Friday, August 16, 2013

Taliesin: Home of Love and Loss

Originally published August 9, 2013 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

The cover of “Building Taliesin” is a 1911 photo of the entrance to the
 construction site of Taliesin (“Building Taliesin,” Utah State Historical
 Society). In the corner are portraits of Frank Lloyd Wright (ca. 1906)
and Mamah Bouton Borthwick (ca. 1914). (“Building Taliesin,”
Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)

 One hundred years ago, a great love story was flourishing in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The brilliant architect Frank Lloyd Wright was in love with Mamah (MAY-mah) Borthwick and living with her at Taliesin—the country home he designed for them both in the rolling green hills he visited as a child. Wright acquired the land in 1911, while living with Borthwick in Tuscany. When they moved to Taliesin later in the year, Wright was 44 and married; Borthwick was 42 and divorced. Both had abandoned their spouses and children two years earlier to be together.

Although Wright has been recognized as the greatest American architect, it’s difficult to ignore the tragic story of this ghost of a woman he loved but could not marry (his wife would not consent to a divorce). Although Mamah Borthwick moved to Taliesin before its completion and lived there for three years, and although there was ample documentation of Taliesin’s construction, there are no clear photographs of her there. It was almost as if she had never been there, and much later, Wright himself refers to her presence only obliquely in his autobiography.

The book’s back cover shows Taliesin as it looks today, 
overlooking the Jones Valley in Spring Green, Wisconsin. 
(Craig Wilson, Kite Arial Photography)
Accomplished in her own right, Borthwick had a master’s degree in teaching, was fluent in French and German, and worked as a translator for the feminist writer Ellen Key. She also kept house for Wright and cooked for the craftsmen on site at Taliesin. However, her life was tragically cut short in August 1914, while Wright was working in Chicago. One summer afternoon, while Borthwick and her two visiting young children were having lunch on the living room porch, a disgruntled and crazed employee of Wright’s appeared and savagely bludgeoned the three to death with an axe. He murdered four other workers on the premises, and set Taliesin on fire before being captured.

“Building Taliesin—Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home of Love and Loss” by Ron McCrea sheds new light on the relationship that scandalized the public and threatened to derail Wright’s growing success as an architect. Illustrated with large period photographs—many of which are being published for the first time—McCrea’s account also explores how the building of Taliesin began a whole new chapter in Wright’s professional life as a designer of great buildings.

Two carpenters work in the space that would be Wright’s drafting
studio in Taliesin I. The view looks west from the front office. A plaster

 model of Wright’s Larkin building (Buffalo, NY, 1902) sits on the
 crossbeam above. The partial wall separates the drafting area from the
 sitting room of the workmen’s suite, which also includes a bunkroom and
 bath.  (“Building Taliesin,” Utah State Historical Society) (small photo)

Although America was at first scandalized by his relationship with Mamah Borthwick, Wright’s career survived and eventually advanced from an innovative architect of single-family homes to a world-renowned builder of not only homes, but also hotels, churches, schools, skyscrapers and museums. Wright also designed many of the interior elements of his buildings, such as the furniture and stained glass.

Although Taliesin was often referred to in the press as a bungalow, it was quite expansive with three wings that included living quarters, an office, drafting studio and farm buildings. The home was positioned on the brow of a hill so that it would appear as though it arose naturally from the landscape. Wright used Taliesin as a way to explore his notion of organic architecture—creating a home that was in harmony with its surroundings, fit the needs of its occupants, and used local products such as limestone and sand from the river to evoke the natural features in the surrounding landscape.

Three stonemasons pose proudly after cementing in place
 the plaque that announces “Frank Lloyd Wright / Architect” at
 the gateway to Taliesin. (photo by Taylor A. Woolley around 1912,
 found by author McCrea in the Utah Historical Society collections
(“Building Taliesin,” Utah State Historical Society)
What I really enjoyed about “Building Taliesin” was the sense I got of Frank Lloyd Wright as both a devoted partner and an evolving architect. He helped Mamah Borthwick get her book translations published and defended her feminist ideals, including her right to leave her husband and children in search of happiness and fulfillment. McCrea reports that five days after she was killed, Wright wrote an open letter to his neighbors, thanking them for their kindness, but also firing “a parting shot at married critics: ‘You wives with your certificates of loving—pray that you may love as much and be loved as well as Mamah Borthwick!’”

McCrea also puts into perspective the work Wright accomplished during his years with Borthwick at Taliesin. “Beginning with Taliesin, Wright produced some of his finest architecture. His masterworks, like Taliesin, were self-contained worlds: the walled Midway Gardens concert garden in Chicago; the enclosed Imperial Hotel plan for Tokyo; and the Coonley Playhouse, a small gem of a progressive school.” The years, 1911-1914, “were years in which the couple, in the prime of life, secured their home and pursed their dreams. Wright spread his wings in Europe and Asia and returned to Chicago trailing clouds of glory.”

Frank Lloyd Wright did survive the loss of Mamah Borthwick, and went on to build highly original homes and buildings that would earn him the reputation of the avatar of American architecture. Two of his greatest designs are the three-story Falling Water House, in Bear Creek, Pennsylvania, which takes the harmony between building and landscape to the limit, allowing nature to enter the interior; and the spiraling Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York City, probably one of his most recognized masterpieces.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan.

Frank Lloyd Wright completed hundreds of buildings all over the United States, the majority of which are still standing, and 54 of which can be visiting and toured. The nearest to us in Northern California are the Hanna House at Stanford University and the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael. I was lucky enough to see Wright’s work last month in New York: the living room of the Francis W. Little summer home “Northome” (built 1911-14), which was dismantled and installed in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A complete list of public sites can be found at, which includes Taliesin I, in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The three famous windows from the Coonley Playhouse (a progressive school built in 1911 on the grounds of the Coonley estate in Riverside, Illinois) show several patterns Wright used of balloons, confetti, and an American flag. Solid, bright colors and simple geometric Forms were something new for Wright after he returned from Europe. (photo by Tina Baine, New York Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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