The Three (Tragic) Lives of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin House

Frank Lloyd Wright is undoubtedly one of the most influential architects of all time. The American architect was born and raised in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, which left a lasting impression on his young mind and inspired many of his most iconic works. 

At the age of 29, in 1896, Wright built a windmill on the Taliesin estate, on land that belonged to his mother’s family. The project, requested by his aunt, was the first in a series of developments that over the years became part of the 600-acre Taliesin estate as we know it today. 

Wright would return to his homeland of Taliesin in 1911, under more controversial circumstances.

In the early 1900s, Wright was married to Catherine Lee Tobin, had six children, and was living in Oak Park, Illinois. He was then tasked to design a house for his friend and neighbor Edwin Cheney, when he fell in love with his friend’s wife, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. In a daring and controversial move, the two lovers ran off to Europe, where their affair flourished, and when they returned to the U.S., they wanted a place to call their own, far from the judgmental eyes of the public.

That’s when Frank Lloyd Wright decided to leave his Chicago family behind, return to his roots and build a house for himself and Mamah in the secluded hills of Taliesin. 

Taliesin I — the “love cottage” with a harrowing story

Taliesin I, as we now call it, was completed in 1911 near Spring Green, Wisconsin, to serve as the home of Wright and Borthwick. The home/studio that Wright created is the quintessential representation of the architect’s Prairie School design. 

Wright described the 12,000-square-foot house as ‘low, wide, and snug,’ and that’s exactly what it is. The house, which was named after the Welsh bard Taliesin — and translates into ‘shining brow’ — was the result of Wright’s attempt to blend man-made structures and materials with nature and the elements. 

taliesin the home of frank lloyd wright
Taliesin I, courtesy of the Utah Department of heritage & Arts

The house had an open-space design, with windows placed so that the sun could come through in every room at every point of the day. All the materials used in the construction were locally sourced, in an effort to seamlessly integrate the house with its surroundings. 

Wright was a big fan of Japanese culture and architecture, and he was inspired to bring a taste of Japan to Taliesin, as well. The architect’s home included an artificial lake stocked with fish and aquatic fowl, a water garden, as well as a ‘tea circle’ in the middle of the spacious, green courtyard. 

The home that Wright built was stunning, and to this day it remains one of his most beautiful creations.

The beauty of Taliesin, however, did not do much to impress those living in nearby communities, who disapproved of Wright’s relationship with Borthwick. At the time the couple lived in Wisconsin, Borthwick had divorced Cheney, but Wright was still married, as Catherine Tobin refused him a divorce. Due to the scandalous aspect of their relationship, locals and media dubbed Taliesin ‘the Love Cottage.’ 

Taliesin, courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

Nonetheless, the couple lived happily at Taliesin, joined by Mamah Borthwick’s two children and a number of household workers and employees.

Among those employees were Julian Carlton, a handyman and servant, and his wife Gertrude.

In 1914, the 31-year-old worker started acting strangely, becoming more and more paranoid and staring out the windows holding an axe. Given his strange behavior, Wright and Borthwick decided to let the couple go, and they gave Carlton and his wife notice in mid-August.

The events that followed the next day, on August 15, 1914, were so shocking that Taliesin will unfortunately forever be associated with them. 

Taliesin interior, courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

That August day, while Wright was away on business, Julian Carlton attacked Mamah Borthwick and her two children, ending their lives. He then turned against the other members of the household, after which he set the house on fire.

His killing spree ended the lives of Borthwick, her two children, as well as two other workers and their young boy. Following the attack, Carlton hid in the basement’s fireproof furnace, and swallowed hydrochloric acid in an attempt to end his own life. Somehow, he survived, and he was arrested and taken into custody.

While awaiting his trial and sentencing, he died of starvation, as the acid he swallowed had burned his esophagus to the extent that he could no longer eat. Carlton’s wife was luckily not in the house at the time, as she was waiting for her husband to join her on a train to Chicago.

SEE ALSO: How the Sharon Tate Murder House on Cielo Drive Shed Its Sordid Past — Movie Tie-in with Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Taliesin II

Taliesin I was, in large part, destroyed, and Frank Lloyd Wright was left heartbroken, losing the love of his life and the beloved home that they shared. He was so devastated that he couldn’t even bring himself to hold a vigil or a formal funeral for Borthwick, instead burying her in an unmarked grave in a nearby graveyard. 

However, Wright soon got back on his feet and decided to rebuild Taliesin. By the end of 1914, he had built Taliesin II, and had found companionship in Miriam Noel, who sent him a condolence letter after that summer’s massacre. 

Taliesin, Saturday August 17, 2013. / © Mark Hertzberg via Wright in Wisconsin

Wright, however, only settled in at Taliesin II in 1922, after he finished work on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. He was finally granted a divorce by Catherine Tobin, and married Miriam Noel in 1923. The marriage, however, was doomed to not last, as Noel’s erratic behavior, later diagnosed as schizophrenia, led to a tense relationship between her and Wright. 

Noel eventually left Wright and moved out of Taliesin II in 1924. One year later, in an eerie turn of events, Taliesin II burned to the ground due to faulty wiring, and Wright was back to square one. However, like a phoenix, Taliesin would rise from the ashes once again.

Taliesin III

the tragic story of taliesin frank lloyd wright house
courtesy of Taliesin Preservation

Even after two fires tried to destroy his work, Frank Lloyd Wright was not ready to give up on Taliesin, and he rebuilt it once again, as Taliesin III.

Each time the architect had to revamp Taliesin, the house grew bigger. In its third and final form, Taliesin featured 37,000 square feet, and all the buildings on the estate combined totaled no less than 75,000 square feet on 600 acres of land. 

courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

The third reconstruction of Taliesin did, however, create a pretty big dent in Wright’s pockets, and he was severely in debt at the time work on Taliesin III was finished.

In 1927, the Bank of Wisconsin foreclosed on the property, and the architect moved to La Jolla, California, forced to leave his beloved hill-top home behind.

His fans and students, however, devised a plan to have the revered architect reunited with Taliesin. Darwin Martin, a former client of Wright’s, formed a company dubbed Frank Lloyd Wright Inc., to issue stock on the architect’s future earnings. Various other clients and students purchased stock, and ended up successfully bidding on Taliesin for $40,000, giving it back to Wright. 

Thankfully, the innovative design and historic importance of Taliesin were recognized by Wright’s clients and admirers, and the efforts to preserve and keep the estate alive paid off.

In January 1976, Taliesin was named a National Historic Landmark District by the National Park Service. More than three decades later, Taliesin was one of the buildings included in The 20th Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, a UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring a selection of eight buildings designed by the architect across the U.S. 

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Today, Taliesin is a historical and architectural gem, and Frank Lloyd Wright fans can visit the estate on professionals, guided tours. If you’re an architecture fan, a student or design aficionado and you’re ever traveling near Spring Green, Wisconsin, you don’t want to miss out on the chance to visit Taliesin. 

Feature image courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

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The Thrilling History of The Breakers, the Vanderbilts’ Iconic Summer Estate in Newport

With our feeds now being flooded with grim news reports, we thought it’d be good to distract ourselves by looking into the long, twisted history of an iconic property that has stood the test of time.

You might already be familiar with The Breakers, a Beaux Arts masterpiece in Newport, Rhode Island, which was built in 1895 for Cornelius Vanderbilt II. But just in case you’re not, we’re here to spread the knowledge and talk you through the history of this piece of real estate eye candy. 

The Breakers, Part One

The original Breakers property was completed way back in 1878, and at the time, it was the crown jewel of Newport. The Queen Anne-style cottage was designed by architectural firm Peabody and Stearns for tobacco tycoon Pierre Lorillard IV. It was built along the Cliff Walk on Ochre Point Avenue, set on a sprawling estate with jaw-dropping views of the ocean. 

The stunning mansion was purchased by Cornelius Vanderbilt II in the fall of 1885, for a price tag of $400,000 — in the largest real estate deal ever signed in the area at the time. Vanderbilt then rehired Peabody and Stearns to remodel the property, spending roughly $500,000 more in upgrades and renovations. 

Sadly, this investment was soon to go to waste, as the mansion was heavily damaged in an 1892 fire that started in the kitchen. However, Vanderbilt wasn’t about to lose the property, and he soon undertook a redevelopment project that would rebuild The Breakers from the ashes – in a big, big way. 

Keep reading: The Three (Tragic) Lives of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin House

The Breakers, Part Deux

After his beautiful Newport summer house burned down in an unexpected fire, Cornelius Vanderbilt II wasted no time in gathering a team to rebuild the property. He enlisted the help of renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt, who’s also responsible for the Biltmore Estate, to rebuild The Breakers at 44 Ochre Point Avenue. 

The second, much bigger version of The Breakers was completed in 1895, and it was undoubtedly the most opulent and most impressive estate in Newport – again.

The lavish interiors were designed by Jules Allard and Sons and Ogden Codman, in a style reminiscent of French chateaux like The Versailles. The design team used materials and pieces imported from Italy, France and Africa, and the intricate details, rare woods and mosaics were brought here from all around the world. 

The new estate featured 62,482 square feet of living space across a total of 70 rooms, set on a sprawling 14-acre oceanfront lot. The opulent Gilded Age mansion is divided across five floors, and it’s easy to lose track of all the rooms in the house. 

Image courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County

The basement level contained a laundry room and staff restrooms. Above, the first floor features an entrance foyer, a gentleman’s reception room, a ladies’ reception room, a massive great hall, an arcade, a library, a music room, a morning room, a lower loggia, a billiards room, a dining room, a breakfast room, pantry, and kitchen. 

The second floor of The Breakers included separate bedrooms for Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt, their daughter Gertrude’s bedroom, Countess Szechenyi’s bedroom, as well as a guest room and an upper loggia. The third floor offered additional staff bedrooms, as well as a sitting room designed by Ogden Codman in a style inspired by Louis XVI. Finally, The Breakers also featured an attic floor. 

Pretty modest, right? The Vanderbilts’ penchant for opulence is what ultimately got family heirs in trouble in the 2000s.

SEE ALSO: The Story of the Opulent Mansion Aaron Spelling Built in Holmby Hills

Breaking Ties With Tradition

After Cornelius Vanderbilt II died in 1899 at age 55, he left The Breakers to his wife, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt. After she herself passed, her youngest daughter, Countess Gladys Szechenyi, inherited the Newport summer ‘cottage.’ You’re thinking, ‘not too shabby for Gladys,’ right? Well, think again.

Maintaining and upkeeping a property of this magnitude was no easy task, and Gladys soon found herself overwhelmed. She leased the property to The Preservation Society of Newport County in 1948, for a modicum of $1 per year. Fast forward to 1972, and the society bought the property from Gladys’ daughter, Countess Sylvia Szápáry, for $365,000. 

The deal included an agreement that Sylvia was granted life tenancy, and she continued to live at The Breakers until her death in 1998. The Society then agreed to allow her family to continue to live on the property’s third floor, which has remained closed off to the public. The rest of the estate was preserved and opened to visitors as sort of a Gilded Age museum, and for many years, The Breakers was the most visited attraction in the area. 

It was business as usual for the Vanderbilts and The Preservation Society for many years, with the two parties living in harmony. That all changed when The Society came up with plans to build a new welcome center right on the garden, an idea that the Vanderbilts heavily opposed. 

The Breakers Adds Welcome Center, Vanderbilts No Longer Welcome

Despite protest from historians, neighborhood groups and Vanderbilt family members, the Newport Zoning Board approved the new welcome center in 2015. The family took matters to the Supreme Court, but they had no luck, and plans moved forward with the project. 

Things turned controversial in 2018, when news broke out that Gladys and Paul Szápáry, Countess Gladys Szechenyi’s heirs, were to vacate their 12,500-square-foot quarters on the third floor of The Breakers. The Society released a statement saying that the mansion’s outdated plumbing, electrical, and ventilation systems were no longer fit for residential use, and that this was endangering the entire structure. 

Despite the fact that this was a joint statement by The Preservation Society and the Vanderbilts, a lot of experts weighed in to say that this move was merely payback for the family’s opposition to the welcome center. Various concerns had been raised, not just from the family, that the modern structure didn’t belong on the historic grounds of The Breakers. The Society had considered another site for the project, on land they owned right across the street, but decided instead to stick to the estate’s garden. 

The Preservation Society moved on with the project, and the $5.5 million, 3,750-square-foot welcome center opened in June 2018. The center includes ticketing stations, interactive screens showcasing the history of the estate, as well as bathrooms and a cafe. 

The Breakers Welcome Center, via The Preservation Society Facebook page

We’re not going to take sides here. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that century-old estates like The Breakers are brought up to modern standards. The grandest chateaux and palaces of the world have taken this step. However, in the words of Paul and Gladys Szápáry’s cousin Jamie Wade Comstock, ‘visitors will soon find that the gilded cage was much more interesting when it still had the birds inside it.’ 

Featured image courtesy of UpstateNYer, Wikimedia Commons

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Ernest Hemingway’s Iconic House in Key West Stands Tall and Mighty After 170 Hurricane Seasons

Leaving behind an impressive body of work written in his now-iconic style, Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway was a titan of 20th-century literature.

Born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, the novelist went on to live a life full of adventures before his untimely death in 1961. He was a reporter for The Kansas City Star, an ambulance driver in World War I, a field journalist covering the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris. He married four times and strived to be a composite of all the manly attributes he gave to his fictional heroes — a hard drinker, big-game hunter, fearless soldier, amateur boxer, and bullfight aficionado.

With his masterful writing — that left us with timeless works like A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, and For Whom The Bells Toll — and a memorable presence marked by his adventurous and widely publicized life, Hemingway earned himself a fame surpassed by few, and so did his house in Key West, Florida.

Hemingway’s house in Key West is a national treasure

Throughout the course of his many adventures, Hemingway lived in many places, but his residence in Key West was of particular importance both for his personal life and his development as a writer, as it was the place Hemingway wrote some of his best-known works. In fact, he penned nearly three quarters of his life’s work while living in the Key West home. It was also here that the author developed an obsession for deep-sea fishing and where he was given the nickname “Papa,” by the “Key West Mob”.

After living in Paris for a few years — where he became part of a group of American expatriates (dubbed the “Lost Generation) who poured into the French capital in the decade after WWI, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot — the novelist left his first wife, Hadley Richardson, for fellow journalist Pauline Pfeiffer. He later married Pfeiffer and decided to return to the States with his new bride, and the couple settled on Key West, in the southern end of the Florida Keys — at the recommendation of writer and friend John Dos Passos.

Looking for a new place to call home, Pfeiffer found a house for sale at auction, a unique property built in 1951 by the owner of a local ship salvage company. Luck was on the newly-wed couple’s side, as Pauline Pfeiffer’s uncle bought the property for them as a belated wedding gift, and the two went on to restore the property and fill it with European antique furniture. They also turned a detached carriage house on the grounds into a writing studio for the novelist.

Hemingway’s house in Key West before restoration. Image credit: The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum

Later transformed into a museum (which you can visit today) the Spanish-style house is a marvel to look at, but not only because it belonged to the prolific author. Its most compelling feature is the fact that it had the ability to withstand damage from about 170 years’ worth of storms. This means that the house has successfully weathered over 20 hurricanes and tropical storms that have historically stricken Key West, Florida.

A fortress in the middle of hurricane alley

Hemingway’s house was built out of native rock hewn from the grounds, in 1851 by Asa Tift — a marine architect and salvage wrecker. The building wasn’t in great shape when the author and his wife took ownership in 1931, but they didn’t let that stop them and appreciated the grand architecture and stateliness of the home.

Hemingway next to the pool of his house in Key West. Image credit: The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum

By using 18-inch thick limestone blocks, the house’s builder knew that he was building a fortress that would stand tall in the middle of hurricane alley. And just to make sure this house will be storm-proof, he built it on the second-highest point in Key West — about 16 feet above sea level. Only the Key West Cemetery stands on higher ground (18 feet).

On the inside, the Florida house is everything you’d expect a classic author’s home to look like. It has that elegant and timeless look (beautifully preserved and operated as a museum) and stands as a testament to lasting beauty. The Hemingways’ personal touches still abound throughout the house. Many of the unique furnishings are European antiques collected during their stay on the continent. The trophy mounts and skins were souvenirs of the Hemingways’ African safaris and numerous hunting expeditions in the American west. Ernest’s presence can still be felt in his studio where he produced some of his most well-known works. 

Inside the novelist’s Key West home. Image credit: The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
Inside the novelist’s Key West home. Image credit: The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum

Not your ordinary house

Like many other professionals, Craig Fugate, a retired FEMA specialist, is impressed by Hemingway’s house and the way it was built. The carbonate sedimentary rock proved itself to be quite enduring over the years and the 16 feet between the building’s hardwood floors and sea level – well, that’s just an architect’s brilliant and ingenious idea. While others in the area invest a great deal of money to consolidate their homes and make sure they won’t be devastated by a hurricane, Hemingway’s house is naturally built to face the ocean and its rising tide. “That kind of construction, the heavy masonry construction, is great to brace against wind.” says Fugate.

While still admiring the architectural strategy used by Tift, Illya Azaroff (the founder of the American Institute of Architects’ Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee) can’t help being somewhat skeptical about the house’s resilience. Yes, it has made it this far, but there’s no guarantee the next storm won’t strike the museum a major blow. After all, no house that we know of is 100% disaster-proof.

Facing disaster for 170 years

Since its construction, the limestone structure has remained remarkably intact. In 2005, Hurricane Wilma hit the island in what the National Weather Service deemed the “hyperactive 2005 season”, and it brought with it one of the highest storm floods ever seen in the Keys. However, Dave Gonzales, the museum’s executive director reported: “We were high and dry. No water accumulation whatsoever.”

Effects of Hurricane Irma on Key West, Florida. Image credit: NOAA Florida Keys

The building was safe and sound although some neighboring homes faltered. Sure, there were a couple down trees, and the power went out, but the museum staff did have generators, food and medical supplies on site.

Gonzales was advised to launch an evacuation, but he chose to stay, trusting the house to keep him and everyone else safe. “We have probably the strongest fortress on the island that is not only a safe structure, but has been there since 1851 with zero structural damage,” Gonzales says. 

Hemingway’s house in Key West is now home to over 50 six-toed cats

We can’t talk about Hemingway’s house and museum without mentioning his former polydactyl furry friend, Snow White — a six-toed cat the author got as a gift from a ship captain. Today, the museum is a sanctuary for over 50 six-toed cats, said to be descendants of Snow White.

In keeping with Hemingway’s tradition of naming cats after famous people, the new residents of the historic home all have names like Pablo Picasso, Hairy Truman, and Audrey Hepburn. Luckily, these cats do have 9 lives as, just like the house, they all survived the many natural cat-astrophes with all toes intact.

One of the six-toed cats living in Hemingway’s former home. Image credit: The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum

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