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Finding Mr. Wright: Step inside the legacy of America’s most famous architect

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While addressing a group of Frank Lloyd Wright aficionados, author and Wright authority Mark Hertzberg referenced the architect’s “uncanny sense of what light would do during the day. [How] sunlight streaming through one of his houses projects patterns on the walls.” Hertzberg suggested that once anyone tours a Wright structure, they often experience an “attachment” to the architect and his architectural style. After following the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail in Wisconsin, from Racine through Madison and on to Spring Green, I realized what he meant about both.

Wright’s influence on architecture reaches well beyond his home state of Wisconsin. It was Wright who established the Prairie Style of architecture resulting in low-pitched roofs and overhanging eaves on the outside with a central chimney anchoring the open floor plans inside. It is believed he embraced openness as an antidote to the confined construction of the Victorian era.

A forerunner in organic architecture, Wright married his designs with the environment. Between 1900 and 1917, his ideas flourished in the Midwest. Many, like the structures in Wisconsin, are open for group tours. The State of Wisconsin developed a Frank Lloyd Wright Trail, and my group followed it from Racine through Madison to his beloved Taliesin in Spring Green. Along the way, groups are invited to step inside, not merely drive by, his most illustrious works.
Racine

SC Johnson Company and Wingspread

Business was booming when the SC Johnson Company approached Wright to design its new Administration Building, which was completed in 1939. A commission followed to design the Research Tower on the same campus. Completed in 1950, both buildings are still in use. The Administration Building is regarded as one of the top 25 buildings of the 20th century. The distinction may have a lot to do with the dendriform (tree-shaped) columns that support the structure’s Great Workroom. Equally impressive is the 15-floor Research Tower, which uses more than 7,000 glass tubes to make up the windows of the research lab. Don’t miss The SC Johnson Gallery: At Home with Frank Lloyd Wright, which showcases a rotating selection of Wright’s designs and artifacts and explores the legendary architect’s influence on families and the American home.

Nearby at Wingspread, a personal estate that Wright built for the then-head of SC Johnson, tours are available of the 14,000-square-foot property. Wingspread is the largest of Wright’s signature Prairie-style houses. And it was his last. The house appears smaller on the outside than within, where a 30-foot chimney, floor-to-ceiling windows and skylights help elongate the interior’s living space and provide ample access for light to dance across the walls. 

Madison Monona Terrace 

Monona Terrace, Wisconsin

Photo: Group Tour Media/Mary Lu Laffey Monona Terrace tour stop, Spring Green, Wis.

Wright weighed the idea of a “dream civic center” for nearly 60 years before his curvilinear “gathering place” was built to link the shore of Lake Monona to Wisconsin’s State Capitol in Madison. Monona Terrace opened in 1977. Adult groups have a choice of tours including an Architecture Tour, the Frank Lloyd Wright Tour, a Museum Gallery Tour and a number of themed options. Groups may also arrange for a Wine & Cheese Tour or one that includes bubbly. All explore the architect’s trademarks of open spaces and geometric forms. From Monona Terrace, the view of the lake is spectacular. In the original plans, Wright wanted the building to reach 300 feet over the water; in the final construction, the building extends 90 feet over the lake. A guided tour is one of the most memorable ways to tour the center.

Spring Green Taliesin

Taliesin Preservation welcomes larger groups to the Taliesin estate, one of Wright’s masterpieces. Two tours are available for groups: The Hillside Studio & Theater Tour or the House Tour. A group luncheon in the Riverview Terrace Café also can be arranged before or after a tour. 

Great Workroom, SC Johnson, Racine, Wis.

Photo: Group Tour Media Mary Lu Laffey, writer/researcher, Great Workroom, SC Johnson, Racine, Wis.

Wright was born in Wisconsin, attended UW-Madison and spent many years of his life in Spring Green. His Wisconsin roots helped define him as an architect and heavily influenced his work.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center is referred to as the “Riverview Terrace,” as it spans two hills beside the Wisconsin River; it is the gateway to visit Taliesin.

Wright’s Taliesin Estate is an 800-acre National Historic Landmark and home to six Wright-designed structures. Highlights include his home; Hillside Theater, the school that Wright designed; the windmill tower and Tan-y-Deri, the home he built for his sister, Jane Porter, and his collection of Oriental art. The stage curtain at the theater is an abstract of the hill at Taliesin including the river, the sky and cranes in flight. 

Nearby, tour the Wyoming School, now the Wyoming Valley School Cultural Arts Center; the building has been preserved for use by the community. 

For more information, visit Travel Wisconsin at travelwisconsin.com.  

 

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Mary Lu Laffey, Contributor

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