Midway Barn: the Crossroads of Tradition, Ambition, and Functionality

August 9th

By Colin Cohan, Graduate Research Assistant, The Center for Architectural Conservation, University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design

Cohan 2022

Among such a celebrated body of work as that of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Midway Barn in Spring Green, WI is quietly inimitable. Even in an environment such as Taliesin, where evolution and iteration have long been foundational pillars, Midway stands out at the crossroads of tradition, ambition, and functionality. The barn represents a holistic integration of human, animal, and natural life: an integration that was never finished or perfected but rather honed over time and diverted to suit changing needs. Built predominantly by Taliesin Fellows attending the Hillside School, Midway’s construction is at times frantic and remedial, overbuilt in some places and underbuilt in others. Its history as a space of learning, trial and error, and creativity, though, remains tangible in its maze of levels and ladders. Unfortunately, the barn’s simultaneously slow yet chaotic growth and its continuous development across several decades have consistently shaded it from the view of academics, critics, and tourists alike. In recent years, however, our team from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Architectural Conservation (CAC) has begun to tackle this unique piece of Wright’s history.

Ever the champion of pastoral life, Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal connection to nature formed at a young age in the rolling hills of Wisconsin, and the Midway Barn represents a quintessential distillation of that sentiment. Deeply tied to the land and landscape, Midway demonstrates the harmony between man and nature that Wright so prized, intertwining architectural experimentation with pastoral values. Though often overlooked in the grand scheme of Wright’s career, Midway offers an unparalleled glimpse into the mind of the architect and how it, too, evolved over time, striving constantly for a more balanced existence through experimentation and iteration.

Since 2020, our team has been working to document and assess the condition of the Midway Barn as it stands today. In 2021, the CAC team underwent an extensive 3D scanning process, resulting in a highly accurate point cloud of the Midway complex. This year, equipped with this visual data, we set out to transform that point cloud into a usable 3D model and architectural drawing set and to identify more specifically the construction sequencing that led to its current state. We also created a detailed conditions assessment to aid in the identification of problem areas and prioritization of future maintenance work at Midway.

Cohan 2022

The work of the CAC at the Midway Barn over the last several years represents some of the first academically inclined consideration of this unique complex, and it has been our pleasure to help shed light on this structure that stands to teach us so much. Our efforts over the summer of 2022 represent a continuation of previous years’ efforts, and we hope that any future work will continue to expand upon our findings.

Cohan 2022

Cohan 2022

 

On a personal level, this trip was truly special. Simply put, the mere opportunity to live in and work on a Frank Lloyd Wright site is a preservationist’s dream. It is the type of project that we tease ourselves with as we begin our careers in the field: a “what if…” or a “one day, maybe…” that few of us are ever fortunate enough to realize. Spending three weeks living and working at Taliesin – enjoying just that experience – was genuinely a privilege. Our team arrived in Spring Green excited and eager, ready to work at Frank Lloyd Wright’s celebrated Shining Brow, but, despite our readings and research, none of us could have forecasted just how moving the experience would actually be.

Cohan 2022

Taliesin Summer_ Photo by Colin Cohan

Cohan 2022

 

There is, for sure, a sense of awe and excitement when you first arrive at Taliesin, and it is a feeling that takes a few days to wear off. But once you’ve settled into place a bit, that excitement is replaced with a sense of harmony that is difficult to describe. Gone is the spectacle of Frank Lloyd Wright’s esteemed legacy, supplanted moreover by the natural spectacle of the landscape he sought to emulate. To me, this was the most valuable experience of all: the chance to push past any preconceived notions and soak in the experience as a human being rather than as a student, a tourist, or a preservationist. Be it waking up to the sunrise through the windows of Tan-y-Deri or tapping away at our laptops on the porch of the Midway apartment, it was the quiet moments away from all the talks and tours that really began to stand out. More than any tourist passing through, we had the opportunity to really experience life at Taliesin, not as an architectural marvel but as a home, something else that very few are ever lucky enough to experience. Readings and photographs can only convey so much, and in a place like Taliesin, they barely scratch the surface. So closely incorporated into the landscape, it is a place that is best experienced slowly and quietly, and that is exactly what we did. From long, busy days in the field to long, lazy walks through them, Taliesin briefly became our home, and somehow it really felt like it.

Taliesin Summer_ Photo by Colin Cohan

Cohan 2022

Cohan 2022


But to attribute that sense of home simply to the architecture and landscape would be a disservice to the wonderful people who live and work at Taliesin. During our stay, we had the pleasure of meeting so many people who do indeed call Spring Green home, and each of them was equally as welcoming and excited to introduce us to their own little slice of Wisconsin. From tours of the architecture to tours of the landscape to a full-on breakdown of sustainable agriculture, everyone we met shared the same infectious passion for Spring Green, and that is to say nothing about the incredible work they do. And boy, what work it is… Whether it’s restoring the landscape to the historic rolling prairies of Wright’s childhood or championing the sprawling benefits of rye, the folks at Taliesin share a love and connection to their home that runs deep, and it was incredible to see just how invested and happy they all are to work in such a place. And I feel a special thanks should go out to Dave and Bazile of Soups I Did It Again for feeding us way better and way more than we ever deserved. Watching the setting sun on the Tan-y-Deri porch with a bowl full of fresh strawberry-blueberry-rhubarb crumble with local frozen custard was easily one of the top highlights of the trip. And that barbecue…

 

Cohan 2022

 

All told, our work at Taliesin was an unforgettable experience, and we were sad to see our time run out so quickly. Now, we head back to Philadelphia to process the data, write our reports, and plan out when we might be able to make it back to Wisconsin. Meanwhile, though, we cannot thank everyone at Taliesin and in Spring Green enough for providing such a warm welcome and making us feel so at home during our stay. We sincerely hope to see you all again soon.

-Colin Cohan