Frank Lloyd Wright Goes Camping!

Back Story

 

While visiting the Phoenix area, my wife and I decided to see Taliesin West. As a lover of most things related to architecture, it was a “no brainer.” It’s also a “must see” if you are interested in Frank Lloyd Wright, and if you have followed this blog in the past, you know that I am afflicted with “Frank Fever.”

 

Having lived most of my life in the Midwest, I have seen many of Wright’s architectural projects. Mason City, Iowa, is close to where I grew up, and my parents made me aware of the Stockman House and the Park Inn Hotel as Wright designs. I’ve been to Taliesin in Spring Green, and visited and photographed many other Wright buildings and viewed examples of his furniture and other assorted designs in museums so I really wanted to see Taliesin West!

 

Finding the place made me very thankful for Google Maps. While one might think that simply getting on Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard in Scottsdale is a simple solution to getting there, it’s only part of the story. You actually have to turn off onto a small road called Taliesin Drive, and the Taliesin signage is not very visible. However, it wasn’t a problem for us because Google Maps had it right, and I just followed the little blue dot!

 

Most of the structures are not easily seen from Taliesin Drive. It’s a combination of Wright’s organic architecture (things are designed to coexist with the land they are on) and the growth of desert vegetation since the buildings were originally constructed. We were directed to a parking spot and then walked a short ways to the bookstore where we purchased tickets for one of the 90-minute tours that begin every half hour. (Tour information at http://www.franklloydwright.org/taliesin-west/plan-a-visit.html).

 

Wright first visited Arizona to consult on the design and construction of the Arizona Biltmore in 1927. The architect of record, Albert Chase McArthur, hired him as a consultant because of his work with the “textile block” construction method. Chase ultimately employed a variation of this technique, the Biltmore Block, and there is an air of Frank Lloyd Wright about the building because of it. I believe that Wright’s four month stint in the Sonoran Desert opened up a new world of possibilities to him at a time when he was greatly in need of a fresh start.

 

Wright was always a controversial figure. Intelligent and head strong, he tended to do things his way, and his battles with clients and peers are well know as was his penchant for romantic affairs. Beginning in 1911 with the construction of the original Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, an especially tumultuous series of events rocked his life. His paramour, Mahma Cheney, her children and several others were murdered at Taliesin East and a fire tied to the event destroyed part of the structure. The early 1920s were marked by two divorces and the death of his beloved mother, a new affair with a married woman that resulted in an arrest for violation of the Mann Act, another fire at Taliesin East and an assortment of business problems. It seemed as if Wright’s life was due for a remodel – enter Arizona!

 

While I have no factual evidence that a light bulb went off in Wright’s head once he saw the Sonoran Desert during the Biltmore consultancy, I think there is a real probability that he saw the area as an attractive venue for a fresh start. Wright had gone to new territories before to regenerate, and the desert certainly presented a very diverse set of challenges and opportunities compared to the Midwest. It was a blank canvas of sand and rock where he could try out his organic theory of architecture and see how it fit with a desert environment, and he could do it in a place that was relatively free from the press and public scrutiny.

 

Wright married Olgivanna Lazovich in 1928, and they honeymooned in Phoenix. Olgivanna was a key player in the formation of the Fellowship and the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. 1932 was the first year of the Fellowship and shortly thereafter they began wintering in the Phoenix area in makeshift accommodations. By 1937 Wright purchased the land where Taliesin West now sits on the west edge of Scottsdale.

 

For the first few years, Wright, Olgivanna and the members of the Fellowship were basically camping out in the desert. They would travel by caravan from Wisconsin, erect canvas structures in the desert and camp. They would spend the days studying and once the land was purchased, erecting more permanent structures that would eventually become Taliesin West. Even though members of the Fellowship were paying a substantial sum to learn from the master, they were expected to work hard as laborers as well as participate in everyday chores like food preparation, site maintenance, etc. It couldn’t have been an easy existence! In the spring they would pack everything up and return to Wisconsin for the summer.

 

Taliesin West Today

 

The buildings of Taliesin West do have a flavor of “camping out” about them. For many years the buildings had canvas for a roofing material. Wright made this material choice because the white canvas would let in light. Eventually, the canvas was covered with translucent white acrylic panels. Today there is an ongoing debate as to what to do with the roofs.

 

The buildings have definite similarities to the majority of Wright’s creations: they are low-slung, they are meant to blend in with the land on which they reside, and they are composed of native materials. In some sense they would not be unfamiliar to native populations that inhabited the Southwest hundreds of years ago.   One of the buildings in even referred to as the “Kiva”. Another factor that visitors to other Wright sites would find familiar is the compressed entryways of some of the buildings. They seem almost “claustrophobic” as you pass through, but they lead into large, open areas that feel like a breath of fresh air. I think this is exactly what Wright wanted visitors and occupants to experience!

 

The docents giving the tours are extremely knowledgeable, and there is much to see and a great deal to learn about Wright, Olgivanna, the Fellowship and Taliesin West. From the ancient petroglyph carved into a rock that Wright adapted into the “Clasped Hands” logo for the Fellowship to the amazing acoustics of the Cabaret Theater, there is a great deal to learn and much to enjoy at Wright’s desert oasis called Taliesin West.

A1-Taliesin-West

 

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Beautiful Public Buildings Preserved on the Plains

My wife and I recently took a motorcycle trip with some friends through parts of the Great Plains Region.  We saw a great deal of Nature’s beautiful handiwork from glacier-created lakes in western Iowa to the sacred pipestone quarries in western Minnesota, to sweeping expanses of grasslands that once teemed with buffalo (more correctly referred to as the American bison).  These natural wonders caused us to park the bikes and spend some time exploring.  What I didn’t expect, however, was experiencing that same sense of awe and appreciation over some man-made wonders!  Even more amazing, the buildings that gave us pause were county courthouses from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

rock county minnesota courthouse luverne minnesota

The Rock County Courthouse, Luverne, MN.

The first courthouse that pulled us in was the Rock County Courthouse in Luverne, Minnesota.  According to their website, “[This] three-story Romanesque building was built in 1888 of Sioux quartz rock mined from a quarry located in nearby Blue Mound State Park (one of the natural wonders I mentioned earlier).  It was renovated to its current condition in 1988 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.”

This beautiful building adorns a square two blocks north of the main business district.  Next to it, and also built with Sioux quartz, is the Veterans Memorial Center.  The Veterans Memorial building houses the Chamber of Commerce/Visitors’ Information Center and Brandenburg Gallery (home to many original works by National Geographic photographer and native son, Jim Brandenburg) along with a Veterans Museum (with artifacts and videos covering the Civil War to WWII).  We spent an entire morning feasting on these two beautiful architectural wonders and their historical and cultural contents.  View Slideshow of Both Buildings

Our other courthouse stop was about two hours south and east in the city of Spencer, Iowa.  The Clay County Courthouse has some similarities to Rock County’s.  Both buildings have a reddish hue, and both buildings feature a dome or tower with an open viewing area beneath their domes.  Like many buildings from this era, they also feature quality workmanship and beautiful architectural details.

Courthouse Clay County Iowa

The architectural styles, however, are different.  Clay County’s building, built twelve years later (begun in 1900), is Classic Revival while Rock County’s is Romanesque.  And unlike the Rock County Courthouse that still houses county offices, the Clay County Courthouse is only used for court cases and related judicial offices.  Since no cases were being held at the time we were there, we were able to tour the building and see the beautiful interior details such as stained glass windows, decorative ceilings, wonderful woodwork details, tile floors and other architectural touches that are often missing in today’s buildings (or are not done with the same quality of craftsmanship or materials).

There are several takeaways here.  Both these communities care about preserving the past.  Also, quality of craftsmanship, quality of design and material quality equal sustainable buildings that can still be functional and beautiful more than one hundred years later.  Finally, beautiful architecture is not confined to major metropolitan areas.  View Slideshow

Frank Lloyd Wright and the Wild West

I recently had a chance to look at a friend’s copy of Cowboys & Indians magazine for January 2013.  I did not expect to find an article on architecture and Frank Lloyd Wright in it; however, I should probably not have been surprised because Wright’s life parallels how most Americans envision the Wild West.

My childhood was filled with movie and TV westerns.  Most boys during the 50s & 60s were attracted to the cowboy ideal portrayed by movies and television during that time — “the rugged individual carving out a living in a relentless land full of untold dangers and unexplored territory.”  By the end of the movie, the hero had triumphed against all odds, and he had done it on his own terms and often with little outside help.  Sounds a bit like Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright was a maverick most of his life.  When he started as an architect, American designers had already begun to push back at the ornate, overblown styles of the Victorian period.  Wright is the most famous of the architects associated with this push back style known as “Prairie School” architecture.  Although best known for Midwestern homes and commercial structures done in this style, Wright was ready for a change by 1937.  Wright and third wife Olgivanna Lazovich had a first taste of Arizona living during the building of Wright’s Arizona Biltmore in Chandler.  Sick of Midwestern winters, the couple made a permanent move in 1937 choosing a spot in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains northeast of Scottsdale where they established Taliesin West.  According to the article, “It was here that the dark haired woman [Olgivanna] he had met by chance at a matinee performance of the Petrograd ballet would make a lasting contribution to her husband’s work.”

Wright, Olgivanna and Taliesin West would flourish in the American Southwest.  It was here that Wright designed the Guggenheim (see photo below); it was here that they established the Taliesin Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture that still thrives today; and it was here where they and their students learned self-sufficient living, an ideal that Wright “believed in and first implemented during the Depression.”  The Wrights and their students lived in tents as they built Taliesin, and they shared all the daily tasks like one big family.  The school’s motto still reflects this living/doing/learning lifestyle — “‘Live Architecture,’ is practiced continually in the context of the residential learning environment where life and work are integrated.”  (from Taliesin School of Architecture website)

To learn more about this period in Wright’s life, you can read the Dan Gleeson’s article, “Frank Lloyd Wright’s West“.  To discover more about the scandalous side of Wright and Taliesin, read the sister article in the January 2013 issue of Cowboys and Indians Magazine entitled “Tabloid Taliesin:  The Scandalous Side Of Frank Lloyd Wright.”  After reading them, see if you don’t agree with me that Wright embodied the promotional attributes of Buffalo Bill and the Wild West lifestyle of Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickock.  Happy Trails, Buckaroos!

Interior of the Gugenheim Museum

Interior of the Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Lloyd Wright during his Taliesin West period.  (Photo by Stevenuccia, licensed under Creative Commons)

Fort Worth Architecture

I recently had an opportunity to spend some time walking through the Sundance Square area of Fort Worth.  This is a unique area and well worth a visit.  Whether your interests are cultural, architectural, historical, gastronomical or shopping and entertainment, you can’t go wrong in Downtown Fort Worth!  It is one of the best downtown walking areas in the country; it even has its own website, www.sundancesquare.com.

The cultural attractions are many.  The one that most impressed me was the Bass Performance Hall.  Completed in 1998, the hall features just over 2,000 seats.  It also is an architectural wonder with its European Opera House style looks. The amazing trumpeting angel sculptures that adorn its facade are truly breathtaking!

The architectural style is mixed and runs from 19th Century cattle-town chic to Art Deco to modern.  Some of the buildings I found most interesting include the Sinclair Building (Art Deco, with its Mayan influences) to the restored brick buildings including the Knights of Pythius Hall and the Jett Building (supposedly haunted) with its Chisholm Trail mural.  The Ashton Hotel, a beautifully restored, Italianate style building with wrought iron balconies, decorative brick and stone is the only building of this style in the Fort Worth area.  Not only perfectly preserved on the outside, the interior speaks volumes about the elegance of earlier times.

Many famous Western figures spent time in Fort Worth including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as well as the rest of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.  This is where the famous picture was taken that led to their having to flee the country.  The spot is marked on Main Street where the photo was taken.  Others known to have frequented the area include Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and gambler, Luke Short (there is an historical marker on the building that housed Luke Short’s casino).

Many excellent restaurants and bars dot the area including Mi Cocina (great Mexican cuisine) and the Flying Saucer with its elevated outside seating area.  You will find something to excite any appetite from pastry to pasta to el pollo.  There are also many unique boutiques, shops and art galleries in the Sundance Square area where you can find anything from Western wear (the Retro Cowboy) to reproductions of famous Western art by such luminaries as C. M. Russell and Frederick Remington (Sid Richardson Museum).  Original Russell and Remington art is currently on display through May 13, 2012.

One final, and I think, bittersweet memory of Fort Worth’s historical and cultural importance is the Hilton Hotel.  Located at the southern edge of the Sundance Square area, it was the site of JFK’s stay the night before he was assassinated.  The hotel was then called the Hotel Texas.  The morning of the assassination, Kennedy delivered a speech in the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom.  Currently, a memorial to JFK is being erected across from the hotel’s main entrance.

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Dress Before Dinner!

My mother was a graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.  Knowing that I have an interest in Frank Lloyd Wright, she gave me her latest St. Olaf magazine and pointed me to the article on the last page entitled “Nothing but Scrambled Eggs.”  It was an account of the famous architect’s only visit to the campus on January 8, 1936.  Like so many things associated with Wright, it was punctuated by the unique!  What follows is a synopsis of the author’s (Jeff Sauve) article along with my personal take on several incidents.

Wright had come to Northfield to give a lecture.  Accompanied by his personal assistant, Gene Masselink, they had checked in at a local hotel.  However, Wright found the place “not fit for human habitation,” so they promptly checked out and headed for the St. Olaf campus.  I am not sure what their next plan was, and the article doesn’t provide any insight, but while they were admiring the recently constructed campus art studio nicknamed the “Art Barn,” the ran into a math professor who directed them to the home of the designer of the studio, professor Arnold Flaten.

Upon arrival at the Flaten home, they were promptly invited in and given accommodations for the evening by Mrs. Evelyn Flaten.  It didn’t take long for the first “Wright moment” to occur.  Shortly after being shown to their rooms, Masselink asked Mrs. Flaten, “Mr. Wright wishes to know if you prefer him to dress before dinner or after dinner?”  The nonplussed Mrs. Flaten shot back, “Before dinner!”

Since the recently arrived guests were a total surprise, there wasn’t much food in reserve.  There were, however, enough eggs to serve omelets with bacon.  Upon being served, Wright declared, “How did you know that eggs and bacon are the favorite food of architects and the best food to eat before a lecture?”

Shortly after dinned, Wright and Masselink, left for the lecture.  It was, however, a very short trip!  For those of you not familiar with January in Minnesota, it’s usually snowy, icy and cold.   Add that to the hilly terrain of Northfield and the St. Olaf campus, and you have the perfect mix for accidents.  As Wright’s car backed down the steep driveway, it slid out of control and into a snowbank.  Wright climbed out of the car, walked back to the house and took a nap on the couch, leaving the problem to his assistant and professor Flaten.

Once the car was dug out, the group headed for the lecture hall, and once again, the car slid into another snowbank.  And once again Wright took a short nap while Masselink and Flaten dug out the vehicle.  This reaction seems almost metaphorical to me.  Wright’s world was peppered with problems, some of them, like the 1914 fire at Taliesin, can only be described as horrific.  But Wright always seemed able sublimate the negatives and move on.  I am not sure whether or not it’s an admirable quality, but it does seem to be characteristic of the famous architect.  Eventually, the three men made it to the lecture hall, and Wright delivered his message to a large crowd.

As was his style, Wright didn’t mask his opinions.  His message was on organic architecture, and he suggested that maybe Americans couldn’t understand that kind of building because, although Americans were well-educated, “too many young people have been made into scientists and not into artists.”  This comment aligns with another of my beliefs about Wright; he never let science, math and engineering get in the way of his designs.  Although beautiful to the eye, many of then had serious engineering flaws.  A perfect example of this is the famous Fallingwater house, where his cantilevered decks began to sag almost as soon as they were finished and ultimately cost millions to repair.

The last “Wright moment” occurred shortly after the lecture.  Upon completion of the talk, Wright was introduced to several of the esteemed guests in attendance.  One of them, college president Lars Boe, asked the architect about his thoughts on the beautiful Gothic architecture that is the dominant theme of the St. Olaf campus.  Once again, Wright’s brusque manner adorned his response. “As far as the architecture of your campus is concerned, you’ve got one building, and that’s the Art Barn (Flaten’s building).  What you’ve got up here is nothing  but scrambled eggs.”

An interesting man, isn’t he?  If you want to read the article in its entirety, you’ll find it here.  (based on Jeff Sauve’s, article “Nothing but Scrambled Eggs” from St. Olaf Magazine, Fall 2011)

Wright's Park Inn Hotel Roof Line

Architecture, Environment and H2O

What do you get when you combine environmental awareness, educational opportunities and historical understanding – The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium!  Located on the banks of the Mississippi River in Dubuque, Iowa, the facility is a mecca for those interested in all things aquatic.   My wife and I had a chance to explore it when we spent a day in Dubuque during a recent fall motorcycle trip.

The center consists of two main buildings as well as an assortment of boats and other outdoor learning stations and is located in the old Ice Harbor area on the west bank of the Mississipi River near downtown Dubuque.  The first part, the William Woodward Mississippi River Center, opened in 2003.  Designed by EHDD Architecture of San Francisco, the structure houses multiple aquariums and exhibits.  According to EHDD’s website, the client wanted a structure that fit with the 19th Century riverfront and industrial architecture of the city.  Local materials like limestone and wood frame windows were chosen so the structure would blend seamlessly with the surrounding buildings.

The new portion of the facility (seen on the left side of the photos 1-3 below) was combined with the old Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works factory (the low-slung structure at the right in photos 1-3).  At the time of its closing in the 1970s, the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works company was the second-oldest ship builder in the country.  During its operational life, the company built everything from steam-driven riverboats to naval sub chasers and mine layers.

Inside the main facility are eight aquariums with fish, amphibians and reptiles from all ecosystems along the 2,552 mile-long Mississippi.  There are also many historical displays to explore.  You can step inside a riverboat, explore life on a flatboat, and view the natural habitat of the Mississippi on a boardwalk trail; these are just three of the many educational opportunities available to visitors.  There is also a hands-on learning center with a touch-tank and many animal specimens.  You can even partake in outdoor environmental presentations like a river otter show and step aboard a real Mississippi riverboat, the William M. Black, as well as a tug, the Logsdon.

In 2010 the Diamond Jo National Rivers Center was added to the campus.  While the original facility, the William Woodward Mississippi River Center, is primarily focused on the Mississippi, the National Rivers Center designed by Christopher Chadbourne and Associates, deals with a wide variety of aquatic environments from oceans and seas to other major river systems and waterways.  There are four saltwater aquariums, one of which is the 32 by 15 foot, 40,000 gallon Gulf of Mexico aquarium.  This giant aquarium contains sharks, rays and moray eels.  There are also many historical displays covering everything from Native Americans and Voyageurs to famous people associated with river transportation and exploration.

We were impressed with the number of environmental displays in the National Rivers Center and of the abundance of environmental information.   One interesting fact I discovered was how much water can be saved by using a car wash instead of a hose; a car wash can cut water usage in half!  The Center is also a research facility, the National River Research Center, dedicated to learning more about the science and history of rivers.  There is also a library of books, paintings, documents, photographs and manuscripts of America’s river history.  One final feature of the new Rivers Center is the 3-D and 4-D theater.  Museum goers get a break on tickets to the films, but you do not need to buy a museum ticket to see them.  You can purchase tickets for the theater only.

If you are in the Upper Midwest, a trip to the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium complex is a “must-see” opportunity for all ages.  Make sure you set aside at least a half-day, and I believe, you will find things to see and do there even if you choose to spend an entire day.  And, as an affiliate of the Smithsonian Museums, you can be sure that you will receive a high-quality learning experience.

 

Prairie Jewel – Wright’s Park Inn Hotel

I had the opportunity to take a tour of the newly renovated and recently reopened Park Inn Hotel last week.  If you have been reading this blog over the last few months, you are aware of my intense interest in this project.  Until last week I had little direct knowledge on the interior of the hotel.  I had been amazed by the beauty and detail on the outside on my earlier visits; however, the work done on the inside is simply stunning!  A walk through the hotel is like stepping back in time 101 years. (See Slideshow at Bottom)

Originally, the hotel occupied the west end of the building; the east end was occupied by the City National Bank.  If you view the building from Central Park (across the street and directly to the north), it is fairly easy to see that there are two distinct structures.  The dividing point, known as the “waist,”  juts inward at the mid-section of the entire structure.

The Park Inn Hotel is the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright designed hotel in the world.  Not only did Wright design the building, he also designed the stained glass windows and interior pieces like the barrel chairs and the Mercury statues in the Bank/Ballroom.  Since the renovation was an historical renovation, the rework had to model the original as closely as possible.  One of the most difficult challenges was returning the bank portion back to its original two-story height.  This area had been changed into a three-story structure (see three-story photos compare to renovated bank photos) to accommodate a variety of businesses, and turning it back to the original two-story configuration was a real engineering challenge.  Another huge task involved all the stained glass windows.  Some had to be located (the large Skylight Room window was found in a Mason City home and the owners donated it), many had to be restored, and some had to be reproduced.  Fortunately, an artist capable of the restoration work was nearby.  John Larsen of Clear Lake restored or re-created 62 stained glass windows for the project.  Old photos and Wright’s drawings were consulted to aid in reproducing period furnishings such as carpet and furniture, and some original items were used as models for reproduction pieces such as the Mercury statues in the Ballroom.

So what’s original and what isn’t?  The original items include:

  • skylights in the Ballroom and the Skylight Room
  • art glass in many of the rooms and the hotel lobby
  • some of the bathroom floor tile, as well as the floor tile in the main lobby and Skylight Room
  • wood flooring, stair railings, louvered guest room doors and some of the paneling, doors, transoms and safe frame in the Law Office
  • donated Stickley pieces in Law Office are period
  • copper facia and much of the brick as well as the polychrome tile on the exterior
  • the Historic Suite is in 1910 configuration
  • clerestory window grill work (some original grill work was found in a nearby community where it was serving as a residential fence)
  • cement urns on balcony outside Ladies Parlor

Items that were reproduced include:

  • the Mercury statues in the Ballroom (one original was found and the owner allowed it to be used as the model for casting)
  • the Mezzanine balcony (the original failed within ten years and was removed)
  • the Law Office library table
  • exterior light fixtures and the Bank grill work on entry door
  • clerestory windows on Bank section
  • the ground floor cement urn at the entry into the Waist portion of the building
  • the barrel chairs were reproduced from Wright drawings.
  • billiards table is original period piece but was not original to the building

Things that have been changed, added or modernized:

  • the number of guest rooms – originally there were 40 some guest rooms; now there are 27 guest rooms (now includes third floor of bank)
  • an elevator and some new railings and ramping for accessibility and safety
  • new heating, plumbing and electrical
  • very few original furnishings remained; designers had to find correct styles of period furniture; carpeting had to be designed and manufactured
  • guest rooms now have individual bathrooms

I was fortunate to have Scott Borcherding as my tour guide.  Scott, of Bergland + Cram, was the Interior Designer on the project.  Scott was an excellent tour guide, and I gained many interesting insights about the building, others involved, and about Wright himself.  One piece of information that I found extremely interesting is that Wright completed his design in 1909 and shortly after began his affair with Mamah Cheney.  Because they ran off to Europe together, construction of the hotel and bank complex was actually supervised by Wright’s associate, William Drummond.

I am signing off for now.  I have much more to say and show about the Park Inn Hotel project, but it will have to wait until next time!  (You can learn more about the project at Wright On The Park.)

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