6 Frank Lloyd Wright Must-See Buildings
- A spiral staircase leads to the crow’s nest at Wingspread.
Imaginations soar effortlessly on a tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Wingspread. One by one, visitors walk up a tightly coiled spiral staircase and pop their head into a glass-enclosed lookout. They see the rolling and woodsy Racine, Wisconsin, property, but Wright designed the crow’s nest so that the son of SC Johnson president H.F. Johnson could watch his dad fly over on his way home from his travels.
Inspired, occasionally personal, details like this crow’s nest show up throughout Wisconsin-born Wright’s portfolio of about 500 structures, a good portion of which still stand in the Midwest. His signature Prairie School architectural style aims to create harmony between a building and its natural surroundings. Take Taliesin, his 1911 estate in Spring Green, Wisconsin, built with native yellow limestone and cypress wood and topped with slanted roofs to resemble the slope of the surrounding hills.
But concealed beyond his style’s harmonious exteriors are elements of discord. They come to life in stories of murder, affairs and Wright’s larger-than-life ego on tours of the six following structures, which provide insightful glimpses into the man who was as one of a kind as the buildings he crafted.
Taliesin: Spring Green, Wisconsin
Fires twice consumed the residence on this 800-acre estate: one caused by an electrical problem and the other by a disgruntled employee who set the house ablaze, killing Wright’s mistress and six others. But the third iteration still stands. Overlooking the Wyoming Valley, the orientation of the 37,000-square-foot home results in sun streaming into every room at various points of the day. Wright lived and worked here for 48 years while experimenting with design principles in the Hillside Studio, where a group of architecture students carry on his work.
If you go Guides lead tours between May 1 and October 31. We recommend the two-hour Highlights Tour ($57), covering the home and studio, plus exteriors of the cathedrallike Midway Barn and 1896 Romeo and Juliet Windmill (the oldest Wright structure in Wisconsin). taliesinpreservation.org
Unitarian Meeting House: Madison, Wisconsin
In the hall shape, lobby tile pattern, pew placement and other elements, triangular forms subtly speak to the Unitarians’ philosophy of unity and equality. Wright draws eyes to the heavens with a swooping ceiling, which resembles, as he says, “the wings of a bird in flight.”
If you go You can take a quick peek inside anytime (donations appreciated) or take a guided tour at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on weekdays, May through September. fusmadison.org
- Wright’s oak Barrel chairs mimic Wingspread’s curved fireplace.
Wingspread: Racine, Wisconsin
From the sky, the largest single-family home Wright designed looks like a four-bladed windmill. Long, narrow hallways extend from the two-story living room, warmed by a fireplace of Cherokee-red bricks (his favorite color). On an overnight stay, Wright awoke at 5 a.m. to haul all of the home’s original furniture and artwork out of a storage room to replace the new accents and adornments that owner H.F. Johnson’s wife had added. He was never invited back.
If you go After a short film about the history of the home and the tense relationship between Wright and Johnson, explore the gardens and home visited by VIPs like Eleanor Roosevelt. scjohnson.com
- Circular forms repeat throughout Monona Terrace. Photo by Errin Hiltbrand.
Monona Terrace: Madison, Wisconsin
With soaring arches and curvy forms, Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center sprawls out like a rounded buffer between Lake Monona and downtown Madison. Wright and the city struggled to agree on the building’s function (he wanted a place for great minds to discuss pressing issues; the city wanted a transportation and governmental hub). In fact, 60 years passed between his design submission and the structure’s completion (in 1997, 38 years after his death). A 2014 renovation includes touches honoring Wright’s style, including leaf-pattern carpeting in his favorite autumn palette of reds, oranges, russets and golden tans.
If you go Visit the free Beyond the Drawing Board exhibit to learn more about his commitment to finishing this project. Then head to the rooftop Lake Vista Cafe to toast his efforts with crab cakes and beer. mononaterrace.com
Oak Park Home and Studio: Oak Park, Illinois
Because of Wright’s physical legacy here, the town of Oak Park claims fame as the birthplace of Prairie School architecture. His 1889 home contains early evidence of the style, including his experiments with ribbons of windows. One element you won’t find in any of his other buildings: the two-story children’s playroom with vaulted ceilings and a skylight that causes sunlight to dance across the oak floor.
If you go Take a one-hour guided tour of the home ($17), or if you have a few hours, combine it with a self-guided audio tour of the exteriors of 10 Wright-designed homes in town ($27). The annual Wright Plus Housewalk (May 21, 2016) includes rarely offered interior tours of 12 buildings designed by Wright and his contemporaries (from $95). flwright.org/visit/homeandstudio
- Photo courtesy of SC Johnson.
SC Johnson: Racine, Wisconsin
The architect was reluctant to design two buildings on the SC Johnson campus downtown because he liked to set his work in nature. But he reached a compromise with the CEO by building nature indoors. A forest of dendriform (treelike) support columns steals the show in the Administration Building. Windows and ceilings made from more than 43 miles of Pyrex glass tubing allow the sun to shine in while distorting the view of the industrial campus outside.
If you go The free 90-minute tours (available March through December) lead you through a Willy Wonka-like world of underground hallways to the Administration Building and the 15-level Research Tower (also designed by Wright), where scientists developed products like Raid, Glade and Pledge. scjohnson.com
- Photo courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright Trust. Photographer: Tim Long.
Chicago’s Ultimate Tour d’ Wright
The Wright Around Chicago tour visits three of the Windy City’s most famous Wright buildings. The bus tour starts at downtown’s Rookery, home to a two-story lobby he remodeled in 1905 that glistens with gilded white carrara marble. It continues at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park and the Frederick C. Robie House. A gourmet lunch at Winberie’s (housed in a Prairie-style building in Oak Park) is included. The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust conducts the seven-hour tours, which depart at 9 a.m. Mondays and Wednesdays from June through October ($150). cal.flwright.org/tours/WACbustour