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The Murders at Frank Lloyd Wrights Taliesin Estate at Spring Green Wisconsin

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The Murders at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin

As a teen-ager with and a couple of semesters of engineering education at the University of Wisconsin and $7 in his pocket; Frank stepped off the train in Chicago with the determination to become the “Greatest Architect in the world”.

In 1887 as a 20 year old Frank Lloyd Wright became an architect for Adler and Sullivan, builders of the Chicago Auditorium and many important buildings in Chicago.  A year later he married Kitty Tobin, the young daughter of a successful Chicago business man.  He then designed their home in Oak Park, IL.

When he was 26 he opened his own architectural office. He developed a stream of clients who wanted a Wright home.

Twenty one years later, on August 15, 1914 Frank Lloyd Wright and his son were busy painting some decorations on walls of Midway Beer Gardens and entertainment center in Chicago. Mr. Wright went to answer a telephone call. He returned in a state of shock.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Mr. Cheney rode the train in a private compartment from Chicago to Spring Green, Wisconsin bonded in a common grief.  Wright was going to bury Mamah, his mistress. Cheney was going to get the bodies of his two children. Wright had an affair with Cheney’s wife, Mamah Brothwick Cheney.  Now she was dead. She and her two children had been murdered. 

Thirty six hours before he had seen them alive and well.

On the train ride to Spring Green, Wright and Cheney had memories that intertwined.  Wright had been living in Oak Park, a western suburb of Chicago with his wife Kitty. He designed a house for Mr Edward Cheney and Mrs. Martha Borthwick ("Mamah") Cheney.

Then Wright and Mamah Cheney had an affair. Mamah and Wright had taken trains to New York and boarded a ship together for Europe. While in Europe Wright worked on a book of his works and Mamah was a teacher.

When Wright returned from Europe and stepped off the train in Chicago a friend met him and took him along the back streets so they would not be seen.  The respected Frank Lloyd Wright found that he and Mamah had been the scandal of the day. Former friends would no longer speak to him. Ladies would cross the street, so they would not need to speak to him. 

  After remodeling their home in Oak Park so Kitty could rent out part of the home; Wright left his wife Kitty and built a home on the family farm south of Spring Green. He called the house Taliesin. Mamah returned from Europe and lived with Wright at Taliesin.  Wright then commuted by train to his office in Chicago from Spring Green.  

Now Mamah was dead.

When they arrived at Spring Green the two men were taken to the farm house near the Taliesin estate where the bodies of Mamah and her two children, John 11, and Martha 9 had been taken.

Wright and Cheney heard the details of the tragedy.

Mamah, John, and Martha, had been eating on the porch.   Thomas Brunker, a foreman, Emil Brodelle, and Herb Fritz draftsmen, David Lindblom, a gardner, and William Weston, a carpenter and his son, Ernest 13 were eating dinner in the dining room.

Julian, the butler, had served the meal. He then poured gasoline on the floor and  attempted to kill everyone with a hatchet as they fled the house.  Seven were killed. Weston and Fritz were the only survivors.

Julian drank battery acid, which he had purchased and hidden in a furnace on the property. His wife, Gertrude, dressed in a nice dress,  was picked up on the road to Spring Green.  Gertrude was later released. Julian died before the trial. Rumor has it that Mamah had given Julian notice that he was fired.

Cheney returned to Chicago with the burned bodies of his children. Wright lined a box with flowers the next day and placed Mamah’s wounded and burned body into the box. The horse drawn procession took the body of Mamah across the road from Taliesin to the family cemetery. The body was lowered into the grave. After the burial, Mr. Wright asked everyone to leave. He stood by the grave with eyes closed. He stood alone in his grief.

The house and many precious Chinese paintings were destroyed in the fire. Wright’s attached studio was saved from the fire. Wright later said that God must not approve of him, but likes his work.   

 The next year he sailed for Japan to build the Imperial Hotel.

Later, Kitty gave Wright a divorce, he had a second marriage and a second divorce and then married the well organized, Olga. They lived in the rebuilt Taliesin house.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Olga survived the Great Depression by starting a school of architecture called, The Fellowship. The Taliesin house was on the north end of the estate. The farm buildings were in the center and the school was on the south end of the estate.

 Students came and paid to be near the “great man”, to build a dormitory, to make drawings, and work on the farm until the depression eased.  Frank Lloyd Wright gave impromptu lectures to the students and many guests on his philosophy of architecture.  Movies and concerts were provided for the students.

Spring Green was always home to Frank Lloyd Wright. As a boy, he worked there on his uncle’s farm.  There was the family church which he had helped design as a youth, there he buried Mamah, and married his second wife on the nearby bridge. On the same bridge he lost a step daughter in a car accident.

In his life he used transportation of many types: horse and buggy, trains ships, and later the airplane to supervise the construction of his buildings. Some of the buildings were: the Imperial Hotel Japan, The Midway Beer Gardens in Chicago, The Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin, The Guggenheim Museum in New York, The Falling Waters home in Pennsylvania and many other homes around the United States.

Mr. Wright was asked which his best building was. He answered, “The next one.”

Taliesin was the place where he designed his finest work in the last 30 years of his life.

There he gained the reputation as: “Greatest Architect in the World”.

Frank Lloyd Wright died in 1959 at the age of 91 and was buried at the family cemetery. His ashes were later buried with Olga’s at Taliesin West in Arizona.

Donald W. Hoppen writes in The Seven Ages of Frank Lloyd Wright, “What struck me was Wright’s youthful energy, his boundless enthusiasm, his capacity for endless renewal. Cycles of great creativity were followed by lean periods and even disaster; and from the ashes of each disaster, like the fabled phoenix a new architecture was born.”

More about this author: Lloyd Thompson

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