Last week, J and I took a day trip to the rolling hills of Western Wisconsin. Specifically, we set out for Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal estate near Spring Green. Funnily enough, we had been to Taliesin West, Wright’s winter home, in Scottsdale, Arizona a few years ago, but not to his original home just an hour away from Madison. Both of us are Wright-ians. My interest goes back to high school, when I chose Wright as a final paper and presentation topic in my 11th grade “History of City and State” class. J took an entire course on Wright in college. We both knew a lot about Wright coming into the trip, but the Taliesin tour turned out to be a lot more informative than either of us had expected.
As it turned out, we didn’t actually get to the main part of Taliesin- his home, although we had a pretty nice view from the highway. The tours were expensive, about $80, so we decided on the cheaper “Hillside Tour”, which took us about a half-mile down the road from the visitor center via minibus. This tour included the co-ed architecture school, founded by Wright. The original portion dates from 1903, and also includes attached dorms from the 1930s, a dining hall, and theater, all of which are still in use by current BA and MA architecture students. This is a very prestigious school, difficult to gain admission, but almost guaranteed a great architectural position upon graduation.
The site is beautiful- hilly, green with tons of old trees. The surrounding farmland was originally part of Wright’s family’s property, and then became the school’s. Students (apprentices and fellows) were expected to contribute to the daily chores and farming as part of their education. Today, the architecture students are required to live onsite in the dorms during the warmer months. During the winter months, they continue their education while residing at Taliesin West in Arizona.
The architecture, of course, was completely visionary, considering that it had been conceived of over 100 years ago. Like all of Wright’s buildings, the school is integrated with the landscape in color and form, and contains flowing, open spaces rather than the box-like rooms typical at the time. Another element Wright added were huge, almost floor-to-ceiling windows- completely shocking when the school opened. According to our guide, some of the first parents of students at the school were so concerned about the perceived lack of structural support that they felt the building would be too unsafe to allow their children to attend the school.
One of my favorite parts of the tour was a room filled with Wright’s original models for some of his most famous projects, including the Guggenheim Museum. The day I was there, a photographer from the Guggenheim had been photographing the model in preparation for an upcoming exhibition on Wright at the museum. The Plexiglas that usually fits over the model was still set aside, so our group was able to have a much closer look at the model, which was pretty amazing.
Then we entered the large, main school room, where the students were working. My inner museum nerd was startled when, during the tour, a student walked past carrying a full glass of juice, and continued walking through to her drafting table. Yes, they can eat throughout the entire complex. No, it’s not a museum per-se, but it’s a historic site operating as a 501(c)3 (according to the brochure), so I was filled with conflict about the current use of this space, as intended by Wright, versus a space to be preserved and cared for like one would other historic buildings.
Another Museology collections-management buzzer went off for me when our guide explained that since no one uses the space during the winter, there is no need for (and no funds for) heating. Instead, when the nights are chilly, the students gather near a huge fireplace in the main work room. In the winter, our guide said, temperatures inside the school reach far below freezing. Okay. Let’s back up here. A fireplace? Still in use? Fire danger, smoke damage? No heat in Wisconsin winters? Expansion and contraction, people! The whole place is wood, for god’s sake.
Bottom line? I came away from Taliesin with a greater appreciation for our local legend, and respect the fact that the school is still in use and students are able to be educated in Wright’s original environs. But along with that opportunity also come a few cringe-inducing preservation issues. These are partially caused by financial problems, but mostly stem from the fact that the buildings are not merely a century-old historic site but also a current educational institution. By allowing students’ access to the offerings of the facility, they are compromising the structure. But by allowing the structure to be nothing more than a historic site, the students lose out on an amazing educational opportunity. What would Frank say? It’s hard to know. It’s no secret that he valued his buildings more than the wishes of the people who lived in them (not what I am advocating! I like people, maybe even more that I like stuff!), but he was also a strong promoter of education. So, I guess it’s the age old access vs. preservation argument again.