World class architecture. Ax murderers. Joseph Stalin’s daughter. Who knew the rolling hills of Spring Green, Wisconsin contained such excitement and intrigue?
My book club (because that’s how every thrilling travel narrative should start) devoured Loving Frank by Nancy Horan. A big chunk of the book takes place at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Spring Green estate, Taliesin, so we all piled into the crossover SUV (don’t call it a minivan) and drove three hours north of Chicago to pay our respects.
Loving Frank is a meticulously researched account of the affair between architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Martha “Mamah” Borthwick, the wife of one of Wright’s clients. Though the book itself is fictitious, the events depicted are true. Wright and Borthwick both left their families (including eight children between them), decamped to Europe to weather the scandal (and so Borthwick could work on translating the works of Swedish feminist Ellen Key), and eventually returned to Spring Green near Wright’s boyhood home. Wright then built their Taliesin love nest and things looked downright rosy for the couple. Wright began receiving commissions again after being professionally shunned and Borthwick’s husband allowed their small children to visit Taliesin. Unbeknownst to her, Borthwick’s fatal mistake would be firing butler Julian Carlton, whose behavior had become increasingly paranoid and erratic.
And then did the butler ever do it.
Carlton enacted revenge by attacking Borthwick and her children with an ax and setting the living quarters ablaze. He then went after Taliesin workmen and killed four additional people.
Wright grieved, rebuilt, and married an opium addict. Taliesin caught fire once more, this time due to an electrical problem. Wright rebuilt yet again and subsequently married a Montenegrin dancer, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright. Olgivanna’s daughter married Wright’s protege, William Wesley Peters, and died in a car crash. Olgivanna met Svetlana Alliluyeva, Joseph Stalin’s daughter and a Soviet defector to the U.S., and believed she was the reincarnation of her own deceased daughter. Svetlana married and divorced Peters, and died in obscurity in a nursing home in Richland Center, Wisconsin, the birthplace of Frank Lloyd Wright. How’s that for full circle?
The estate has been restored, and is a sight to behold. Our two hour highlights tour included Hillside, a school and theatre which hosts architecture fellows to this day, as well as Wright’s studio and home. Shout out to our amazing tour guide Jill, who schooled us on the basics (organic architecture, Prairie Schoolisms, regional history), but didn’t shy away from critical questions (Wright treated women as professional equals, but what was up with his personal life?). The tour was engaging and entertaining, even for those of us who are not architecture experts. Taliesin’s lush green hills, fresh air and open spaces were a welcome respite from the smells and crowds of summer in Chicago. You can almost understand why Wright was compelled to keep rebuilding despite Taliesin’s tragic history.