Wisconsin picked up its first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019 when eight major works by architect Frank Lloyd Wright were inscribed on the official list, including Taliesin, his estate and home near his birthplace in the Badger State, and Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House in Madison. In anticipation of his world heritage honor, Wisconsin’s Department of Tourism had already unveiled the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail in 2017, the 150th anniversary of Wright’s birth. Stretching from Racine in the southeast corner of the state to Spring Green an hour west of Madison, the roughly 200-mile driving route takes travelers past his most famous architectural works in Wisconsin.
Many know Wright for his Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, but his inspirations came from the countryside of Wisconsin. Born near Richland Center, in the beautiful unglaciated land known as the Driftless Area, Wright grew up in a rural setting until the family eventually moved to Madison. Even then, Wright spent time out on his maternal grandparents’ farm, also in the Driftless Area near Spring Green, Wisconsin. The rolling hills and prairies that he loved would influence a lifetime of work.
He spent five years working as an apprentice in Chicago for another famous American architect, Louis Sullivan. Sullivan contended “form follows function,” and his influence affected Wright deeply. Eventually, Sullivan fired Wright for moonlighting on some side projects. Wright would bring his own ethos to his organic art, contending that a structure itself should also harmonize with its setting. When he returned to the land of his grandparents, he began to build the 800-acre estate that would showcase his philosophy.
Starting in Racine
You wouldn’t imagine a connection between Wright and an insect repellant, but here it is. S.C. Johnson & Son commissioned Wright to design their Administration Building in 1939. One can still take a look inside the still-operating office, where a wide open space without proper windows is nevertheless filled with natural light. Columns are meant to resemble a forest. Built of Cherokee Red brick, the company’s Research Tower stands just outside the front door. On a tour, you can see where now-famous products such as OFF! and Raid were created and tested. The tower, built in 1950, stands 153 feet tall.
While not Wright-designed, other impressive onsite designs like the Fortaleza Hall and Commons and the flying saucer-like Golden Rondelle Theater, part of the company’s World’s Fair pavilion in 1964–65 that now shows a classic documentary short “To Be Alive!”, also merit a tour.
Satisfied with Wright’s work, H.F. Johnson, Jr. also contracted him to create his family’s 14,000 square-foot home. Built in 1939, Wingspread has four wings with a high open space at their hub. At center is a fireplace and 30-foot chimney surrounded by natural light. Today, it functions as a conference center. A glassed-in crow’s nest offers views over the rooftop and the grounds. The cantilevered “Romeo and Juliet” balcony is also a notable design element.
On to Milwaukee
Wright surely served wealthy clients, but he also believed that those of more modest means deserve beautiful homes. Six of his American System-Built Homes can still be seen along Burnham Street; these show homes introduced customizable, affordable designs for the average citizen. Now known as Burnham Block, some of the structures can be toured.
Just west of Milwaukee in Wauwatosa is Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, one of Wright’s last projects, in fact, completed in 1961 after his death. Wright acknowledges elements of “ancient tradition”—some see a nod to the Byzantine church Hagia Sophia—but insists this is a product of science and art in the 20th century. The church is very much still in use and not a tourist attraction per se. One can apply online for a one-hour tour, which costs $125 for up to 15 people. Either way, it merits at least a drive-by and photo.
The Capital City
Wright had first envisioned a public building along the shore of Madison’s Lake Monona in 1938, and made several alterations to the design over the years, but never reached an agreement with the city. Wright passed away in 1959, but, after a lot of heated discussion, his concept for a lakeside convention center got a narrowly won approval in 1992.
The 1951 First Unitarian Society Meeting House is another remarkable Madison project. This long single-story structure rises like the prow of a ship to a peak above a triangular meeting space. Society members actually hauled the limestone themselves from a nearby quarry. One can tour the place, but it's even more impressive to attend one of the occasional music recitals in the center gathering hall.
Wright used the term “Usonian” rather than American for his housing designed for the masses. The First Jacobs House remains a private residence and is not open for tours, but it's another stop for at least a photo on the Wright Trail.
Around the same time that the Wright-designed Imperial Hotel in Tokyo was being built (1917-1923), a Richland Center businessman contracted Wright to build him a warehouse, of all things. A $30,000 project begun in 1917 became a $125,000 one by 1921, at which point John German decided to leave it as it was. The A.D. German Warehouse is described stylistically as Mayan Revival, and indeed the concrete frieze along the top of the four-story brick building bears designs that call to mind the stone temples of Central America. Worth the side trip from Spring Green, limited scheduled tours are available.
Not far from his estate south of Spring Green is the 1956 Wyoming Valley School. Wright’s mother was a teacher, and this concrete block construction of a country school is in honor of her. The school shows Wright's Taliesin red floors and a couple of central fireplaces. The school is only minutes southwest of Taliesin, but I’d recommend seeing this before the grand finale.
A nod to his Welsh heritage, the name Taliesin means “shining or radiant brow.” Serving as Wright’s home and studio, this expansive low-level structure sits atop the “brow” of a hill overlooking a pond and the rolling green land of the Driftless Area. The architecture school he founded is still active at the other end of the property.
All of the buildings blend harmoniously with the landscape, rising up out of the land as if they’d grown from it. Comprehensive tours cover the art and science of his creations as well as his very colorful life. Wright had a bold personality, and sometimes found himself at the heart of controversy in his personal life. One of the more dramatic stories told on the tour is of the day when a disgruntled worker used an axe to murder Wright’s love, Mamah Borthwick (subject of a popular novel), along with her children and several others before setting fire to the house. From his highs to his lows, nothing about this man was boring, and his works leave visitors in awe generations later. Set aside a half day for this visit and take your time.
To find out more about the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail, download the free app for iOs and Android.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home-cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.” He’s based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com