Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Vacation Day 3: Taliesin

Hillside School
On the third day of our anniversary vacation, we took a day trip out of Madison to Frank Lloyd Wright's first estate, Taliesin, just south of Spring Green. It was a beautiful hour’s drive west along a mostly two-lane highway that cut through small towns and wound past farm nestled between wooded hills. The scenery was everything I wanted it to be, until we encountered the reality of farming nowadays. Some operations had irrigation systems and were weathering the drought fairly well, but we passed one farm whose corn stood stunted and yellow in the field. A few farms had “for sale” signs along the road, and one offered a building permit. “What would you build out here?” I asked Dear Husband. I dreaded the thought of a Big Box Store. Maybe bedroom communities for the small towns. There was at least one large industrial building with solar panels out front—hopefully that was a job creator.

We used some of my birthday money for the four-hour Estate Tour, which involved a shuttle ride and a lot of walking with a tour guide and about 15 other people. It was totally worth the expense: not only does that money go toward preservation efforts, but we got to visit most of the important structures on the 600-acre estate (Unity Chapel, Hillside School & Theater, the Windmill Tower, Tan-y-deri [a house for his sister], Midway Barns, and Taliesin house itself).

To the left is Wright's grave marker at the family chapel. Behind it stands the tree at the foot of which his mistress was buried after an estate worker "went postal" when she dismissed him for his erratic behavior while Wright was away. The worker hacked six other people to death with an axe after setting fire to the residential wing of the big house. He attempted to poison himself, survived, and eventually starved himself to death in jail.

Wright is not actually buried there, however. He died in 1959 during surgery for intestinal obstruction. When his third wife, Olgivanna, died in 1985, it was discovered that her will instructed that he, she, and her daughter from an earlier marriage (who died in a car accident) be cremated and interred together at Taliesin West, Wright's estate near Scottsdale, Arizona. Many people close to Wright objected, but apparently a crew came in the middle of the night, dug him up, and carted him off.

To the right is "Romeo & Juliet," the windmill Wright designed for his teacher-aunts to provide water for their residential school. Romeo is the skinny quadrilateral at the back, designed to "cut into" the wind. Juliet is the hexagon that actually held the workings. The children of the school sometimes used the structure as a play house.

DH had read a biography of Wright about a decade ago, but I knew next to nothing about him, so I found the tour very interesting. This is me on the crown of the hill behind the house, which is perched on "the brow" of the hill. (Taliesin means "shining brow.")

Afterward we ate lunch at the restaurant at the Visitors' Center overlooking the Wisconsin River. That's DH enjoying a slice of strawberry shortcake pie in honor of our anniversary. (We had strawberry shortcake as the cake at our wedding reception.) Then we started on the drive back to Madison. We considered detouring south to see the Cave of the Mounds, but our feet were tired and we figured we had maxed out our budget for the day, so we just stopped off at a local park with a scenic point overlooking the valley. We got back to the hotel in time for a brief rest before heading out for our evening entertainment, which I will describe in the next post. Any Frank Lloyd Wright fans out there? Have a favorite building or design you want to share with us?

Editor's Note: Dear Husband and I later visited Wright's house and studio in Oak Park, IL, as well as his famous Fallingwater vacation house and the nearby Polymath Park trio.


  1. I also took the tour of the Hillside School and Unity Chapel about five years ago, and you've captured the experience quite well. I had wanted to tour Taliesin, but alas, it was closed for restoration work. Nice to know that the stories I received match up almost perfectly with the ones you heard.

    Unity Chapel probably is my favorite Frank Lloyd Wright design, but I would love to tour Auldbrass Plantation in South Carolina. I have a wonderful book about it, but it's seldom open to the public. Cheers, Kristen!

  2. Yes, we were lucky to get inside Taliesin. We could tour the main floor, while the servants/visitors' quarters below were being renovated. They need to lift the main floor several inches to prevent the whole thing from cracking in the middle! As the guide explained, Taliesin was where Wright experimented; that plus two fires has made it particularly unstable.


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