Since my niece Sarah comes from a family of architecture buffs who particularly like Frank Lloyd Wright, visiting all the FLW buildings in Madison seemed like a natural. For those of you who are not local, I will just say that FLW is a native of Wisconsin and that Madison and the state are home to many of his landmark creations, including Taliesin, his home near Spring Green. So Sarah, Mark and I spent last Thursday visiting FLW shrines around town.
The Meeting House of Madison's First Unitarian Society was commissioned by the group in 1946. To help defray costs the congregation helped with the construction, including hauling the quarry stone, building furniture and doing interior finish work. As you can see here, the building is an excellent example of the soaring triangular shape that FLW used to great effect in a number of his projects.
The Society now has an adjacent new building used for many events including public concerts. The FLW building is still used especially for weddings and memorial services. I've attended many of both over the years and can attest that the seats are a bit on the low side but moderately comfortable. It's a wonderful space and visiting it — like visiting any FLW site — is a bit of a religious experience.
FLW used a soaring triangle in a different manner in the Gilmore House, known more familiarly — in Madison at least — as the "airplane house". Wright placed this 1908 house just below the crown of the highest hill in the University Heights neighborhood, according to my 1987 Heggland/Rankin tour booklet.
The main living rooms were on the second floor giving the Gilmores a spectacular view. The jutting triangle is a balcony. Still a great house on a wonderful site.
But I've always thought the entrance was overgrown and it never felt welcoming. I was in this house years ago and I admit I have no memory of the interior. I am guessing I was only on the lower floor because I can't imagine I would forget the view.
I love to imagine how the Buell family — who built the first home at the top of the hill in University Heights in 1894 — felt when the Gilmores and Wright put up the "airplane house" directly across the street and just above them. Perhaps Charles Buell had the last laugh since he was the first person to build so far from downtown. By the time he died in the late 1930s his house was surrounded by the homes of Madison's movers and shakers.
I have to say I've never been sure which house I'd rather live in: The Gilmore or the Buell. You can't tell it from the photo below but the land drops sharply away from the Buell house as the street turns tightly around their corner lot. Conover and Porter, architects.
If you're rambling around the Heights, you can't miss the Bradley house. My guide booklet says this massive Prairie style building from 1910 was one of the last works — and a rare residential design — of Louis H. Sullivan, Wright's mentor and one-time employer. The house was a wedding present to the Bradley's from the bride's father but they found it too large. They sold it to the Sigma Phi Fraternity in 1914. The house was "meticulously rebuilt" after a terrible fire in 1972.
The members of this house are known as "the gentlemen on the hill" according to their Rush Week signs. While we were debating walking up to the door and ringing the bell, one of the Fraternity members invited us inside and gave us a tour of the public rooms. From his presentation and answers to our questions, it seems these young men know the history and value and popularity of their house very well.
The detailing on this house — inside, outside and on the leaded glass windows — is gorgeous. The scale is so dramatic that you can stand on the curb and enjoy the design. I've been inside this house many times over the years and it's always a treat, though I'm not sure I could live with so much dark wood on a daily basis. Still, I'd be willing to give it a try.
When Mark and I went house hunting for our first home, we'd read the newspaper ads on Sunday morning and then I'd go look at the houses we noted during the afternoon while he was at work. I always remember the time I saw a little west side house that I thought was too cramped, too boring and too expensive. As I was driving down the block I saw the house below, pulled over and thought, "Now there's a great house." It took me a bit of drooling and dreaming to realize it was a FLW design.
This is the Jacobs House, built in 1937, for Katherine and Herb Jacobs. He was a newsman at The Capital Times so you know his salary was modest. The couple challenged Wright to build for less than $5,000. The house came in at about $5,550 and there are lots of stories about where Wright got some of the building materials to stay within that figure.
The house is also known as the first "Usonian" house, a word FLW coined that means the building was designed to relate directly to nature. This house does it with its L-shape with windows facing an open area surrounded by trees, swaths of prairie grass and Midwestern plants. The side street view of the house is more accessible than I remember in past years so we were able to get a good look at it. And yes, I've been in this one as well. Mark and I once spent an afternoon there with Jim Dennis, the UW-Madison art history professor who lovingly restored the house over the course of many years.
Being the home of someone who supports a progressive political agenda means there are always messages on display on the street corner where the house is located. (Not my best look ever but I love the sign!)
We ended our FLW tour with a triumvirate of Wisconsin icons: We went to Smokey's, a landmark supper club, where Sarah had her first Brandy Old-Fashioned Sweet (Wisconsin's unofficial state beverage) and deep-fried cheese curds. A perfect day no matter how you slice it.