Chasing Enigmas

On the trail of some of America's most heralded houses, and the elusive man who built them

By James Conaway

The falls aren?t visible from inside Fallingwater, but rushing water is always heard.

Credit: Courtesy of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy

The idea was simple enough: my wife and I would drive from Taliesin in central Wisconsin to Fallingwater in southwestern Pennsylvania to learn all we could about the life and works of Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright's highly individualistic structures are scattered across the nation, but many of them are in the Midwest, and we intended to visit at least half a dozen houses, traveling 800 miles in three days. The folly of our plan soon became apparent: Wright the man, it turns out, is largely unknowable, and appreciating his houses requires a modicum of repose that is at odds with freeway trials and the vicissitudes of remote B&Bs.

But by the time I came to this realization, we were already in Wright's grip, at the Taliesin visitors center just south of Spring Green, Wis., on the edge of 600 rural acres that lie in the valley of Wright's forbears. Wright constructed this refuge in 1911, on land that his mother owned, after this prodigal descendant of Unitarian farmers had run off with the wife of a client, leaving his own wife in a Chicago suburb with six children and a large grocery bill. Wright later moved into Taliesin with his mistress. The ongoing scandal was compounded in 1914 when a berserk servant torched the living quarters, murdering Wright's new love and her two children, among others, while the architect was away.

That knowledge added a certain frisson to the $40 tour we took. I had learned as much by reading Ada Louise Huxtable's excellent short biography and dipping into other books in the constantly augmented Wrightian canon. Huxtable writes, "There are two lives of Frank Lloyd Wright: the one he created and the one he lived." The real life was "full of outrageous claims and scandalous behavior." And yet, in Huxtable's opinion, Wright "was arguably America's greatest architect, whose work and influence have had an impact on an amazing three centuries of radical change in art, ideas, and technology."

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