Friday, September 14, 2012

midwest cultural tours - architecture

Our cultural tour of Wisconsin continues as we visit Spring Green and the home of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Taliesin - shining brow - built just downslope of the crown of the hill.


America's best-known architect built his home in south-central Wisconsin where he had views of farm fields and woodlands, bluffs with rock outcroppings and the Wisconsin River. Why there? Because it's where his grandparents settled after emigrating from Wales in the 1800s. On the trip Jon and I took to Wisconsin, we decided to drive to Spring Green to learn more about Frank Lloyd Wright and Taliesin. On a day when the temperature would soar to 90 degrees, we signed up for the four-hour tour.

During a tour that merged the end with the beginning, our guide, John, first took us through the family cemetery where Wright had designed the ceiling of the chapel and where he was laid to rest in 1959. I won't give away sordid details about his grave, but visiting the cemetery sets the stage for us to learn how Wright's ancestors settled the valley and provided the views we see from Taliesin's windows at the end of the tour. They were farmers and carpenters, millers and teachers. They helped build the community.

School building - note the low overhang on the right, the tree becoming one with the structure.

After the cemetery, we visited the school. Originally the site of a boarding school, it now houses an architecture school where students stay in rooms the guide described as similar to a monk's cell. Windows span two floors and the guide said Wright was the first to accomplish this feat. (I'm not an expert on the subject, so am in no position to confirm or deny the claim.)

Romeo and Juliet Windmill, above the school.

This residence is a converted farm building, about 500 square feet.
Windmill in the background.

Low entrances that make tall people duck lead visitors into expansive, high-ceiling rooms. We sat in the theater that was part of the school, admiring the stage curtain that was created by Wright's students as a gift to their teacher. I'm sorry that we couldn't take photos inside, but the seats were surprisingly comfortable in the cozy space. After the theater (which is still used for productions) we walked out and up the hill to the windmill. This is the third incarnation of the windmill Wright originally designed for his aunts who were founders and teachers at the boarding school. Like many things on the property, it has been rebuilt a few times.

Outside Wright's bedroom and study; the last room we saw during the tour.

Detail on our way to the main entrance, which is around the building
from where I thought the entrance would be! I love the windows & his colors!

And Taliesin, the residence? Before entering the structure, we sat outside having cold drinks and snacks, then we toured the outside: the garden and past the former stable; looking at the roof and the many limestone chimneys. We learned that it was built with no foundation just below the crest of the slope - thus the name which is Welsh for 'shining brow.' Years of water flowing from the gutterless roof and runoff from the top of the hill eventually destabilized the structure. Money was raised to repair it. But so much of the building, while beautiful to behold, is structurally flawed. Thus requiring staff and funding to make repairs.

It makes me wonder if it was Wright's intent that Taliesin should be allowed to sink back into the earth, to become another crumbling limestone outcrop upon a wooded slope, subject to the forces of wind, rain, snow and ice. If it was built to be as impermanent as our own selves, transient. Did he not leave enough sturdy examples of his work in cities, especially Chicago where he had labored during the week for many years?

I've begun reading the biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, written by Meryle Secrest - it's the one the guide recommended. Maybe I'll find some answers there. Maybe not. But it's already a fascinating story and it reminds me that if you want to understand somebody, you need to find out where they come from.

...and beyond

Before we leave the architecture tour, here's a tower that's in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. It's called the Dam Tower and would have been an important part of a dam that was mostly built, but never completed, on the Kickapoo River near LaFarge. It was built to last a little longer than Taliesin, but was never put to use. When I look at this photo, I think the structure doesn't belong there, yet it does, if only as a reminder that when you build a dam to make a lake, a lot of people and a lot of history will be displaced. It's another story and if you go to the link above, you can read all about it. I'll be sure to spend more time in the reserve next time I visit.

Dam Tower (Damn Tower?), LaFarge, Wisc.

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