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Destination: Wisconsin

A landscape the master called home

Near Madison, U.S. Highway 14 is more than a stretch of pretty scenery: It leads to famed creations of native son Frank Lloyd Wright.

September 05, 2004|James Dannenberg | Special to The Times

Madison, Wis. — Despite the impression "Monday Night Football" may leave, Wisconsin has more to offer than dairy products, but much of it is less conspicuous and more genuine than mere tourist amusement. Madison, for example, is not only the cosmopolitan state capital, but also the starting point for a 60-mile journey into an architectural legacy.

U.S. Highway 14, known as the Frank Lloyd Wright Memorial Highway, begins due west of town and winds through beautiful countryside, past some of the pieces of the puzzle that make up the self-professed "world's greatest architect." I drove this bucolic byway last September, on a perfect autumn day when the deep greens were just beginning to turn to gold in anticipation of the long Midwestern winter.

You could cruise the 120 miles in a few hours and revel just in the Wisconsin landscapes. But there's a reason it's called the Frank Lloyd Wright Memorial Highway: This fascinating, complex architect was born, lived and worked within a figurative stone's throw of U.S. 14, and much of his spirit remains along the way, in his buildings, including Taliesin in Spring Green, and in the hills and fields of western Wisconsin, the inspiration for Wright's conception of "organic architecture," which emphasized the synchronicity of structure and nature.

Wright was a product of the 19th century whose architectural vision presaged and transformed the 20th. He was born in 1867 in Richland Center, the western terminus of the highway, and he attended the University of Wisconsin. After a stint with the Chicago firm of Sullivan and Adler, he went on to international fame, first with houses in the "Prairie" style -- low, horizontal structures with flat roofs, characteristic casement windows and open, flowing interior space, meant to blend into the rolling hills of the Midwest countryside.

Wright would design iconic buildings all over the world, including his home and studio in Oak Park, Ill., but after his apprenticeship in Chicago he came home to Wisconsin, building Taliesin on family land in Spring Green, just 20 miles from his birthplace.

Wright was a celebrity, but he was still a local and thus both revered and reviled. Some, like my father-in-law, Don Jones, who was, like Wright, a southern Wisconsin Welshman, used to disparage him as an egotist, a womanizer and maybe even a murderer, referring to a 1914 fire at Taliesin that killed Wright's mistress and six others. History seems to have absolved Wright of responsibility for the fire, clearly the work of a crazed employee. In regard to the other charges, I believe the great man might have pleaded guilty.

One story about Wright, which may be apocryphal, suggests that when asked his profession on a witness stand he answered, "I am the world's greatest architect."

A friend later asked why he said that.

"I was under oath," Wright replied.

The story isn't hard to believe. A state historical marker on the highway in Spring Green quotes the master himself: "Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change."

Wright didn't design any of the campus buildings at the University of Wisconsin, but as a student he was employed as a craftsman in the construction of the Science Hall, a campus landmark and one of the university's oldest buildings. Legend has it that Wright thought it so ugly that he was inspired to become an architect.

He eventually gave Madison several landmark houses. They include the Jacobs House -- one of Wright's first "Usonian" designs, the prefabricated structures meant to be accessible to the middle class -- and the Gilmore House (also called the Airplane House), a classic Prairie structure.

Long after his death in 1959, his designs continued to spark controversy, notably Madison's Monona Terrace Center, originally designed in 1938. The community, initially put off by the proposed $17-million price tag and, for some, Wright's arrogance and extravagance, debated for decades whether to build it. The project finally came to fruition in 1997 as a convention center on the shore of Lake Monona. Price tag: $67 million.

A less controversial structure, the Unitarian Meeting House near the University Hospital on Madison's west side, is known for its soaring glass atrium, which Wright likened to hands in prayer. There are also several Wright-designed houses in Madison, all worth a look. (See for addresses.)

When you're ready to get on the road, go west on University Avenue through neighboring Middleton, and before you know it you're on Wright's Memorial Highway, so designated in 1991.

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