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Monday, Aug. 6, 2012

'Building Taliesin' Examines Home Before the Fire

McCrea shares love and loss of Frank Lloyd Wright

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The 1914 fire that consumed portions of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin compound along with seven lives may have been sparked by racism. The servant who set the blaze and attacked the houseguests with a hatchet, Julian Carlton, was black and had been abused by a Milwaukee draftsman who visited Taliesin regularly. Described as paranoid by Ron McCrea in his revealing Building Taliesin: Frank Lloyd Wright's Home of Love and Loss (Wisconsin Historical Society Press), Carlton may have snapped after one insult too many.

But McCrea is less concerned with retelling the notorious arson story than describing what Taliesin had been before the fire and the influence on Wright by one of the fire's victims, his lover Mamah Bouton Borthwick. Stung by her death, Wright spoke relatively little of her after the catastrophe, and, according to McCrea, the architect's final wife, Olgivanna, was intent on effacing her memory.

Although McCrea's book would benefit from better organization, starting with an introduction that states his case and outlines the project, Building Taliesin opens a new mine of information drawn from recent archival discoveries. A fuller account of Taliesin from before the fire is made possible by the finding of letters from Borthwick to a Swedish friend at the Royal Library in Stockholm. Also uncovered in recent years is a batch of Taliesin photo negatives from the era that had sat unnoticed in the Utah State Historical Society. The photographer, Taylor A. Woolley, made some shots of Wright and Borthwick's stay in Italy, where the terraced villages inspired the architect. Woolley lived at Taliesin, where he documented the startlingly modern yet organic shapes that rose from the solemn, craggy landscape of Spring Green. McCrea makes the case that Taliesin was Wright's love gift to Borthwick, whose feminism influenced his outlook.

Borthwick has emerged from the shadows since the 1980s, along with a fuller picture of Taliesin from construction through the fire. McCrea has played an important role in uncovering the story through articles and a documentary film. Building Taliesin fills in a few more gaps in the early career of one of the most important creative visionaries of the last century.