In Which Wisconsin Plays A Starring Role

3 08 2008

My week-long excursion into the wilds of Wisconsin could not have come at a better time in terms of reading. On the drive from Redford to the Upper Peninsula, I finished listening to Loving Frank, Nancy Horan’s somewhat fictionalized account of Frank Lloyd Wright’s affair with Oak Park housewife and intellectual Mamah Borthwick Cheney. It was a fantastically light book, finely drawn without being overwrought with detail. Perfect summer reading, really. The second half of the book deals primarily with the construction of Taliesin, the house he built in Spring Green, Wisconsin for Mamah and himself. I couldn’t resist the three-hour detour to tour the house, being a fan of both the book and FLW himself.

Hillside, the school FLW has designed and built for his two aunts, school teachers in Spring Green. He later repurposed the building to house his architectural firm and converted the school gym into an auditorium used to produce plays in the area. It’s still used by community venues and continues to use the original stage curtain and seating designed by Wright.

The only downfall to the tour is the inability to photograph the interiors of the house and the lack of postcards in the gift shop depicting these spaces. Taliesin has burned twice – once in 1914 and again a little over a decade later – but sections of each incarnation are present throughout the house, specifically in the floors, which change from stone to hardwood flooring to tile, sometimes within the same room and without much purpose other than to reclaim those elements from previous designs. Wright also did some pretty amazing things with his ceilings in interior spaces. He used a design element called compression, the lowering of the ceiling to build tension, to move people into specific spaces and create a sense of joy when moving from these areas of compression into areas of openness. I had known about his use of compression and, even though I expected it, found myself moving throughout the house in a flow set by the lines of the ceiling. The countryside surrounding the house is amazing. Since it is built around a hill, it has amazing views and fits in strangely organic ways into the counryside.

One of my favorite books of the 2008 calendar year is David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, a lyrical retelling of Hamlet set in the wilds of northern Wisconsin. The Sawtelle dog, a fictional breed, is famous for their ability to think, to interface with their owner. The dog is the result of three generations of Sawtelles deliberately breeding specific dogs in to the line and a lengthy amount of training done on the farm before dogs are placed with families. Edgar, born mute, and his parents, Trudy and Gar, are the third generation of Sawtelle breeders and their home is complete with the addition of Almondine, a Sawtelle dog and Edgar’s companion since birth.

The farm is idyllic until Claude, Gar’s brother, arrives on the farm. Old tensions are stirred, propelling a chain of events resulting in Gar’s death and Edgar’s flight into the northern Wisconsin forest. A beautiful retelling of a classic story, I found myself wishing there was more to it than 562 pages. They move way too quickly, are achingly beautiful and Edgar a literary character who will wander through my head for weeks to come

Wisconsin: beautiful state. A small population of slow drivers, but lovely all the same.

Back in Michigan now, hanging with the little brothers, and about to start on this:

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