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Taliesin and Environs

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1886–1959, Frank Lloyd Wright. 5481 County Rd. C

Taliesin is the Welsh name Frank Lloyd Wright bestowed on his home near Spring Green. Meaning “shining brow,” it refers to the way he tucked the house inconspicuously into the hillside instead of planting it on the crown. Over the years, however, the term became synonymous with the entire complex of buildings designed throughout a period of some seventy years for himself and other family members in the Helena Valley, where his relatives, the Lloyd Joneses, had settled around 1860. All these buildings were eventually incorporated into Wright’s own estate, consisting of thousands of acres of land, his home and office, drafting rooms, guest rooms, living quarters for about sixty apprentices who comprised the Taliesin Fellowship, and extensive farm buildings. Founded in 1932, the Fellowship required a large drafting room, a dormitory, a dining hall, a kitchen, and a theater big enough to accommodate the entire community for weekend recitals and films.

Wright’s house, Taliesin, is located on a hill just north of Hillside Farm. Built in 1911, then rebuilt and enlarged after two disastrous fires in 1914 and 1925 (thus the terminology Taliesin I, II, III), the house—like most buildings owned by Wright—underwent constant change because it simultaneously served as a laboratory for his evolving architectural ideas. Thus no single date is entirely appropriate except the inclusive one of 1911–1959, the latter year being that of Wright’s death.

The materials, both inside and out, were rough-hewn slabs of limestone (laid up as they might appear in the quarry), sand-colored stucco, and wood trim. The axis of the house ran north to south. The two-story living room, with its giant fireplace and tent-shaped ceiling, looks north toward the Wisconsin River and east over a lake created by Wright. Initially the approach was from Wisconsin 23 (the gate posts still stand) past the lake and up from the south along the west side of the house; the living room was entered from under an open loggia.

When Wright added additional bedrooms to the south, he moved the approach to the north (opposite) side of the loggia and built a monumental stairway leading up from the rerouted driveway. This loggia, being perpendicular to the house, established an axis running west and containing Wright’s studio with a large fireplace, three-room apartment, carriage shed, harness room, and horse stalls. Connected at right angles by an overhead bridge (and parallel to the house), stood a line of farm buildings for cattle and chickens. These buildings, over the years, were gradually converted into living quarters for Wright’s draftsmen and apprentices. The fires of 1914 and 1925 stopped at the open loggia connecting the main house with these accessory buildings, thus sparing Wright’s office and the buildings that lay beyond.

Set under the brow of the hill, the house is a masterly demonstration of themes that Wright employed throughout his career: the asymmetrical balance of long earth-hugging horizontals—balconies, windows, and low roofs—and dramatic verticals, especially in the form of chimneys; the play of longitudinal and transverse forces; the open plan and flow of interior space; the interrelationship of the exterior and interior, through windows and openings but also through the continuation of materials from inside to out; and the careful integration of building and setting. To enter the main interior space is to experience all of these things, along with his manipulation of light and his conception of furniture design.

Wright constantly designed and redesigned the landscape around Taliesin, changing the pattern of flower beds, vegetable gardens, vineyards, cornfields, pastures, and tree plantings, while adding or deleting the occasional pond. In 1938, he built Midway Farm (enlarged in 1947) on the east flank of a nearby hill, and therefore out of sight, so that it stood midway between Taliesin and Hillside.

The great house, Taliesin, was begun in 1911, yet several Wright-designed buildings here preceded it. When Wright’s sister, Jane, and her husband, Andrew Porter, moved to Hillside to help administer the Hillside Home school, Wright, in 1907, designed for them Tan-y-deri (“under the oaks” in Welsh). This was a wood and shingle version of his popular “Fireproof House for $5,000” published in the Ladies’ Home Journal in April 1907.

For his aunts, Nell and Jane Lloyd Jones, he designed the earliest work of his career, Hillside Home School (1887), a shingle-clad boarding school having the appearance of a large house. Demolished in 1950, it was the only Wright building in the valley not saved and reused. In 1887 Wright also built a windmill for his aunts at the top of the hill. He called it Romeo and Juliet because the design, executed in wood, combined a sixty-foot lozenge-shaped shaft set into a larger octagon, the two geometric shapes embracing one another like Romeo and Juliet and thereby deriving their structural strength. Wright replaced the shingle cladding with horizontal board-and-batten siding in 1938.

Near these buildings, and just off Wisconsin 23, is a small Unitarian Chapel designed for the Lloyd Jones family in 1885–1886 by Chicago architect Joseph Lyman Silsbee. Here Wright, while working summers on his uncle’s nearby farm, had his earliest experience with actual construction. He assisted Silsbee and, upon moving to Chicago the following year to apprentice under the architect, published a rendering of the chapel in All Soul’s Church, Fourth Annual (January 1887). Significant aspects of the design quickly found their way into Wright’s work, including the prominent water table, the shingle siding, the continuous windows, and the alignment of all the important horizontals: window sills, water table, window headers, and soffit.

The adjacent graveyard reads like a genealogy of Wright’s ancestry, and it was here that the architect, who lived until his ninety-second year, was laid to rest in 1959. Only his tombstone remains because his widow, Olgivanna, had his remains exhumed, cremated, and shipped to Arizona.

The last work he designed was the nearby Riverview Terrace Restaurant in 1957. Construction was hardly underway when Wright died. Subsequently the Taliesin Fellowship oversaw the work, making modifications to the plan. It serves as the orientation center and gift shop from which all tours of Taliesin and Hillside begin.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Marsha Weisiger et al.
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Citation

Marsha Weisiger et al., "Taliesin and Environs", [Spring Green, Wisconsin], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/WI-01-IA1.

Print Source

Buildings of Wisconsin

Buildings of Wisconsin, Marsha Weisiger and contributors. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017, 335-336.

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