The Foundation of Taliesin: A Complete Living Unit

Photo by The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

Since the 1800s, the Wyoming Valley and surrounding Driftless hills and valleys of southwest Wisconsin have been home to many immigrant farmers and homesteaders seeking land and rich soil to begin their new lives in America. Frank Lloyd Wright’s maternal side of the family, the Lloyd-Joneses, settled into the area in the 1860s and began progressive farming to sustain their families.

While Wright was born in Richland Center, his family subsequently moved and spent years in the New England region of the United States until they moved back to Madison, when he was 10. Wright’s summers were then spent in the Wyoming Valley working on the farms of his uncles because his mother, a strong proponent of learn by doing and connecting with the land, insisted that her son had sufficient time to do just that.

The connection with land, nature, and soil—living within, and not on—became Wright’s North Star for how he saw the world and architecture. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has now recognized eight of his buildings, including his home, Taliesin, as World Heritage sites for their contribution to 20th century modern architecture.

Photograph provided by The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

While Wright’s early career took him to Chicago, he longed for the Wyoming Valley. In 1911, he was able to return to his roots and built Taliesin, his “autobiography in wood and stone.” No matter where Wright was the remainder of his life—nearly 50 years—he considered Taliesin as his home.

Using the inspiration of his childhood, Wright designed Taliesin to be in harmony with its surroundings, including sustainable agriculture and a self-sufficient supply of home-grown food. In his autobiography, Wright explained, “Taliesin should be more of a garden and a farm behind a workshop and a home. I saw it all, and planted it all, laid the foundation of the herd, flocks, stable, and fowls as I laid the foundation of the house … Taliesin was to be a complete living unit, genuine in point of comfort and beauty, from pig to proprietor.”

At Taliesin, Wright featured some of the most progressive and sustainable land use ideas of the time, including contour farming; free-range chickens; outside hay storage; a raised-floor barn to recapture cattle body heat; and gas-fired, forced-hot-air hay drying. Wright also had an apple orchard, a plum orchard, raspberries, a vineyard, a rhubarb triangle, a Midway vegetable garden, chive circles, a steer pen, a heifer pasture, a chicken coop, goats, a creamery, horse pasture, forage crops, flower beds and gardens, and ducks.

Photograph provided by The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

Farming at Taliesin was integral to daily life. In the 1930s, as Wright founded the Taliesin Fellowship, later known as the School of Architecture at Taliesin, apprentices were required to assist in the growing and harvesting of agricultural crops and livestock as well as preparation of family-style meals and nightly entertainment. When the Fellowship migrated to Wright’s winter home, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona, they’d load up a flatbed truck with Wisconsin produce and preserved food to sustain them through the winter months.

After Wright’s 1959 death, the School of Architecture and the Fellowship leased the land to local farmers for their use. Then in 2000, Otter Creek Organic Farms, a family-run organic dairy farm, began leasing the farmland at Taliesin. Eventually converting the farm from conventional to organic, Otter Creek Organic Farms now leases about 300 acres where they raise corn, hay, oats, and wheat as well as graze a small herd of cattle. In addition, about 10 acres of fields have been converted into vegetable crops that are harvested to continue feeding the School of Architecture and are purchased by the Riverview Terrace Café, a farm-to-table restaurant located at the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center. The café is operated by Taliesin Preservation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit organization whose dual mission is to preserve Taliesin’s natural, cultural, and built environments as well as conduct public education at Taliesin.

Photograph provided by © Estate of Pedro E. Guerrero

Today, Taliesin Preservation is accelerating its dual mission to preserve the natural, built, and cultural environments at Taliesin. By working with farm-to-table pioneer Odessa Piper, a James Beard Award-winning Chef and founder of L’Etoile, Taliesin Preservation is redeveloping the concept of farming and life at Taliesin.

Since 2018, Taliesin Preservation welcomes individuals to live and work at Taliesin each summer to learn about farming, cooking, and healthy food systems. The Food Artisan Immersion Program draws its inspiration from Wright’s vision for Taliesin and believes that an integral and healthy food system is rooted in great cooperation between people, their community, and their environment. The program aims to provide farm-to-table practice and preparation to prepare emerging food artisans of this generation in their steps toward becoming farmers, artisan entrepreneurs, food educators, and food service professionals. The programming, in partnership with Otter Creek Organic Farm and the surrounding area Driftless farmers, works to highlight and celebrate the region, the land, and the community for future generations.

Carrie Rodamaker is the executive director at Taliesin Preservation.

To learn more about and support Taliesin Preservation and the Food Artisan Immersion Program, where Taliesin strives to bring the past forward, visit taliesinpreservation.org .