Day Trips & Beyond: Wright in Wisconsin
Wisconsin driving trail showcases architect’s diverse styles
By Gerald E. McLeod,
7:00AM, Fri. Jul. 27, 2018
Frank Lloyd Wright’s work continues to resonate in the world of architecture and art nearly 60 years after his death in 1959. As one of America’s best-known designers, the style and beauty of his work has stood the test of time 100 years after some were built.
Born in 1867, the Wisconsin native designed more than 1,100 structures, of which 532 were built. Wright’s artistic accomplishments include the Guggenheim Museum in New York, N.Y., the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan, the SC Johnson Building in Racine, Wis., and his home, Taliesin, outside of Madison, Wis.
In honor of the 150th anniversary of Wright’s birth, the state of Wisconsin outlined a self-guided 200-mile architectural trail leading to the architect’s works across the southern portion of the state from Racine and Milwaukee in the east to Madison and Spring Green in the center.
For a map to the Wisconsin Frank Lloyd Wright Trail, go to www.travelwisconsin.com or wrightinwisconsin.org. You can also plan a visit to the nine inspiring sites around Wisconsin using the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail app, available in Apple's App Store and Google Play.
Among the stops on the FLW Trail, the following Wisconsin landmarks illustrate the depth and range of the native son’s creativity.
Taking to the trail
One of the most recognizable and iconic American architectural designs, the SC Johnson Wax Administration Building in Racine is the farthest southeast of the stops on the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail across southern Wisconsin. The building is recognized as one of the top 25 architectural achievements of the 20th century.
The circular tops of the columns spread out to form the roof of the wax company’s Great Work Room. The white pillars look like flowers growing out of the Cherokee-red floor. When construction on the building began in 1936, it was the volatile Wright’s first major commission in nearly 20 years. It turned out to be the one that sealed his legacy in American architectural history.
Wright designed more than 40 pieces of furniture and other furnishings for the building, but it is the columns that are the most recognizable feature. When Wright designed the load-bearing concrete poles with a 9-inch base and 18 ½-foot top, skeptics said the structures would not support the heavy glass tube roof. A stress test and time have proved the critics wrong.
There are no traditional windows in the building. The 43 miles of Pyrex glass tubing for the windows and roof that fill the work space with natural light famously leaked. Finally in 1958, Dow Chemical invented silicone caulking for the building that would expand and contract in the capricious Wisconsin weather. The product became the same caulking now on hardware store shelves.
The Johnson Administration Building is still used almost 80 years after it was built. Tours of the campus are free, but reservations are needed. For information, go to www.scjohnson.com.
Standing tall next to the squat Johnson Wax Administration Building, the 15-story Wright-designed Research Tower has two floors set aside as a museum open to the public.
The Cherokee-red brick and glass science skyscraper seems to float above the almost hidden entrance to the administration building. The floors are cantilevered off a central core making it the tallest building at the time it was constructed without a foundation directly under its side walls.
One problem with the design was that the natural light in the laboratories could be so intense that the scientists wore sunglasses until the company could figure out how to reduce the glare.
Construction on the tower began in 1947, and it was used from 1950 until the 1990s. At the entrance to the tower are two Wright-designed sculptures of Native Americans.
The Johnson Wax tour begins at the spaceship-shaped Rondelle Theater. The Wright-inspired visitor’s center was built for the 1964 New York World’s Fair to show the 15-minute Academy-Award-winning short documentary “To Be Alive!” that was produced by the Johnson Wax Company. This is one visitor-center movie worth sitting through.
The free tour takes around two hours. It’s time well spent. Also on the tour, the underground Fortaleza Hall pays homage to the company and includes a gallery dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright’s furniture and art.
Visitors to the Johnson Wax Company website can also make reservations to visit Wingspread, the Wright-designed home of company president H.F. Johnson Jr. The home that was the last of Wright’s Prairie Style houses is a short distance from the company’s campus in Racine.
Completed in 1939, the structure is shaped like a pinwheel with a main living area in the center. It was the largest private residence Wright designed. Just for the Johnson children, the architect added a lookout tower climbing out of the living room roof and a cantilever bedroom off one end.
The house illustrated many of Wright’s favorite features like a semi-hidden entry, built-in appliances, a central fireplace, and Cherokee-red brick. He also designed a dining room table that rolled out of the kitchen that resulted in many broken dishes before it became stationary.
The former Johnson home is now used as a conference center run by the Johnson Foundation. Tours can be booked using the SC Johnson Wax reservation system, by calling 262/681-3353, or by email to Tour@johnsonfdn.org.
Trail tip: While in Racine try the kringle, a local pastry sometimes called “the national pastry of Wisconsin.” Brought to Wisconsin by Danish immigrants in the 1800s, the round, flavoring-filled pastry has been tweaked and improved by local bakers.
Wright often used his home state of Wisconsin as a place to try new ideas and to sell his innovations. In southwest Milwaukee in the 2700 block of West Burnham Street at South Lyons Boulevard, Wright envisioned his American System-Built Homes to become much like Sear’s kit homes. Customers could choose from seven different models and have the precut materials delivered to their lot for assembly. Unfortunately, World War I in 1917 intervened and building materials became scarce. Very few of the homes were actually built.
The houses in Milwaukee were intended as model homes to show buyers. The six buildings are example of some of his designs and the only collection of his homes that include duplexes and single-family homes. Only one, a Model B-1, is open for tours on Saturday and Sunday. Reservations are recommended by calling 414/368-0060. For more information, go to www.visitmilwaukee.org.
Trail tip: The very cool Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Museum is only about a 15-minute drive from the historic homes.
Monona Terrace hugs the shore of Lake Monona and serves as Madison’s convention center. Wright originally submitted the plans for the “dream civic center” in 1939, but it was rejected by the county commissioners by one vote. It finally opened in 1997 as one of America’s most attractive and timeless public buildings.
Although he died before construction was approved, Wright had a hand in designing everything from the carpet to the furniture. Many of the light fixtures express his “tree of life” style. The roof is a park with expansive views of the lake on one side and the state capitol on the other.
Tours of the center are conducted daily at 1pm May 1-October 31 and at 1pm Friday-Monday November 1-April 30. Tickets for the tours are sold at the center’s gift shop.
Trail tip: R&B singer Otis Redding died in a plane crash in Lake Monona in 1967. There is a memorial to the singer on the top deck of the convention center.
Trail tip: Saturdays are farmers’ market day around the state Capitol a short walk from Monona Terrace. This a great opportunity to buy fresh baked goods, meats, flowers, vegetables, and more. Or just a fun experience.
Wright was a member of the small First Unitarian Church at what was then a rural area outside of Madison when the building was finished in 1951. Since the cost of construction was more than the small congregation could afford, members volunteered to do much of the work.
Like many of Wright’s designs, the sanctuary seems to organically grow out of the hillside. Wright designed an entrance hidden under a low porch roof and a wall windows behind the podium to bring the outside in to the sanctuary. The architect envisioned it as a prairie schooner moving across the landscape.
The church can be viewed from the outside at any time. Weekday tours inside are offered twice daily at 10:30am and 2:30pm, from May 1 through September 30, for $10 per person. Calling ahead (608/233-9774) is recommended to ensure a tour guide is available and the building is not in use. Free Sunday tours are available throughout the year after Sunday worship services (donations appreciated). The Sunday tours meet in the Atrium Auditorium at approximately 10:15am and 12:15pm. For more information, go to www.fusmadison.org.
Nothing illustrates the diversity of Wright’s artistic visions more than his home in the rolling hills along the Wisconsin River outside of Spring Green. Taliesin, Welsh for “shining brow,” was the architect’s primary home, studio, and a showcase for his designs. He also had his drafting studio and architectural school, which continue today, at the site.
Work began in 1911 on the house on the side of a hill that Wright visited as a boy working on his uncle’s farm. The stone and wood structure burned twice and was foreclosed by the bank, but remained his base of operation for most of his career after he left Chicago and until his death in 1959 at age 92.
Wright used the house to experiment with ideas and most of his signature design elements are part of the low-slung house. The building is punctuated with hidden entry ways and low ceilings leading to open living spaces filled with natural lighting from large windows overlooking the valley his mother’s family once farmed.
Taliesin is in Spring Green, about 37 miles west of Madison and is open for public tours from May 1 to October 31. Tours begin near Taliesin at the Riverview Terrace Cafe and Visitor Center, a Wright-designed building that was completed after his death. For more information, go to www.taliesinpreservation.org.
Three miles south of Taliesin is a small school that Wright designed. As you might expect it looks very little like a traditional school house. Rather the Wyoming Valley School Cultural Arts Center is a hexagon-shaped building with large windows and a high ceiling pointing to a central fireplace.
The residents of the valley implored their famous neighbor to design them a new school on a very tight budget. Completed in 1958, Wright claimed that the cinder-block building was constructed with materials available in any hardware store.
The building was the only public school that Wright built. Used as an elementary school until 1990, the distinctive Wright-designed structure continues to provide the rural community with a meeting space and civic center.
Tours of the Wyoming Valley School are offered Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 2pm between April 15 and November 15. Reservations are not required and admission is by donation. For more information, go to www.wyomingvalleyschool.blogspot.com.
Texas connection: Wright completed four buildings in Texas, three are still private homes. The historic Kalita Humphreys Theater at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas is the only theater that Wright designed. At 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd., the theater occasionally opens for tours. For information, go to www.attpac.org/your-visit/tours.
Gerald McLeod has been traveling around Texas and beyond for his "Day Trips" column for more than 25 years. Keep up to date with his journeys on his archive page.