In honor of what would have been Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th birthday, it’s time for a look at the many adornments he left on our beautiful state. Frank Lloyd Wright drew inspiration for his buildings from the natural elements around him, returning time and time again to his home state of Wisconsin to mimic its diverse landscapes in his creations. His Organic Architecture style represented harmony between humans and their environment, mirroring the property’s natural elements to create architectural structures that seemed to have sprung up organically from the earth.
Of the more than 500 buildings constructed using Wright’s designs, over a third of them are recognized as historical landmarks. Though the structures are sprinkled throughout the country, the “greatest American architect of all time” stayed loyal to his home state, leaving an abundant trail of stunning creations across Wisconsin.
A self-guided auto tour through southern Wisconsin takes you past eight incredible structures, including his personal estate in Spring Green! The tour begins in Kenosha County near the Illinois state line and curves through Madison to Richland Center, with posted signs guiding you to landmarks along the way.
Here’s what you can look forward to on the tour:
H.F. Johnson Jr., third generation leader of SC Johnson (you know, the family company) commissioned Wright to build their offices in 1936, despite having already begun construction on a different design. He explained the decision saying, “Anybody can build a typical building. I wanted to build the best office building in the world, and the only way to do that was to get the greatest architect in the world.” Wright designed every element from the building’s 43 miles of windows to the tree-like pillars supporting it, and even took over the interior design of many of the rooms. The massive structure is still considered one of the top 25 buildings of the 20th century.
H.F. Johnson loved the new office so much that he commissioned Wright to design his personal estate immediately after it was finished. Staying true to his organic style, Wright constructed the home from natural materials like limestone, brick, and unstained wood, which integrated the structure into its environment. He named the estate Wingspread for the wings that sprawl across the property in each of the four directions.
While Wright took pride in the magnificent projects stacking up on his resume, he dreamt of a more practical approach to organic architecture that would be accessible to the average American. But he couldn’t resist the splendor for long. The house on West Burnham Street in Milwaukee is one of only 16 American System-Built Homes standing in the entire Midwest!
Wright designed the iconic Monona Terrace to be his “dream civic center,” which he said would join the Wisconsin State Capitol with Lake Monona. With shining waves of glass flowing between crisp white pillars, he manifested his vision both in the location and physical design of the structure.
Perhaps it was because he was a member of the congregation, or perhaps he wanted to make one final contribution to American architecture as he approached the end of his life. Whatever the case, this church is widely considered one of Wright’s most notable creations. With its steep peak and waving windowpanes, the church blends seamlessly into the trees around it, offering a spiritual experience that its congregants say is unlike any other.
At last we come to Taliesin, the home of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick, the place where she was later murdered (along with several others) by their family chef, and the house that stood strong through two separate fires. Is it haunted? Maybe. Is it worth it? Absolutely. The 800-acre property overlooking the Wisconsin River includes buildings from nearly every decade in Wright’s career, with educational programs, farm dinners and biking tours throughout the year.
If you’re too spooked to go Taliesin, the Wyoming Valley School Cultural Arts Center is just three miles away. Wright donated the property and design to the Wyoming School District in honor of his mother, Anna Lloyd-Jones Wright, who had been a kindergarten teacher. Though the school itself later closed, the building continues to promote lifelong learning and local culture through performances, lectures, exhibits, and other events.
The final destination looks remarkably different from the Frank Lloyd Wright style you’ve come to know by this point. While the first few stories are a nearly windowless slate of red brick, the ornate crown around the top of the building is the best remaining example of the sculptural ornamentation Wright put into many of his designs. It is also the only structure standing in the small town where he was born. The four-story building, which once housed commodities like sugar, flour, coffee and tobacco, is now a gift shop and small theater. A fourth-floor exhibit of large murals celebrating Wright’s creations makes the perfect end to the tour.
Do you have a favorite Frank Lloyd Wright structure in Wisconsin? Comment below!
Mara Benowitz is a member of the Discover Wisconsin crew. She’s originally from Uptown Minneapolis and just got back from a semester in France. She loves going to concerts, kayaking, rock climbing, exploring, and above all, coffee. She’s going into her senior year at the University of Wisconsin with a double major in strategic communication and French. Watch Discover Wisconsin TV Saturday mornings at 10 on Fox Sports Wisconsin. (Twitter: @DiscoverWI)