Frank Lloyd Wright side trip

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Frank Lloyd Wright side trip

Postby dick on Wed Nov 16, 2011 4:57 pm

Ths New York Times article on Wright and Wisconsin sounds very appealing to us.

http://travel.nytimes.com/2011/10/30/tr ... ght&st=cse

Going to link has photos and other links to Madison attractions, but here it text:

By DEBORAH SOLOMON

Published: October 28, 2011



Unlike books or paintings, the objects created by an architect are not always easily encountered. Most of Wright’s 400-plus buildings are private homes scattered around the country and closed to the public. But Wisconsin has at least three Wright sites that are welcoming: Taliesin, his former home and studio in rural Spring Green; Monona Terrace, a convention center in bustling Madison; and the Johnson Wax building in industrial Racine. As my family and I set out to visit them, we realized we had previously been inside only one Wright building, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, a dreamy if arrogant masterpiece whose curving white walls seem designed to outshine the paintings.

Wright, who died in 1959 at age 91, just six months before the Guggenheim opened, was an elegant and imperious figure. He wore a black cape and could seem indifferent when clients complained about the water dripping onto their heads from roofs he had designed.

His own origins were modest. Descended from Welsh immigrants, he was born in Richland Center, a farm town. After dropping out of college, he moved to Chicago and eventually settled in suburban Oak Park, Ill., where he presided over a family of six children and was courted by affluent neighbors who longed to live in one of his fashionably low-slung Prairie houses.

Everything changed in 1911, after he fell in love with a married neighbor, Martha Borthwick Cheney, or Mamah. They left Chicago and moved to a hideout he built for them in the remote hills of his Wisconsin childhood. This is the house known as Taliesin, in Spring Green, about 40 miles west of Madison.

Getting there is a bit of a trek, especially if you start in New York and stop along the way to see a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, as my husband and I and two college-age sons did last summer. We flew to Chicago, took an excellent tour of Oak Park’s Wright houses and then drove off for a week in Wisconsin.

Avant-garde art movements generally take root in major cities. It helps to have a dense population of young artists competing for greatness. Perhaps that’s why it feels so surprising to stumble on Wright’s jolting modernism in the quiet countryside. Here, amid the emerald green fields, is Cubism (evoked in the jutting planes of his houses). Here is Surrealism (note his habit of turning a homely edge into a thing of curve and whimsy). Here are buildings whose forms must have once seemed as alien in this terrain as flying saucers.

Taliesin began life as a wood-and-stone bungalow tucked into a grassy slope. Over the years, it grew into a rambling compound that is often compared to an Italian hill town. It is, all at once, a house, a laboratory and a manifesto of Prairie-style architecture. The key idea is horizontality. At a time when Americans were enthralled by ever taller skyscrapers whose silhouettes pulled away from the ground as if to escape coarseness itself, Wright wanted his buildings to look as if they had grown out of the earth.

Taliesin is also a haunted house whose history is inseparable from tragedy. Wright’s affair with Mamah Cheney escalated from a local scandal into a national one, inciting a barrage of moral condemnation from gossipy store clerks in Spring Green as well as from headline writers at major newspapers. One August day in 1914, when Wright was away, Mamah and her two children were murdered by a household worker who came after them with an ax.

The incident, in which four men helping out at the house were also murdered, recently resurfaced with aching clarity in two novels. Nancy Horan’s “Loving Frank” (2008) offers a memorable portrait of Mamah, a serious-minded woman who translated feminist tracts from Swedish into English. T. C. Boyle’s eloquent “The Women” (2009) follows Wright through three complicated marriages and makes Wisconsin feel akin to the storm-lashed moors of Wuthering Heights.

Which is not to suggest that impulse and instinct reign at Taliesin today. The place imposes nearly militaristic demands on visitors. Granted, I did not mind donning plastic shoe covers to shuffle through the living room or surrendering my purse to minimize the possibility of grazing a wall. Such are the imperatives of vulnerable houses and historic preservation.

The only way to see the house is by guided tour. The Taliesin tours, besides being costly (two-hour house tours are $47), require constant group adherence, beginning at an off-site visitors’ center, where you board a bus. It all began to seem a bit mirthless when, after leaving Wright’s monkish bedroom, we were herded back onto the bus, unable to linger on the green hillside that stretched out in every direction. The brisk pace is antithetical to Wright’s wise dictum: “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”

A few days later, I was savoring the warmth of the sun outside a convention center in Madison. Wright attended high school and college there and eventually designed a masterpiece for the city. The Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, despite its clunky name, is an unutterably lovely building, an all-white semicircle perched on the edge of Lake Monona. The rooftop terrace juts over the water and functions as a gargantuan public plaza, complete with a cafe. Suspended between views of the Wisconsin State Capitol and the level blue stretch of the lake, the building offers a stark choice between the power of the state and the escapism of nature.

As I took in the terrace’s perimeter walls, which swoop through space as if in a practice run for the dazzling curvilinearity of the Guggenheim Museum, I found myself thinking about Wright’s suspected learning disabilities. According to Ada Louise Huxtable and his other biographers, he was a poor to middling student who probably never graduated from high school. He wangled his way into the University of Wisconsin, where he lasted for fewer than three semesters.

Perhaps the insistent horizontality of Wright’s work was rooted in a desire to overcome the indignity of his early academic struggles — one “reads” his buildings from left to right, as opposed to up and down. If his school assignments saddled him with persistent frustration, he turned his limitations into a strength of his art, imprinting the American landscape with bravura forms that at times seem to echo the flow of sentences across paper.

A tour of Monona Terrace costs only $3 and is offered daily at 1 p.m. The history of the building is a fascinating narrative of on-again-off-again city planning. Wright initially proposed his design in 1938. But the denizens of Madison were bitterly divided over whether to lavish taxpayer money on the work of an adulterer and a scoundrel, and the building was not completed until 1997. For this reason, some scholars characterize it as “Wright-inspired” rather than 100 percent undiluted Frank.

The last stop on our Wright tour was Racine, a factory town that has seen better times. Guidebooks tend to talk you out of visiting, perhaps because the city suffers from high unemployment; empty storefronts abound. Yet there remains one incredible draw. The Johnson Wax Administration Building went up in 1939 and continues to serve as the headquarters for the company that started out making parquet flooring in the 19th century. Free tours are offered on Fridays, and nothing about the red-brick building can prepare you for the breathtaking eccentricity of the space known as the “great workroom,” a half-acre windowless, high-ceilinged space furnished with dozens of Art Deco desks. Wright designed furniture, too, and the desks are nifty affairs with wooden tops and curvy metal frames painted Cherokee red.

The grounds include a research library that is open to the public, a handsome room where biographies of Wright, scholarly tomes and historical black-and-white photographs share shelf space with displays of home-cleaning products, including antique cans of J-wax, Beautiflor (“cleans as it waxes”) and Glade air freshener.

Perhaps cleaning products, as much as Wright’s radical architecture, are part of the story of Utopian longing in America. The desire to live in a serene space, to make the floorboards glow and purge one’s world of darkness: who wouldn’t want that?

When you leave the Johnson Wax building, you exit through an indoor parking lot that amounts to an adventure of its own. The white-painted ceiling and red floor continue the color scheme of the building’s interior. Blue reflecting pools amplify the sense of light. Stunning white columns flare at the top into inverted ziggurats, each a mini-Guggenheim Museum.

I paused to take photographs and e-mailed them to friends back home, thinking they would be amused to see the ethereal forms of the Guggenheim echoed in a humble garage in Racine. It was then that I realized what the famous ramps of the museum most resemble. The Guggenheim is oddly similar to a multistory parking garage.

IF YOU GO

For most of our trip, we stayed in Lake Geneva, a picturesque resort town in southern Wisconsin whose lakefront estates surface in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was not until we arrived at our hotel, the Grand Geneva Resort and Spa (7036 Grand Geneva Way; 800-558-3417; grandgeneva.com), that we realized it was slightly east of town. And not on the famous lake!

But there were compensations. The Grand Geneva, as it turns out, was built in 1968 as a Playboy resort. Our two hotel rooms (doubles start at $159) had terraces overlooking a body of water in the shape of bunny ears. The athletic facilities are first-rate; the building housing the Well Spa also features indoor tennis courts and a regulation-sized basketball court, where my sons spent many contented hours.

The Johnson Wax Building, about an hour away in Racine, is in a working-class residential neighborhood that is short on restaurants. But West Racine is an eminently historic and walkable neighborhood with century-old buildings and a population descended from Danish immigrants.

Larsen’s Bakery (3311 Washington Avenue; 262-633-4298; larsenskringle.com) is a celebrated shop whose shelves are laden with local specialties like raspberry-filled kringles and poppy-seed crescents. A chocolate log beautifully decorated to resemble tree bark caught my eye. It was $2, an end-of-the-day markdown, I was told. As I paid for it, I thought it was the deal of the century, until I learned it had been only $4 in the morning.

Spring Green, the site of Taliesin, has few restaurants but there are wonderful one-of-a-kind motels. We stayed at the Spring Valley Inn (6279 County Highway C; 608)-588-7828; springvalleyinn.com), whose Wright-style exterior and furnishings were designed by architects at Taliesin. Breakfast, included in the room rate (starting at $90), is served in a glass octagonal room that overlooks a garden where hummingbirds and finches convene at bird feeders.

The guests were abuzz with Wright anecdotes, exchanging stories and chuckling over his behavior as if he were some impossible genius with whom they were personally acquainted. I certainly knew to whom one man was referring when I overheard him say: “One of his nicknames was Slow Pay Frank. You could never get a nickel out of him.”






This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 13, 2011



A picture caption on Oct. 30 with an article about Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings in Racine, Wis., misidentified the multistory building shown beside a sculpture. It is the S. C. Johnson Research Tower, which was designed in 1944 and opened in 1950. It is not the S. C. Johnson Administration Building, which was completed earlier. (The tower adjoins the administration building.)
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dick
 
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Re: Frank Lloyd Wright side trip

Postby evelyn on Sat Dec 03, 2011 10:14 pm

Thanks for posting this Dick!

I have always wanted to see the Frank Llyod Wright buildings (besides the Guggenheim).

Taliesin is breath-taking!

I've mailed my registration fee..see you at the Event!
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