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“.

A red door at the alcove at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin studio

Found window:

I took the photograph above on May 14, 2004.
Looking (plan) north at the door to the alcove of Taliesin’s Drafting Studio.

Recently, I came across what I wrote to myself during Taliesin’s Save America’s Treasures project in 2003-04. It reminded me of one of the “finds” during that project. That’s what I’m going to write about in this post.

This is not the same as Save America’s Treasures Hillside Theatre project. That project, begun in 2020, is being undertaken by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

This other “SATs” project was carried out by Taliesin Preservation. The project’s purpose was to construct a drainage solution to the Taliesin residence. The Taliesin residence is at the “brow” of a hill (Taliesin, meaning “Shining Brow” in Welsh), so all the water had to get from the top of the hill to the bottom.

What – Wright didn’t think about rain going downhill?

Wright initially installed drainage at Taliesin. However, because he continuously changed Taliesin—and he never used gutters—the water, eventually, went through the building.

Not an ideal circumstance

One of the things I discovered in preservation is that water, in its liquid and solid form, is the most pernicious substance. It can expand, creating pressure. In humidity it can encourage mold. It can turn plaster into mush and wooden beams into fibrous soggy filaments.

Taliesin had all of these things and more.

Taliesin’s Save America’s Treasures project was designed, then, to move water, ice, and snow around the building, while not completely rebuilding or destroying it. Therefore, in order to do this, all of the flagstone in the main court was removed, and drainage was added under it to move the water around it. In addition, concrete walls were constructed under the main building, to help the drainage. This removed stone included that in Taliesin’s Breezeway (that’s the area under the roof between his home and his studio). So, the construction firm that worked with Taliesin Preservation removed the stone, while the Preservation Crew removed a door and door jam of the alcove in Taliesin’s Breezeway. A photograph of that door at the alcove is at the top of this post.

When the crew member removed the door and frame, he found a window hidden in the stone column on the west (or on the left in the photo above).

A completely unexpected find

We had no idea the window was there.

Although, things being “uncovered” and “found” during this project happened so much that when the crew member found this window, I was like, “Oh, yes. Of course. Something else. Thanks, Frank!

How he found the window was by removing the door jamb from the stone pier. As it turned out, the top foot (or so) of the stone pier was hollow, with a 1′ 3″ window tucked inside.

I’ll show a couple of photos to explain. First, is a photograph showing the alcove with the door removed:

The stone alcove outside of Wright's Taliesin Drafting Studio.

Looking (plan) north into the alcove outside of Taliesin’s Drafting Studio. You can see where the frame was removed. The found window is at the top on the left. I took this photograph.

Next is a photo looking at the column with the window:

Stone pier outside of Taliesin drafting studio in November, 2003.

Looking (plan) northwest at the column with the window. To the right of the window is where the door to Wright’s drafting studio usually is.

Then a close-up looking at the window:

The window found in the pier outside Wright's Taliesin studio.

I took this photograph of the newly discovered window (with a red frame) in November 2003.
The stone on either side hid the window. The wooden board has the word “Spring Gr…” written on top of it. 

The newly discovered window explained some things:

We had already noticed a gap between the top of the pier and the ceiling above it. We had wondered if there was a problem at all. But this window proved that the pier had never supported anything in the ceiling.

So: Wright had the pier built, then at some point he decided he didn’t want the little window there anymore. Therefore, he just had his apprentices enclose it by slapping some stone on one side, then on the other. It was probably the simplest solution.

After finding this, I embarked on my usual activity:

I looked for evidence of this little window in floor plans, elevations, and photographs. Although, the pier is underneath a deep overhang, thus any glancing photographs of the area didn’t show a tiny window like this.

And, while I’ve noted that Taliesin’s drawings are unreliable, they can be helpful.

For that reason, I looked at drawings hoping to catch something. One of those drawings was a Xerox. It’s a hand-drawn floor plan, with written measurements alongside everything (maybe Wright had one of his early apprentices do this early in the history of the Taliesin Fellowship).

This drawing, #2501.035, is below:

Drawing 2501.035.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). Drawing #2501.035.

Looking at the drawing with a magnifying glass I saw “1′ 3″ window” written and it was pointed right at “our” window. I’ve put a close-up of the drawing to show it, below (with the words 1′ 3″ highlighted):

Drawing 2501.035, cropped

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). Drawing #2501.035.

I saw this notation on the drawing at the end of the day, when I was alone in the office. When I saw it, I just started laughing. This amazing thing that we found. . . and there it sat for years, unnoticed, in a drawing.

After laughing, I wrote up the information, and sent that, as well as the scans showing photos, floor plans, and elevations, and my new photos, in an email to my supervisor.

That day was a hell of a lot of fun.

Published September 31, 2021.

Exterior photograph looking south at Taliesin's Garden Court with Curtis Besinger working on stone

In Return for the Use of the Tractor

Photograph taken in 1943. From Taliesin’s Breezeway looking (plan) south at Wright’s apprentice, Curtis Besinger. He’s in Taliesin’s Garden Court, sorting through flagstones that would later be put on the ground in the courtyard.

In my goal of researching Taliesin’s history, I examined Wright’s correspondence looking for anything that might give information about changes Wright made to the building. This research uncovered something about materials at Taliesin, and that is below.

Wright didn’t write out most changes he wanted at Taliesin:

If Wright built Taliesin for a client, he would have written things in detail. But he didn’t, since this was his own home. So, despite the fact that Wright lived at Taliesin for almost 48 years, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of correspondence between Wright and construction personnel, or between him and those in his office where he told them what he wanted done. I couldn’t even find things for when he was out of the country.

In contrast, when he was at Taliesin, things weren’t written down because he was there to give directions.

Some of what I did to figure things out:

Once I realized I couldn’t get information that way, I started poking around in any other direction I could. I read letters between Wright and visitors, workers, apprentices… basically, anyone I could think of who worked for Wright, or visited him at his home. Newspaper and magazine articles are good, and photographs are great, too.

For anything written, I hoped someone would mention something in a letter, like when they came this or that was being constructed or expanded. Ideally this would include a detailed description of everything in the room, along with measurements, please.

My find:

Through this method, I discovered a piece of correspondence written in April 1942, from Herbert Fritz, Jr. to Frank Lloyd Wright.

“Herb” Fritz (whose father was a former draftsman for Wright1) was born in 1915, became Wright’s apprentice for 3 years (1938-41), followed by a purchase of land near Wright’s home. Fritz became an architect and practiced almost until he died in 1998.2

Herb wrote to Wright several months after he bought that land (which he later named “Hilltop”). He was designing his home there, and the land had stone that he could work, but he needed to be able to move it.

So, Fritz offered a trade:

“In return for the use of the tractor,” Fritz wrote, “I would like to give you a cord or two of rock for each hour”3 that he needed the vehicle.

I was totally jazzed. First, this was exactly what I was hoping for. Secondly, this answered a question I’d had about Taliesin for years. I had noticed, in archival photographs, stonework changing at Taliesin in the early 1940s. So much work, that when I noticed a change I could almost count on it having occurred some time during World War II.

But I’d never come across anything that explained it.

Herb’s letter arrived when Wright was out of town, so there’s no written reply. But there must have been a verbal agreement between the two men. Nothing else explains that amount of stone and when all those changes were made.

Fritz offered a “cord”; that’s a lot

In volume, that is. It’s: 4 ft x 4 ft x 8 ft; or 128 cubic feet / 3.62 cubic meters (here’s a link showing a cord).

I don’t know exactly how much stone Wright acquired through this, but it must have been quite a bit. The photograph at the top of this page shows an apprentice while making a change: Wright added a level of stone in the Garden Court on top of the existing one.

The apprentice in the photograph above, Curtis Besinger, also wrote about changes in 1943 at Taliesin that were done in stone. He related these in his book, Working With Mr. Wright: What It Was Like.

And in 1945, photographer Ezra Stoller took photographs at Taliesin for a Fortune magazine article on the two Taliesins that came out the next year. The easiest way for me to figure out changes is by using dated photographs. One of those photographs Stoller took is below from a book I own4:

Exterior photograph looking northeast at Taliesin. Taken by Ezra Stoller
Photograph in the book, Masters of Modern Architecture, by John Peter (Bonanza Books, New York, 1958), 47.

The photograph shows one of the changes at Wright’s drafting studio. The south wall of the studio is to the right of the bell. It has the vertical, glass, doors. Wright had his apprentices build a new stone patio in front of those glass doors.

Why Fritz agreed to this:

While this find totally excited me, I couldn’t figure out why Fritz did it. He had to have known that Wright would take full advantage of such an offer in exchange for the use of Taliesin’s farming tractor. So, since I was at Taliesin West after this find, I asked “Bruce” Brooks Pfeiffer for ideas about it.

Bruce, former Wright apprentice who was born in 1930, noted that the request made sense because of World War II. The United States’ entry into the war began a period of gasoline and rubber rationing. Yet, because Wright’s tractor was a farm vehicle, it wouldn’t have been subject to it.

This stone from Fritz helped Wright transform Taliesin from a year-round Wisconsin residence into a home occupied mostly during the state’s warmer months. This way, Taliesin could fully convert into his summer home, while Taliesin West in Arizona could truly become his winter home (I wrote about this before, in “Did Wright Ever Live in Wisconsin in the Winter?”).

Originally published June 13, 2021.
The photograph at the top of the page was taken by Priscilla or David Henken and was published in Taliesin Diary: A Year with Frank Lloyd Wright, by Priscilla Henken (W.W. Norton & Company, New York City, London, 2012), 170.


1 Herb’s father was Herb Fritz, Sr., a draftsman and one of the two survivors of the 1914 fire/murders at Taliesin.

2 He shows up a few times in the Meryle Secrest biography on Frank Lloyd Wright. In fact, he described how he saw Wright in dreams sometimes, and it’s with his memory that Secrest ended the biography.

3 April 1942 Herbert Fritz letter to Frank Lloyd Wright. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York), Microfiche ID #F055C01.

4 Masters of Modern Architecture, by John Peter (Bonanza Books, New York, 1958), 47.