Discovering Wisconsin’s Frank Lloyd Wright Trail
Friday, June 30, 2017
Timed to celebrate Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th birthday this year, a new trail has been established to take travelers on a self-guided architectural adventure through southern Wisconsin.
Wright is widely regarded as America's greatest architect. Born in the Badger State's rugged Driftless Region, he spent his boyhood summers working on his uncle's farm in Spring Green and eventually built his now famous home and studio — Taliesin — just a mile away.
The region's landscape, with its dramatic bluffs, coulees and lush farmland, inspired Wright's natural, organic architecture and the "Prairie School" style for which he is famous.
The 200-mile Frank Lloyd Wright Heritage Trail connects nine key Wright sites — originating in the southeast corner of the state and ending in the west. It is a designated motor route, where new signs guide visitors across the state.
First stop along the trail is the SC Johnson corporate headquarters in Racine. Designed by Wright in 1936, this extraordinary complex still presents a dashing vision of the modern American workplace.
Its slender 15-story Research Tower, says Lori Rackl in the Chicago Tribune, "is the vertical yin to the horizontal yang of the stunning Administration Building where 43 miles of Pyrex tubes serve as windows and let light flood into the open work space." The structure has been cited as one of the top 25 buildings of the 20th century.
Wright's work for the Johnson family didn't end with the company's headquarters. He also was commissioned to build an estate for the firm's third-generation leader H.F. Johnson, Jr.
The largest of Wright's Prairie School houses, the estate was built using natural materials such as limestone, brick and unstained wood and features four wings jutting out across 14,000 square feet of space. He completed the sprawling structure in 1939 and appropriately named it Wingspread.
Wright didn't just build towering workspaces and custom estates — he had a dream of creating homes that were affordable for the typical family. His American System-Built Homes were developed between 1915 and 1917 in seven models. Notable for their clean, angular lines, these modest homes were built from standardized designs utilizing components that were precut in an offsite factory.
The concept — seen as a forerunner to prefabrication — was probably ahead of its time as the venture was short-lived and only a few dozen of the homes were built. Six well-preserved examples can be seen on West Burnham Street and Layton Boulevard in Milwaukee. One of them, the Burnham Home, is open for tours on select weekends.
Moving on to Madison, the trail leads next to the Monona Terrace, a striking curvilinear convention center, with a shape suggestive of New York's Guggenheim, on the shores of Lake Monona near the Wisconsin State Capitol.
Although Wright first designed the project in 1938, numerous setbacks meant the center wasn't completed until 1997, nearly four decades after his death. Today, once controversial Monona Terrace is the pride of Madison.
Madison is home to another famous Wright structure, the First Unitarian Society Meeting House. Wright was a member of this congregation — and his preacher father was one of its founders — so the project was close to his heart. Completed in 1951, the meeting house is notable for its high-pitched copper roof and prow of interlaced wood, glass and steel. It has been hailed as one of the world's most innovative examples of church architecture.
For Wright fans, nothing tops his 800-acre estate set in the rolling hills overlooking the Wisconsin River in Spring Green. Taliesin, which means "shining brow" in Welsh — a nod to Wright's Welsh grandparents — is a sprawling architectural campus that includes buildings from nearly every decade of his career.
Rebuilt after two fires, Taliesin was Wright's primary residence and his laboratory for architectural designs and innovation from 1911 to 1959. Today, a nonprofit organization, Taliesin Preservation, manages the grounds and operates the adjacent Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center. The center offers six touring options of the estate, along with a variety of arts and cultural education programs and special events.
Located three miles from Taliesin, Wyoming Valley School was designed and donated to the community by Wright in honor of his mother, Anna Lloyd-Jones Wright. Presently, the school operates as a nonprofit organization promoting the arts and culture of the surrounding region. It provides spaces for workshops, performances, lectures and exhibits. Tours are currently offered on Saturday and Sunday.
The Wright trail comes to an end in the architect's hometown of Richland Center with a visit to the AD German Warehouse. Notable for its impressive Mayan Revival-style sculptural ornamentation, the four-story warehouse was built in 1921 for commodity wholesaler Albert D. German.
It is the only remaining commercial structure designed by Wright that still exists from this time period. Today, the building houses exhibits and a gift shop and is open for tours on Sunday from May to October.
A mystery faces visitors hoping to see Wright's birthplace. It is an established fact that he was born in Richland Center on June 8, 1867 — but his exact birthplace is a matter of dispute with seven locations being in contention.
Wright died in 1959 in Phoenix, Arizona. He was 92 years old.
For more information: 800-432-8747, www.travelwisconsin.com.
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