"Taliesin is a house in three acts," proclaims the preface of Building Taliesin: Frank Lloyd Wright's Home of Love and Loss (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, $35). Madison journalist Ron McCrea's book is a detailed exploration of Taliesin's first act, when Wright decided to "risk everything for love and build a home for it." A catastrophe destroyed the home, and the love, but Wright determined to go on. With over 200 pages and nearly the same number of images, Building Taliesin is an impressive, thorough history of Taliesin's beginnings.
Located just outside Spring Green, Taliesin is considered by many to be Frank Lloyd Wright's flagship work. It was as much workshop as home, and many of Wright's ideas were first implemented there. It was also the backdrop for Wright's love affair with Mamah Borthwick, which came to a tragic end in 1914 when a servant set fire to Taliesin's living quarters and murdered seven people - including Borthwick - with an ax. Taliesin was rebuilt; Building Taliesin essentially ends with the destruction.
Images are essential to Building Taliesin. McCrea fills pages with recently unearthed photographs and other historical images, which round out the stories that unfold in the text. The book features a collection of photos - "the first photos of the first Taliesin" - taken by Taylor A. Woolley, a draftsman who stayed at Taliesin in late 1911 through the spring of 1912. Until now, these photos have been scattered in different collections, and some of them, including rare shots of Taliesin's construction, had been filed away unseen.
Building Taliesin doesn't just provide new and thorough insight into the buildings and grounds of early Taliesin; it brings the house's dramatic story to life. In the fall of 1911, still married to his first wife, Wright joined Borthwick at Taliesin. She believed it to be a house "founded on [Swedish feminist] Ellen Key's ideal of love." The love story does not dominate the book, but it is woven in as an important thread in Taliesin's history.
The successes of Building Taliesin are many. It's an accessible book that tells a wildly fascinating story. McCrea's writing style is down to earth yet authoritative - the book is a quick and engaging read. Building Taliesin is a remarkable contribution to Wisconsin history and to the preservation of Frank Lloyd Wright's legacy.