Taliesen West: How Frank Lloyd Wright Really Lived There
Recently, I visited Taliesen West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and architecture school in the desert outside of Scottsdale, Arizona. Our tour guide reveled in recounting the intimate details of Wright’s personal life in his winter retreat and I can’t wait to share them with you. Plenty is written elsewhere about his architectural theories. Let’s get to the fun stuff.
Frank Lloyd Wright was prompted to build Taliesen West after he almost died of pneumonia during a harsh Wisconsin winter. He also was sick of paying his high Wisconsin winter heating bills. Who else hates winter bills? Wright became acquainted with the Phoenix/Scottsdale area as a consultant on Phoneix’s Biltmore Hotel and eventually found 640 acres that he purchased in 1937 for a song: $3.50/acre.
Since he was escaping the dreary cold, snow and ice, Wright embraced natural light and warm air when he designed Taliesen West. Many spaces have soft filtered light and are easily opened to the outdoors.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Studio
Wright’s studio is one example of the open air concept. Wright was able to work all day in his studio without any artificial lighting. In his time, the ceiling was covered with canvas (it didn’t hold up well, and was later replaced by plastic). The space just between the roof and stone walls originally was left open so that cooling breezes could circulate. I loved the room’s wonderfully soft diffuse aura. It was here that Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim Museum.
The exterior of Taliesen West reflects Wright’s general philosophy that local, native materials should be used for construction. It’s made from a combination of desert rocks, wood and concrete known as desert masonry. He deviated from his “local is best” philosophy to kindly add a strip of grass to provide his students’ children with a soft play area. The kids also dipped into the adjoining pool to wade.
I was astonished to find Wright so thoughtful about the children’s needs until I learned that Wright created the iconic toy, Lincoln Logs. Equally surprising was learning that Wright named the toy after himself. Wright was baptized Frank Lincoln Wright, but later changed his name to Frank Lloyd Wright, hence the toy’s name. I mistakenly assumed it was named after Abraham Lincoln. Interesting trivia!
When he wasn’t in his studio, Wright’s students would sometimes find him in his small study. If he was napping on the left side of the divider, his students were not to disturb him. If they found him on the side you see below, it was ok to stop in.
His Wife’s Retreat
Next door, Wright’s wife had her own study. It was my favorite room in the complex because I loved the large Asian inspired mural.
The Dining Room
At first, Wright and his students dined in the front of the complex to take in the lovely desert view. However, Wright was furious when power lines were installed during the Truman administration, so much so that he built a new dining room on the opposite side of the house. The bell called his students for dinner.
The Front Door
Wright considered this small, short door ( Wright was only 5’7”) to be the front door of his home. It’s design incorporates the Taliesen West symbol, inspired by Native American petroglyphs discovered onsite during construction. The symbol is now seen throughout the complex. Did you know, that Wright “signed” his houses? He considered them to be art, and figured why not? At Taliesen West, he installed this red tile next to the front door, bearing his signature.
Next to the front door is one of many interesting sculptures installed on the property. Wright, unable to afford the costly Asian porcelain that he desired, ultimately bought broken pieces and had his students assemble them into a new creation.
Sculptor Heloise Crista
Also installed throughout the property are works by Heloise Crista, who came to Taliesien West not to become an architect, but to be in “the atmosphere of such ideas and such people as Mr. and Mrs. Wright and the community of apprentices.” She delighted in the creative atmosphere and her first work, a bust of Wright, remains proudly on display in the large living room. I was personally more drawn to this romantic depiction of lovers I spied outside on the grounds that I believe is by her.
The Living Room
The living room is the first room you enter from the front door. Here Wright, his wife and students would sometimes gather in the evenings to engage in the lively conversation that drew Crista to the community. The chair in the rear is known as Wright’s origami chair, and the room, also known, as the Garden Room, overlooks Wright’s favorite garden.
The Projection Room
Nearby, Wright installed a home theater, where he often indulged in Westerns. I learned that he loved John Wayne movies!
Outside the home theater, a large dragon is prominently displayed . Originally, the dragon was installed in a nearby fountain, but Wright’s wife declared that no self-respecting dragon lived in the water! Wright promptly moved the dragon and installed a gas line allowing it to actually breathe fire on special nights. You can see it’s charred finish.
The Music Pavilion and Caberet Theatre
This lovely pergola leads a complex, that includes an acoustically perfect music pavilion for concerts and a caberet theatre for small productions. In addition to architecture, Wright required his students to either act, sing or play an instrument as entertainment at Taliesen West, asserting that they should be well-rounded. I especially loved the Asian door hardware.
As you might expect, Taliesen West is in compete harmony with its surroundings. Today, the National Historic Landmark continues to still serves as the winter residence of Wright’s architecture school and the home of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.