The First Fire

Taliesin August 1914 after first fire

The photographer was on the Taliesin Hill Crown looking toward the structure after the first fire. The person seen standing on the left in the white shirt may be Frank Lloyd Wright.

I’ve mentioned the 1914 fire a few times (and wrote about it snarkily), but I thought it’s time to address Taliesin’s first fire.

On August 15, 1914 as Frank Lloyd Wright was in Chicago putting the final touches on his Midway Gardens project (1913-1929), he received a phone call that Taliesin was on fire. His son John (who later became an architect) was working with his father and described that day later in his book, My Father, Frank Lloyd Wright:

Suddenly all was quiet in the room, a strange unnatural silence, his breathing alone was audible, then a groan. I turned to him, startled, he clung to the table for support, his face ashen.
My Father Frank Lloyd Wright (1946; Dover publications, 1992), by John Lloyd Wright, 80.

Wright asked his son to get a taxi and then the two grabbed the first train back to Spring Green.

Details on that first fire:

Here’s what they came back to: for unknown reasons one of Wright’s servants, a man named Julian Carlton (hired a few months before) sat everyone down for lunch, set fire to the living quarters of Taliesin and murdered seven people there, most with a hatchet (one died from his burns). The dead were: Wright’s partner, Mamah Borthwick; her two children, John and Martha Cheney (ages 11 and eight, respectively); Emil Brodelle (draftsman); Thomas Brunker (foreman); David Lindblom (gardener); and Ernest Weston, the 13-year-old son of carpenter William “Billy” Weston. Taliesin’s living quarters, one-third of the building, were mostly burned down to the stone within an hour.

Trying to reconstruct what happened has always been difficult since the murderer died on October 7, before a trial could be held. The two survivors (Billy Weston and draftsman Herbert Fritz, later Fritz, Sr.) never talked about the murders. Who’d want to? Fritz survived by jumping out of a window on the south facade of the house and breaking his arm doing so. Weston (who buried his own son the next week) was attacked by Carlton, luckily with the blunt end of the ax, and apparently left for dead.

You would think that my history of working at Taliesin—in a place where the woman’s head was “cleft in two,” and so on and so forth—would engender an overwhelmingly creepy feeling at Taliesin, but it does not (at least, not to me). First of all, Taliesin as it stands does not have the floorboards, walls and doors where it all occurred. Those were destroyed in the fire, after which he rebuilt. And that same part of the building was basically destroyed in the fire of 1925. However, the largest reason I am not overwhelmed by the fire could be the beauty of the standing structure, which was designed and built by one of the greatest architects who has ever lived.1

What some say about the murders:

While we’ll never know things about the murders, I have heard theories about them. Some of these include: Carlton’s supposed disapproval of Wright’s lifestyle and his fear of being deported possibly to fight in the first World War; a Chicago mob hit (Wright spoke in his autobiography of disagreements with the “union boys” over Midway Gardens); and Wright putting out a contract on Mamah.

I even had a former tour guide at another Wright house—after taking a four-hour Taliesin “Estate” tour with me—come up to say that he had been hoping to get the “real story” behind the murders from a Taliesin tour guide.

By the way, just so it’s all said: I have posted the basics of what we know about the first fire, above. There is no secret stash of information given to those at Taliesin about what “really happened” during the 1914 fire. 

The theories that Wright had something to do with the murders make me wonder: what kind of person do you think Wright was? Sure, he left his first wife, sometimes (maybe a lot of times) had problems with money, and could sometimes say outrageous things about buildings and cities (here’s one article on negative things from him about Pittsburgh). But any of those things are a far way from being a murderer. And finally, as for Wright ordering a hit on Mamah: putting aside the fact that Wright was not a murderer, (a) what self-respecting mobster would have expected Wright to come through with the money on a hit; and (b) if all else, I don’t think the man would have destroyed his own home.

As for the other theories: if Carlton hated Wright so much, why didn’t he just kill him in his sleep? Regarding World War I, everyone in Europe that August was saying that it would be over by fall (by the time “the leaves turned”), so probably no one in the world was worried about multiple countries outside of Europe going to battle. In addition, author Paul Hendrickson brought forth evidence that Carlton was born in Alabama (not Barbados) in his book, Plagued by Fire. And concerning Chicago mobsters: if they were trying to scare Wright, something else would have happened to him, or somebody would have eventually said something.

Wright’s reaction:

But to get back to the 1914 fire: Wright was devastated. Who wouldn’t be? He left for work in Chicago on a summer’s day in the middle of the week and came back that Saturday to a complete, unreal nightmare. And probably nothing could touch the guilt the man must have felt for hiring Carlton. Finally, the emotional weight of such a horrific and terrifying end to his life with Mamah must have been overwhelming. In fact, as far as I know, his painful and poignant writing about the fire was only done once: in his autobiography. I’ll probably post hyperlinks later, but encourage you to seek out his autobiography to read his words (in three editions: published in 1932 and updated in 1943, which was republished in 1977), but here’s his writing about burying Mamah:

The August sun was setting on the familiar range of hills. I felt, dimly, the far-off shadows of the ages, struggling to escape from subconsciousness and utter themselves… then—darkness…. I filled the grave—in darkness—in the dark.

No monument marks the spot where “Mamah” was buried.

All I had to show for the struggle for freedom of the past five years that had swept most of my former life away, had now been swept away.

Why mark the spot where desolation ended and began?2
Frank Lloyd Wright. An Autobiography, in 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), 240.

Wright wrote how the aftermath of the fire caused him to leave Taliesin for a bit and try to work out his grief in Chicago. And, then he writes,

So the rage that grew when I felt the inimical weight of human censure on my soul began to fade away and finally took refuge in the idea that Taliesin should live to show something more for its mortal sacrifice than a charred and terrible ruin on a lonely hillside in the beloved Valley.
An Autobiography, Collected Writings, volume 2, 241.

Some final thoughts about the 1914 fire

I noted at the start of this that the fire doesn’t make me feel weird while being at Taliesin. But I do feel deep, quiet sadness if I go to Mamah’s grave in the family cemetery, particularly standing near her grave and looking toward his house. Some years I’ve made a point of going there on August 15 when the sun is setting, the mist is rising, and the frogs are singing. The physicality of it goes deep in the bones.

But in addition, there’s the knowledge that above it all, he stayed! He rebuilt his living room in the same spot and the same size and rebuilt their bedroom in the same spot and the same size (and kept using it until 19363). What a weird reaction. Well, I used to think it was a weird reaction, anyway. Then September 11 happened.

In the wake of 9-11-01, I came probably as close as I can to fully understanding Wright in the aftermath of the 1914 fire. That desire to rebuild as a fight against obliteration was all around us in talks of rebuilding the World Trade Center. And, that connects very simply to Wright’s closing words about the fire in his autobiography:

There is release from anguish in action. Anguish would not leave Taliesin until action for renewal began. Again, and at once, all that had been in motion before at the will of the architect was set in motion. Steadily, again, stone by stone, board by board, Taliesin the II began to rise from Taliesin the first.
Ibid.

This was first published March 10, 2021.

The photograph above was taken by A.S. Rockwell on the day of, or the day after, the fire. The photograph was placed on Wikimedia Commons as an image in the public domain. See here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taliesin_After_Fire.jpg for information about the origin of the photograph.


1 If I haven’t said so before, I’ll say it here: I don’t think he was the absolute, above all others, greatest architect. The world’s a big place and built human history goes back to, what, 4,000 BCE? That’s a lot of building. So I think it is impossible to pick one person as the greatest architect (or artist). However, if someone made a list of the top 25 greatest architects in history throughout the entire globe, I believe his name would be there.

2 If you go to the Unity Chapel cemetery, you’ll see a grave marker for Mamah. It’s at the base of the tallest pine tree in the cemetery. It was put there in the 1960s under the direction of Wright’s widow, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright.

3 He and Olgivanna moved to separate bedrooms in that year. Those rooms remained their bedrooms in Wisconsin for the rest of their lives.

 

A link to my writing on Taliesin’s second fire.