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Taliesin West

 

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Inside Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Terrace
Madison, Wisconsin Getaway

 

The Capitol Building in Springfield, IL from the observation car
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in Chippewa Falls, WI


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Filleting Freshwater Fish

Filleting Freshwater Game Fish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dana-Thomas House - East elevation
View other Frank Lloyd Wright buildings

 

 

 

 

 

 

Several times before, I've mentioned that May is a great time to embark on an adventure... be it a weekend or even longer.  That sentiment was once again reinforced recently as we headed north on an excursion to Spring Green, Wisconsin in order to take a tour of Taliesin, the home and studio of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  I like the month of May, cold as it sometimes may be here in the Midwest.  May brings back a verdant green to the landscape and chases the harshness of winter blues back to the depths of one's memory, replaced by the hopes for mellow breezes and warmth to return.  In addition, schools are still in session and the roads have not yet filled with the traffic of summer vacation.  And so, with a bit of advance planning, great adventures are available at many locations that are not much farther away than a tank-full of gasoline will carry you and return you home again.

Our good fortune is to have already visited numerous Wright structures in Illinois, including the Dana Thomas House in Springfield, The Robie House in Hyde Park and the original Home and Studio in Oak Park Wisconsin holds many Wright treasures, too; I was about to take what I believe to be one of the best tours I have experienced, but more on that in a bit...

We left Geneva at about 10:00am on a Friday morning; just over two hours later we checked in to the Hilton Garden Inn, located in Middleton -- a bit west of Madison.  A requested early check-in helped give us the additional time we had needed to unwind a bit in the hotel's spa before we headed out for a tour of the Capital Brewery, just a quick 5-minute drive from the hotel.  Capital was founded on March 14, 1984 in a building that housed a former egg processing plant and produced its first beer in the spring of 1986.  Our smiling, knowledgeable and friendly tour guide Kyle, informed us that Capital was a "craft brewery", meaning that it was relatively small in size, producing about 22,000 barrels annually and distributing to only three states.  Nonetheless, it is referred to, according to their website, as "the finest lager brewery in America. This opinion is supported by the fact that Capital Brewery was named the #1 Brewery in America at the 1998 Beverage Testing Institute's World Beer Championships in Chicago, IL."  (If you are a fan of lager beer -- I definitely am -- you will certainly like Capital's beer.) 

The tour itself was fairly short, punctuated with the occasional delivery of pitchers of several of the brewery's beers, informative and fun.  Impressively, the place is extremely clean.  My only suggestion would be for Kyle to talk a bit louder, as it was difficult to hear him at times when we were not standing right next to him.  After the tour, we stopped outside at the just-opened Bier Garten -- a great place to enjoy some Friday afternoon libations.  A huge outdoor has room for a crowd and live entertainment is featured every Friday.  Tours, by the way, are only $3 and include a tasting and 3 ounce sample mug to take home!  Kudos to Kirby Nelson, Brewmaster since September 1987.  Responsible for the fine lager beers produced at Capital, Kirby can now boast of up to 16 different beers per year; eight Annuals, four seasonals, and up to four Limited Releases. 

In addition to the outdoor Bier Garten, the brewery also houses a Gift Haus (lots of neat clothing and souvenirs) and a Bier Stube -- a cozy room for sampling or for anyone to use for a private party.  For more info, contact the Brewery directly at (608) 836-7100 ext 0, or simply visit the website.  The brewery is definitely a must if you are anywhere near the area!

Friday in Wisconsin is just not complete without a fish fry, so after returning to the hotel for a change of clothes, we headed out again to find one.  Our selection was located a stones throw from Lake Mendota: Captain Bill's.  We had decided on an early dinner... and it was a good thing.  We waited only about fifteen minutes for a great table with a view of the lake; about twenty minutes later, the place was jammed with diners!  For good reason too, the food was great and the prices were reasonable.  Our choices included a calamari appetizer, morel-stuffed salmon and a fish fry -- made with Capital Brewery's Wisconsin Amber -- all very tasty and the portions were huge!  Morels were just coming into season and they were an amazing flavor addition to the large piece of salmon.  My fish fry consisted of fresh lake perch -- crispy, tender and sweet -- French fries and cole slaw.  Neither of us could finish our entire dinner, so we took the rest with us.  Captain Bill's was a great finish to a long day and I can highly recommend it if you are looking for a restaurant in the Middleton area.

Saturday dawned chilly, windy and a bit cloudy after a storm had blown through, but the outlook for sunshine and lower wind speeds was promising an excellent day for the most important part of our excursion: a tour of Taliesin, the Wisconsin home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Even as a relatively recent convert as a fan of Wright, I was excited to see the grounds and buildings of the man who had made such an incredible mark on not only architecture, but on the way I now look at design.  One of Wright's deepest convictions was that form followed function rather than vice versa, as I had earlier been led to believe.  The tour would for me, cement the importance of that particular conviction.

The drive from Middleton to Spring Green led us west along State Route 14 and through the gently rolling and now-greening hills of southwest Wisconsin. The road was nearly void of any traffic and we took our time... something that is not so easy to do on most roads nowadays.  Fifty miles an hour was just fine, thank you very much.  Through the town of Cross Plains and past Festbe County Park we drove, crossing many times little Black Earth Creek, a relatively narrow and almost unheard of gem that local knowledge claims to be full of some of the state's best trout.  I will definitely return to the area to see for myself...  Then passing the towns of Black Earth and Mazomanie, the road bends to the west and begins a straight stretch that parallels the Wisconsin River for perhaps a dozen miles before crossing the river and arriving at the north end of Spring Green and intersecting with Route 23.  We actually turned off of Route 14 and onto County Road C before crossing the river, winding our way through picturesque Tower Hill State Park and emerging at Taliesin Preservation, just on the southeastern edge of the Wisconsin River and a stone's throe from where Frank Lloyd Wright grew up as a child in the late 1800's.

The building from where the tour starts is easily discernible as a Frank Lloyd Wright structure.  Designed in 1953 and adjacent to The Taliesin Estate, Wright originally intended that the building serve as a restaurant, along with a meeting room for potential clients.  He never saw the completion of the project, as he died in 1959.  Former apprentices of Wright did finish the building in 1967; in 1993, The Spring Green restaurant was renovated and converted to a Visitor Center -- finally becoming pretty much what Wright had originally envisioned it to be.  Along with books and other re-creations of Wright artifacts, the building still contains a small restaurant.  Called the Riverview Terrace Cafe, it offers lighter fare for visitors and tour guests alike, and allows for a marvelous panorama of the Wisconsin River.  It was not difficult to imagine Wright as a child, climbing the slight rise and creating the vision that would one day become Taliesin.

Our chosen tour -- the Highlights Tour -- consisted of two (very quickly passing) hours, first inside the original architectural school with its huge assembly Hall, and then to Taliesin itself, where we were awed by Wright's Personal Studio.  The tour was devoted to exactly twenty visitors, curious about the architect and where he lived and worked.  Except for one idiot (pardon me) who continually disregarded the rules about No Pictures Inside the Buildings!, these were adults, serious about their curiosity. 

Promptly at 10:15 am, we boarded a 20-passenger bus and, along with our guide, Ms. Julie Shockey, took a short ride down Route 23, turning into a gravel driveway that led to one of Wright's first designs, the Hillside School.  Dedicated to educating children based on "learning by doing", the first building (and Wright's first commission) was designed for his aunts Jane and Nell Lloyd-Jones in 1886.  The remainder of the complex was completed in 1902, situated on land originally cleared by his grandparents.  Although the school was closed in 1915, the other Wright-designed buildings on the property were destined to become the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, formally initiated in 1932. 

We would tour the giant Assembly Hall first, an area with a mighty fireplace and expanse that was designed with a large first floor, as well as a magnificently cantilevered balcony above.  The building's corners anchored and supported the structure part-way up the roof line instead of exterior walls providing support at the edges of the roof, as was common practice.  Allowing for greater strength as well as increased space inside, this type of structural element was one of the earmarks of Wright's designs.  We also viewed the Fellowship Dining Room, where all the apprentice architects would share meals together and the incredible 5,000 square-foot Drafting Room; with its unique roof and lighting, "the Abstract Forrest" is a stunning workspace where aspiring architects still study.  Curiously, the triangular roof trusses have pins at the bottom of them that essentially are not attached to anything; they rest on steel plates that sit atop stone piers on which they rest.  According to Ms. Keiran Murphy from Historic Research at Taliesin Preservation, Inc.:

"When Mr. Wright was constructing the room originally, it was done in such haste (and with so little resources) that they milled the wood and put it up 'green' – not letting it age & dry. So the wood warped. Because the triangular supports are not directly connected to the piers, the 'pins' lifted up over time due to warping. So they (had to) put shims under them. You can see metal shims around the room under the 'pins'.  The weight (of the roof) isn’t concentrated in any one particular place."

We also got to sit in the cozy and unique Theater.  With not a bad seat anywhere and excellent acoustics, it was a perfect venue for Sunday get-togethers, where performances were regularly scheduled events. 

Outside the building is an interesting windmill; Wright christened the structure the "Romeo and Juliet Windmill Tower".  Designed in 1886 to carry water to the Hillside School -- and to withstand some of the area's strongest storms -- critics said it would never remain standing more than 10 years.  Romeo (a diamond shaped structure) and Juliet (an octagonal-shaped structure) are locked in an embrace that inspired the moniker.  True to the strength of Wright's design and a testament to his engineering genius, the windmill -- although now undergoing renovation to repair damage done by marauding squirrels -- still stands, proudly thumbing its nose at the naysayers, the ravages of time and the elements.

Filing back onto the bus, we took a short ride past the large Midway Barns, a farming complex that Wright envisioned would be the agricultural center of the estate, supplying dairy and other products to the apprentice architects at the school.  Winding our way up the narrow road on the back side of Taliesin, I was taken by the enormous and sprawling structure that was to serve as Wright's home, studio and eventual workspace for his apprentices.  Frank Lloyd Wright was, in addition to a master architect, an incredible landscaper as well.  He felt that a structure should be a part of the land, rather than an encumbrance upon it.  Taliesin is so well tucked into the hillside, it is difficult to believe just how large it really is... a total of approximately 38,000 square feet!

 The jewel of the tour -- the Taliesin residence (actually built for his mistress, Mamah Borthwick Cheney) -- is an absolutely awesome building.  Every detail oozes function; every line, every corner, every brick and every stone has a reason to be where it is.  From Wright's personal drafting area, to the living room, to the guest bedroom and to his personal bedroom, the house is a study in architectural achievement.  Taliesin was not only a home to Wright, it was a place in which he could constantly experiment, both with the building and with the land.  He was always changing something.  In fact, according to Ms. Murphy's calculations:

"Wright made at least 200 changes just to that structure (The Taliesin Residence) alone (not counting Midway Barns, the waterfall, Hillside, Romeo & Juliet, Tan-y-Deri – his sister’s house – or the landscape)."

An extremely long and cantilevered balcony allowed Wright or any of his guests to leave the living room for a walk that felt almost as if one were in the canopy of outside trees... right along with the birds.  And then there are the corner windows... with no corners, making it appear as if the window line were one continuous panorama. 

We stood silently in the guest bedroom, where many famous people have been rumored to have stayed, including Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead.  The book was supposedly about Wright, but Rand has always refuted this.  We were also led through Wright's personal bedroom.  It too, is currently undergoing extensive renovation; time and some of Wright's own roof changes have necessitated raising and re-leveling the floor.  The view from here was incredible, and it took little imagination to picture Frank Lloyd Wright at a drafting table here, conjuring up his next commissioned structure.

As we left the building and followed the curving driveway past the small lake and dam that Wright had designed, I couldn't help but wonder what things had looked like back in the 1930's.  Taliesin -- a Welsh word meaning "shining brow" -- was an apt description of this beautifully-sculpted brow of the hill that Wright would rebuild two additional times after fires consumed much of it...  I am unsure I would have had the strength or resolve to even attempt such a task.

After the tour we enjoyed a light lunch in the Riverview Terrace Cafe; I was overwhelmed, I believe, by what I had seen and felt as I walked though the places that Frank Lloyd Wright himself had walked; the places that he had designed and built; the places that have endured and are being preserved for all to see and appreciate.  The Lloyd-Jones family had an interesting motto, and one that I shall remember: "Truth Against the World".

We left Taliesin and headed south, stopping briefly in Monroe for some cheese from Alp and Dell dairy (discovered on a previous excursion to Green County).  Back home by 5:00 pm, in plenty of time to prepare dinner, I was amazed at the number of events we packed in to a 36-hour period and roughly one tank of gas.  It was an excursion well worth taking, and one that I would recommend you consider.  Plans are already in the works for the next adventure to another Frank Lloyd Wright building.  I hope you can join us!

R. Karl

 

 

 

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