Photograph by Kevin Dodda of Taliesin in snow.

How did Frank Lloyd Wright feel about Christmas?

Someone asked me that question in early December. Yet, I’ve tried to answer it, with no clear success, for years. After all, Wisconsin can be charmingly Christmas-Themed, with a dusting of snow and a chill in the air.* In addition, in his autobiography, Wright described Taliesin in winter as being a “frosted palace roofed and walled with snow”. But, he didn’t seem especially fond of Christmas, particularly in the first years after he built his Wisconsin home in 1911.

Wright talking about Christmas

In 1924, when Wright had a new love in his life, his future wife, Olgivanna, he wrote her a letter saying that Christmas reminded him of his children he had left in Oak Park, IL in 1909. His letter to her is in The Life of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, 234.

However, less than a decade after they met, the Wrights began the Taliesin Fellowship, and eventually Wright would leave Wisconsin in the winter, spending that time with his family and apprentices at Taliesin West in Arizona. Thus, Christmas became an activity enjoyed by the group in the desert. To read about their Christmases, read The Life of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright.

Wright’s Christmas-card moments

He did have plenty of these in the 1890s/early 1900s with the family in Oak Park. They were described aplenty in the book written by Wright’s second son, John. In John’s the book, My Father, Frank Lloyd Wright (first published in 1946 under the amusing title, My Father, Who is on Earth), he wrote about growing up in Oak Park, and later working with his father. These memories also include how he felt about his dad as a father; the day of Taliesin’s 1914 fire; and the day his dad fired him! It’s unique and you should pick it up.

John wrote memories involving Christmas while growing up. One of these memories is a Christmas Eve night when he was perhaps 5 or 6. I’ll leave you with John’s description of watching his father put the presents out, then his father “caught” him and carried him back to bed:

…. He unboxed toys on a big white sheet under the tree, sat on the floor and played with each one before placing it. When he played with the mechanical donkey that jumped up and down I almost dashed in. When he pulled out a monkey that climbed a string, I giggled so loud the jig was up! Out rushed Papa, swooped me up in his arms, whisked me backed to bed, told me I had been dreaming. I still like to think it was a dream—and good old St. Nick, a reality. And not too long ago, Dad said, “I still believe in Santa Claus.”
John Lloyd Wright, My Father, Frank Lloyd Wright (Dover Publications, Inc., New York; 1992), 40.

First published, 12/23/2020
The winter photograph taken at Taliesin at the top of this post is by Kevin Dodds and was reproduced with permission.


* overlooking the fact that, one time after 1992 (the year I came to live in this state), it reached -25F (-32C) degrees on Christmas day.

Did Wright ever live in Wisconsin in the winter?

The simple answer is yes.

But today anyone walking into his living quarters at Taliesin sees flagstone floors and floor-to-ceiling French doors with single-pane glass (as you see in this interior photo at the Wisconsin Historical Society). So, it’s a natural thing to wonder, if you know Wisconsin at all (or have heard of the IceBowl), how the hell someone could have lived in this house in a Wisconsin winter.

In 1911, when Frank Lloyd Wright first designed Taliesin, he did intend it to be a year-round home. And he knew the state gets cold in the winter, so it was more airtight at that time (as you see here) and had radiators as well as fireplaces. His Wisconsin home worked with Wisconsin winter weather up until the 1930s. After that, Wright left for Arizona practically every fall/winter. He was going there with his family and apprentices in the Taliesin Fellowship to live and work. After a few years of searching for a site, he found land in Scottsdale in 1937, signed the papers on it the following February, and began building his winter home (Taliesin West).

Wright started Taliesin West, including, very importantly to the architect, a drafting studio, so he could work in the winter. After he began Taliesin West, Wright, his family, and the Taliesin Fellowship, moved between Wisconsin and Arizona each year. They would leave Wisconsin in the fall, and arrive back the next spring. Leaving and coming back allowed Wright to see his homes “fresh” eyes and ideas. So the two Taliesins (Wisconsin and Arizona) changed constantly under his direction.

Taliesin reflected Wright’s winters in Arizona

By 1959 (the year that Wright died), Taliesin in Wisconsin reflected his time in Arizona. By the end of his life, Wright hadn’t worried about Wisconsin winters for over 20 years. He returned every spring, moved out or eliminated walls, and added more glass and stone.

Of course, when I write that “he” did this or that at the buildings, the physical work was really done by his apprentices—young men and women—in the Taliesin Fellowship.

Click on the links below for photos from the Wisconsin Historical Society that show the inside of the house in these later years during the summer. You’ll see all of the stone and glass:

https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Image/IM64955

https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Image/IM64906

The man writing about winter weather

Of course, all of this didn’t stop the man from having, sometimes, overly romantic views of the winter. Among what he wrote in his 1932 autobiography about his home in the winter is that Taliesin

“was a frosted palace roofed and walled with snow, hung with iridescent fringes, the plate-glass of the windows delicately fantastic with frosted arabesques.”

Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings: 1930-32, volume 2. Edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, introduction by Kenneth Frampton (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York City, 1992), 228.

Took me awhile to realize that when he lovingly described “frosted arabesques”, he meant frost. When he was writing in 1932, Taliesin was still where he would live in the winter, and he described frost growing on the inside of the windows in his house. I’ve lived with frost inside the windows in Wisconsin. It’s, um… unpleasant, to say the least.

First published 9/8/2020.
I took the photograph at the top of this post in 2016.


Here’s a link to a post I did about a book by a member of the Taliesin Fellowship.