Frank Lloyd Wright: Strolling Tour of Well-known Architect’s Iconic Websites | Columnists
The rolling hills of Wisconsin, the Arizona desert, a Pennsylvania wildlife sanctuary, and the Upper East Side of Manhattan are the settings for some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s excellence.
America’s greatest architect designed over 1,000 structures and completed more than 500 works during his seven decades of career.
My wife and I visited Wright’s studio and neighborhood in Oak Park, Illinois; his private homes in Spring Green, Wisconsin (Taliesin) and Scottsdale, Arizona (Taliesin West); Falling Water in Pennsylvania; and the masterpiece at the Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
Born on June 8, 1867 in Richland Center, Wisconsin, to a farming family from Wales, he studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin. He then completed an apprenticeship as an architect in Chicago. He opened his own practice in Chicago in 1893 and established a studio in his home in Oak Park, Illinois in 1898.
As a pioneer of the so-called Prairie School architectural movement, Wright also developed a vision for urban planning that included 41 commissions.
Over the years he has designed homes, offices, schools, churches, banks, skyscrapers, hotels, museums, and other commercial projects in 36 states. He worked for six years (1915-1922) on Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, which is known for its earthquake-proof supporting structure. He also designed interior components, including stained glass windows, floors, furniture, and dishes.
He is the author of 20 books and a well-known lecturer in the US and Europe.
Of the hundreds of projects he created during his lifetime, nearly a third were designed in the last decade of his life. Wright died on April 9, 1959 in Phoenix, Arizona. He was 91.
Wright’s work is considered to be one of the best truly American architectures. Eight of his main works are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This includes websites that we have visited. Here are a few highlights.
Oak Park, Illinois
Oak Park, a western suburb of Chicago, is home to the largest collection of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
In 1889, Wright married Catherine Lee Tobin at the age of 22. Wright bought a lot in Oak Park and built his humble home for his family, which eventually included six children.
Wright started his own practice in 1893 and moved it to his home, which he expanded to include a drawing studio and reception room in 1895 and 1899.
His studio became a training ground for Prairie-style architects who emphasized open spaces and flat, sloping roof lines. Together they created among his most famous buildings in the neighborhood Unity Temple (1908) and Robie House (1909).
We have been to Oak Park three times. During our last visit with our foreign exchange student, we took the one-hour tour through the house and studio. We then bought a map at the gift shop that allowed us to see our own Wright neighborhoods from the adjacent sidewalks.
There’s also a guided walking tour or bus tour that covers nearly a dozen homes on Chicago and Forest Avenues and Elizabeth Court.
Taliesin, spring green, Wisconsin
Taliesin is the home, studio and school on the 800 acre estate that Frank Lloyd Wright built in 1911. The hill was one of his favorite places that he remembered as a boy.
Wright is said to have been “creatively exhausted and emotionally troubled” in late 1909 when he left his wife and family for an extended stay in Europe with Mamah Borthwick (Cheney), a customer who had been his lover for several years.
That same year, Wright and Mamah returned to the States and started building Taliesin. There he took up his architecture office again.
In August 1914, Mamah, her two children, and four others were killed in a fire in Taliesin that was deliberately set on fire by a deranged Taliesin domestic worker. Devastated by the tragedy, Wright found solace in rebuilding Taliesin in Mamah’s memory.
In April 1925, an electrical fire destroyed the living quarters again. Wright used his 40 sheets of pencil studies to build Taliesin III.
Taliesin, named for a Welsh bard whose name means “shiny forehead,” is an hour’s drive from Madison, Wisconsin, and three and a half hours from Chicago.
The two-hour tour of the picturesque estate is excellent. The first stop is the 5,000-square-meter drawing studio, which includes a sprawling assembly hall, communal dining room, and theater. Then the shuttle driver stops at the Taliesin house. The guide provides intimate details about Wright’s personal studio, living room, guest room, and bedrooms for Wright and his wife.
Wright bequeathed Taliesin and the property to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation after his death. Taliesin functions primarily as a museum today, but is still seasonally occupied by students from the School of Architecture at Taliesin.
Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Arizona
Wright, tired of the long Wisconsin winters, built Taliesin West in 1937, north of Scottsdale, Arizona. His living and studio complex was his laboratory until his death in 1959.
Taliesin West is considered one of Wright’s most personal creations. He has carefully handcrafted it over many years and associated it with the desert. Some consider it “almost prehistoric in size”. Wright called it “a look beyond the edge of the world”.
Taliesin West is open all year round, but closed on major public holidays. Guided tours and self-guided audio tours are the only way to visit the site. You will not be able to enter the property unless you are on an official tour or attending an event. Online ticket reservation is required in advance for all tours.
We took the one hour Classic Group Tour led by an excellent guide. We visited Wright’s private quarters and living room, the garden room, the drawing studio, the bandstand, and the cabaret.
The souvenir shops at the locations offer books, home accessories, clothing, and art.
Fallingwater, Mill Run, Pennsylvania
Fallingwater is the acclaimed house designed by Wright in 1935 for the Kaufmann family, owners of Pittsburgh’s largest department store. It illustrates his philosophy of organic architecture – the union of art and nature.
When he created Fallingwater, Wright was in the twilight of his career. At the age of 67 he was commissioned to build her weekend house. The place he chose wasn’t what the Kauffmanns expected – across from the waterfalls on their property. Instead, he decided to build right above the falls. Wright thought that the family could not only see nature but also live in its midst.
The house, about 90 minutes from Pittsburgh, is considered an architectural marvel. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966. In 1991 members of the American Institute of Architects named Fallingwater “the best work of American architecture of all time”.
When we visited the house in May the tour was still restricted due to COVID-19 concerns. We were given an extensive tour of the exterior, but only saw the ground floor of the interior of the main house and parts of the upper guest house.
The location of the house is breathtakingly beautiful. If you look at the structure from different angles, you get the feeling that it is actually part of the landscape and interacts with it.
Guggenheim Museum, New York City
In 1943, Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to build the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The guideline of the co-founders of the museum was: “The building should be different from any other museum in the world.”
Wright was successful with the Guggenheim. It is considered the culmination of his career. It opened in 1959, six months after Wright’s death.
Its radical design concept includes a spiral ramp that resembles an hourglass. The open rotunda enables the viewer to see artistic works on different levels at the same time.
At the suggestion of friends, we climbed the seven floors of the Guggenheim at the entrance and visited the museum from the top floor down. With our 5-year-old granddaughter in tow, we enjoyed “A Year with Children 2021”, which shows selected works of art by New York elementary school students. My favorite area was the exhibition of famous European impressionists.
The Guggenheim borders Central Park; There are plenty of sidewalk cafes in the elegant Upper East Side.
For architectural beauty and inspiration, be sure to check out one or more of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous landmarks.