How Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin survived murder, fires, constant change

The architect's home may be best known for the fire that killed his mistress. But it's a masterpiece of marrying design and landscape. CNET Road Trip 2013 stopped by to see it firsthand.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read

A look at the garden courtyard outside Taliesin. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SPRING GREEN, Wis. -- Is it possible for a masterwork of architecture to be best known for a grisly murder?

In the case of Taliesin, architect Frank Lloyd Wright's longtime home, the answer may well be yes.

In 1911, Wright built a stunning home on a terrific piece of land with a steep drop on one side and a gentle descent on the other. He built it for Mamah Borthwick, a client's wife with whom he had fallen in love. Needing to escape Oak Park, Ill., where he had lived and worked, but where the client lived, he and Borthwick went to Germany. But looking for a new home base, they then moved to Spring Green, where Wright had grown up.

Taliesin: At home with Frank Lloyd Wright (pictures)

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There, on a sprawling 600-acre estate, Wright built Taliesin, a home that masterfully married architecture and design with the lovely, peaceful, rolling hills of the estate. For decades, until his death at 91 in 1959, Taliesin -- Welsh for "shining brow" -- was Wright's eastern headquarters. During the colder months in the later part of his life, he would stay at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Ariz., but Wisconsin was in the heartland, where he did the bulk of his work, and Taliesin will forever be thought of by many as his true home.

But on Aug. 14, 1914, while Wright was in Chicago on business, a servant set fire to the residence, killing Borthwick, two of her children, and four others. That murder may well always overshadow the architecture, in part because it became the centerpiece of several works of literature.

Curiously, that wasn't the only conflagration to destroy Taliesin. In 1925, too, flames roared through the residence, reducing it to ash. This time, Wright was home to witness the blaze, and no one was killed.

Daniel Terdiman

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Wright was never one to miss an opportunity, and with the fires, he saw the chance to remake Taliesin. Indeed, that chance fit right into the design philosophy he had chosen when he started building the house in the first place. As Sidney Robinson, a longtime Wright historian, told me when I stopped by Taliesin as part of Road Trip 2013, Wright designed Taliesin from the beginning as a building with an aesthetic he knew would change.

Indeed, over the years, Taliesin has continually evolved, Robinson explained. Unlike many architectural masterpieces around the world -- perhaps even some of Wright's -- Taliesin is hardly museum-static. Rather, Robinson argued, the house is a living site that is always adapting to the way people use it, and even to the landscape itself.

After the second fire, for example, Wright decided that the main living room was too small. So he simply extended the room out over the open space below. Today, you can't tell that he did that, but his approach was a gift to preservationists. In one instance, Wright added a second roof on top of the first, which left historians like Robinson with a terrific record of the famous architect's design process.

Wright was also interested in what might be called optical illusions. Looking at Taliesin, it's hard to discern the natural contours of the hillside on which the house was built. In fact, though, it's quite steep on one side, and features a softer slope on the other. Wright wanted to build on the steep side, Robinson said, forcing him to put in a retaining wall below, between a cut in the hill and the house he built. The flat space in between, where the house lies, was the juxtaposition that Wright was going for.

Today, Taliesin is many things to many people. The main house is both a museum that the public can visit, and a site for a number of events. The estate also houses an architecture school, as well as members of the Frank Lloyd Wright Fellowship -- students of the architecture school.

Like so many of Wright's works, Taliesin needs constant maintenance, and the Taliesin Preservation, which manages the estate, is having trouble raising the funds necessary to keep up with the required work, Robinson suggested. Luckily, the public can do something about it. Those interested in seeing one of Wright's greatest works can make the trip to Spring Green, not far from Wisconsin's capital of Madison, and visit the house themselves. The funds those visits provide help the Taliesin Preservation keep up the house, and maintain the legacy of one of America's greatest architectural masters.