The purple of chicory blossoms and the tiny white flowers of Queen Anne’s lace lined the road on our drive through the rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin. We were headed for a tour of Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s country estate and a National Historic Landmark. Taliesin lies nestled in the Jones Valley, amongst a green patchwork valley of corn stalks, pasture and oak trees. Lloyd Jones, the architect’s Welsh grandfather, chose this valley to settle in as it reminded him most of his homeland.
The vale is home to the largest concentrations of buildings from America’s greatest architect and provided inspiration for “prairie architecture,” one of America’s first modern indigenous architecture styles. No less than 25 Wright-designed properties dot the landscape, which lies flush with the cornflower-blue waters of the Wisconsin River.
This conflux of natural beauty, arts and architecture make the area an ideal weekend trip. Serious Wright fans come from around the world. During its heyday, Ayn Rand and Buckminster Fuller also visited Wright here.
Taliesin remained Wright’s primary residence for much of his adult life. In his storied seven-decade career the architect designed more than 1,100 works, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York City; the Johnson Wax Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin; Fallingwater in rural Pennsylvania; and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona.
You can take tours of Taliesin’s many buildings, or enjoy them from a distance by foot or by bike via the area’s many trails. This is the place to transform your lego-building kiddos into budding architects. During the summer, Taliesin Preservation, the non-profit managing the property, offers summer camps for children to give them experience at the drafting table.
Taliesin works with babies
Baby enjoyed the clean lines and natural elegance of Taliesin’s Hillside school, where Wright’s drafting studio was located. Of the four tours currently offered of Taliesin’s buildings, we chose Hillside as I had a crawler on my hands and it is the shortest of those offered on the estate. Hillside is also technically the only tour where children under 10 are allowed.
Despite its short length, the visit to the Hillside school offered substantive insights into Wright’s upbringing and organic design philosophy. Next to Hillside lies the site of the first building Wright ever designed, a Victorian structure. He later had the building demolished, perhaps to sever any ties he had to the prim style he abandoned. The extant construction provides an example of the organic architectural principles he espoused: the building consists of four connecting levels that follow the contours of the hill on which it was built. The lowest level, the theatre where Wright and his third wife and students would enjoy performances, is 27 feet lower than the highest level of the school. Wright sourced the limestone for the building from a quarry located less than one mile away from the property.
The Wright-thing to do: Educational finds for kids
No time to visit Wisconsin? Visit the gift shop online, as it features a lovingly curated selection of Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired items, including some great educational finds for kids. After the tour you can also head in person to the shop. It is best to buy on site or via online, as all proceeds fund Taliesin Preservation.
Taliesin Preservation communications director Aron Meudt-Thering accompanied me along with her five-year old daughter Nora to pick out her favorite children’s selections. Pick up any tourist brochure to the area and you are likely to find a picture by Aron, a professional photographer who has lived closed to Taliesin for most of her life.
See below for her and Nora’s recommendations:
- “Frank Lloyd Wright for Kids: His Life and Ideas,” by Kathleen Thorne-Thomsen, features 21 activities for kids. Aron has bought this for her daughter’s teacher to use in the classroom.
- “Architecture Sticker Book: Create your own City!” I ended up buying this for my 7 year-old nephew, and tried to take it back from him as it looked so fun. In addition to adding stickers of minarets, eaves and flower pots to different buildings and cities around the world, the book has spaces for little artists to design and their own structures.
- “Fantastic cities: A coloring book of places real and imagined,” by Steve McDonald has intricately detailed pictures of neighborhoods and kaleidoscope-like sketches of design motifs.
Picks for adults
1 and 2. For the adults, contemporary historical fiction genre has dramatized Wright’s tumultuous love life. “Loving Frank” by Nancy Horan tells the story of Frank’s affair with a client’s wife from the perspective of the mistress, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. “The Women” by T.C. Boyle wittily covers Wright’s life as viewed by the women in his milieu.
3. Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography. Aron told me, “His eloquent prose brings his works to life.” I picked this up at her suggestion.
4. BTW’s rec: Coffee table books: There are a number of great coffee table books sold in the shop that feature many of the more than 1,000 buildings Wright designed. One of my favorites is “Wright-Sized Houses” which covers a number of his residential properties, and unpacks his philosophy of “Usonian” design, which provided a modern, well-designed house for everyone. Wright called his ideal of beautiful middle-class housing “Usonian” — a word he said to refer to “of the United States of North America.” Usonian houses produce a feeling of spaciousness despite their small floor plans. “Turning their backs” on the street, the houses offer floor-to-ceiling bands of glass with doors that open onto private terraces.
Summer camps to foster your child’s love of building things
This summer Taliesin offered five week-long day experiences for kids from 3-8th grade. The “Imagine Mars” camp offered opportunities to do 3D modeling for an imaginary colony on the red planet. In the City Planning Camp, students learned about the principles Wright’s concept of organic architecture and built computerized models of a green neighborhood.
Elsewhere in the valley
For evening entertainment, American Players Theater, less than a few miles away down the road, features Shakespeare and other playwright’s works performed of in an outdoor theater in the woods. My husband and I left baby behind with grandma for “The Comedy of Errors,” one of the lightest of the Bard’s plays and perfect for a warm summer evening.
The hills and valleys surrounding Taliesin make the area an ideal place to bike. Trails and county roads with low traffic—but steep hills—crisscross the countryside. The Pine River and Military Ridge trails provide reasonably level biking, and one can navigate local roads to check out more of the Wright gems that dot the countryside. In your sightseeing, make sure to check out the Unity Chapel, which Wright helped designed as an intern in 1897. The eerie cemetery close to the grave—underneath the big tree–is home to the grave of his mistress, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, tragically killed at Taliesin in 1914. Go in the early evening for a creepy experience.
Take me there already!
Spring Green, the village where Taliesin is located, is approximately a one-hour drive from Madison, and four hours from Chicago.
Information on tours of Taliesin.
Information on Summer Camps: Caroline Hamblen, the programs manager for Taliesin Preservation. firstname.lastname@example.org