I’ve never owned a home. I like architecture, but I’m not well versed in it. So, when I was told that I ‘had’ to go visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous homes Taliesin and Taliesin West, I answered, “Ok, but I don’t really know who he is.”
Note: This is probably not the way to start out an article about Architectural Tourism!
My lack of knowledge of Wright may be shocking to some; I had heard his name before, but didn’t know what he did. I told my sister who was joining me on my trip to Madison Wisconsin about the recommendation to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s home. To my surprise she was ecstatic about it.
I learned her excitement was driven by a book she had recently read, Loving Frank. Her husband’s name is Frank so I’m assuming someone gave it to her as a gift. She said it was a great book and she’s been interested in Frank Lloyd Wright ever since. So, we put Taliesin on our Madison itinerary. Around that same time, I was planning a trip to Scottsdale too and I was told I should visit Taliesin West, Wright’s winter home. I decided the travel Gods were trying to tell me something …you should really know who Frank Lloyd Wright is! I include his home tour on my Scottsdale itinerary too.
Visiting Both of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Homes Within a Few Weeks of Each Other
I had the rare opportunity to visit both of Wright’s personal homes in rural Wisconsin and Scottsdale Arizona within just a few weeks of each other. Most people are excited to see just one, but somehow this Architecture neophyte (me) was thrust into the life of one of the most famous architects in the world.
It’s interesting to visit the homes that close together, as you are able to compare and contrast them, the climate, and the architecture. In addition, by doing these visits, I went from 0 to 60 in Frank Lloyd Wright knowledge in just a few short weeks. It felt like a summer college course; so much information it was challenging to take it all in!
Frank Lloyd Wright, the Architect
The first thing I learned is that he was America’s most famous architect whose creative period lasted 70 years.
Few figures are as ever-present in American architecture as Frank Lloyd Wright, a visionary whose work continues to serve as an inspiration, the bedrock upon which much of modernist architecture is built. From revolutionary Prairie-style dwellings to singular organic designs and accessible Usonian models, Wright’s work rethought architectural tenets—and made Wright a celebrity in his lifetime.—Curbed
One of the things that impressed me the most was his vision of creating buildings that were a part of nature; organic architecture. Often his designs were low to the ground (giving the appearance of emerging from the landscape), single story dwellings that were a complement to the surrounding landscape. They were often built with natural materials such as unadorned wood and stone. Back in the early 20th century this was pretty ground breaking to want to be so ‘in-tune’ with the environment around you.
He was also the father of a design theory called compress and release; essentially where narrow, low-ceilinged hallways would lead to big vaulted rooms where the ceiling heights were made to feel even taller than they were. This architecture style led to the ‘open floor plan’ as we know it today. This was really evident in his two homes where it was exaggerated because he was a short man. The compression meant very low ceilings and door frames. If you weren’t careful, you’d hit your head! Then they’d open up into this big ‘reveal’ of an open space naturally making you feel relieved. I was pretty fascinated with how the psychology drove the design elements.
Frank Lloyd Wright the Man
However, as interested as I was in him the architect, I honestly became pretty fascinated in him as ‘the man’. Like many of the famous artists that are revered today, he had a big ego, and lived a pretty unusual, complicated, and dramatic life.
It was wrought with love affairs, mass murder, and the need to be in the spotlight. And like most artists, he had champagne taste on a beer budget. Maybe that’s why after I toured his two Taliesin homes I was pretty confused as to whether I liked him as a person or not.
My sister also added a bunch of background to my ‘Frank Lloyd Wright the man’ knowledge as she told me more about the book Loving Frank which was about Mamah Borthwick Cheney, and her love affair with Wright. Mamah was a client of Wrights and both were married with kids when they fell in love, kicking off a string of events for both of the families that were shocking at the time (1903). In fact, his life story in some way feels extremely more modern than the early 1900’s; much like his architecture.
Touring Frank Lloyd Wright’s Homes and Properties
Wright has two famous homes that he designed, built, and lived in for most of his life. One near his childhood home in Spring Green Wisconsin, and a winter home in the outskirts of Scottsdale Arizona. These were not only his homes, but they were a ‘living studio’ to explore design concepts, structural assemblies, and materials.
Both are currently run by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and offer various tours. They are also still used for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Architecture School – a small, private graduate program.
What does Taliesin Mean
Taliesin means “shining brow”, derived from Welsh tal “brow” and iesin “shining”. Wright’s ethnic background is Welsh, and it was the perfect name for the homes that were both placed on the brow of the hill, seamlessly fitting into their environments.
Wright grew up in Madison Wisconsin and spent the summers in Spring Hill working for his relatives on their farm in the lush Wisconsin River Valley. He considered this his home and was excited to come back to it to design and build Taliesin in 1911.
The 800-acre property is home to a number of Wright’s designs such as his first design, the interior of Unity Chapel, that he did when he was 18. The area also includes the Romeo and Juliet Windmill, the Tan-y-deri house, Mid-way Barn, and Riverview Terrace Restaurant and Visitor Center. Surprisingly the Riverview Terrace restaurant was the only restaurant he designed specifically as a restaurant. It was Wright’s version of a Wisconsin Supper Club.
The guided tour around his Taliesin home was a great way to learn more about him and see his organic concepts at work. We were even allowed to sit in some of the rooms and enjoy the views. Wright felt windows should frame the beautiful landscape; and there were many windows in his design!
Scandal and Fires
However, the most fascinating thing to me about Taliesin in Wisconsin was the story we learned about the mass murder of seven people in the house in 1914. The deceased included the love of his life, Mamah, and her children. This bit of Wright history stopped me in my tracks.
Yes, a mass murder in 1914 where a disgruntled servant killed 7 people with an axe and then started the house on fire. And the even stranger part to me was that there was very little information given about it on the tour or even on the website. Even in 2020 that would be a big deal – right? However, I guess this was an architecture tour. My sister had to fill me in on the treacherous details she learned about in the book.
Wright wasn’t home at the time of the murders and fire, but came quickly after when he heard what had happened. He ended up rebuilding Taliesin after the first fire. And after that there were 2 more fires that destroyed sections of the house that had to be rebuilt. I was pretty sure this was a cursed house!
Hiking the Welsh Hills Surrounding Taliesin
One of my favorite things we did during our visit was check out the brand new hiking trail from the Visitor Center to the Unity Chapel. It was a lovely fall day to take in the beauty of the river valley that served as such an inspiration to Wright.
My sister and I hiked with the Taliesin landscape architect, Mike Degen, and had such a unique opportunity to learn more about the landscape around Spring Lake called the Driftless Area. It’s called the Driftless Area because the landscape is without the soil and gravel that glaciers typically left behind, also called drift. The glacier never showed up in this area of Wisconsin.
As we hiked, Mike explained the goals and challenges around the Natural Landscapes Program. The program turns back the hands of time so the woodlands, oak savannas and prairies can once again thrive. As part of this they reintroduced fire back to the landscape. I was just as interested in learning about this landscape architecture as I was about Wright’s architecture!
The Welsh Hills Trail is also a great way to get an overview of the entire Taliesin estate! Plus, it’s free to hike this 1-mile trail out and back from the Visitor Center.
I did the House Tour, however they offer a variety of different tours that also include the studio and theater, and one that includes the entire estate (Romeo and Juliet Windmill Tower, the Tan-y-deri home, the Midway Barn, and Taliesin) Be sure to check this page for the tours days and times. Or take a virtual tour!
Taliesin West Arizona
Only 2 weeks later I found myself in Scottsdale, Wright’s winter home and desert conquest. In 1937 Wright acquired the desert land and began the process of building Taliesin West, now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Approximately 30 of Wright’s apprentices followed him to Scottsdale every winter and built what is now Taliesin West. While they built the beautiful home over 7 years, they had to live in the Sonoran Desert as they built it; they became very familiar with the harshness of the environment. Due to this long labor of love, it’s probably the most personal of Wright’s creations.
Located down a winding road surrounded by citrus trees, the house is nestled into the desert landscape. Here, I also took a 90 minute walking tour that leading me through the gardens, living room, private quarters, drafting room, music pavilion, and cabaret building.
It reminded me a lot of Taliesin in Wisconsin; however, it was a bit more updated in style and features since it was built nearly 30 years later. It still had the signature compression and release in each building, but the furniture, which he also designed, was a bit more updated, there were many big fireplaces, and there was even an aluminum bathroom!
The landscaping really did look beautiful against the desert backdrop. The property had 7 water pools/fountains. Water in the desert? Don’t worry, it was natural, the water comes from a well onsite that Wright (more likely his apprentices!) had dug 486 feet into the ground.
Taliesin West is a beautiful introduction to the Sonoran Desert and when seen in conjunction with Taliesin just a few weeks prior – you could really see how Wright’s design developed over the years.
Taliesin West Tour Information
They foundation offers a number of different tours. I took the Insights Tour. However, you can go further behind the scenes, and into the details, plus they even offer a night lights tour. Be sure to check this page for the tours days and times.
Overall, my crash course in Frank Lloyd Wright was a fascinating addition to my trips to Madison Wisconsin and Scottsdale Arizona. They both gave me a greater understanding of the landscapes, and environments of these two destinations. If you are interested in art and architecture, or Frank’s personal life – or even hiking – put a tour at Taliesin or Taliesin West on your itinerary!
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I was a guest of Experience Scottsdale and Destination Madison for each of these tours. However, all opinions expressed here are my own.