Intervention Approaches at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin: A Preservation Case Study

Author

Allison Semrad

Tags

Newsletter, Frank Lloyd Wright, preservation

Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Wisconsin, is an eight-hundred acre estate situated in a rural, rolling landscape. It comprises a sprawling residence and office building, as well as a school, houses, a dam, ponds, a windmill, and farm buildings. Taliesin is significant due to its architectural character. It features representative works spanning Wright’s entire career from the 1880s through the architect’s death in 1959. The site is also significant because of its association with Wright’s elaborate and well-documented model for teaching and living, the Taliesin Fellowship.

 

Today, Taliesin is open for public tours and also houses a resident community made of current students, faculty, interns, and even a few older members of the Fellowship, Wright’s own colleagues often referred to as the Legacy Fellows. The buildings on this site are materially difficult to maintain. Students and apprentices were responsible for much of Taliesin’s construction, and buildings were not built to contemporaneous codes, let alone modern standards. Additionally, Wisconsin’s harsh climate often accelerates the deterioration of wood details, plaster, stucco, and Taliesin’s cedar shingle roofs. Spaces within Taliesin have been selectively restored, rehabilitated, preserved, or modified over time. Caretakers, residents, and preservationists must grapple with Taliesin as both a historic object and living site.

 

As we approach Wright’s 150th birthday in June, we can also note that it has been fifty-eight years since the architect’s death in 1959. 2017 also marks the 26th year of Taliesin’s preservation-focused non-profit, Taliesin Preservation Incorporated (TPI), and discussions surrounding Taliesin’s management and preservation treatment stretch back multiple decades. By looking at ways in which the buildings have been treated through time, it is possible to unpack some of the methods, means, and values inherent in preservation work, especially values specific to Taliesin and Wright’s legacy. The site is a rich example that illustrates many ways in which a place can be preserved. This article will highlight just a few interventions manifest at this complex site.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, Taliesin continued on as the residence and workspace of the Fellowship. The site was nominated to the National Register in 1973, and three years later was designated a National Historic Landmark.1 Through some of the country’s earliest federal and state preservation granting programs, Taliesin Fellows sought funding to complete necessary maintenance and stabilization work, such as electrical rewiring and stabilization of roof trusses at Hillside School’s drafting studio.2 Otherwise, Taliesin’s residents maintained the buildings for continued use, including the modification of living quarters and structural stabilization where deemed necessary.

 

1988 marks a major turning point for the site’s formalized preservation, when Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson signed an executive order calling for the creation of a commission to plan for Taliesin’s preservation and future use.3 The appointed commissioners included local politicians, preservationists, and members of the Fellowship. Ultimately, the group’s collective recommendations were instrumental in determining Taliesin’s management and interpretation strategy, which is still largely implemented today. These recommendations called for the creation of a separate preservation-focused non-profit to handle maintenance and restoration tasks (TPI), as well as the creation of a robust public tour program, and the implementation of restrictive covenants that gave real teeth to formalized preservation measures (standards for documentation, salvage of existing materials, etc.) The commission’s recommendations, shortly followed by TPI’s policy, established physical zones of significance and determined Taliesin’s primary period significance to be the decade of the 1950s, with an emphasis on the last years of Wright’s life.4

Taliesin’s zones of significance call for different preservation treatments based on the existing integrity and planned use of individual rooms. Exterior appearances and Wright’s own living quarters are all deemed of primary significance, to be restored to a 1950s appearance. More change is acceptable in secondary and non-significant spaces, where students and resident Fellows continually modified interior configurations and finishes, or where mechanical equipment is housed.

 

Notably, Taliesin’s interpretation goals, as drafted in 1988 and 1989, highlight the importance of Wright’s concepts of organic architecture and community, as well as the Fellowship’s life, history, and role in continuing Wright’s legacy. Taliesin’s physical buildings were of secondary emphasis, as a built example of Wright’s architectural ideas.4

 

Following the Governor’s Commission findings, TPI (originally called Taliesin Preservation Commission, or TPC) was created in 1991 and tasked with the preservation and maintenance of Taliesin’s buildings. Early projects by the preservation commission include the stabilization of Mr. Wright’s bedroom terrace, a cantilevered patio of primary significance. In 1992, under the direction of TPI’s first director, Robert Burley a Vermont-based architect, the preservation team thoroughly documented the conditions of this outdoor terrace. They also researched the history of the area using available photographs and oral history interviews.5 Ultimately, the intervention was relatively small, involving the removal of stone paving to allow for the addition of new steel beams where the existing structure was deemed inadequate. The terrace’s wood decking was replaced in-kind, and the original stone was reset in the same configuration.6 This early TPI project set a high bar for documentation standards and involved a thorough understanding of construction details and the structural behavior of a small area of the residence.

A different strategy was employed at Mrs. Wright’s bedroom, a second-floor space adjacent to Mr. Wright’s bedroom within the Taliesin residence. The exterior appearance of the room was both modified and restored through the 1990s, but the interior remained unfinished and mothballed for future restoration.8 In 2008, TPI tackled the structural stabilization of this side of the house in conjunction with an interior restoration campaign. An engineering study determined that this area of the house was sliding down the slope at an alarming rate, and that foundation repairs would be necessary to stabilize the structure. TPI correctively jacked this portion of the house (as much as 1-7/8” in one location), and installed new concrete footings and steel beams to support the floor framing of Taliesin’s lower floor.9 The original limestone foundations still exist beneath the structure, but are no longer load-bearing. During foundation investigations, the preservation team also found existing jacks, suggesting this area of the house had gone through a different stabilization campaign decades before.10 After jacking, Taliesin’s lower floor is being rehabilitated to provide new accommodations for students and visiting guests. The rehabilitated spaces retain a historic appearance, as researched, but also feature modern appliances, new flooring, and new plasterwork.11 The corrective stabilization also allowed for a comprehensive restoration of Mrs. Wright’s room one floor above. The area was restored to its 1950s appearance was opened to public tours for the first time ever in 2010.12

These examples provide just two instances of many interventions employed at Taliesin over almost sixty years. Both established stability and safety while maintaining the historic appearance of exterior and interior spaces, and both projects were designed to maintain historic material where it was still extant. A small, on-site preservation team is responsible for most of the physical labor at Taliesin, and typically, work is only outsourced when projects call for specific engineering analyses or large, heavy equipment. TPI’s on-site craftsmen and preservation architects employ a deep knowledge of the site’s history and building’s details. Decisions, proposed by TPI, are carefully weighed and approved by an oversight committee as well as the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation’s board. And, as seen with the two short case studies, the interventions often constitute different approaches tailored to specific building materials and future uses, in some ways carrying on traditions of modifying the building that stretch back to the 1930s.

 

At Taliesin, the preservation strategy does not necessarily adhere strictly to formalized industry standards. The preservation team’s working policy was developed with great care over a long time, growing into the site and adapting to the unique needs of this specific building and community.  When studied by preservationists, this nuanced approach can inform our understanding of Taliesin as a tool for learning and also help shed light on the multitude of ways in which places can be restored.

 

About the Author


Allison is a current master's student in the Historic Preservation program at Columbia University. She is wrapping up a thesis on preservation treatments at Taliesin, which has been graciously and thoughtfully advised by Theo Prudon. She also has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Stanford University and is excited to begin a year as the Silman Fellow for Preservation Engineering, a joint position between Silman and the National Trust.

 

Notes

[1] Jeffrey M. Dean, “National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form,” ID 73000081, 10 July 1972 & Carolyn Pitts, “National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form,” TAA Archive, 29 July 1975.
[2] Various Correspondence, Folder: Midway – Taliesin North Master Plan & Miscellaneous, TAA Project Files, Avery Box 189, TAA Box 2120, The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

[3] State of Wisconsin Office of the Governor, “Executive Order 45,” received 28 June 1988.
[4] TPI, “Taliesin Preservation Policy,” Unpublished Document, last updated 2013.
[5] Draft Report, Recommendations of the Governor’s Commission, Folder: Governor’s Commission Wisconsin – 1988, TAA Project Files, Avery Box 239, The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).
[6] Joseph Dye Lahendro, TPI, “Investigation Plan for Mr. Wright’s Terrace,” 16 November 1992.
[7] Joseph Dye Lahendro, TPI, “Stabilization of Mr. Wright’s Balcony Interim Report,” 14 August 1992.
[8] Joseph Dye Lahendro, TPI, “Stabilization of Mrs. Wright’s Bedroom Interim Report,” 14 October 1992.
[9] TPI, Reference Drawings for Project 100_091 Wright Bedroom Shoring, February 5, 2010.
[10] TPI, Gold Room Project 2004 – 2007, Documentation Photograph Binder, Tote #9.
[11] TPI, Quarterly Board Report June 2010, pgs. 1 – 14.
[12] Ibid.