A Life That’s Wright

A Life That’s Wright

Under the careful watch of the late Anna Lloyd Jones, whose painted portrait hangs above the fireplace, a tea party is under way. Seated in Anna’s son Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal drafting studio are the Hamblens, Caroline and Floyd and their sons Lukas, Ernest and Noah. These boys, ages 13, 13 and 10, are polite and fully engaged—the sort of behavior that occurs when kids aren’t dependent on technology. Their 6-year-old brothers, Ian and Christaphor, are homesick.

The Hamblens are among the few Taliesin Senior Fellows to live at Taliesin in Spring Green year-round. The rest of the School of Architecture staff and student body head to Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, for one very good reason: Save for a few workspaces and living quarters, the heat’s shut off here in the winter months and, with all the stone and concrete work, the buildings are seriously cold. So most Fellowship members, or residents of Taliesin, and the students, also called apprentices, migrate. I have never visited Taliesin West but now it’s on my bucket list. In fact, until last summer I’d never been here, the Taliesin that’s practically in my backyard. Simon De Aguero is also present. He’s a Taliesin Fellow, or alumnus, from New Mexico who graduated from the School of Architecture in 2010. De Aguero is one of the lucky ones who transitioned into a freelance preservation project on Tan-y-deri (the house Wright built for his sister Jane Porter) for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, the Arizona-based nonprofit that owns Taliesin in conjunction with Taliesin Preservation, Inc., the organization created to preserve the buildings, artifacts, landscape and legacy of Wright’s Wisconsin home. De Aguero is working and living onsite and sits with the Hamblen family with the air of a big brother.

Soon Minerva Montooth joins us. Perfectly poised and delightful, she has lived at Taliesin since Wright’s day, 1952 to be exact, and was third wife Olgivanna Wright’s assistant and dear friend. She is wife to Wright protégé Charles Montooth.

There’s no question about it: These people are family. When Montooth walks into the room, young Ernest Hamblen jumps up to greet her, takes her arm and escorts her to her seat. There is a warm familiarity in his gesture, and in her casual response it appears this well-mannered etiquette is de rigueur. But not taken for granted.

I am now seated with three of four generations who call Taliesin home. This cross-generational communal lifestyle boasts thirty-plus members ranging in age from the oldest Senior Fellow, Cornelia Brierly, 97, to the Hamblen brothers. The community includes students from around the world: Jordan, Greece, Damascus, Russia, India, China, Japan. A very cosmopolitan society, Taliesin, and intentionally so, created in 1932 when Frank and Olgivanna founded the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, then called the Taliesin Fellowship. There’s an organic quality even to this, the homestead Taliesin—how its families interact, how their conversations dovetail and stories about life there are in agreement. This was part of his plan, a Wright legacy and an embedded tradition. And 2011 is all about celebrating tradition at Taliesin, since it is the home’s centennial year.

It’s fitting that at a time in history when lifestyles are shifting toward respect for natural resources and energy consumption, we’d be celebrating the man many call an environmentalist thanks to his designs that work with instead of against nature. Or as Wright himself put it, “Let your home appear to grow easily from its site and shape it to sympathize with the surroundings if Nature is manifest there, and if not, try to be as quiet, substantial and organic as she would have been if she had the chance.” Simply put: Prairie Style.

A great deal has been written about Wright, and not all has been flattering. Maria Constantino’s The Life and Works of Frank Lloyd Wright is loaded with spectacular color shots of his structures globally, but the author’s introduction to Wright the man is shockingly scathing. Nancy Horan’s New York Times bestseller, Loving Frank, paints an often-unattractive picture of a man who left his family and treated his mistress with disregard and his workers with disrespect. Yet the Wright whose presence you feel at Taliesin is different. The Fellowship resoundingly respects him. Those who knew him describe him as kind, humorous, well loved; those who came after mimic that sentiment. “Mr. Wright called a sense of humor a sense of proportion; without it you will tip,” says senior fellow Effi Casey, 69, a Taliesin resident since 1978 with her late husband, Tom Casey, an architect and structural engineer, and their daughter, Golnar Parry, 37, now a Montessori teacher in Cleveland, Ohio.

“He was really loved by the people. He had a warm side. I know from Tom’s stories he just had that sparkle of humor in him,” says Casey. “Yet at the same time he was very, very challenging creatively; he wanted people to be attentive of the nature here and learn from this environment from the last drop, so to speak.”

I personally became attentive of its nature last August when my friend, Georgene Pomplun, led a painting workshop on the surreal, pastoral, six-hundred-acre setting that is present-day Taliesin. To be honest, I went for Georgene not Frank, and that it was going to be held in Spring Green gave me a fleeting moment of reconsideration for the drive. But only fleeting. I’m no stranger to the charming stretch of farmland and small-town intersections leading there, that spectacular sensation of crossing over the Wisconsin River as you approach Spring Green, even driving the picturesque stretch along the river leading to Taliesin.

But this experience was different—painting at Hillside Studio and Theater, overlooking the panorama with Taliesin as its horizon line; being greeted by the gasp of a mammoth eagle soaring so closely it might have carried me off; meeting the people carrying out Wright’s legacy, some in person, others by phone. It was otherworldly.

I have taken him somewhat for granted, but it’s not that Frank Lloyd Wright hadn’t been on my radar—he’s part of Midwesterners’ cultural DNA, to be sure. He has been, in fact, since long before I ever realized why. From the back bedroom of a Milwaukee apartment shared by my two aunts and grandmother I gazed at the lit dome of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church. I had no idea its significance then, only that it was a dependable childhood icon on my frequent overnights there, all round and blue and fancy.

I’ve wound my way up to the top floor of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, thinking more about Roy Lichtenstein than Frank Lloyd Wright, passed the A.D. German warehouse in Richland Center countless times, wandered past numerous Wright homes in Oak Park, Illinois, toured the Seth Peterson Cottage on Mirror Lake, prayed in his sanctuary as a member of Madison’s First Unitarian Society. I ran daily past a FLW house in Shorewood Hills, am a frequent guest in my sister’s home designed by Wright protégé Bill Kaiser, and do I even need to mention Monona Terrace?

This just skims the surface and speaks nothing of the volumes of images on cards and calendars, textiles and furniture designs, stained-glass windows, carports, leaky flat roofs and other Wright-inspired details I know of and think nothing more about. And that’s just the material stuff. Then there are the people. Those who make up Taliesin. The Fellowship, the students, the Fellows. As I began to put some of the workshop participants together with the structures around me, I wanted to know more.

Workshops like the one I attended are part of a new Arts and Culture Program designed for apprentices and Fellowship members to reach outside their daily work to experience other disciplines. It’s also an opportunity for the outside community to view their life on the ranch. This is a new approach at Taliesin. In the past, public interaction with the Fellowship was more formal, as observers at concerts and plays or as guests at invitation-only dinners. Now anyone can participate.

“Chorus is open to anyone who wants to sing,” says De Aguero, a member of the Taliesin Chorus. “You don’t have to try out; if you have the desire then that’s the most important thing. The difference between the philosophy of this school and other academic schools is that Taliesin still believes that the communal integration is essential to becoming a whole person and an integrated individual into society, and to be able to entertain or sing or show your talent, is part of that.”

It was this deep devotion to communal integration that stirred my curiosity the most while painting at Hillside in front of Tan-y-deri, and the chicken-coop-turned-cottage where Casey lives seasonally. Later, during a tour of Taliesin led by historian Keiran Murphy, even with temperatures in the single digits, I could feel the presence of family. It surrounded me, and at times it felt ironic that the man who ran off with his mistress, Mamah Cheney, leaving his first wife, Catherine, and six children went on to build this culture of permanence, place, hard work and kinship.

The Hillside Home School building, the project-based boarding school Wright designed and built for his aunts in 1902 that ran until 1915, houses the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, which functions with similar values. The entire Taliesin community participates in every aspect of life here, from gardening to cooking to cleaning to pitching in wherever needed, a hands-on style of learning through living. Wright thought it better prepared apprentices to design living spaces if they’d experienced life holistically while studying. The “work list” that delegates weekly duties was designed by Olgivanna and shaped the Taliesin work ethic. The Fellowship carries on traditions that fit with changes of time.

“Mr. Wright wanted the Taliesin Fellowship to be as self-sufficient as possible. He thought that it was good for people to have these activities in their lives, artistic and physical,” says Leslie Lockhart Bisharat, daughter of Frances Nemtin, a beloved Senior Fellow still residing at Taliesin, and the late Kenn Lockhart, a master architect.

Bisharat, who lives outside Sacramento and worked as an architectural designer before opening a Techline office furniture business, remembers the joys and rigors of life at Taliesin, beginning when her parents were assigned to Midway Farm as architect-farmers. “The farm was on its own power. We raised our own chickens and pigs, gathered eggs, the dairy herd provided milk and butter, my parents did it all. And they didn’t know anything about how to do this. It was a pretty steep learning curve,” she says.

The certified-organic farm at Taliesin is now managed by Otter Creek Foundation under the principles of mineralized, balanced agriculture.

In the years preceding Olgivanna’s death in 1985, Taliesin functioned as a nonaccredited school in which apprentices learned largely through interaction with Wright, until his death in 1959, or his architects. At the same time, the small Fellowship was Taliesin’s only workforce.

After the School of Architecture earned its accreditation, academic demands took away time once devoted to collective duties. Communal life persisted, but daily routines shifted.

In 1990, Taliesin Preservation, Inc., was created to work with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation on fundraising, preservation and public access. Now a restoration crew maintains the buildings and grounds. A seasonal chef runs the kitchen. But the basic tenets of a life devoted to communal living and learning remain true to Wright’s vision.

Effi Casey is a German-born artist and musician who teaches architectural hand rendering, serves as Talieson’s director of music, plays the violin and leads the Taliesin Chorus. She met Olgivanna and the Taliesin Fellowship in 1966 on a summer study trip to Montagnola, Switzerland. Invited to play with the Taliesin Chamber Ensemble, Casey became intrigued by the Fellowship’s openness to embracing anyone in the arts and returned with them for one year. In 1971 she married Senior Fellow Tom Casey. At the time he was supervising the construction of the Pearl Palace in Iran for Princess Shams Pahlavi, sister of the last Shah. Their daughter Golnar was born in Tehran in 1973. They returned to Taliesin in 1978 during the Iranian revolution and Effi has never left. She has witnessed the many layers of transition and says that without charismatic leaders like Frank and Olgivanna, Taliesin has become a new setting, but is always evolving from its roots.

“We always had ongoing musical activities, a chamber ensemble, even festivals led by Mrs. Wright’s daughter Iovanna Lloyd Wright,” says Casey. “When there was a big push in the studio everyone was called in to help. If you couldn’t draw you were maybe asked to provide a late-night snack or something, but to be part of the bigger effort, you were part of more than yourself. It’s very powerful when you feel together as an entity behind a greater vision.”

Taliesin Hillside houses not only the drafting studio, but also the Assembly Hall, the daily dining room for Fellowship members and entertaining area for guests on special Taliesin evenings. It’s also the site of the Hillside Theater, where countless plays and concerts have been held over generations. It’s where the Hamblen boys go to interact with the apprentices and where Golnar Casey remembers heading after school every day.

“One of the blessings of having grown up at Taliesin is having that older generation whom I regard as my aunts and uncles,” says Golnar, who migrated with her parents between Spring Green and Scottsdale until she left for college in the 1990s. “They were always so kind and loving and nurturing; I have a very positive view of growing up there. I would come home from school on the bus and I would just go to the studio and find my dad or my mom. It was a time when students could break for the day so we’d have tea at 4:30, someone would be on that job for the week and they would set it up. Sometimes there were thirty of us. I always had a sense of being watched over.”

I also met Floyd Hamblen in Pomplun’s workshop. He’s a guy with a presence, a welcoming face and a gentle voice who’s lived at Taliesin on and off since 1987. Effi Casey’s neice Caroline has a soft German accent and is gentle and smart like her aunt. She came to Taliesin as a German foreign exchange student a year after Floyd signed on as an apprentice. They married and are now Senior Fellows who have lived at Taliesin as a family since 1999. Floyd teaches and runs a private architectural business here while Caroline works as coordinator for the Taliesin Arts and Culture Program and homeschooled the boys until 2010. Caroline plays second violin in the Taliesin Quartet (along with fellow violinist Casey, a cellist and violist). The Hamblens’ life and work represent the continuation of Wright’s original vision.

Floyd recalls his deep curiosity and initial apprehension about Taliesin and its mission. “I was interested in becoming a student, but of course the idea that you come here and you’re part of a fellowship, that you’re living and working here, I wasn’t quite sure what that was all about. Was it a cult? I just really fell in love with it, it’s what I’d been searching for, these natural buildings blending in with their environment, the beauty and the sense of space and how things flowed together. Wright’s contact with nature was huge.”

“When I first came in 1988 I was fascinated by the communal life that happened here and how architecture is the umbrella,” adds Caroline. “The arts and culture and legacy and heritage all deepen that umbrella. That’s my level of involvement.”

And like Casey, the Hamblens have met and worked with original members of Taliesin, many of whom have since passed away.

“Many of them were so immersed with Frank Lloyd Wright himself, and as young students we got to meet them and talk to them and learn from them, and now it is our opportunity to pass along what we learned and inherited, the tradition of this communal life,” says Caroline. “Now we bridge it and bring it into a new generation.”

The bridging opportunity is multi-faceted. It includes four generations of players and a legacy of activities—from the master apprentices who worked at Wright’s side to the cross-cultural art experiences to the ongoing cultivation of a sustainable lifestyle. With no exception, the stories I heard about legacy and tradition were consistent. How lives were affected by it varied.

For the Hamblen boys, it’s about being embedded in every aspect of community life—harvesting the gardens and orchards on Wednesday mornings, the daily chores of communal dining and the regular formal dinners, a tradition started by Wright.

“We try to keep the same traditions, but Mr. and Mrs. Wright were always the hosts of the house,” says Montooth. “In those days we had dinner frequently in the theater. Serving there was a tremendous job but we did it. Mrs. Wright had one big table because everyone wanted to sit with them; everyone else had smaller tables.”

The Wrights often held dinner on Sunday nights in their living room, where Mr. Wright, said to be a tremendous storyteller, would hold court, read a book or summon a piano player to perform.

“It was a very rich life,” says Montooth, who remembers when Wright’s granddaughter, actress Anne Baxter, brought Charlton Heston to dinner.

“The idea of that evening is to have a change from the hard work you do during the week, to a festive environment that would give us an opportunity to dress up, which we do to this day,” says Casey. “What you need to bring here is a tuxedo, a hammer and some drafting materials.”

Indeed, each guest has an individual—and often memorable—experience at Taliesin. For me, tea with the Fellowship moved me a smidgen closer to Frank Lloyd Wright and left me enormously humbled by his people and the legacy they are leaving on this rambling prairie landscape that I will come back to again and paint with pleasure.

Pat Dillon is a frequent contributor to Madison Magazine.