Wright again: Taliesin, UNESCO, sacred spaces

Editor’s note: Taliesin and seven other Frank Lloyd Wright sites were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site today (July 7, 2019).

“Sacred space.” That is what I scrawled in a notebook and typed as a tweet shortly after spring’s arrival.

The phrase most often is associated with a house of worship, but not on this day. Neither was I in a sanctuary of the natural world.

What I had the opportunity to do was linger inside Taliesin, the estate near Spring Green where Frank Lloyd Wright worked and lived. Got up close to artifacts that still make the place feel like home. Heard curators’ backstories about the place and furnishings. Sat with my private thoughts, on a comfy chair next to a bronze bust of the legendary architect.

Now the property is on the verge of becoming part of an eight-destination UNESCO World Heritage Site, a move that would acknowledge its “outstanding universal value” – as in international significance, and place Taliesin on the radar of more international travelers.

The World Heritage Committee, meeting in Azerbaijan, on Friday began contemplating this and 35 other nominations. Their work will finish Wednesday. No other U.S. site is under consideration, but this is no rubber stamp: The Wright nomination dates back to 2008 and in 2016 was sent back for revisions.

The legendary architect’s work “goes far beyond the boundaries of the United States of America,” states a UNESCO committee report that recommends approval this time around.

Wright’s 20th century designs “strongly impacted on the development of modern architecture in Europe” and elsewhere. He was described as “one of the most influential architects of his century.”

Of the eight properties in the nomination, “each component has specific characteristics, representing new solutions to the needs for housing, worship, work, education and leisure. The diversity of functions, scale and setting of the components … fully illustrate the architectural principles of ‘organic architecture’.”

In the elite octet are four Midwest properties: Taliesin, Spring Green; Jacobs House, Madison (a prototype for Usonian architecture); Unity Temple, Oak Park, Ill.; and Robie House, Chicago.

The other four sites are Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Ariz.; Guggenheim Museum, New York City; Fallingwater, Mill Run, Pa.; and Hollyhock House, Los Angeles.

Together, the eight monuments – despite the distance between them – comprise one serial nomination to UNESCO.

Only 23 of the 1,092 properties on the World Heritage List are in the United States; 12 are national or international parks. What else makes the cut? Think Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the Statue of Liberty in New York City, the San Antonio Missions. whc.unesco.org

Inspiration gained from Taliesin’s scenic surroundings, the curvy Wyoming Valley, would lead Wright to create concepts and structures way ahead of their time.

His work is known as organic architecture. Structures in sync with the natural environment. Built with an abundance of natural, indigenous materials. Home to sleek but simple furnishings.

All, inside and out, is abundant with basic geometric shapes, uncluttered and cleverly assembled. During Wright’s quest to create an American style of architecture, he felt no need to mimic fussy, ornate European roots.

Wright would rotate Taliesin furnishings to give the buildings more life, staff say. About 50 percent of estate artifacts are in storage, and Kyle Dockery, collections coordinator, decides what to display when today.

When we chat during the week Notre Dame burned in Paris, I ask what he would grab first if fire erupted at Taliesin, as it did in 1914 and 1925.

“I don’t like to think of my children like that” is his reply.

Then he points out the Wright-designed dining room table, which has two parts. One part can’t stand up on its own.

One of a kind? “I think so,” Dockery says, and he talks about finding newspapers from the 1960s as between-layer tabletop buffers. These weren’t random pages but “Our House” newspaper columns written by Wright’s wife, Olgivanna, “kind of a celebrity gossip column.”

“We just discovered this last year,” explains the staffer, who wonders if the work was left in the table on purpose, in hopes it would someday be found.

“There’s so much more to discover, and it makes me wonder what else might be hidden behind wood trim” or elsewhere.

Public tours at Taliesin began 25 years ago. Now other experiences are possible too.

Private retreats for groups, indoors and outdoors, are possible at the 800-acre Taliesin grounds and buildings. Prices and types of experiences vary. taliesinpreservation.org/rentals

Wedding receptions and rehearsal dinners are limited to the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs include 26 National Historic Landmarks, including these six in Wisconsin:

Taliesin (a landmark since 1976).

S.C. Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower, Racine (1976).

Wingspread, Racine (1989).

Herbert and Katherine Jacobs First House, Madison (2003).

Herbert and Katherine Jacobs Second House, Madison (2003).

First Unitarian Society Meeting House, Madison (2004).

For details: nps.gov.

Earn a Frank Lloyd Wright Trail collectors mug by picking up a free trail passport at a stop along the trail and then getting passport stamps that show you’ve visited each site.

The 250-mile, self-guided tour covers buildings in nine counties. For details, and to download a trail app: travelwisconsin.com/frank-lloyd.