Frank Lloyd Wright
The large Welsh family of farmers, teachers and ministers that settled part of the Wisconsin River valley near Spring Green in the middle of the nineteenth century included a young woman named Anna Lloyd Jones. This teacher, headstrong with beautiful, dark, curly hair, caught the eye of William Carey Wright, a preacher and musician. William soon won her affections and they married. On June 8, 1867 in Richland Center, a small town 20 miles west of Spring Green, Anna gave birth to a son. They named him Frank.
Young Frank Lloyd Wright spent many summers in his teen years on the farm his uncle James worked in the valley. In fact, Wright considered the valley to be his home … much more so than the house in Madison, Wisconsin, where he spent the rest of the year. During his summers in the valley, he learned to pay particular attention to the patterns and rhythms of nature. The lessons he gleaned from nature would find their way into his later work again and again.
The Early Years
In 1886, after three years as a special student in engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the 19-year-old Wright headed to Chicago to pursue a career in architecture. He spent about one year at the firm of J. Lyman Silsbee before joining the firm of Adler and Sullivan in 1889, where he worked directly with Louis Sullivan for four and a half years.
During his years with Adler and Sullivan, Wright married Catherine Lee Tobin, with whom he had four sons and two daughters, and built a home in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. In 1893, Wright and Sullivan parted ways, and Wright began his own practice.
Return to the Valley
Wright left Oak Park in 1909 to spend a year in Europe. Upon his return, he came back to the wide Wisconsin valley his Welsh ancestors had settled. There, in 1911, he began building Taliesin, which would be his principal residence for the remainder of his life. Planned as a home for himself and Mamah Cheney (née Borthwick)—an Oak Park woman with whom he’d fallen in love—Wright resumed his architectural practice from his new studio at Taliesin.
In 1914, while Wright was in Chicago overseeing a construction project, a servant set fire to the living quarters at Taliesin. The conflagration killed Borthwick, her two children, and four others. Stunned by the tragedy, Wright poured his energy into rebuilding the home.
Wright spent the years from 1916 through 1922 working on one of his renowned commissions: the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan. The hotel, acclaimed for its earthquake-proof supporting structure, was one of the few buildings left standing after the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. That same year, Wright married a second time to a sculptress named Miriam Noel.
In 1924, Wright met Olga Lazovich Hinzenberg (known as Olgivanna), the woman who would become his third wife. Tragedy struck again the following year when the living quarters at Taliesin were destroyed by fire, this time as a result of faulty wiring. Again, Wright rebuilt. This latest incarnation is sometimes called Taliesin III.
Wright divorced Miriam Noel in 1927 and married Olgivanna Hinzenberg the next year. The year after that, Wright began work on the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, officially as a consultant. To keep living costs low during this work, Wright built a simple desert camp called “Ocatillo,” which became the forerunner of Taliesin West, his famous Arizona home.
The Taliesin Fellowship
The Great Depression saw few commissions come Frank Lloyd Wright’s way. Never idle, however, Wright turned to writing, producing An Autobiography and The Disappearing City, both of which continue to influence generations of architects. During this time, Wright received numerous letters from individuals interested in studying with him.
In 1932, Frank and Olgivanna Lloyd Wright founded the Taliesin Fellowship, a community that provided architectural training with a holistic, “learn by doing” approach that stressed appreciation of all the arts, and which often allowed students to design and work on structures on the Taliesin property. The community survives today as the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture whose members, both faculty and apprentices, are still known informally as the Taliesin Fellowship and who reside at Taliesin during the summer months.
Hillside Home School, the building Wright designed in 1902 for his aunts’ boarding school in the valley, became the Fellowship’s central campus. With the inspiration and help of a young and eager group of apprentices, Wright remodeled and expanded the school, adding a 5,000-square-foot drafting studio, converting the gymnasium into a theater and adding housing for the new apprentices.
By this time, and despite his innovative work at Taliesin, Wright was considered the old man of architecture ... someone whose best work was behind him. But in 1935, Wright, then nearly 70, proved his critics wrong by staging a remarkable professional renaissance.
In that year, Wright received an important and well-publicized commission: "Fallingwater," a home in rural Pennsylvania for Edgar Kaufmann, Sr. The following year produced two more high-profile commissions: the Johnson Wax Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin and "Jacobs I," in Madison, Wisconsin, Wright’s first “Usonian” home (affordable, yet beautiful homes for individuals of modest means). By 1938, Wright’s star had risen so high that he was featured on the cover of Time magazine. His office was flooded with commissions and requests ... a surge that was slowed only by the onset of World War II.
During this upwelling of creativity, Wright began construction of Taliesin West, his Arizona home. As with Taliesin in Wisconsin, Taliesin West remained in a constant state of evolution as Wright experimented and changed it through the years.
In the final decades of his life, Wright began to receive awards and accolades from around the world, including the highest honor from the American Institute of Architects, their Gold Medal. His work was exhibited both in this country and abroad. And he kept writing, producing The Natural House and The Living City.
The commissions continued. Of the more than 500 buildings Wright designed through his life, one-third were built during the final decade of his life, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Marin County Civic Center in California. At the end of his career, Wright had more commissions than at any other time in his life.
Wright’s architecture has stood the test of time. More than one-third of his buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places or are part of National Register Historic Districts. Twenty-four of his buildings are National Historic Landmarks, the highest honor bestowed on historic properties by the federal government. His Wisconsin home, Taliesin, became a National Historic Landmark in 1976. In 2008, Taliesin was one of 10 Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings that were submitted by the United States National Park Service as nominees for World Heritage Status.
The private, non-profit Taliesin Preservation, Inc. works in partnership with the owners of the Taliesin estate, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, to preserve this important site. Taliesin Preservation offers tours of the property from May 1 through October 31. For information about tours, see our Visitors Guide.