-45.

As members of the Taliesin Fellowship returned, they cleaned the area, prepping for work. That’s because Wright had already redesigned the space.

The new space, now called the Hillside Theatre/Theater (both spellings are in drawings) pushed out further on the north and south. The apprentices poured concrete and created stadium seating. He designed metal chairs, most of which where put into the concrete.

In 1955, they had a formal evening for Wright’s birthday (June 8) to mark the completion of the work.

Maynard Parker also took photographs at Taliesin that year.

These photographs were published in House Beautiful in November, 1955. One of the photos he took is below:

Photographer, Maynard Parker. Looking northwest at Frank Lloyd Wright's Hillside building in 1955..
Huntington Library–Maynard Parker collection. Call Number. photoCL MLP 1266.

Summer photograph by Maynard Parker looking at the south facade of Hillside. The rebuilt Theater is on the left. An enlarged kitchen at Hillside is on the lower right, under a new roof with a balcony parapet above the stone and wooden doors.

The next year, 1956, the apprentices in the Taliesin Fellowship gave Wright a curtain from his design. Again, here’s Frances Nemtin:

…. It was to be an abstraction of the Wisconsin landscape and executed in felt appliqued on Belgian linen…. Immediately on reaching Wisconsin that April we set out to work in the second floor of Aldebaran, Wes Peters‘ farm, so we could work secretly. We knew if Mr. Wright saw it in progress he’d make constant changes.

3 by FLLW, by Frances Nemtin (self-published, 2008), 49.

Frances and others could not agree on the date of the curtain’s execution. Folks at Taliesin and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation didn’t know if it was made in 1954, ’56, or ’57.

Then I got an email:

A woman wrote me at work (as the Taliesin historian). She told me that her parents were in the Taliesin Fellowship and her mother worked on that curtain. And her mother went into labor with her a few days before they finished. And she was born in June of 1956.

So we had our date.

Not cut in stone, but… good enough I’d say.

First published April 15, 2022.
I do not know who took the photograph at the top of this page, but it appeared in a newspaper story on the Hillside fire.


Notes:

1. The building I wrote about in the post, “Another find at Hillside” was the original gymnasium for the Aunts’ Hillside school. That building became the dormitory for older boys once Wright’s building was constructed.

Books by apprentices

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Last time I wrote on the book Years With Frank Lloyd Wright: Apprentice to Genius by former Wright apprentice, Edgar Tafel. This week I’m writing about more books by Taliesin Fellowship apprentices.

If you need to remember what the Taliesin Fellowship is, click here

Memoirs by former apprentices:

Reflections From the Shining Brow: My years with Frank Lloyd Wright and Olgivanna Lazovich Wright, by Kamal Amin

Amin came from Egypt to join the Fellowship in 1951 and remained until 1978. Amin gives a unique view about Frank Lloyd Wright, and his wife, Olgivanna.

Working with Frank Lloyd Wright: What it was Like, by Curtis Besinger

This is a nice companion to “Apprentice to Genius”. Besinger became a Wright apprentice in 1939 and stayed until 1955. He brings you year by year through his experience at Taliesin in Wisconsin in the summer, and Taliesin West in Arizona in the winter. He also discussed projects through the years, like the Unitarian meeting House in Madison. Additionally, he talked about activities in the Fellowship: movies the group saw, and about playing and practicing music. And the author wrote about the effect of World War II on the group.

See the book below (A Taliesin Diary, by Priscilla Henken), for the day-to-day Fellowship life during World War II.

Tales of Taliesin: A Memoir of Fellowship, by Cornelia Brierly

Cornelia was an early Taliesin apprentice, and this book contains a collection of her remembrances. Her memories are unique and often humorous. In addition, the book includes interesting photos from her collection.

Picturing Wright: An Album from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Photographer, by Pedro Guerrero

Picturing Wright shows Wright’s openness. “Pete” was 22 years old, with no experience, when he asked Wright if he could work for him. Wright, who was 50 years older, saw Peter’s talent and gave him all the work he wanted.

Check out Guerrero’s website, https://guerrerophoto.com/. This has a great collection of his photographs all through his career.

A Taliesin Diary: A Year with Frank Lloyd Wright, by Priscilla Henken

Most books by apprentices were written years later, but this was an actual diary kept at the time. Priscilla and her husband, David, were in the Fellowship (1942-43) and she wrote in her diary every day. What she saw and felt give a unique perspective on daily life in the group, and on Wright and his family. The book includes photographs taken by the Henkens when they were apprentices, that have not appeared elsewhere.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Taliesin, by Frances Nemtin

“Frances”, was in the Taliesin Fellowship from 1946 until she died in 2015, wrote this book about Wright’s design and about the Taliesin Fellowship. The book contains original photographs.

She wrote a variety of booklets about her life in the Fellowship, but this is one of the few published in hardcover. 

Some of her booklets may still be in gift shop at the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center, so maybe you’ll see them if you take a Taliesin tour this year.

Taliesin Reflections: My Years Before, During, and After Living With Frank Lloyd Wright, by Earl Nisbet

Nisbet was an apprentice under Wright in 1951-1953. His “Taliesin Reflections”—short scenes—are mixed with profiles of people in the Fellowship (Gene Masselink, Wes Peters, Jack Howe, and others). When Nisbet went to work as an architect, he employed lessons from Wright in his practice. The book has original illustrations and photographs.

Autobiographies by former apprentices:

Pedro Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey with Frank Lloyd Wright, Alexander Calder, and Louis Nevelson, by Pedro Guerrero

In this book, “Pete” writes about growing up, as well as his career. He worked not only with Frank Lloyd Wright, but with two other major 20th Century artists. He photographed the sculptors: Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson. Also, Guerrero writes about his work in the magazines House Beautiful, House & Garden, and Vogue among others (while always working at Wright’s request).

Related:

The film documentary, “American Masters — Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey”, was released on PBS, American Masters, in 2017.

Escape Home: Rebuilding a Life after the Anschluss — A Family Memoir, by Charles Paterson (Author), Carrie Paterson (Author, Editor), Hensley Peterson (Editor)

Charles Paterson was in the Taliesin Fellowship from 1958-60. Truthfully, I purchased the book only for its Taliesin Fellowship connection. I read it in its entirety during the Covid-19 lock-down. So, that’s one thing to be grateful for in the year 2020.

Paterson’s life begins in the 1930s in Austria. Then, his father helped him and his sister escape to Australia during World War II. The three were alive at the end of the war and reunited in the United States. Yet, Paterson’s study under Wright was one stop before he moved to the raw Colorado town of Aspen, where he became an architect.

And all of this is without mentioning Paterson’s uncle, architect Adolf Loos!

More Than One Author:

At Taliesin: Newspaper Columns by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship, 1934-1937, compiled by Randolph Henning

Another companion to “Apprentice to Genius”.

The editor found as many of the weekly “At Taliesin” newspaper as he could. Then he typed them up and edited them into this book. The “At Taliesin” articles were written in the 1930s and show Wright and his apprentices as they lived them. The apprentices worked as entertainers, cooks, laborers, and farmhands. Also, imo, the book shows why these kids would move to rural Wisconsin to live and work with a man old enough to be their grandfather. And like it. The book contains photographs found almost nowhere else.

About Wright: An Album of Recollections by Those Who Knew Frank Lloyd Wright, Edgar Tafel, ed., with foreword by Tom Wolfe.

This book has written memories by a wide group of people from all aspects of Wright’s life: friends, co-workers, family, and former apprentices.

Books showcasing photographs and graphics:

A Way of Life: An Apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright, by Lois Davidson Gottlieb.

Gottlieb apprenticed under Wright in 1948-49. She took the photographs of both Taliesins that are in this book. The colors in the photos are amazing and make you really appreciate Kodachrome film.

William Wesley Peters: The Evolution of a Creative Force. Editor emeritus John DeKoven Hill, with text by John C. Amarantides, David E. Dodge, et al.

“Wes” Peters’ “Box Projects” (bi-yearly projects given as presents by apprentices to Frank Lloyd Wright). The projects by Peters are beautifully illustrated, with an essay that explains them.

Websites:

Here are links to blogs written by former apprentices:

JG on Wright, John W. Geiger, Apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright

John Geiger tried to trace apprentices and the years they started under Wright. So, this site includes the list he created. He also had photographs that he gave to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

An explanation of the site is here: https://jgonwright.net/jgdb1.html

Robert M. Green, an apprentice in the last months of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life, kept a website and wrote about his reasons for leaving the Taliesin Fellowship.

https://web.archive.org/web/20011120175318/http://robertgreen.com/robert_green/robert_green.asp


First published April 5, 2021.
I took image at the top of this page.