MILWAUKEE — Frank Lloyd Wright, who has followers around the globe, is perhaps best known for major creations such as the Guggenheim in New York and Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.
But it’s the rolling hills of southern Wisconsin where the architect was born and developed a love for natural landscapes that would influence and inform his distinctive style. It’s those rolling hills where he built his summer home, Taliesin, a living laboratory and architecture school that still draws casual and fervent admirers today.
Taliesin serves as one stop, and undoubtedly the centerpiece, of the new Frank Lloyd Wright Trail, a nine-stop, self-guided tour of Wright sites in southern Wisconsin that was officially dedicated May 10 at SC Johnson headquarters in Racine.
SC Johnson worked with state legislators and the Department of Tourism to create the official trail, marked by 115 highway signs, with 31 more scheduled to be up by mid-July.
“I think the diversity along this 200-mile trail is what is really going to surprise people,” said Wisconsin Tourism Secretary Stephanie Klett, noting the tour includes everything from his hallmark Prairie-style home to a church to a corporate headquarters. “We take it for granted. We’re used to him here, so you forget that this is a guy who has inspired generations of architects, artists and designers, and he was born and raised here.”
Frank Lloyd Wright was born June 8, 1867, in Richland Center. The A.D. German Warehouse there, a four-story red brick building designed by Wright in 1915, is the westernmost stop on the Wright Trail.
About 25 miles to the southeast is Wright’s largest Wisconsin legacy. His maternal grandparents owned land along the Wisconsin River near Spring Green, and in 1911 he began building Taliesin into the crown of his favorite hill there. The name comes from the Welsh word “shining brow” — a tribute to his Welsh ancestors.
The sprawling 800-acre Taliesin estate features not just Wright’s home, but also six other Wright-designed structures, including Tan-y-Deri, a home he designed for his sister’s family, and the Hillside Studio & Theater, where apprentices learned at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.
This year the estate marks the 150th anniversary of Wright’s birth with special exhibits and events in addition to its regular tours — the only way visitors can get a look inside the buildings.
The two-hour Highlights Tour offers an overview of the estate, with a look inside the Hillside Studio and Taliesin, and guides dishing on the estate’s and architect’s history.
That history includes tragic chapters: two major fires and the murder of Wright’s mistress, Martha “Mamah” Borthwick (whom he built Taliesin for), her two children and four others.
The first fire, in 1914 — set by the servant who committed the murders — destroyed Wright’s living quarters but left his studio untouched. Wright rebuilt, but the second fire, in 1925 (a year after he met his would-be third wife), damaged the living quarters again. A tour guide told visitors Wright had been known to say that the fires were evidence that God approved of his work but not his personal life.
The same could be said by some Wisconsinites. Nearly 60 years after his death, everyone seems to know someone who was slighted by Wright on paying a bill, or had to deal with the architect’s famous disregard for budgets or engineering principles, said Sherri Shokler of Wright in Wisconsin, an organization that works to promote the architect’s works in his home state.
“There are many people here who still remember him for his bad behavior, and there was plenty of that to go around. And they haven’t looked beyond that and at the impact of his design and his thinking,” she said. “The man had a big ego, and you do find that in greatly talented people.”
But as time has faded some of those memories, Shokler thinks Wright has grown to be more appreciated and recognized in his home state.
Taliesin helps with that, drawing nearly 25,000 visitors a year — including many from Japan, where he has a large following, Klett said — to see the embodiment of Wright’s organic and Prairie School architecture. Despite having the architect’s signature sharp angles and lines, the house melds into the hillside, gardens and outdoor spaces flowing seamlessly into indoor spaces.
“I love how it is part of the Driftless region — the rolling hills around it, the glass, all of the light, and how organic it is to the land around it,” Klett said. “His Prairie style was all about livability. It was about being part of the land, long before that was ever the hip thing to do, and about being comfortable, and yet still stylish and chic. He really mastered it and I think Taliesin is a great example of that.”
“It’s truly his laboratory,” said Aron Meudt-Thering, communications coordinator for Taliesin Preservation, the nonprofit that manages the estate. “If he didn’t like something on the site, he would just ask the apprentices, let’s change that, let’s fix it up, on the spot. … He was testing these ideas and theories here at Taliesin, and then he would go out and use those things in his clients’ work.”
One of those works is nearby and another stop on the trail: the Wyoming Valley School. The only Wright-designed public school was built in 1957. Today it is a nonprofit cultural arts center.
The trail continues to the east, with a stop at the First Unitarian Society Meeting House in Madison. Church members helped haul the limestone blocks used to build the triangular structure, which includes an airy auditorium.
Also in Madison is the Wright-designed Monona Terrace, with its own complicated history.
Wright first designed the complex in 1938, but the Dane County Board voted down the proposal by one vote, and World War II soon put any other plans on hold.
In 1955, the project was back on. Wright finished his last rendering in 1959, before dying on April 9 at the age of 91. Wright’s final rendition of Monona Terrace’s exterior opened in 1997. Wright apprentice Tony Putnam designed the interior spaces.
From Madison it’s 80 miles east to Milwaukee and Wright’s American System-Built homes on Burnham Street, another stop on the trail.
In contrast to major projects like Taliesin and Fallingwater, these homes were designed for the less affluent.
“One of the things that I find fascinating is pre-World War I here he was really working hard thinking about how can we make spaces for just the average Joe,” Shokler of Wright in Wisconsin said.
Sixteen of the prefab homes were built across the country between 1915 and 1917. Fourteen are still standing, including six in Milwaukee.
While those are privately owned, the Model B1 at 2714 W. Burnham St. is open for tours on select Saturdays, including during special events such as the Wright & Like Tour on June 3.
That tour, organized by Wright in Wisconsin, allows visitors to look inside six Wright-designed structures and six buildings designed by architects “like” Wright — including some buildings that are not regularly open to the public.
The building also has 43 miles of Pyrex tubes that were intended to allow in sunlight while cutting glare in the massive Great Workroom, which features curved desks and chairs designed by Wright.
Wright’s second project on the SC Johnson campus was the 15-story Research Tower, completed in 1950. The architect continued the tree and Pyrex themes there, with the cantilevered structure extending 54 feet into the ground — like the roots of a tree — and 7,000 glass tubes serving as the structure’s windows — and also baking the scientists who worked inside until 1982.
Products such as Glade, Pledge and Off! were developed in the structure, and today it houses a re-created 1950s lab for tourists.
SC Johnson offers free tours of both buildings, along with Wingspread, the Wright-designed former home of third-generation SC Johnson president H.F. Johnson Jr. Wright called the home, completed in 1939, “the last of the Prairie houses.” Its four sprawling wings, arranged in wings sprouting from a central core, make it the largest of the Prairie homes.
Today it’s the home of the Johnson Foundation, but visitors can still take a peek inside to see the former home’s five fireplaces and a cantilevered Romeo and Juliet balcony.
And the building is still used as a workplace today, as is the Administration Building.
IF YOU GO
SC Johnson has developed an app for the trail. Search Frank Lloyd Wright Trail in your app store.
Taliesin’s Highlights Tour is offered at 10:15 a.m. and 1:45 p.m. daily, May through October, with a 3:15 p.m. tour in July, August and September. It costs $58 for adults and $53 for seniors, students and active military. Children under 10 are not permitted on the tour. Reservations are recommended: taliesinpreservation.org.
Special events at the estate for Wright’s 150th birthday include 50 percent off tours June 6-8; a photography exhibit featuring works by Pedro Guerrero, who had unprecedented access to Wright during his career; a ribbon-cutting for the fully restored Tan-y-Deri on June 2; a kids celebration with author/entertainer Bob Kann on June 17; and a 50th Anniversary Gala at the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center on Sept. 22. The estate will also play host to the annual Tour du Taliesin bike ride on May 21.
Tours of the A.D. German Warehouse, 300 S. Church St., Richmond, cost $10 and are offered from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays, May through October. The site will celebrate Wright’s 150th June 2-3 with horse-drawn carriage rides, vintage convertible tours of Wright/German sites in the area, birthday cake and music from the Madison Symphony Quartet. See facebook.com/germanwarehouse.
The Wyoming Valley School, 6306 State Road 23, Spring Green, offers tours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. See wyomingvalleyschool.blogspot.com.
The First Unitarian Society Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive, Madison, offers tours at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. weekdays and 10:15 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. Sundays, May 1-Sept. 30. They cost $10. Call 608-233-9774 or see fusmadison.org.
Tours of Monona Terrace are offered at 1 p.m. daily, May 1-Oct. 31, and at 1 p.m. Friday-Sunday, Nov. 1-April 30. Cost is $5 for adults and $3 for students. Tours cost $1.50 and include birthday cake on June 8 in celebration of Wright’s 150th. Visit mononaterrace.com.
SC Johnson in Racine offers free tours of its three Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings: the Administration Building, Research Tower and Wingspread. Tours of the first two are offered Thursday-Sunday, March-Dec. 31. Tours of Wingspread, 33 E. Four Mile Road, Racine, are available year-round. Reservations are requested. See scjohnson.com.
Wright in Wisconsin’s Wright & Like Tour is from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 3 in Milwaukee. The self-guided tour is $70. Purchase tickets at wrightinwisconsin.org.
In addition to stops on the Wright Trail, Wisconsin has Wright-designed homes that are open to guests for overnight stays. Reservations for the Seth Peterson Cottage in Mirror Lake State Park in Baraboo start at $250 per night in the off-season; see sethpeterson.org. In Two Rivers, rates at the Bernard Schwartz house (also known as Still Bend) start at $325; see theschwartzhouse.com.
Chelsey Lewis, USA Today Network