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
Wright structures in Illinois, including the
in Springfield, The
Robie House in Hyde Park and the original
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,
Illinois 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
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 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
"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.
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
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
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
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.
Spring Green, WI
Construction & Unique Features
Other Buildings on the Estate
Romeo & Juliet windmill
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Designs, LLC ©2009
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