Arnold Roy, a spry 83-year-old with a thick gray goatee, leans over a plywood drafting table. “They want to go back to canvas,” he says. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” To underscore his point, he opens a flat file and removes a stack of detail drawings showing how the roof of Taliesin West has evolved over six-plus decades.
Roy is one of the few people left who remembers when Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and studio in Scottsdale, Ariz., was under canvas, before it was sealed up and mechanically cooled for use during the scorching 100-degree-plus summers.
“Is it possible to summer at Taliesin West without air conditioning?” I ask.
“Sure,” Roy says. “Take a bed sheet, soak it in water, and sleep in it.”
After years of deferred maintenance and questionable architectural accretions, Taliesin West stands at a crossroads. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation (FLWF), which owns and operates the 491-acre property, is staging a comeback for the National Historic Landmark, starting with the development of a preservation master plan. But the plan is proving complicated and controversial. And it’s taking a long time.
Meanwhile, Taliesin West continues to age. Initially in awe of the site, I soon begin noticing chipping paint, water-damaged soffits, and smeared brown sealant spanning the joints of the acrylic panels covering the canvas roofing—a solution added, along with a layer of batt insulation, in 1998 to make the structures more airtight. I also learn that the compound’s earliest buildings need new plumbing and wiring, and replacements for 12 dangerously outdated transformers. Given that many consider Taliesin West to be Wright’s opus, the whole place looks surprisingly rundown.
The question of whether to restore the canvas roofs is only one aspect of the forthcoming preservation master plan that worries Roy and the remaining Legacy Fellows, the last living Frank Lloyd Wright apprentices, six of whom reside year-round at Taliesin West.
Until recently, the Fellows were Taliesin West’s primary stewards. For better or worse, they’ve largely ignored the outside world, focusing on maintaining Wright’s successor architectural practice—until it folded in 2003—and training future architects. Between commissions and classes, little time was left for long-term maintenance planning. If a roof sprang a leak, a fellow would grab a ladder and fix it. Self-reliance is the Taliesin way.
Taliesin West, Roy says, was Wright’s laboratory. For years, Roy served as its unofficial preservationist, a job he took seriously. He was a teenager when he first set foot on the property in 1952—Feb. 9, to be exact—to train under the master for seven years. He has never left.
He remembers how Wright loved the luminescence of the canvas but hated replacing it every two years; how Wright unsuccessfully attempted to find a more robust substitute; and how Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, who began spending more time in Arizona after her husband’s death, eventually directed the Fellows to install air-conditioning. Change was and still is a constant.
“If you say we’re going back to canvas, then you’re saying we’re going back to a desert winter camp,” Roy says. “That’s not consistent with the Fellowship and foundation.”
His unease is clear. How do you preserve Taliesin West without overstepping the work of those who represent the last living link to its creator? How do you return to a time before air-conditioning and still accommodate the year-round residents, the foundation members, and the 100,000 tourists that come each year?
“Wright immediately fell in love with the desert,” says Taliesin West preservation director Fred Prozzillo as we wander onto the prow, a V-shaped promenade raised above the desert thorns that frames the compound to the south. A clean-cut 47-year-old dressed in plaid shorts, Ray-Bans, and suede desert boots, Prozzillo studied at the Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW) School of Architecture from 1997 to 2000 and practiced architecture in Phoenix before joining the Taliesin West team in 2012. Wright, he says, found something blunt and honest in the desert’s angled rocks and hardy plants—a perfect counterpoint to the soft, verdant Taliesin estate in Spring Green, Wis., where Wright spent his summers.
The desert “seems to cry out for a space-loving architecture of its own,” wrote Wright, buzzing with inspiration, in his autobiography (Longmans, Green and Co., 1932). He marveled at the “economy in the patterns of construction,” the fluted columns supporting the saguaro cacti, the “perfect lattice or the reed and welded tubular construction in the stalk of the cholla,” and the “nature-masonry we see rising from the great mesa floors.”
The circumstances that brought Wright to the desert made him particularly vulnerable to its power. Arriving in Phoenix in 1928 to design San Marcos in the Desert, a monumental resort to be built in the South Mountain foothills for veterinarian-turned-land developer Alexander Chandler, the architect was desperate for a fresh start after a hellish string of personal setbacks, which included mass murder, fires, adultery, and divorce. “Phoenix seems to be the name for me too,” he wrote in a letter to his son. “It looks as tho [sic] I was well started now for the last lap of my life and work.”
Rather than renting expensive live–work quarters, the 60-year-old and his cadre of draftsmen cleared a remote patch of land and built Ocatilla desert camp, fashioning door hinges with rubber belting and rigging canvas flaps with ship cord. Invigorated by his handmade compound, Wright nevertheless viewed Ocatilla as a temporary structure, a life-size model. “You are ‘ephemera,’ ” Wright wrote of Ocatilla. “Nevertheless you will drop a seed or two yourself in course of time.”
Taliesin West was one of those seeds. After the 1929 stock market crash killed Chandler’s resort plans, Wright abandoned Ocatilla. Money was still tight a decade later when he returned to Arizona and purchased the land for his desert outpost, so he and his two dozen apprentices erected a temporary work camp and slept in pyramid-shaped sheepherder tents.
As with Ocatilla, Wright designed structures out of wooden fins with translucent roof panels made from canvas-wrapped 2x4-frames stair-stepped in between. This time around, Wright built his winter camp on a firmer foundation, Prozzillo says. He gestures to one of Taliesin West’s distinct, angled masonry walls, which exemplify Wright’s organic design ideal: “It looks like the desert floor has been tilted up.”
Prozzillo points out other examples of Wright’s abstracted interpretation of nature—slanted rooflines that echo the surrounding mountains; brightly painted, carved wood forms jutting like spiky wildflowers. “Wright wanted others to experience this amazing place as he experienced it,” he says.
Wright had about 80 apprentices when he died in 1959. Like the property, they’ve aged. Three died in the past two years, and one more is in a nursing home, leaving a total of 13 active—relatively speaking—Legacy Fellows.
Anticipating the inevitable change, the FLWF’s board of trustees began charting a public course for Taliesin West a decade ago. (Founded by Wright in 1940, the foundation owns the Wright archives, lucrative licensing rights to all things Wright-ian, and the Taliesin estate, whose operations and preservation are managed by a separate foundation. The FLWF also operates the FLW School of Architecture, which divides its academic year between the Taliesins.)
In 2011, the board hired a new foundation CEO and president, Sean Malone, to tackle Taliesin West’s challenges—which, controversially, includes the potential loss of its architecture school’s accreditation in 2017 due to new rules adopted by the Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission.
The FLWF has three main objectives: the preservation and stewardship of Taliesin West; architectural education; and public engagement. “Preservation is our deepest public obligation,” says Malone, who is especially keen on the property’s historic core, the 10-acre compound Wright designed that includes Wright’s private office, a drafting studio, dining hall, residences, and the Cabaret Theater. “The place itself is … the heart and spinal cord for all our public programs and higher education.”
In the fall of 2012, Malone oversaw the creation of the Taliesin West Preservation Oversight Committee and commissioned Chicago-based T. Gunny Harboe, FAIA, of Harboe Architects to develop a preservation master plan. After nearly a year of site visits, interviews with Legacy Fellows, workshops, and poring over foundation archives—which includes some 22,000 drawings, 40,000 photographs, and 100,000 letters—Harboe is still hammering out the details. He can’t consult original architectural drawings because, frankly, they don’t exist. For the most part, Wright designed Taliesin West in his head and built it by barking directions and pointing his cane. So Harboe only has sketches on butcher paper.
The master plan is due for review by the foundation trustees early next year. But one point has been made clear. In September, the trustees signed off on Harboe’s “Taliesin West: Preservation Philosophy & Approach,” a 22-page document that identifies 1938 to 1959 as the period of historic significance. The return to canvas may not be a done deal, but by zeroing in on the Wright years the trustees are sending a strong message.
Roy disagrees with the decision. “No one asked me,” he says, “but if they did, I’d say the period of significance is today. And tomorrow. And tomorrow. It’s always changing. Mr. Wright was always making changes.”
And, as Roy noted, Taliesin West was Wright’s design laboratory. Every winter, when Wright and his caravan of Fellows returned, he’d see the place with fresh eyes, adding and removing walls here and there, experimenting with building materials, and sending “the boys,” as Wright wrote in his autobiography, into the mountains to collect a boulder for the garden. As a result, the preservationist’s mainstay of dating and identifying original materials has been nearly impossible.
Harboe calls Taliesin West his most challenging preservation project to date—no small feat for a career that spans 26 years and includes other Wright projects such as Unity Temple and the Robie House, as well as several buildings by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, such as S.R. Crown Hall. “Taliesin West isn’t your typical house museum,” he says. “It’s a living, breathing site.” How do you honor the spirit of the place, which sprang from Wright’s desert visions and lives on through the communalist and migratory nature of Legacy Fellows and architecture students?
Without a preservation master plan to guide major decisions, Prozzillo is in a holding pattern. Leaks, peeling paint, and mini-geysers sprouting from old galvanized plumbing direct his current maintenance schedule. He knows that the master plan will not be a silver bullet, but merely a wayfinding map for the future. And the foundation will still have to raise restoration funds. It has taken the Martin House Restoration Corp. 18 years and $40 million to restore Wright’s Darwin D. Martin House, in Buffalo, N.Y.—and the work isn’t done. Will donors fork over millions of dollars to restore what began as a seasonal winter camp?
“The word ‘camp’ implies that it’s ephemeral,” Malone says. “We do not want Taliesin West to be ephemeral. This is one of the truly great architectural creations ever. Our obligation is to preserve it for the next 100 or 500 years.” He pauses before asking the question on everyone’s minds. “How do you nurture that ephemeral feeling without having an ephemeral reality?”