House of the Holy | Architecture | Chicago Reader

House of the Holy 

Frank Lloyd Wright didn't care much about gutters. "It is not the deluge of water in a storm that hurts any building," he wrote in 1938. "It is ooze and drip of dirty water in thawing and freezing, increased by slight showers." But in the case of Taliesin, Wright's iconic home in Spring Green, Wisconsin, 200 miles northwest of Chicago, he might have been wrong.

Water damage is one of many massive problems that imperil Taliesin and demand an estimated $24 million worth of renovation. Last year's mud slide, brought on by heavy rains, exposed 300 square yards of foundation. Ceilings are cracking. The ceiling in Wright's study, low by design, has fallen an additional two inches, obliging adults to sit on the floor around his fabled drafting table. Window frames are collapsing, and dead bugs and dirt can be seen heaped inside the famous mitered--but drafty--corner windows that a tour guide hints it would be sacrilege to caulk.

Sacrilege is always a problem with restoration of a Wright building. Were the commission responsible for Taliesin to add the gutters that Wright saw no need for, they might compromise Taliesin's status as a national historic landmark. That honor was conferred in 1976, and ever since, Taliesin has sat on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of 11 most endangered historic properties.

Among his 400-some works still standing, Taliesin is often described as Wright's greatest--designed by him for himself and not so much built as adduced over the years. It doesn't lack for admirers; what it needs is a benefactor who'll rescue it. "Like a founder of Microsoft," suggests Juli Aulik, the determined director of the Taliesin Preservation Commission.

Taliesin ("shining brow" in Welsh) rose in stages to crown a lovely hill. The 37,000-square-foot home dominates an estate of six Wright buildings (the Romeo and Juliet Windmill, Hillside Home School, Tan-y-deri, Midway Farm, and Riverview Terrace) built from 1897 through 1953 on 600 acres the architect had received from his family and through additional purchases. The Taliesin site, he wrote in 1914, was "one of my favorite places as a boy, for pasque flowers grew there in March sun while snow still streaked the hillside."

Taliesin is Wright's intimate dialogue with that site. The house is made of limestone, sandstone, and wood, all from the region; he called it a "natural" house for its materials as well as its setting. "I knew well that no house should be on any hill or on anything," he said in 1932 in his autobiography. "It should be of the hill, belonging to it, so hill and house could live together, each the happier for the other." The estate was to be entirely self-sustaining, getting food from a farm and electric power from a dammed creek.

The landscape of southwestern Wisconsin inspired the design. Spring Green (population 1,200, lying 20 miles east of Richland Center, where Wright was born in 1867) is one of several small towns scattered along Highway 14 west of Madison on land contoured by erosion thousands of years ago. Houses and barns peek out from the hills and valleys and here and there stand guard over farmland that stretches to the horizon. Wright noted "the hills of the region where the rock came cropping out in strata to suggest buildings," and he built Taliesin into its hill to look the same, its grand protrusions cantilevering over the terrain. The house's single level winds along intricate, almost mysterious passageways and transitional spaces that become the equivalent of a nature walk, with stone paving underfoot.

Taliesin was a retreat. In 1909, when Wright relocated in Spring Green, he was 42 years old and notorious; his love affairs had rattled Oak Park society. He craved celebrity so deeply that he traveled with a personal photographer, but disapproval embittered him. "When family-life in Oak Park," he would write, "conspired against the freedom to which I had come to feel every soul entitled and I had no choice would I keep my self-respect, but go out, a voluntary exile, into the uncharted and unknown deprived of legal protection to get my back against the wall and live, if I could, an unconventional life--then I turned to the hill in the Valley as my Grandfather before me had turned to America--as a hope and haven."

Wright wanted to live as a country squire but couldn't afford to. In 1925 a local bank foreclosed on a $25,000 mortgage, forcing Wright and his soon-to-be third wife and his two children to move to a cottage in La Jolla, California. With the help of friends, he paid the debt several months later and recovered Taliesin. But to stay there he needed an income he didn't have.

In 1932 Wright and his wife Olgivanna came up with the idea (many say it was hers alone) of offering "fellowships" to students who'd pay to come and learn from Wright while providing him with a ready source of labor. Brendan Gill wrote in his biography Many Masks that Wright ruled like a monarch over those apprentices (eventually numbering 450), who cleaned, cooked, repaired, and twice rebuilt Taliesin after fires. When Wright died in 1959 Olgivanna continued the program (which exists today as the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture). But she preferred to live at Taliesin West, the winter retreat built in Scottsdale, Arizona, in the late 30s, and neglected the much larger Wisconsin estate.

Wisconsin winters have been merciless to structures that were constructed--and reconstructed--poorly. The situation became so dire that in 1990 the state of Wisconsin stepped in. Governor Tommy Thompson created the Taliesin Preservation Commission, a public-private partnership, to operate and protect Taliesin's buildings and grounds while providing limited public access. It was launched with a $150,000 seed grant.

TPC operates as a not-for-profit corporation, raising funds from the public and private sectors and earning income from educational programs and services without paying taxes. The governor's on its board, but it's formally independent of government. It consults and collaborates with the not-for-profit Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, created by Wright himself, which consists of former students and associates, and controls Taliesin Architects, the for-profit firm of acolytes that now carries the torch. (The firm's handsome offices are the only structure on the Taliesin estate in good condition.)

But the lines are drawn. The foundation--whose focus is Arizona--pays for its space at Taliesin but doesn't contribute to the preservation and restoration campaign--though it employs several former fellows who help care for the landscape and gardens and shelters others who simply wander the grounds.

This March, TPC defaulted on a $7.6 million state loan--it could pay back only $1.1 million. The commission's fund-raising has been anemic: in five years it had garnered just $2.2 million before receiving a $1.14 million challenge grant last month from the federal Millennium Council. But TPC must raise an equal amount to get the funds. Juli Aulik runs a seemingly endless capital campaign. "The expectations across the board--from the state and everybody else involved--were just unrealistic," she says directly. "Our marketing budget was less than $50,000 and we were trying to build tourism.

"We are at the intersection of a county road and a state highway," she continues, "an hour away from the closest interstate highway. The expectations the loan was based on were that we would draw more people than Fallingwater [the Wright house outside Pittsburgh], Taliesin West, or Wright's home and studio in Oak Park. But they each have major metropolitan areas close by, and we're not Six Flags. Our reality was quite different. We're not proud about what happened to the loan, but it was used for a good purpose. Some of the problems we corrected were close to irreversible. The state and several departments have actually been very good partners for us. We really couldn't ask for more. We just have to do more on a broader scale."

Aulik estimates that Taliesin needs $24 million and 10 to 15 years of steady renovation to be put right. Last year a 225-year-old oak tree that was a focus of Wright's original design smashed into the roof of a drafting studio. The roof has been repaired but the list is endless. The foundation of another studio needs stabilizing, the house needs tuck-pointing, and new roofing is necessary almost everywhere. Yet one of the designated "major" projects is the restoration of a single chair that Wright had designed for his reception room in Oak Park. The studio in which the chair sits is falling apart.

Renovation at Taliesin is like archaeology in Jerusalem: open anything and you'll discover new problems. Though he drafted meticulous plans for his commissions, Wright didn't execute drawings for Taliesin. He simply worked on it day by day when he was there, adding this, adding that. "When we choose to work on even one room," Aulik says, "it has to be a complete rebuilding and restoration. If we put in air conditioning we have to take out the floor and route the ductwork in places not designed for it. Then we have to fix the drainage, which is a major problem everywhere, and install new electrical lines. Then there are no mechanical chases [paths to accommodate building systems], so we have to provide for that. It's almost endless, because Taliesin is unbelievably complicated. We've had some of the most experienced contractors in the country look at various portions of the house and they just stand there confused. Of course they've never seen anything like it because there is nothing like it."

Then there is Wright's art collection, including the marvelous screens and panels from Japan. Wright always overestimated its worth--especially when using it as collateral to get back his house after the foreclosure. The lack of air conditioning hastened the deterioration of the pieces, and complete restoration and conservation would be hugely expensive. Priorities have to be set--but anything Wright ever touched is venerated as if it were his shroud.

Is it even possible to save Taliesin?

Aulik has no doubts. "Given everything that's possible in America, Taliesin can be restored. Of course it won't be easy. We have to raise money to put together the team of people who can do it. There is an extraordinary amount of wealth in this country, and Taliesin ought to be someone's legacy."

A major obstacle to honoring Wright has turned out to be Wright himself. "Fund-raising begins at home," Aulik says, "but in Wisconsin I meet people who actually knew Frank Lloyd Wright--and many did not like him at all. It's been a bigger impediment in fund-raising than I or anyone ever expected." So Aulik makes a distinction: Taliesin needs "someone who will invest in Wright's vision and ideas, not the man himself."

Meanwhile, she notes that appreciative Wright patrons such as the Johnson Wax Company, whose Racine headquarters are world famous, "have already made an extraordinary commitment to preserving his legacy" simply by keeping up their own buildings. "Someone else has to take the lead."

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation seems to consider itself not up to the challenge of saving Taliesin. Wright's disciples admitted as much--if not officially--when they allowed the creation of TPC. "I think the foundation did what it was able to do with what it had," Aulik says, "but it didn't have enough for Taliesin and Taliesin West. They are managed much better today than in previous years, and I believe they want to see Taliesin restored."

Six of the foundation's 17 trustees also belong to TPC. But nine trustees are from Scottsdale, just two from Spring Green. Eric Lloyd Wright, a grandson, lives in Malibu, California. The foundation (according to its mission statement) is "committed to advancing the ideas and principles of organic architecture, organic education and conservation of the natural environment." It manages Taliesin West, which it has substantially refurbished and which enjoys plenty of visitors, community support, and private and public donations.

Aulik says a small base of donors is committed to Taliesin. Her big news is that Hanley-Wood, a publisher of trade magazines (Builder, Residential Architect, and Old House Journal among them), has pledged to raise the visibility of Taliesin and rally the building industry behind it.

"As a media company they are exquisitely positioned to get out the message," says Aulik. "It's a process of cultivation of courage, leadership, and vision to save a landmark. The kind of courage that Edgar Kaufmann had to commission Fallingwater [Wright was considered finished at the time, 1936]. I think Hanley-Wood has that vision. We cannot nickel-and-dime our way to saving Taliesin. We need companies and people who run companies like this to step up."

Many of Wright's buildings are in very capable hands. The most salient example is Fallingwater, whose cantilevered terrace over a stream known as Bear Run is threatening to give way. The Kaufmann family provided for the house's constant maintenance, eventually donating it in 1964 to the nonprofit Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which has been an able custodian and is now beginning a $6 million renovation campaign.

Perhaps what Taliesin needs as much as money is someone like Beatrice Spachner. An amateur violinist, social figure, and cultural champion who lived in Highland Park, Spachner raised $1.8 million in the late 1960s to renovate the Auditorium Theatre, built in 1889 by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, to whom Wright had apprenticed. "Chicago has responded rather slowly to one of our greatest assets," Spachner told the Sun-Times in 1966, so she raised money in New York and as far away as the Philippines. As she put it, "You don't stand by and allow a Rembrandt to disintegrate."

It will soon be summer in Spring Green. Tourists and pilgrims told to touch nothing will walk slowly, often stooping, through Wright's quarters, surgical slippers over their shoes. Even in disrepair, Taliesin is a remarkable presence. "Like Jefferson's Monticello, Taliesin was to be a miniature kingdom," wrote Brendan Gill in Many Masks, "self-sustaining and self-delighting, with the hope, as Wright said, of its becoming 'a recreation ground for my children and their children and perhaps for many generations more.'"

Or as Wright put it in his autobiography, "Taliesin was grateful for care. Took what grooming it got with gratitude and repaid it all with interest.

"Taliesin's order was such that when all was clean and in place its countenance beamed, wore a happy smile of well-being and welcome for all.

"It was intensely human, I believe."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Ken Wilson.

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