11 JUL 2017: This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of architect trailblazer Frank Lloyd Wright. He was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin on June 8, 1867. For this sesquicentennial, the Badger State has moved mountains to churn out the state’s newest tourism product: the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail. It’s a feat insiders say was no easy task.  

“We had all these separate interests within the Frank Lloyd Wright community but somehow we managed to make this work,” says Dave Blank, president and CEO of Real Racine describing the new trail devoted to America’s greatest architect.

The best way to reflect on the genius who gave the world The Guggenheim Museum in New York, Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and over 1,100 designs - of which nearly half were ever realized - is to pay a visit to his home state where nine of his finest creations now comprise this new 200-mile route in southwest Wisconsin.

Here’s the crash course:

Racine

A short drive from either Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport or from Chicago (about 220 miles from his Oak Park bastion in Illinois) gets you to this Lake Michigan waterfront town. Home to a population of 78,000 Racine’s claim-to-fame is as America’s Kingle Capital (it’s a Danish-style pastry), and the SC Johnson cleaning product empire.

If you’re familiar with Windex, Shout! DEET, OFF! Johnson Floor Wax, Raid, Glade and Ziploc bags (just a smidgen of the many company household brands) then you’ll know Johnson’s. It’s a family company… and still is.

S.C. (Samuel Curtis) founded the mid-west family business in 1886. By 1936 it was third-generation SC Johnson leader, grandson Herbert Fisk (H.F) Junior who elevated the company to new heights. Considered one of the world's leading manufacturers of household cleaning products and products for home storage, air care, pest control and shoe care it was at the height of the Great Depression when the course of the Johnson family company changed.

Wright and Johnson

Wright was a charmer, a schemer, and a dreamer who got his way as you quickly discover taking a guided tour inside one of his Wisconsin landmarks.

It took all of Wright’s charm to win over H.F. Johnson, a fellow Wisconsinite to design not only a new family home but a new company headquarters in Racine. It didn’t help that FLW was hurting for money at the time and was dealing with a few scandals involving mismanaged purchases and a domestic situation (he had a mistress) which further added to his notoriety and his dry spell.

Still, the process wasn’t easy. FLW wooed and wooed Johnson executives so the story goes until H.F. finally accepted the offer. “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,” H.F. Johnson Jr said years later of his head office project that would turn heads and change the future of office buildings in America and the world.

Today, the SC Johnson Administration Building which has been open to the public for free tours is now part of the newly anointed FLW Trail. “Wright was nearing seventy and had no major commissions for a few years when this contract to create a new administration building came along,” says guide Barb on my site tour of the Johnson Admin Building.

In the foreground sits FLW’s red-bricked Johnson Wax Administration Building, his first stunner which was completed in 1939. A covered low ceilinged parking garage pronounced by white champagne glass pillars leads the way to the HQ entrance. Once inside the interior office explodes in light and airiness. The space continually forces the eye to follow the white pillars toward intersecting circles. The effect is otherworld like. It’s like no other building I have ever been in.

The Admin building contains the original FLW-designed furniture including one of his famous 3-legged chairs all in his trademark Cherokee Red tone which elegantly aligns with OCD-precision between the soaring white lily pad columns.

In the horizon see the cantilevered Research Tower, a 14-story high-rise which opened in 1950. And, then there’s another building that is home of the Golden Rondelle Theater. This spherical building was originally built as the SC Johnson Pavilion for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair and was dismantled and relocated here. The theatre looks like the spaceship from the Jetsons.

The movie which still plays in the Rondelle is an 18-minute documentary titled, “To Be Alive!” “Mr. Johnson wanted something to reflect peace, understanding and the joy of being alive in a movie he commissioned to be shown in this movie theatre at the fair,” smiled Barb describing the film’s uplifting theme.

A beautiful piece of cinema depicting the circle of life from children around the world you see American kids in go-carts, African kids singing, and an Italian boy running up the weather worn steps to a chiesa. The film follows the children into adulthood and is projected over three screens. “It pre-empted the Imax,” she notes of the technological film achievement. To Be Alive! subsequently went on to win an Academy Award in Hollywood.

The Johnson House Wingspread

This Prairie-style home is iconic FLW and is the largest single family home Wright ever designed.

Built in 1939 as the home for Herbert “Hibbard,” we drove to the village of Wind Point and rolled into a wooded ravine through a long private driveway off Four Mile Road.

The house suddenly appears. In classic FLW style, earth coloured red brick meets weathered wood meets soaring roof line and chimney that is topped by a glass cupola. It has a huge footprint of 14,000 sq.ft.

Overseen by the Johnson Foundation the home is on the FLW Trail and has free tours by appointment plus groups can reserve the millionaire’s mansion for private events. The Johnson family home also is the anchor building of a 36-acre conference centre that sits on FLW’s garden plan of evergreens and other trees with a ribbon of trails one could easily trek. A 42-room Silver LEED-certified guest house is available for bookings.

I had the good fortune to lunch at Wingspread and heard several tales of the Johnson household. One of the most remarkable stories involved FLW of course. The late Sam Johnson (son of Hib) appears in a short video guests view prior to the self-guided house tour. He gave one vivid account as only a son could. It’s classic FLW in fine form.

“My father was entertaining guests one evening for dinner. They gathered in the living room. Everyone was there, the state governor, the mayor and other leading business people in the community, and I was allowed to sit off to the side,” says Sam.

‘You may learn something,’ his dad told him. ‘It was the end of dinner. I heard the thunder, water and some rain coming down. It rained harder and harder. The roof started to leak. He was sitting here and on the top of his bald head like mine I wondered what he was going to do.’

Dad said, ‘Maid, bring me the phone.’ He lifted it up. There were no dials back then. He said, ‘Operator I would like to talk to Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright in Taliesin West in Scottsdale Arizona.’ He got him on the line.

‘Frank you built me a beautiful house. I love the house…. But it leaks…. I am at a dinner with the most important people in the state and it is leaking right on top of my head.’

The room went silent.

And Mr. Wright said, “Well Hib, why don’t you move your chair?’”

Sam lived in the house until 1959 with his sister Karen who also appeared in the video.

“There was lots of laughter,” Karen added on those years growing up in the Johnson household.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Love Cottage

Just outside the capital of Madison we reached a quaint hamlet known as Spring Green to see the mother lode of Frank Lloyd Wright’s world: Taliesin.

Overlooking lush rolling hills of green, the kind that span for miles, locals have dubbed this part of southwestern Wisconsin as the “Driftless Area” for its peculiar terrain.

Considered the jewel in this new 200-mile self-drive route Taliesin was the stomping ground of Wright’s boyhood (he used to spend summers tending to his uncle’s farm) and adulthood (he lived, worked, played, taught and loved there). Wright built Taliesin as a love pad for him and his mistress, Martha “Mamah” Borthwick Cheney, and her children.

The organic architectural style he is famous for was rooted in this landscape as well as other dramatic settings across Wisconsin. The natural beauty is still evident thanks to the Taliesin Preservation that is keeping its spirit and farmland alive.

The Taliesin Preservation acts as a steward to preserve the heritage site and provides public programming at the 800-acre estate. Visitors see four buildings: Hillside Studio and Theatre designed for his aunts, his sister Jane’s house, the barn, and Wright’s private residence.

On the morning of our visit, a summer rain pitter-pattered on the stone steps and façades against the decorative stained windows for which he was famous for.

Unobstructed views from the seamless window corners, another of Wright’s hallmarks, brought nature into the building. In every room there was another Wrightism to discover on this guided tour.

Clients interested in architecture and those who want to delve into new experiences and other destinations ought to give the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail a try. Even if you’re not a architecture buff, hearing the stories of a mortal legend many regard as America’s greatest architect will intrigue. You’ll hear about love and heartache, even about scandal and savage killings.

While Wright was away on business Mamah who was living at the estate with her two children and four others were gruesomely murdered in 1914 by a deranged ex-employee who also set fire to Taliesin.

Wright in Madison

As we left the countryside of Taliesin we made a quick stop to suss out the Wright-designed Wyoming Valley School a short tree-mile drive away then headed to our final destination: Madison.

Driving into the state capital the first thing you notice is the massive domed building which bears an uncanny resemblance to the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. The thoroughfares in this Midwest capital are wide, the sidewalks are spacious, and there are nicely appointed flower boxes between the Linden tree-lined boulevards that mesh with the crowd sharing bike racks.

“In Madison, we have James Beard nominated restaurants, summer festivals like the Ironman Race in September, and free galleries like the Pelli-designed Madison Museum of Contemporary Art,” starts Diane Morgenthaler, executive vice-president at the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau in her downtown office - and oh yeah - Frank Lloyd Wright.

First Unitarian Society Meeting House

Madison is home to the First Unitarian Society Meeting House which was located on University of Wisconsin farmland and was a groundbreaking project for a couple of reasons. Youth congregants literally helped move rocks to build the church for a guy who by all accounts was not the easiest person to get along with.

Completed in 1951 the structure is known as Usonian architecture with its soaring windows jutting protected under a large vaulted cantilevered roof line.

“This church structure absolutely changed church architecture everywhere,” said March Schweitzer, a volunteer guide, during my tour on the church’s significance. “No longer is there a steeple, no longer is a church just a square box,” she says describing one of Madison’s most visited Frank Lloyd Wright buildings.

Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center

By the lip of Lake Monona with site lines of the Capitol lies the spaceship-looking Monona Terrace which Wright first designed in 1938 but was only built posthumously in 1997. Wright coined the name the ‘Dream Civic Center.’ Today, the centre is a popular gathering spot for free noon hour rooftop Tai-Chi classes and is used for staging big events like the Ironman Race to take place in September.

Madison Children’s Museum

Meanwhile, kids and adults alike will enjoy channeling their inner FLW in the new exhibition, “From Coops to Cathedrals: Nature, Childhood, and the Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright” which aims to unleash the creative potential of young visitors at the downtown venue. Visitors can recreate activities that were common in Wright’s life from playing make belief at his uncle’s dairy farm in an interactive exhibit to resurrecting a dog house from one of Wright’s original plans. The dog house is culled from a true story based on a 12-year-old boy named Jim Berger who wrote to Mr. Wright and asked the architect to design a doghouse for his Black Labrador, Eddie. He did.

In this world of play, for a split second we could all marvel at being Mr. Wright.

Frank Lloyd Wright Trail Info

Most of the landmarks featured in the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail are free to the public with some advanced reservations required at various venues.

Don’t let the ailing loonie get you down either. Accommodations and restaurants in Wisconsin are typically cheaper than larger hubs like Chicago and several museums in Madison also offer free admissions.

Frank Lloyd Wright Trail

Visit Racine

Taliesin Preservation

All photo credits: Stephen Smith

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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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