The rolling hills of Wisconsin, the Arizona desert, a Pennsylvania nature preserve and the Upper East Side of Manhattan are settings for some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s preeminent achievements.
America’s greatest architect designed over 1,000 structures and completed more than 500 works during his career that spanned seven decades.
My wife and I have visited Wright’s studio and neighborhood in Oak Park, Illinois; his private homes in Spring Green, Wisconsin (Taliesin) and Scottsdale, Arizona (Taliesin West); Fallingwater in Pennsylvania; and the Guggenheim Museum masterpiece on Fifth Avenue, New York City.
Born June 8, 1867, in Richland Center, Wisconsin, to a farming family from Wales, he studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin. He then apprenticed in Chicago with architects. He opened his own practice in Chicago in 1893, and established a studio in his Oak Park, Illinois, home in 1898.
A pioneer in what came to be called the Prairie School movement of architecture, Wright also developed a vision for urban planning that included 41 commissions.
Through the years he designed private homes, offices, schools, churches, banks, skyscrapers, hotels, museums and other commercial projects in 36 states. He spent six years (1915-1922) working on Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, acclaimed for its earthquake-proof supporting structure. He also designed interior components, including leaded glass windows, floors, furniture and tableware.
He authored 20 books and was a well-known lecturer throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Of the hundreds of projects he created during his lifetime, nearly one-third of them were designed during 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 among the best truly American architecture. Eight of his major works are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. They include sites we visited. Below are some 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, at age 22, Wright married Catherine Lee Tobin. Wright bought a lot in Oak Park and built his modest house for his family, which eventually included six children.
Wright began his own practice in 1893, moving it to his home, which he expanded in 1895 and 1899, adding a drafting studio and reception room.
His studio became a training ground for architects of the Prairie Style, which emphasized open spaces and shallow, 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 on three separate occasions. On our last visit with our foreign exchange student, we took the one-hour tour of the house and studio. We then purchased a map in the gift shop that allowed us to view on our own various Wright sites in the neighborhood from the adjacent sidewalks.
There also is a guided walking tour or a bus tour that covers nearly a dozen homes on Chicago and Forest avenues and on Elizabeth Court.
Taliesin, Spring Green, Wisconsin
Taliesin is the home, studio and school on all 800-acre estate that Frank Lloyd Wright built in 1911. The hill was one of his favorite places he remembered as a boy.
Wright is said to have been “creatively exhausted and emotionally restless,” late in 1909 when he left his wife and family for an extended stay in Europe with Mamah Borthwick (Cheney), a client who had been his mistress for several years.
The same year Wright and Mamah returned to the States he began construction of Taliesin. There he also resumed his architectural practice.
In August 1914, Mamah, her two children and four others were killed in a fire at Taliesin, deliberately started by a deranged Taliesin domestic employee. Devastated by the tragedy, Wright was able to find comfort 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 for the building of Taliesin III.
Taliesin, named in honor of a Welsh bard whose name means “shining brow,” is one hour’s drive from Madison, Wisconsin, and 3 ½ hours from Chicago.
The two-hour walking tour at the picturesque rural estate is excellent. The first stop is the 5,000 square foot drafting studio that includes an expansive assembly hall, fellowship dining room, and theater. Then the shuttle driver stops at the Taliesin home. The guide offers intimate details about Wright’s personal studio, the living room, guest bedroom and the bedrooms for Wright and his wife.
Wright left Taliesin and the estate to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation upon his death. Taliesin today mostly operates as a museum, however, it still is occupied by students at The School of Architecture at Taliesin on a seasonal basis.
Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Arizona
Wright tired of the long winters in Wisconsin and in 1937 built Taliesin West, north of Scottsdale, Arizona. His home and studio complex were his laboratory until his death in 1959.
Taliesin West is considered among the most personal of Wright’s creations. He diligently handcrafted it over many years, connecting it to the desert. Some consider it possessing “almost prehistoric grandeur.” Wright called it “a look over the rim of the world.”
Taliesin West is open year round, but closed on major holidays. Guided tours and self-guided audio tours are the only way to visit the site. You cannot enter the property unless you are on an official tour or attending an event. Advance online ticket reservations are required 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, drafting studio, music pavilion and the cabaret.
The gift shops at the sites feature books, home decor, apparel and art.
Fallingwater, Mill Run, Pennsylvania
Fallingwater is the highly-acclaimed house designed in 1935 by Wright for the Kaufmann family, owners of Pittsburgh’s largest department store. It exemplifies his philosophy of organic architecture — the union of art and nature.
Wright was thought to be in the twilight of his career when he created Fallingwater. At the age of 67, he was commissioned to build their weekend home. The site he chose was not where the Kauffmanns expected — across from the falls on their property. Instead, he chose to build directly over the falls. In Wright’s thinking, the family could not only view nature, but live within its midst.
The home, about 90 minutes from Pittsburgh, is considered an architectural wonder. It was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1966. In 1991, members of the American Institute of Architects named Fallingwater the “best all-time work of American architecture.”
When we visited the house in May, the tour was still limited because of COVID-19 concerns. We got an extensive exterior tour but only saw the main floor of the interior of the main house and portions of the upper guesthouse.
The setting of the house is breathtakingly beautiful. Seeing the structure from various angles, you get the feeling that it is actually part of the landscape and interacts with it.
Guggenheim Museum, New York City
Frank Lloyd Wright received the commission to build the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 1943. The stipulation of the museum’s co-founders was that “the building should be unlike any other museum in the world.”
Wright succeeded with the Guggenheim. It is considered the crowning achievement of his career. It opened in 1959, six months after Wright’s death.
His radical design concept includes a spiraling ramp, which resembles an hourglass. The open rotunda allows viewers to see artistic work from different levels simultaneously.
At a suggestion of friends, upon entrance we climbed the seven floors of the Guggenheim and toured the museum from the top floor down. With our 5-year-old granddaughter in tow, we enjoyed “A Year with Children 2021” which showcases selected artworks by New York City elementary students. My favorite area was the display of famous European Impressionists.
The Guggenheim is adjacent to Central Park; numerous outdoor cafes are available in the elegant Upper East Side neighborhood.
For architectural beauty and inspiration, consider a visit to one or more of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most well-known sites.