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A photo finish
Wright admirers buy historic photos on eBay
By WHITNEY GOULD
Posted: Feb. 1, 2005
Amid the titanium golf clubs, antique clocks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
action figures and assorted other treasures and trinkets offered up for
sale on eBay, the Internet auction site, there was this entry last
week: a simple, gray album full of old sepia photographs showing the
construction of a house.
Not just any house. The 32 rare snapshots document the 1911-'12
emergence of Frank Lloyd Wright's original Taliesin, his sprawling home
and studio near Spring Green. Racing against time and other collectors,
45 Wright aficionados from around the country cobbled together the $22
,100 it would eventually take to buy the trove for the financially
strapped Wisconsin Historical Society.
They did it in only a few days - a sign of how fervently his admirers
feel about Wright and his place in Wisconsin history.
Jack Holzhueter, a retired society employee who orchestrated the
campaign, worked for almost two straight days collecting pledges, right
up until the bidding ended Friday evening. It was a neck and neck
scramble against a handful of other bidders, he said, including a
dealer from Michigan. Individual pledges, including some from Milwaukee
and many from Chicago, ranged from $50 to $2,500, with $3,000 from the
"If a dealer gets these things, they are broken up. That's how people
make their money," Holzhueter said. "For people who care about Wright,
it would have been a disaster. We knew it was important to keep the
The seller was Helen Conwell, a retired physician from Fairhope, Ala.
She had acquired the album in 1988 from the estate of Dale O'Brien, who
with his wife, Helen, had been active in the arts community around
Spring Green in the 1960s and '70s. The couple owned land next to
Taliesin and later moved to Fairhope.
Conwell, now 82, said in a telephone interview that she decided to sell
the album when she began downsizing after the death of her husband last
year. She said she didn't expect to get more than "a few hundred
The $22,100 sale price, she said, "has me still sort of floating. And
it's really exciting to have been a part of this."
The 3-by-5 images offer a remarkable glimpse of Taliesin I, as it is
known, in its infancy: One shows its cantilevered roof, stuccoed walls
and jutting balcony, with workmen in the foreground. Another shows the
garden courtyard enclosed by the ground-hugging building. Still others
show the light-filled drafting room, with its pitched roof; the
spacious living room, with its big stone chimney and oak built-ins; and
the house on its hillside perch.
The pictures give no hint of the turbulent history the house would get
caught up in. Taliesin I was built after Wright had left his wife and
family in Oak Park, Ill., to take up residence in Spring Green, the
valley of his Lloyd-Jones forebears, with Mamah Borthwick, the wife of
a former client. In 1914, a servant set the house on fire, destroying
it and killing Borthwick, her two children and four employees.
Wright built a second Taliesin on the foundations of the first; much of
it was lost to another fire, in 1925, caused by faulty wiring. The
architect was continually rebuilding and modifying the house until his
death in 1959.
Very few photographs exist of the original building, which makes the
eBay find so exciting to historians.
"These photographs show Frank Lloyd Wright in a period of transition,
doing experimental work based partly on his experiences in Italy," said
Holzhueter, a Wright buff who is a former editor of the historical
society's Wisconsin Magazine of History and serves on its board of
Just who took the pictures is unknown. Holzhueter suspects that some
may have been shot by Taylor Wooley, one of Wright's draftsmen, and
that, based on the artful way they were composed, others might have
been taken or at least supervised by Wright himself.
"Whoever took them had a pretty sophisticated eye," says Andy
Kraushaar, the historical society's curator of visual materials.
Peter Gottfried, the society's archivist, said it's too soon to know
how the photographs will be used, since the agency doesn't yet have
possession of them. "But we want to make them as publicly available as
possible," he said.
Holzhueter, who cites the historical society's extensive collection of
Wright drawings and other materials, envisions the photos as part of a
major show on Wright in time for the centenary of Taliesin I, in 2011.
From the Feb. 2, 2005, editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The 33 photographs are in an album once owned by the late Dale O'Brien and his wife Helen, who lived in Spring Green during the 1960s. They were put on the market by Helen Conwell, a retired physician from Fairhope, Alabama, who acquired them from the O'Brien estate 20 years later. Dating from 1911-1912, they show the construction of Wright's original Taliesin enclave before it was destroyed by fire in 1914.
Frank Lloyd Wright built Taliesin, his residence near Spring Green, Wisconsin, as a refuge for himself and for Mamah Borthwick Cheney, his mistress and wife of a former client. Wright designed Taliesin just after returning from Europe, and the building's design showed Wright in a period of architectural experimentation based on his experiences there. It was subsequently rebuilt, only to burn again, and was continually revised throughout the architect's life. These images therefore document Wright's original idea for a creative sanctuary as he first envisioned it.
The new photographs will be available to the public on Tuesday, February 15, in the Governor's Conference Room, Room 115 of the state Capitol between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Admission is free.
Meanwhile, the Society has images of Wright buildings as well as images of the man himself in Wisconsin Historical Images. We also sell a number of Wright-inspired items within our museum store.
http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/feature ... 001076.asp
:: Posted February 11, 2005