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Strange Americana: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rural Taliesin Retreat Is an Architectural Wonder
If you ever find yourself in the vicinity of Spring Green, Wisconsin, make sure and set aside an hour or two to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Preservation. Renowned as quite possibly the greatest architect in American history, Wright designed over 1,000 structures throughout his lifetime.
Famous for pioneering “organic architecture,” Wright built a home, studio, and school on the 800-acre Taliesin estate, which is now dedicated to preserving his legacy. So, what you can expect from a tour of Taliesin? We’ve delved into both its history and its present — read on to find out more about this unique piece of Americana.
Editor’s Note: For information on the latest pandemic-related travel requirements and advisories, be sure to check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and official local and state websites. Due to the surge in Delta variant-related cases, all travelers should check into destination requirements regarding mask wearing, quarantine, and COVID-19 testing, even when traveling by car.
Wright’s Childhood Ties to Taliesin
Taliesin estate was many things to Frank Lloyd Wright throughout his life. Not only did he call Taliesin home, but he used the property to experiment with new architectural designs and ideas on a pretty constant basis. From the time he moved to the property in 1911 until he passed away in 1959, Wright used Taliesin’s grounds as a sort of architectural laboratory, making 200 documented renovations and changes.
But what brought him to Wisconsin in the first place? The iconic architect was actually born just 20 miles from Spring Green, Wisconsin, and completed some of his earliest projects on — or near — the Taliesin property.
Taliesin means “brow” in Welsh, serving as a nod to Wright’s Welsh ancestors who settled in the surrounding valley. “This hill on which Taliesin now stands as ‘brow’ was one of my favorite places when I was a boy, for pasque flowers grew there in March sun while snow still streaked the hillsides,” Wright once said of his choice of location .
Today, Taliesin, which is now open to the public, features structures from every decade of Wright’s career. Visitors can also get a better sense of his singular creativity by exploring his home, studio and school as well as the estate’s courtyards and gardens.
The Dark Side of Taliesin’s History
While Taliesin may now be a shrine to the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright, its history isn’t all one of creativity and innovation. In fact, when Wright first moved to the property, he was met with a less-than-warm welcome. To understand why, let’s rewind a bit. In 1903, Wright was commissioned for a Chicago-based project. At the time, he lived in the city with his wife and six children.
But, during the course of the project, Wright fell in love with his client’s wife, Martha “Mamah” Borthwick Cheney. The lovers eventually ran off to Europe together for a year. When they returned to the United States in 1911, the couple moved to Taliesin to begin a new life together. The press was less than kind, labeling the property Wright’s “Love Cottage” or “Castle of Love.”
Things went from scandalous to horrifying, however, on August 15, 1914. While Wright was away in Chicago on business, a handyman at Taliesin, Julian Carlton, went on a murderous, ax-wielding rampage , killing Martha, her two children, and four other people. Carlton then set the house on fire and retreated to the basement, where he was later discovered, barely alive after swallowing muriatic acid. The handyman-turned-murderer died seven weeks later — and never revealed his motive.
Grief-stricken, Wright rebuilt the destroyed section of the house, only to have it burn down again in 1925 due to faulty wiring. Wright then built the current incarnation, which is formally known as Taliesin III. If you look closely today, you can still see charring on some of the house’s ceiling beams — a stark reminder of the property’s past.
Taliesin Becomes a Training Ground
When work was slow during the Great Depression, Wright wrote his now-classic books, An Autobiography and The Disappearing City . Little did Wright know, he’d become more of a hands-on mentor, too. After numerous architects expressed interest in training with him, Wright and his third wife, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, decided to establish an architectural training school on the Taliesin property.
Wright transformed a preexisting building on the property, which he had initially built for his aunts in 1902, into the school’s central campus. Instead of employing traditional teaching methods and relying on books, Frank Lloyd Wright’s School of Architecture — a.k.a. the “Taliesin Fellowship” — focused on a “learning by doing” mentality.
The fellowship survived for many years after Wright’s death. But, in 2020, the school officially severed ties with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation due to internal differences. Today, the institution lives on today in Arizona as The School of Architecture .
Tours of Taliesin
These days, visitors can feast their eyes on all Taliesin has to offer. Several different kinds of tours , ranging in length from one to four hours, are available if you’d prefer a guided experience. On the other hand, you can choose to tour the house on your own if you’d prefer to wander, museum-style. Since Wright was an expert when it came to organically integrating nature into his designs, Taliesin also offers an all-outdoor tour option, too. Other structures on the property include the Midway Barn, Water Gardens, and Taliesin Dam.
If you’re up for a more immersive experience, try the four-hour estate tour. If you’ve got the time, it makes for a pretty fascinating afternoon. In addition to seeing the house, studio and school inside-and-out, you’ll also get to see some of Wright’s oldest designs, including the Romeo and Juliet Windmill Tower (1897) and Tan-y-Deri, a home that Wright built for his sister, Jane Porter, and her family in 1907.
Although Wright’s school no longer operates on the property, Taliesin honors that legacy by offering tours for educators and students alike. The estate also hosts summer camps for kids who are interested in architecture. And, if you happen to live nearby, you can check out the wide variety of events that Taliesin holds year-round, which range from book signings and readings to cookouts and photography classes.
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What Makes This Frank Lloyd Wright House So Beloved in Hollywood?
By Katherine McLaughlin
If you’ve ever seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Day of the Locust, or Blade Runner, then you’ve also seen the Ennis House. In the films, the property is used to depict a vampire mansion, a private residence, and an apartment building respectively. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1923 and constructed in 1924, the home has made more than 80 onscreen appearances throughout its near century-long existence, according to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. However, it was the home’s feature in House on Haunted Hill in 1959 that brought it into ghoulish acclaim.
“In just a minute, I’ll show you the only really haunted house in the world,” Watson Pritchard, played by Elisha Cook Jr., says in the movie. “Since it was built a century ago, seven people—including my brother—have been murdered in it.” The film’s plot follows five people who are promised $10,000 each if they can spend the whole night in the eerie property, which is “played” by the Ennis House.
The Ennis House is in the Los Feliz neighborhood in Los Angeles.
“It’s a really modern house, yet it uses ancient forms,” said Michael Wyetzner, architect at Michielli + Wyetzner Architects , in the newest episode of Blueprints , a YouTube series for AD. In the video, Wyetzner breaks down the Ennis House’s role in House on Haunted Hill, as well as the role of five other properties featured in horror films. “It doesn’t have a very domestic scale, it almost looks like it could be a museum or other type of religious building,” he said.
Of course, though large, it was designed as a residential property. Located in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, Wright designed the home in the early ’20s for Charles and Mabel Ennis, owners of a local men’s clothing store. The home is one of four that makes use of Wright’s textile block system, which is constructed from precast, interlocked concrete blocks. Designed in a trabeated style, the home lacks curves, arches, vaults, and domes and is heavily inspired by Mayan architecture. As such, many have classified the home as a Mayan Revival.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House is the largest and most grand of his textile block homes.
By Suleika Jaouad
By Kelly Dawson
By Erika Owen
Drawing from the Mayan-design vernacular, the home looks older than it is—in the 1959 film Pritchard says the home was built “a century ago,” despite only being 35 years old at the time. Aside from its deceptive age, the house has two other important qualities that make it the perfect horror home: It sits on a hill (which is not just a nod to the film’s title) and features a deep, high roof. These two qualities have become commonplace in homes used in horror films and were made famous in what Wyetzner calls “the iconic house of horrors”: the Bates’s home in Psycho.
The Bates Home in Psycho isn’t actually a real home, but rather a two-walled exterior facade used for the film.
Inspired by Edward Hopper’s 1925 painting House by the Railroad , the Bates’s home “sets the stage for houses of horror in film,” Wyetzner explains. Also sitting on a hill and featuring a tall mansard roof, this specific architectural detail implies that “there’s a big deep attic within, and who knows what goes on there,” Wyetzner said. Over time, these two elements became commonplace in horror homes, and, as such, can been seen in many other classic films, such as the house in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and The Overlook Hotel in The Shining.
Of course, the Ennis House also makes appearances in non-haunted roles—an animated version was even created for an episode of South Park. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation credits the property’s exoticism to its lasting Hollywood appeal . Additionally, its proximity to Tinseltown, the unique ability to look both ancient and modern, and its grand scale make it a special piece of LA real estate. To watch Wyetzner break down the history and architecture of other iconic horror homes, check out the newest episode of Blueprints.
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Film / House on Haunted Hill (1959)
"I am Frederick Loren, and I have rented the house on Haunted Hill tonight so that my wife can give a party. A haunted house party. She's so amusing. There'll be food and drink and ghosts, and perhaps even a few murders. You're all invited. If any of you will spend the next twelve hours in this house, I will give you each ten thousand dollars, or your next of kin in case you don't survive. Ah, but here come our other guests."
House on Haunted Hill is a low-budget 1959 horror film directed by William Castle , regarding five people who have been invited to stay the night in a Haunted House .
Eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren ( Vincent Price ) is throwing his "party" for his fourth wife, Annabelle, with the stipulation that the power will be out and all doors will be locked at midnight, allowing no accessible escape . Anyone who survives the night will be awarded $10,000. As the night progresses, however, it becomes clear that this is no game by the host — the partygoers are indeed trapped here with malevolent ghosts, murderers, and other terrors.
Matching up with William Castle's Signature Style , the film originally released exhibiting one of his past-the-fourth-wall gimmicks — in this case, a model skeleton would be elevated over the movie audience during the climactic scene, and would then be reeled back during the shot of Loren winding its thread back into the reel (which is why this shot seems to go on a bit too long without the gimmick).
This film contains examples of:
- The Alcoholic : Pritchard, after his brother and sister-in-law were murdered in the house. He spends most of the movie drinking and doomsaying.
- Ambiguous Ending : Was everything that Annabelle and Dr. Trent caused really just one giant scheme built on superstition with no true supernatural elements involved, or is the house truly haunted?
- Ambiguously Evil : It's never entirely clear whether Frederick Loren really did kill his first three wives, or the exact circumstances and reasons behind it even if he did kill them.
- Asshole Victim : Annabelle and Dr. Trent really had it coming.
- As You Know : Just before the end of the movie, Annabelle and Dr. Trent stand around discussing the details of a plan that they not only both know, but which is already 90% complete.
- Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work : The closest the film has to heroes are Nora and Lance, neither of whom kill anyone over the course of the story. The true villain of the film is Annabelle Loren, who has been gaslighting Nora and tried to manipulate and lie to Lance. She is killed not by either of the clean-cut good guys, but by the far more morally questionable Frederick Loren, who might be a serial killer and certainly has a little too much fun giving Annabelle and Dr Trent what they deserve.
- Batman Gambit : Terrorize Nora into a state of hysteria thinking Loren is trying to kill her, causing her to kill him in "self-defense".
- Big Bad : Annabelle Loren, who organized the entire party to murder her husband.
- To give the filmmakers a touch of credit, they did add concrete blocks modeled on the exterior of Ennis House to one of their sets (the basement) to try and tie the interiors to the exterior.
- The Bluebeard : Loren is on his fourth wife. The first one disappeared, and the second two died of heart attacks, despite being in their 20s. The fourth one is scared to death during the course of the party. She was a Gold Digger planning to murder Loren for his money, however, casting an unsavory light on the intentions of the first three. In retrospect, however, we can't be sure that his first three wives did die under such mysterious circumstances, since the person who described them was trying to create an alibi for Loren's eventual demise.
- Body in a Breadbox : A severed head turns up in an unsuspecting character's suitcase. It's a fake.
- Book Ends : The first and last lines are spoken by Pritchard to the audience.
- Break the Cutie : Traumatizing Nora is a crucial element in Annabelle's scheme.
- Bulletproof Fashion Plate : Loren's hair stays neat and his suit immaculate even after he is shot with blanks, which in real life at such a close distance would likely cause burns to his clothes at least, and then dragged across the cellar floor (in a house that hasn't been cleaned in a long time) by Dr Trent while playing dead.
- Character as Himself : The skeleton is credited as "by itself".
- Colliding Criminal Conspiracies : Loren and Annabelle are both plotting to kill each other by using the party to their advantage.
- Covers Always Lie : The poster that appears as the image for this very article does a pretty good job encapsulating this movie's tone, but the house itself looks like a more conventional Haunted House than the strange Frank Lloyd Wright building used in the movie itself.
- Closed Circle : Once the clock strikes midnight, the guests will not be allowed to leave.
- Creepy Housekeeper : One appears to scare the living daylights out of Nora.
- Dem Bones : The living skeleton that appears before Annabelle. It's actually Dr. Trent's skeleton, which is controlled by Frederick.
- Disposing of a Body : An attempt is made with Hollywood Acid , but the "body", Frederick Loren, is not dead and Loren throws Dr Trent into the acid instead.
- Domestic Abuse : Loren skates along the edge of this as he prepares his reluctant wife for her party. Loren: Are you ready, dear? Annabelle: No. Loren: [ grabs her hair and pulls it ] Are you ready, dear? Annabelle: Yes, damn you! Annabelle, meanwhile, has tried to poison him at least once before the events of the film start.
- Do Wrong, Right : When Frederick Loren is accused of murdering his wife, he's offended...because he's not stupid enough to kill her in such an obvious and suspicious way when he had plenty of opportunities to do it and never be suspected. Loren: I'm not such a fool as to hang my wife from the ceiling by a rope.
- Empathic Environment : That House is easily believable as haunted. Lance : If I were gonna haunt somebody, this would certainly be the house I'd do it in.
- Enclosed Space : "You won't have a chance to change your minds later... because there won't be a way to get out."
- Falling Chandelier of Doom : Nora is is almost killed by a falling chandelier within minutes of entering the house.
- Fan Disservice : The poster shows a woman in a slinky dress, which is sliding off her shoulders. She is being hanged.
- The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You : Used in the ending: "They're coming for me now... and then they'll come for you."
- Gaslighting : What Annabelle and Dr. Trent were doing to Nora in the hopes that she'd wind up shooting Mr. Loren for them .
- Ghostly Glide : The ghostly figure in the cellar later revealed to be one of the caretakers that terrified Nora moves by gliding rather than walking.
- Ghostly Goals : It seems that Frederick has come back from the dead to haunt his wife. Subverted as it is part of his scheme to get rid of her. But you're not going to live to enjoy it!
- Hand Gagging : Jonas grabs Nora from behind, clamping a hand over her mouth and warning her that she doesn't belong here and should come with him.
- Haunted House : Well, it's on a haunted hill. What do you expect? Though in the end it's left up to debate if the house truly is haunted, or if it was just an elaborate hoax.
- Haunted House Historian : Pritchard, who just can't stop talking about all the hideous murders that have happened, and how the ghosts are going to kill everyone before morning .
- Hollywood Acid : Doesn't eat at bone or the winery container it's stored in. Or for that matter, strings .
- Hysterical Woman : Nora. Invoked. Annabelle and Dr. Trent are trying to terrify her to the point of killing Loren in 'self-defense'.
- Implied Love Interest : Lance and Nora. He saves her several times, keeps her secret, and when he goes to look for a way out he says he'll come back for her if he finds one. She's very concerned when he gets locked in the basement, and even after she accuses him of not believing her she begs him to get her out. They also happen to have adjoining rooms.
- Informed Attribute : We're informed at the beginning of the film that Ruth is a gambler. Are we shown anything of the sort? Nope.
- It Was Here, I Swear! : Happens to Nora a lot. When Lance finally sees one of the severed heads that she insisted was there, he just grabs it by the hair and brings it with him to show everyone.
- It Works Better with Bullets : Nora is baffled that Frederick is still alive after she shot him. He calmly explains that he had loaded her gun with blanks.
- Kansas City Shuffle : The film is essentially a whole load of characters going around trying to trap and falling into the traps of others.
- Large Ham : Frederick Loren. He's played by Vincent Price , so would you expect anything less?
- A Lighter Shade of Black : Loren ends up coming across as somewhat preferable to Annabelle simply because he never tries to harm the protagonists, while Annabelle has been gaslighting Nora and trying to frame her. He's still not a good person, though how true the various accusations against him are is left ambiguous.
- After all is said and done, the existence of actual ghosts is left ambiguous.
- There is that spot of blood that keeps shows up on Ruth's hand, even after she has washed it off...
- Millionaire Playboy : Frederick Loren is stated to be this, and has been married four times with all his wives apparently having been younger than him and quite beautiful. It's not focussed on much in the film given the circumstances, though he does still find a bit of time to flirt with, or at least compliment the appearance of, some of the female characters.
- Noble Demon : If Loren is to be taken at his word, he's going to face the courts willingly after killing Annabelle. Granted, he's leaving out that he intentionally killed her, but it would have been much easier for him to make Nora look crazy and simply let everyone think Annabelle vanished.
- The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You : Pritchard's speeches in particular are more of a warning, as if the audience is in danger of catching the ghosts' wrath themselves.
- Old, Dark House : Well, it's more like a castle, but it's certainly old and dark, especially once the electricity is cut.
- Ominous Pipe Organ : One of many things used to scare the guests.
- Only in It for the Money : All the guests agreed to the party for the $10,000 prize to survive the night, because they all need the money in one way or another. In particular, Pritchard, the owner of the house, who is absolutely terrified of the place, agrees, for the money.
- On One Condition : "I think you all remember the bargain we made about staying all night: $10,000 a piece."
- Out-Gambitted : "Little did you know , as you were playing your game of murder... that I was playing too ."
- Rain of Blood : Drops of blood fall from the ceiling onto the hand of one of the guests. Watson Pritchard tells the woman that the house has marked her. Notable in being one of the scenes that supports the idea the house is actually haunted .
- Rich Genius : Frederick Loren is a very clever schemer and manipulator who outwits all the other characters, and uses an elaborate skeleton contraption that seems to be his own invention as a major part of his plan. He's also a millionaire, though it's not stated how he made his money beyond that he owns various unspecified businesses.
- Screaming Woman : Nora Manning. Justified in that Annabelle's plan is entirely reliant on keeping Nora on edge the whole time.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Money! : Discussed by Annabelle Loren, who says that Frederick believes a man as rich as him can get away with anything. While she's not a reliable source of information, she may well be telling the truth about this: it's implied he will get away with killing Annabelle and Dr Trent, and while it's left ambiguous if he did murder his first three wives, if he did , it appears he got away with it in part due to this trope.
- Steel Ear Drums : When Frederick hands out the guns, he fires at a vase on the mantlepiece while holding the gun inches from Annabelle's face. Despite this she completely unaffected by the noise.
- Vengeful Ghost : Frederick Loren pretends to be one of these when he is actually still alive.
- Villain of Another Story : If you believe that Loren really did murder his first three wives out of jealousy. It's left ambiguous, but he shows no sadness over their deaths and his reaction to being accused of murdering Annabelle is to take offence at the idea he'd be stupid enough to do it so publicly , so it seems entirely possible that he really is an unrepentant murderer. Sounds like an obvious villain, and he's definitely not a nice person, but in this case it's Annabelle who's the true villain of the story: not only is she trying to kill him, but unlike him is willing to gaslight an innocent person into doing the killing and pin the blame on her.
- Wild Card : Frederick Loren. He's not the villain (that would be Annabelle ) and is in fact working against the villain, but he can't easily be called a hero. He might be a serial killer, but we never know for certain. His motivation is mysterious for most of the story (though it turns out to be to defeat Annabelle and Dr Trent's plan to murder him, and murder them instead ), leaving the other characters constantly unsure whether he's on their side or not. Loren manipulates all the other characters for his own ends and also seems to get quite a bit of amusement out of the whole situation, treating it like a game.
- World of Ham : Oh Dear God, yes. And it's glorious.
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