Even if you're not an architecture buff, odds are you've heard of Frank Lloyd Wright. The man often referred to as "America's Greatest Architect" was born and raised right here in Wisconsin. His iconic mid-century modern designs drew inspiration from Wisconsin's landscapes and natural colors. On this trip, you can tour Wright-designed office buildings, schools, churches, convention centers, and homes - big and small - while taking in his inspiration for yourself. Cap it off with a peek inside Taliesin, the home studio that inspired his unique modern genius, where you'll get an in-depth look at the man behind the design. Set against the beautiful backdrop of autumn leaves, there's no better time for a trip down the Frank Lloyd Wright trail than during Wisconsin's fall season.
Famed consumer chemical and household cleaning supply company SC Johnson is based in the town of Racine, which is the perfect first stop on your trip down the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail. Wright designed several buildings on the SC Johnson campus, as well as a home for the Johnson family. The company offers tours that are perfect for architecture buffs and history geeks alike.
It was third-generation SC Johnson owner H.F. Johnson, Jr. who sought the help of fellow Wisconsinite Wright to make the company's hub of operations something more than just an office building. The SC Johnson Research Tower opened in 1950, a few years after the Administration Building. The Tower is an impressive 15-story structure stacked with alternating circular and square floors, with a "core" of elevators and stairs running up the middle. The effect is best seen at night from the outside, when you can see the circular floors lit up through the windows. The brick used is the shade "Cherokee Red," the color that Wright and SC Johnson used in most of their projects together. The campus tour stops here in the Research Tower and takes visitors through four exhibits across two floors.
The other SC Johnson building that Wright designed was the Administration Building, which opened in 1939. The most distinctive feature of this building is what is known as The Great Workroom. It's a half acre-sized open space, with tree-like columns (Wright described them as "dendriform") towering above. The birdcage elevators, Cherokee Red bricks, Pyrex tube windows (to cut down on refraction and glare) and more than 40 pieces of custom furniture Wright designed for the space all add extra flair.
The SC Johnson Company also offers tours of the former Johnson family estate, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home called Wingspread. It's an absolutely incredible 30-acre property set on the Wisconsin prairie. Wright described it as the last of his Prairie homes, and it was his largest as well. It features four wings jutting out from the center. Details like the cantilevered "Romeo and Juliet" balcony, which Wright designed for Johnson's daughter, the glass crow's nest designed for the kids, the teepee-inspired ceilings, the beautifully landscaped grounds and many windows make it an absolute dream of a house. The National Historic Landmark is primarily used as a conference center and is open for tours through SC Johnson as well.
Frank Lloyd Wright didn't just design homes for wealthy friends and office buildings for successful companies; he also believed in the power of using architecture to solve larger problems. He was fascinated in particular by the idea of designing a cost-effective house for low-income families. Between 1915 and 1917, he produced more than 900 drawings of what he called "American System-Built Homes.” His plan involved having the building materials cut and crafted in a factory or mill to reduce material waste and eliminate the need for skilled laborers to come to a worksite. Six were eventually built in Milwaukee and still stand today, with a few others scattered throughout the Midwest. The American System-Built Home at 2714 Burnham Street is open for tours on most Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between 12:30 and 3:30 PM, so you can see what Wright's innovative vision for the future of housing looked like.
The city of Madison was important to Frank Lloyd Wright, as he spent his formative years here. He lived here between 1878-1887 and studied engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Wright spent years trying to get funding and approval for what he described as the “Dream Civic Center.” His design linked the state capitol to the lovely Lake Monona and featured an elegant curvilinear form. While his proposals were voted down until funding for a civic center dried up during his lifetime, Madison's Mayor revived the project in the 1990s. Monona Terrace opened in 1997, 59 years after the project was first proposed. The convention center juts out into the lake and offers incredible views of the Madison skyline from its roof. Tours are offered at 1 PM every day between May 1 and October 31, and at 1 PM on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday between November 1 and April 30.
Wright also designed Madison's Unitarian Meeting House building. This church has a distinctive triangle motif appearing throughout. It was commissioned in 1946, and although the Taliesin Associated Architects have designed two additions to the building, it's still a prime example of Wright's style. The most interesting part of the building? The congregation worked hard to help build it. Members helped haul stone from a nearby quarry and constructed furnishings for the interior to keep costs down.
Weekday tours are held daily at 10:30 AM and 2:30 PM between May 1 and September 30, and cost $10 per person. Sunday tours are available throughout the year after each worship session; these are free but donations are appreciated. The Sunday tours meet in the Atrium Auditorium at approximately 10:15 AM and 12:15 PM. It helps to call in advance to ensure that the church isn't being used for an event the day you plan to take a tour!
Churches, offices, convention centers, homes for the wealthy and the low-income, and now a warehouse; what didn't Wright take a stab at designing? The AD German Warehouse in Wright's hometown of Richland Center was made for a local commodities wholesaler. Wright designed it in 1915, and construction was completed in 1921. Its four stories were used to store goods such as sugar, flour, coffee, and tobacco. Today, it contains a shop and theater on the first floor, and an exhibit with photo murals dedicated to Wright on the second. It's open on Sundays between May and October from 10 AM-2 PM, and also the first Saturday of every month during the same hours.
Wright's beloved mother, Anna Lloyd-Jones Wright, was a schoolteacher, and fostered his lifelong passion for learning. In her honor, he dedicated land and a design for a building to the Wyoming Valley School District. Today, that building is known as the Wyoming Valley School Cultural Arts Center. It served as a school until 1990, when it changed hands a few times. It now serves as the hub for a nonprofit, and the space is used for classes, workshops, exhibits, lectures, events, and more. Tours are offered on weekends between 10 AM and 2 PM. They last about 30 minutes and a small donation is requested in return.
End your trip down the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail at the studio where Wright did some of his best work. He lived here on and off for much of his life, and kept his collection of Asian art at Taliesin as well. The building is a consummate example of Prairie School design.
As you tour the stunning building, you'll get an in-depth look at Wright's life. He designed the studio and moved here from Illinois with a mistress after leaving his first wife. This essential Frank Lloyd Wright stop is open daily from May through October, and weekends in November. Make sure to reserve a tour in advance, as they fill up fast! There are several tour options, including a four-hour full-estate tour, a shorter highlight tour, and even a twilight stroll that includes drinks and appetizers. Call or check the schedule to see all the offerings.
And, of course, remember to take some time to enjoy the fall colors as you cruise through the area where Wright grew up and worked. You can see the influence of the natural surroundings at work in his designs.The towering tress seen in his pillars at the SC Johnson Administration Building, the natural, local stone see in the Unitarian Meeting House, and Monona Terrace’s flowing lines that evoke the lake all speak to Wright’s love for Wisconsin’s beauty. Immersing yourself in his work is an adventure sure to inspire.
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