Solving the Mystery of the Carriages that Remain at Taliesin: Discovery and Evidence
Vicki Nelson Bodoh | May 25, 2018
In this, the first installment of a two-part series, Vicki Nelson Bodoh shares her journey of finding and researching Frank Lloyd Wright’s carriages.
In 2000, Annie Randall, a fellow driving enthusiast and the owner of a bookstore in Baraboo, WI, asked me if I would like to follow up on a tip that she received from a customer. Annie had been told that there were still some carriages at Taliesin, the home of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, near Spring Green, WI. Those of us in the driving world often receive information about carriages from non-drivers. Usually these “carriages” turn out to be a farm wagon or a buggy. However, as a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, I was curious. Did he drive carriages at Taliesin?
It took a few months to get permission to look through the barns on the property. They are not part of the regular tour. On a beautiful October weekend in 2000, my husband Jim, Annie and I, with camera and notepad, arrived at Hillside and met an apprentice who had been assigned to show us the carriages at Midway Barn and at Taliesin.
Behind a snowplow blade, a stock watering tank, a stove, an old car and some piles of lumber and discarded parts of this and that stood the remains of a Cutter, a Wagonette, a Skeleton Gig (type of Phaeton), a Dog Cart and a Sailor Wagon. Being unable to move the snowplow blade for access, Annie and Jim dragged out as many pieces and parts as possible. We fitted pieces back together and exclaimed when we found another bit that fit. I wrote notes as fast as I could and Jim took photographs. The cutter had a maker’s tag and, as we squeezed beside the phaeton, we could read Brewster & Co. through the clouded glass on the lamps and Brewster and Co., N.Y. on the hubs. If indeed the carriage was a Brewster and we could find the serial number, the Brewster records would tell us when it was made and for whom. The apprentice soon lost interest and left us on our own to marvel at what was there. There were huge tunnels made by rodents under the carriages. The overhanging roof, open to the weather, was the only protection these vehicles had.
We walked up the hill to Taliesin and found two more vehicles in a very damp garage cut into the limestone hillside. We edged past a steamer trunk, several life preservers and a humidifier to find a Gig (cart), a Governess Cart and the shafts for the Brewster Phaeton. These vehicles were also photographed and documented. The rumor was true. There were carriages at Taliesin. My curiosity was aroused. Where did the carriages come from? When were they used and for what purpose? Who used them? Why were they still there? Could I find photographic evidence of their use? Before leaving, I obtained the name and phone number of Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, AZ.
Research has changed a great deal in the last twenty years. In 2000 I used email but photographs weren’t scanned and sent by email; they were photocopied and sent by post. Texting didn’t exist. Phone conversations and handwritten letters and personal interviews were my main ways of communicating. The day after our visit to Taliesin I phoned Mr. Pfeiffer and explained that I was hoping to find photos of the carriages we had viewed being driven. He said there was no category in the Archives for carriages. It would be only by chance that a photograph would turn up showing a carriage. It felt like a dead end but within hours he notified me that several photographs showing carriages had been found. Many were of unidentified people; not Frank Lloyd Wright. They were in a section of the Archives devoted to family. He also told me that he was glad that I was interested in the carriages as he had actually driven Mrs. Wright in one of these vehicles many decades ago. A few days later, I received photocopies of the Archives photographs. When I pulled them out of the envelope, I could positively identify two of the remaining seven vehicles and Frank Lloyd Wright was driving them! Now I knew I had a tale worth telling. I needed more evidence both photographic and written.
I contacted Jack Holzhueter, the Frank Lloyd Wright expert formerly with the Wisconsin Historical Society, and told him about my search. He suggested speaking with Mary Jane Hamilton, a Frank Lloyd Wright historian. This began a year and a half series of phone calls, letters and email. From decades of research on Wright and the Lloyd-Jones family (Wright’s mother’s family), she immediately began sending me photocopies of pictures and articles that gave me a wealth of information. She was convinced that the clue to the carriages lay with the Hillside Home School run by Wright’s aunts.
I read books on Mr. Wright starting with the ones that I already owned and buying additional ones. There is no entry for carriages in any index so reading the books from cover to cover to find information about carriages was essential. In many of the books I found quotes about horses or carriage driving or carriages. I also learned a great deal about Mr. Wright—a very interesting subject.
In March of 2001, Jim had a meeting in Scottsdale and I went with him and visited Taliesin West and interviewed many of the Fellowship members who had been present when the carriages were in use. They were an incredible group of people in their 80’s and still productive. I was lucky to do the research when I did as most of them are no longer with us. I wrote letters to many others who had been part of the Fellowship during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Some of these people sent me photographs of the carriages being used at Taliesin.
I scheduled more interviews of Fellowship members at Taliesin in Spring Green for September 14, 2001. When the events of September 11 transpired, I thought I might cancel but I didn’t. Instead, I sat with some elderly architects looking out at one of the most peaceful, pastoral views in the world. We discussed a famous man who made his dreams a reality and we never once discussed the nightmare that had recently happened.
Using Mary Jane Hamilton’s suggestion, I began looking at the Lloyd-Jones family history in Spring Green. Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother’s family had come from Wales and settled in the Wisconsin River Valley locally known as “The Valley.” Born in 1867, Wright spent summers in the Valley learning about farm life and undoubtedly driving horses. To understand the part carriages played in his life it is necessary to understand his background in the Valley.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s aunts, Jane and Ellen (Nell) Lloyd-Jones, established a country day and boarding school in the Valley. Hillside Home School was designed for the Aunts in 1886 by their 19 year-old nephew, his first independent commission.
The boarding school accepted both boys and girls (unprecedented in 1887) from ages five to eighteen. “Boys participated alongside the girls in sewing and cooking classes, and girls were encouraged to participate in physical activities, farming, and nature study…A strong philosophy of ‘learning by doing’ was encouraged.” “Hillside: Where the Past and Future Meet,” Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly Vol. 12 No. 2 (Spring 2001): 9. (This concept will later be incorporated into the curriculum of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fellowship program.) Because “…the school was meant to be a home as well, such ‘homey’ activities as sleigh rides, skating parties and theatricals were frequent.” Meryle Secrest, Frank Lloyd Wright A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), p. 95. Mary Ellen Chase, a teacher who came to Hillside Home School in 1909, described these sleigh rides that were sometimes as long as twenty miles, “There were bells on the horses and a wonderful sense of freedom and exhilaration as we slid over the country roads, around and through the snowy hills…It is pleasant to think that there are hundreds…who will never forget the Hillside winter ride…” “Hillside: Where the Past and Future Meet,” p. 13.
Because many of the students boarded at the school, they were met at the train by horse and carriage. Information about these carriages exists in local newspaper records. The Spring Green newspaper, The Weekly Home News, April 5, 1894, ran this story “The Evening Wisconsin of March 29th says: To-day the Lloyd Jones Sisters, of Hillside, purchased of the Milwaukee Buggy Co. through their agents at Spring Green, Messrs. Beckwith & Lins, a fine wagonette and three three-seated canopy top wagons for their popular Home school, which is so fast increasing in numbers.” And the April 26, 1894, issue of the same newspaper adds, “Several new rigs arrived in the Valley on Monday from Milwaukee. Those belonging to the Home are handsomely lettered and have the monogram of the school upon them.”
One of the Hillside Home School canopy top carriages with wagonette-style seating and lettering along the side appears in a photo from 1938. The dash on the front of the carriage is missing (probably because it is almost 50 years old). Wright’s sister is standing in the foreground.
The Hillside Home School eventually fell on hard times and by 1915 was close to bankruptcy. Between the Aunts and their nephew “…a plan was worked out by which Hillside Home School, its gardens, acreage, outbuildings and all its furnishings, would be sold to Frank for one dollar.” Secrest, p. 253. This plan must have included the carriages owned by the Aunts and used with the school.
This information certainly gave credence to the idea that at least some of the carriages at Taliesin originally came from the Hillside Home School. I wanted to determine how they became part of life at Taliesin.
After working as an architect in the Chicago area, Frank Lloyd Wright returned to Wisconsin in 1911. He lyrically described his plans for Taliesin in An Autobiography. Horses were part of these plans. “I saw the hill-crown back of the house as one mass of apple trees in bloom…I saw plum trees, fragrant drifts of snow-white in the spring…I saw thickly pendent clusters of rubies like tassels in the dark leaves of the currant bushes… I saw the vineyard…I saw the spirited, well-schooled horses…Yes, Taliesin should be a garden and a farm behind a real workshop and a good home. I saw it all…” Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography (New York, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1943), pp. 169-170.
Beginning with the first architectural drawings for Taliesin I in 1911, Taliesin II in 1914 and continuing through many successive remodeling phases to Taliesin III in 1925, a carriage house is included as an integral part of each design. Frank Lloyd Wright, Architectural Drawings, Copyright The Frank Lloyd Wright Fdn., Scottsdale, AZ, No. 1104.010, 1104.013, 1403.015, 1403.011, 1403.013, 2501.0600
Wright used horses for transportation at Taliesin. In 1916 architect Antonin Raymond described being met at the train in Spring Green “…by the master himself in a handsome carriage, and taken to Taliesin, up and around the hill, through the porte cochêre and into the inner courtyard…Raymond made a mental note of handsome horse carriages and a collection of horses…Riding was everyone’s chief form of relaxation because, ‘Roaming through the Wisconsin countryside…was magnificent in those days. The roads were all dust or mud or nonexistent. Motor cars were few, and horses shied at their sight. All our leisure time we spent in discovering the rolling hills, fertile valleys and the bluff overlooking the Wisconsin River…’ ” Secrest, p. 226.
Mr. Wright was exhilarated by speed and this must have included his carriage driving. The Milwaukee Journal, May 22, 1932, gives this extremely colorful description, “The nearest railway station, Spring Green, was two miles distant. Frank frequently arrived at the outskirts of the village just as his train whistled for the station. Standing up in the carriage with hair and coat tails flying, he grabbed the reins in one hand, the whip in the other, and the race was on. He got there just in time to board his train, breathless, ticketless, but there.”
As the roads in Wisconsin improved, use of carriages decreased and motor cars became more and more common in rural areas. The carriages, once in common use at Hillside and Taliesin, languished. But because Frank Lloyd Wright was a “romantic,” he found a new use for the horses and carriages.
Instead of a means of transportation they became a means of recreation. Herb Fritz, a neighbor, young friend and later an apprentice, wrote about a 1932 carriage ride in Uplands Reader in 1978. He repeated a slightly different version of this incident in a taped interview in 1990, “There were some very elegant old carriages at the Hillside barn—a brougham, a victoria, and a wagonette that was once used for carrying the Hillside School students from the train in Spring Green. I cleaned the victoria and refurbished the cushions, found some double trees and a neckyoke, and hitched Curly and Dick to the carriage…I’m sure Mr. Wright would have enjoyed driving the victoria, but as it was designed to be driven by a servant, it wouldn’t have seemed right.” Herb Fritz, Uplands Reader Vol .I(1978): 549. “There were some beautiful buggies in the Hillside barn: there was a brougham and a cab, one of these little city cabs like you see in the movies about Paris. There was what was called a station wagon, a wagon with seats along the side, which was used for going to Spring Green to meet the train and take the students to the Hillside Home School…One day I asked Mr. And Mrs. Wright if they’d like to go for a…ride…So I got up and got on the left hand side and started to drive. Mr. Wright said, ‘The driver sits on the right when you drive horses.’ So I changed.” Herb Fritz, Fellowship Member, Spring Green, Wisconsin, tape recorded interview by Indira Berndtson, 15 February 1990.
During the Great Depression, when the Fellowship (apprentice architects learning by doing) was established at Taliesin, there was a great deal of work to be done. The apprentices lived by one of Wright’s favorite axioms, “Add tired to tired.” They worked the dairy farm and gardens, supplied the food for the kitchen and then cooked and served it. They cut and quarried their own building materials for construction. They maintained the dam that supplied power to generate electricity. The “…way to relax was not to ‘rest’ but to switch activities…there were plenty of parties, including picnic excursions every Saturday, usually to one of the many limestone outcroppings that crowned the hills…” Secrest, p.407.
All through the 1940’s and 50’s these weekly picnics continued. Sometimes automobiles were used to reach the picnic locations and sometimes horses, both ridden and driven, were used. Lois Gottlieb, an apprentice in 1948-49 remembers the weekly Wednesday evening picnics where she snapped 40-millimeter color slides with her $25 Kodak Bantam. Lois Davidson Gottlieb, Architect, San Francisco, California, telephone interview, 8 March 2002.
Cornelia Brierly, part of the Fellowship, remembers picnics on a pleasant ridge looking out over Governor Dodge Park. “There would be at least four horses and about 20 people. Sometimes Mr. Wright rode his favorite Tennessee Walking Horse, ‘Johnny Walker.’ ” Cornelia Brierly, Fellowship Member, Scottsdale, Arizona, personal interview, 22 March 2001.
Driving for pleasure had become a part of the activities at Taliesin. In a letter dated August 16th, 1944, Mrs. Olgivanna Lloyd Wright invites Jim to come for a visit. “We can give you most magnificent buggy rides.—we have eight buggies, now, very charming ones! Another new horse—Mr. Wright said he got ‘specially for me. Very gentle and obedient—his name is Rusty. Mr. Wright and I drove to Hillside today in one of our new buggies. It was lovely.” Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, The Frank Lloyd Wright Fnd., Scottsdale, AZ, No. 4030.214, 16 August 1944. If Olgivanna called it a “new” buggy, it probably was not one of those acquired from the Hillside Home School.
When weddings took place within the Fellowship, carriages were sometimes used for the event. The first of these was in 1934. “Sunday was the first Fellowship wedding…The bride Margaret Astre and the groom Vernon Allen were driven in the old Victorian carriage from Taliesin to our chapel, where the services were held at high noon. The weather was perfect and it was just cool enough to make the rough roads hard enough to hold up under the thin-tired wheels of the coach, two stalwart black horses and coachman perched high on his seat; his boots, [s]wallow-tail coat and high silk hat completing the picture. The moment they left Taliesin the chapel bell began to toll and continued until they arrived.” “Newspaper Columns by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship 1934-1937,” At Taliesin, ed. Randolph C. Henning (Carbondale & Edwardsville, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992), p.21.
Frances Nemtin tells of her wedding to Fellowship member Kenn Lockhart in 1946. “Mr. & Mrs. Wright were at the head of the wedding procession with Mr. Wright driving a Gig that had been a birthday present from Wes Peters in about 1939. Kenn and I followed in a Brewster Phaeton decorated with white daises in the spokes of the wheel and the whip holder. I had white daisies in my hair and carried a bouquet of them, too.” The Roof Seat Omnibus followed with the parents of the bridal couple. The guests threw oats instead of rice. Frances Nemtin, Fellowship Member, Spring Green, Wisconsin, personal interview, 14 September 2001. The gig gifted, in 1939, was another “new” carriage that probably didn’t come from the Hillside Home School.
While doing personal interviews with Fellowship members a reoccurring theme was mentioned. An important event had occurred at Taliesin, an open house in junction with the Spring Green, WI, centennial. It involved a carriage and was well documented.
The carriage often identified with Frank Lloyd Wright did not belong to him. In July, 1957, only two years before his death, Spring Green celebrated its Centennial. Mr. Wright dressed in his white summer suit with a top hat, cape and carrying a walking stick, was the Grand Marshall in the parade. Several members of the Fellowship remember the preparations for this and the accompanying open house at Taliesin. John Ottenheimer remembers, about a month or so before the parade, bringing Gay Boy and Bopalula in from the back pasture and driving them every day for an hour on the back roads around Taliesin to get them in shape. John also cleaned and oiled the harness. John Ottenheimer, Architect, Seattle, Washington, electronic mail letters, 11 September 2001 & 16 March 2002. Daniel Liebermann remembers driving the ca. 1948 GMC 2½ ton stake truck to Sheboygan, WI, to borrow a canopy top surrey. Daniel Liebermann, Architect, Berkeley, California, telephone interview, 12 March 2002. The day of the parade, Kenn Lockhart drove the surrey and Mr. and Mrs. Wright were passengers. The event was immortalized by photographer Tony Vaccaro and appeared in Look magazine that September. After the parade, John drove the truck with the surrey back to Sheboygan.
I asked myself why, when there were carriages at Taliesin, was it necessary to borrow this particular carriage that was 150 miles away; 600 miles for two round trips? Two possible answers came to mind. The event took place more than a decade after the picnic drives and weddings. It is possible that all the carriages remaining at Taliesin were no longer serviceable. Many of the carriages that had originally come from Hillside Home School were gone. Marcus Weston, a member of the Fellowship, remembers a summer day in 1938 when five carriages were pushed into a gully east of the Hillside barn and left there. He writes, “One was like a station wagon—had a top but no side curtains. I think it came from Hillside Home School. Another—quite elegant—was like a coupe—had glass windows that slid up and down in the doors, plush upholstery…The other three were not so memorable. Marcus Weston, Architect, Spring Green, Wisconsin, letter, 15 March 2002. The octagonal barn at Hillside where the carriages had been kept was torn down that same summer and perhaps that is why the carriages were discarded. Carriages were kept in the upper and lower courts at Taliesin and until 1990 some vehicles were stored under a small canopy in the parking area at Taliesin. In 1990 the remaining carriages were moved to Midway Barn.
Another possibility for borrowing this particular carriage may have been that the movie Oklahoma! won the Oscar for best musical the previous year. Everyone was singing the lyrics:
“Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry
When I take you out in the surrey
When I take you out in the surrey with the fringe on top
Watch that fringe and see how it flutters
When I drive them high steppen strutters
Nosy pokes will peek through their shutters and their eyes will pop!”
The “nosy pokes” watching the parade would certainly have noticed Frank Lloyd Wright in a white suit with top hat and cane riding in the Surrey with the Fringe on Top!
Jim Pfefferkorn, a Fellowship member who was at Hillside and Taliesin during the summers from 1952-57, remembers going with Wesley Peters in the stake truck to Sheboygan with carriages to be restored. While there the owner, probably Wesley Jung, of the restoration facility gave them a tour to show the quality of work done. They were shown a vehicle similar to an omnibus. Jim heard “…that other carriages and sleighs were being considered for restoration but I do not know if it actually happened.” James Pfefferkorn, Architect, Spring Green, Wisconsin, letter, 17 March 2002. John Rattenbury, a member of the Fellowship, writes, “I believe that after Mr. Wright died several of the carriages were sent off to be restored, I think to a place in Sheboygan.” John Rattenbury, Architect, Scottsdale, Arizona, letter, 2 April, 2002.
About the author
While attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Vicki Nelson Bodoh saw several Frank Lloyd Wright structures and fell in love with his architecture. She started collecting information including a small library of books on the subject.
Vicki and her husband became part of the carriage driving world and joined the Carriage Association of America in 1983. Vicki has worked on numerous CAA committees and was President for three terms. She has researched and written numerous articles for the Carriage Association’s official publication, The Journal, including “The Frank Lloyd Wright Carriages” published in 2002. The research was an opportunity to combine her love of carriages with her interest in Frank Lloyd Wright.