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Heating and Horror at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin

In this episode, Dan Holohan tells us about Frank Lloyd Wright’s unique heating system at Taliesin and how a horrific 1914 event took its toll on the home and its inhabitants.


Episode Transcript

When he was a boy, Frank Lloyd Wright avoided much of the work on his family's Wisconsin farm by climbing atop a hill and hiding in the oaks.

He'd watch the tractors moving over the rolling hills, as I did on a day some years ago. It's beautiful there, atop his hill. And when he was grown, and to get him to stay, his mother gave him the hill on which he once hid, and near the top of this hill, Frank Lloyd Wright spent much of his life, building and rebuilding Taliesin, which, in Welsh, means "shining brow." The house wraps around the top of the hill, just like a brow, or a wreath, and it's like that because Mr. Wright felt that if you build on the top of a hill you lose the hill. So he built just below the top, and he left one ancient oak standing in the middle of the property. He could see it from most of the many windows that open Taliesin to the outdoors. The oak's gone now, a victim of a storm.

I was there on a day that threatened rain, and I was on a $40 tour, which seems like a lot, but they need the money to save this lovely place, which is sadly falling apart. Mr. Wright started building Taliesin in 1911. It merges into the landscape, and even now, looks like it belongs in the future. There's a spooky feeling about the place, like he just left here a few moments ago. I stood behind his desk and looked out his windows and tried to see what he saw, but really, who can see what Frank Lloyd Wright saw?

Taliesin isn't a museum. It's still home to a small group of architects who live and study throughout the sprawling house, and work the farm, and stand by and watch as it all falls apart. It's a shame.

Steam once heated the place, and then later, hydronic radiant tubing beneath the stone and wood floors. I could see the radiators, but not the radiant because, as always, the tour guide wouldn't let me go down the basement. They rarely ever do.

The radiators were ordinary, and looked to be from the 1930s. They're hidden behind wood panels, designed by Mr. Wright. He cut down considerably on each radiator's output by using these enclosures. I suppose function followed form in this house when it came to steam, but there are also many fireplaces.

When he was very old, he worked nearly all the time because there was much yet to do, and he caught naps as he could in the study that he had built just off his bedroom. The docent said Mr. Wright didn't want to disturb his wife's sleep, so he spent most nights on a tiny bed, also of his design. The study has a ceiling that rises and falls, and in many spots within that room it is so low that I had to duck as I walked through. Mr. Wright was a short man; I'm not. But he didn't build Taliesin for me. He built it for the owner. Himself.

I strayed away from the tour group while we were in his study so that I could get a closer look at that radiator. It's over there, just under that huge window, and behind the wood panels. It's 16 feet of steel fintube, and practically level. There's a supply valve on the left side, and way down at the other end, there's a steam air vent. I smiled as I crouched there, listening to the water hammer bang away in my imagination. Mr. Wright used this room because he needed to stay awake at night. I'm sure that that radiator must have helped him do so.

Farm animals once lived at Taliesin, and right inside the house. Mr. Wright liked to check on them without having to go outside. They were on one side of the hilltop sprawl, and his family was on the other side. It must have been a wonderful mix of natural things in those days, and I think that this was probably the point he was trying to make. Nature blends all. Nowadays, the young architects live in the spaces where the animals once lived. I wonder if that would have made Mr. Wright smile.

In Manhattan there is the Guggenheim Museum, which Mr. Wright designed in 1956, and if you think its swirling design is beautiful I will agree with you. Mr. Wright built a room just for Mr. Guggenheim at Taliesin and then invited him to stay for a while and enjoy the beauty of the place. I stood in that room and imagined the conversations that took place. There is a window in that room that pushes out of a corner of the building – two panes of glass join at right angles, and without the benefit of any wood. It's just glass touching glass and the docent told me this joint once leaked because Mr. Wright designed it during a time when the world didn't have very good glass caulking. In fact, when a client complained about skylights leaking onto him as he sat on a Wright-designed chair in his Wright-designed house, Mr. Wright told the client to move the chair, and that someday there would be a suitable caulk. He would just have to be patient.

But about that window in Mr. Guggenheim's room. There is on its ledge a number of seashells. Our docent put on a pair of white cotton gloves and then picked up this absolutely perfect conch shell. She held it so that we could all admire it, and then she told us that Mr. Wright had held this same shell, and in just this way, when he said to Mr. Guggenheim, "If you give me the commission for your museum, I will give you this." And he did.

None of the heating at Taliesin works anymore. All the people that live there go to Taliesin West in Arizona during the winter, and Taliesin is allowed to go ambient, which is a shame because the place is falling apart, and I'm sure the extreme changes in temperature have much to do with that. Our docent told us that a heating engineer from Madison, Wisconsin had offered to do the work for free, but they would have to supply the equipment. They weren't able to raise the money, so the house closes for the winter and everything freezes. What a project this would be for the hydronics community if we could somehow get it done. What a showcase it could be.

In 1914, when Taliesin was much smaller than it is today, and when Mr. Wright was away in Chicago on business, one of the workers served dinner to Mr. Wright's lover, her children, and several others who lived there. He watched them dine, and then he asked if he might have permission to use some gasoline, which he received. He then went through the place, locking all the doors and windows, but he left the lower part of one Dutch door open. Then he spread the gasoline around the edges of Taliesin and lit it.

As the people screamed and scrambled to leave the inferno through that one opening, the worker was on the other side of the door. And he had a hatchet. He hacked all but one to death, and then he took his own life. Why he did this, we will never know.

Mr. Wright returned from Chicago, buried his dead, mourned, and then rebuilt. And rebuilt. And rebuilt. He never stopped working on Taliesin, this beautiful building that is today going to seed.

In a letter he wrote to the local community just after the murders, he said, in part, "And I would urge you - upon young and old alike - that Nature knows neither Past nor Future. The Present is her Eternity.' Unless we realize that brave truth, there will come a bitter time when the thought of how much more potent with love and action that precious Present might have been, will desolate our hearts.

"She is dead. I have buried her in the little Chapel burying ground of my people – beside the little son of my sister, a beautiful boy of ten, who loved her, and whom she loved much And while the place where she lived with me is a charred and blackened ruin, the little things of our daily life gone, I shall replace it all, little by little, as nearly as it may be done. I shall set it all up again, for the spirit of the mortals that lived in it and loved it – will live in it still. My home will still be there." ‘Tis.

I hope you enjoyed this story. And if you did, please share it with those you love, for it truly is a love story. And please subscribe to this podcast because I have many more Dead Men Tales to share with you. I’m enjoying our time together. Thanks for visiting. Come back soon.

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