The infamous architect Frank Lloyd Wright (you’ve maybe heard the name?) was born in Wisconsin in 1867. With a strong work ethic and a passion for design, Wright found himself planted deep in the world of architecture, after moving to the big city of Chicago to pursue job opportunities. Because of his Midwest path, you can find many of his creations scattered throughout Wisconsin and Illinois. This might be old news to you, but did you know his life was full of drama?! Yes, in addition to his recognized designs, most of Wright’s work is entangled with stories of murder, adultry and natural disasters. Do I have your attention?
If you couldn’t already tell, I love architecture. I studied it in college and now practice designing and building it at a firm in the Twin Cities. I may be a FLW (Frank Lloyd Wright) fanboy and have visited many Wright buildings, but that doesn’t mean those who are less in tune with his work won’t enjoy driving through the country in search of his designs. Cresting over a hill or around a corner to first spot one of Wright’s structures is an experience you won’t forget.
During this virtual road trip, we’ll start our journey in Chicago and head up around Lake Michigan towards Milwaukee, stopping in Racine along the way. Then we’ll head west past Madison to Spring Green, Wisconsin, where the story of Wright’s life began. Pack your car and hit the road with me as we experience the story of America’s greatest architect. I hope you’ll be inspired to use these architectural wonders as destinations on your next Midwest road trip!
The Oak Park Home and Studio (1889 – 1898)
Frank Lloyd Wright has created many iconic structures that are complete works of art, but his personal homes have always been used for experimentation. His first home in Oak Park, Chicago is no exception. The home started as a place for Wright and his family to live, then became the bustling center of Wright’s work when he added a wing for his Architecture Practice. The rooms feature complex vaulted roof structures, rich textiles, sculptures, and hand painted murals throughout. This is a lavish and fitting start to your FLW tour.
Side bar: when I was on a tour of this home (open to the public) with my fellow architecture classmates, someone had a little too much fun the night before and ended up throwing up in one of the homes bathrooms. A truly unique architectural experience! But maybe one you don’t want to aim for …
Unity Temple (1904)
Located just down the street from the Oak Park Home and Studio is another iconic Wright structure. Along the way, you can experience the curb appeal of 24 homes designed or renovated by Wright. You may even stumble upon the childhood home of Ernest Hemingway. Arriving at Unity Temple, many are surprised by its stark exterior in comparison to the ornamental facades of the homes you just passed. Considered one of the first modern works of architecture, this minimal, concrete exterior hides a more traditional FLW experience on the inside. Natural light streams in through the high windows, strong geometry holds the space together, and nature motifs make appearances throughout the detailed craftsmanship of the church’s interiors. Wright has said that through designing Unity Temple he realized the heart of a building isn’t its walls but the space within.
The Robie House (1909)
Through his career, Wright created many unique and now iconic styles of architecture. One of those styles being the Prairie School style which is distinguished by its use of low and long roofs to visually connect the building to the surrounding prairie landscape. The Robie House, adjacent to the University of Chicago, is the epitome of this style. Every small detail was intricately designed to enhance the whole. Iridescent geometric motifs of wheat can be found in the stained glass windows surrounding the home. They shine colored light onto the spaces, illuminating the custom designed furniture, lighting, and carpets. The home is comforting yet grand, and is a must see if you’re in the Chicago area.
Taliesin (1911 & 1925)
Remember how I mentioned an affair and murder? Well, now is the time to tell that tale:
Wright was designing a home for a well-to-do couple, when he became infatuated with the wife, Mamah Borthwick. Long story short, they eventually fled to Europe and started a scandal that would derail Wright’s career for several years. Upon their return to the states, Wright brought Mamah to his birthplace of Spring Green, Wisconsin. There, they built Taliesin upon the land he grew up on. Being a personal home, Taliesin became another place for Wright to experiment with materials and techniques he would later implement in his most iconic works.
Everything seemed to be fine at Taliesin, until that fateful day when Wright was away, a servant set fire to the living quarters of the complex. Hiding at the exit to the building and brandishing an axe, the man murdered all who fled the fire, including Mamah, her two children, and several others employed at Taliesin. Almost all of the residential wing was consumed by the time the fire was put out. The murderer fled and attempted suicide by ingesting hydrochloric acid. He survived and was brought to the local jail where he died of starvation seven weeks later. The death of Mamah affected Wright greatly and was the end of the era of the Prairie School style. Wright would go on to experiment in new architectural languages from here.
Side note: If you go on a tour, don’t go asking about the murders. The guides are mostly family and friends of FLW, and they prefer to not retell this tale. Though, at the gift shop, there are many books on the subject if you want to know all of the dramatic details. This is the most pricey of the tours on this list but is well worth the admission. The guides are extremely knowledgeable and you will see the home, the school, and the surrounding buildings on the complex, some of which are Wright’s earliest creations.
Other FLW structures surrounding Taliesin:
Unity Chapel and Cemetery (1886) \ Link
Just down the road from Taliesin is a little chapel that was built for Frank Lloyd Wright’s father by the Chicago architecture firm that eventually hired Wright. FLW oversaw the chapel’s interior construction, so the chapel is technically one of his earliest works.
Wyoming Valley School Cultural Arts Center (1956) \ Link
Built by Wright and donated in honor of his mother, the building hosts workshops and exhibits throughout the summer.
AD German Warehouse (1921) \ Link
Wright’s only municipal project, a warehouse built to store goods.
Madison, Wisconsin Pit Stop:
Monoa Terrace (1938-1959 and 1997) \ Link
Wright fought for the building to be constructed till his death. In 1997, the building was finally completed.
First Unitarian Society Meeting House (1951) \ Link
Frank Lloyd Wright’s family had deep connections to the Unitarian church which is why he was commissioned to design this one of a kind worship space.
Johnson Wax Headquarters (1936)
This FLW structure is still a functioning headquarters for Johnson Wax aka S.C. Johnson (those lovely people who brought us Windex!). The main network of office buildings is held up by lilypad-like columns surrounding a unique rectangular research tower that houses circular floating, cantilevered floors within. On the inside, you’ll find a massive open area; to this day, workers sit at the original FLW designed desks in an open layout that any modern office would be envious of. The space is held up by thin columns that expand dramatically at the top to hold the roof of the building. Between these lilypad-like columns, light pours in through skylights. This project was such a success it brought FLW back from the dramatic lows of Taliesin and into mainstream success once more. The tours are run by S.C. Johnson and are free!
A 15 minute drive North of the Johnson Wax headquarters will get you to the gates of Wingspread, a truly massive home designed for the Johnson family that was Wright’s most expensive home to date. The home’s history is a complex one, but not as dramatic as Taliesin. The home’s construction lasted an eternity, and the budget ballooned. In the end, the family only lived in the home for a short period of time. On the tour you will hear many stories of its construction and occupation, but I’ll leave the details of the home’s story to be discovered by you. Thankfully, the lack of use left the home in pristine condition for us to experience. Once again, this tour is run by S.C. Johnson and is free of charge!
Other FLW structures around the Milwaukee/Racine area:
American System Built Home B1 \ Link
Wright’s answer to affordable housing, the home is one of several in the Burnham Park neighborhood of Milwaukee.
How was that for a look back at America’s most celebrated architect? If you don’t find yourself anywhere near the Wisconsin/Illinois area, you can still get a taste of Frank Lloyd Wright’s structures throughout the United States. Wright eventually moved his studio to Arizona where he built Taliesin West (1937). This same year he completed possibly his most iconic home Fallingwater (1937) in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. In his later years, he designed The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1959) in New York, NY. Unfortunately, Wright never saw the museum completed, for he died early in the year 1959 and was buried, per his wishes, at Taliesin. His then third wife (wishing to be cremated and buried with Wright in Arizona) removed his body from its resting place to her prefered location at Taliesin West. Even Wright’s death was filled with drama! You can still see the marked grave at Unity Chapel near the Taliesin home, but the grave is empty. Near Wright’s tombstone, in an unmarked grave, Mamah’s body is still buried below the earth where Wright was born.