How To Get Behind the Scenes at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin? Take A Baking Class.
For anyone who has fantasized about living in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed dwelling, being told to freely explore Taliesin, the architect’s southwestern Wisconsin home, with a Spotted Cow farmhouse ale in one hand and a wedge of Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese in the other, comes pretty close.
In one room of the expansive, hilltop-hugging building, with sections that resemble the region’s limestone outcroppings, I admired sculpted busts embedded in the fireplace masonry. In another room, floor-to-ceiling windows seemed to welcome the back perennial garden into the room.
Sensing my enthusiasm, Caroline Hamblen, the director of programs for Taliesin Preservation, the nonprofit that manages the estate, waved me past a “private” sign propped on a narrow staircase and guided me to a secret upper floor where Iovanna Lloyd Wright, Wright’s daughter with his third wife, Olgivanna, had her own Prairie-style suite, complete with a second, hidden stairway that emerged behind a discrete panel in the ground-floor library.
“Now this is really behind the scenes,” Ms. Hamblen laughed.
Going backstage at Taliesin was a substantial part of the appeal of the Taliesin Weekend Workshop that brought me here last October. Taliesin Preservation has long offered educational programming in subjects like painting and photography, but in 2021 it added more immersive three-day workshops that include overnight stays on the 800-acre rural estate. They quickly sell out. Last year, they expanded into baking.
A Prairie School design fan, weekly baker and servant to my sourdough starter, I signed up for “Grain Cookery and Baking,” led by Odessa Piper, the now Boston-based chef who owned the seminal farm-to-table restaurant L’Etoile in nearby Madison for 29 years. The weekend workshop included a room of my own, most meals and unrestricted access to the property.
“We want to continue Frank Lloyd Wright’s idea of learning in community, working with mind, heart and hands at the same time,” Ms. Hamblen explained.
Meeting Mr. Wright
The program kicked off socially with the Friday evening cocktail reception and tour of the low-slung, 37,000-square-foot home, which includes an office with a stone fireplace and a portrait of the architect’s mother.
“Fallingwater was designed at this desk,” said Ms. Hamblen, referring to Wright’s residential masterpiece in Pennsylvania, as she laid a palm on a massive wood tabletop.
A few hours before, the program began on a practical level when our class of nine met at the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center — a building in Wright’s signature Prairie style, characterized by strong horizontal lines and organic materials such as stone and wood — where picture windows frame views of the Wisconsin River. There, a framed essay by Wright entitled “Why I Love Wisconsin” extolled the people, the barns and the hilly landscape “that picks you up in its arms and, so gently, almost lovingly, cradles you.”
“I love her,” he wrote, referring to Wisconsin, “because she has not so many snobs.”
Presumably among the unsnobby, his grandparents Richard and Mallie Lloyd Jones purchased land in 1863 along the Wisconsin River in the Driftless Area, where unglaciated rolling hills eluded the Ice Age debris that leveled much of the Midwest.
Wright was born in nearby Richland Center in 1867, and though he later made his name in Chicago, establishing the Prairie style of architecture, he came back to the family property often.
By 1911, when he finished Taliesin, Wisconsin represented a refuge from the scandal of leaving his wife and children for Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client. (Her life ended violently when a servant killed her and six others and set fire to Taliesin in 1914; it was rebuilt then and again after a subsequent 1925 fire.)
Today, most of its more than 25,000 annual visitors take one-to-four-hour tours of the estate, where seven Wright-designed buildings share 800 acres of farmland and oak savannas. But on this prime fall weekend, when license plates from Saskatchewan to New York filled the parking lot, I and four couples from Wisconsin and Illinois arrived with duffel bags and varying experience in bread baking, primarily drawn to the opportunity to spend a weekend at Taliesin.
The group split residencies on the property between Tan-y-Deri, the 1908 house Wright built for his sister Jane Porter, and his 1949 Midway Barn, remodeled indoors with basic accommodations. My second-floor bedroom with a shared bath at Tan-y-Deri, furnished with an Arts-and-Crafts-style wooden bed and dresser, took in the estate’s fields of drying corn and shorn rye from diamond-paned leaded glass windows.
Both buildings lie just a few minutes’ walk from the Hillside Home School, designed by Wright in 1902 for his aunts who ran the residential school. Just before Friday’s reception, we gathered for orientation in its main assembly hall, a crane-your-neck wonder of angled rooflines visible above a mezzanine library.
“Our goal is not to be a museum,” Ms. Hamblen said, encouraging us to explore the property. “It was Frank Lloyd Wright’s lab. That makes it a space for life and creativity.”
Deep into dough
By 9 a.m. Saturday morning, after a breakfast of baked eggs and Danishes at the visitor center, where classes were held, Ms. Piper laid out the curriculum, including making a wheat loaf and a sourdough boule.
In a wood-paneled conference room, she introduced a series of ancient grains, including teff (which she called “malty”), sprouted einkorn (“less glutinous”) and kernza (“climate- and future-friendly”) from which we could choose to make her Loaf Within a Loaf, an inventive, time-consuming recipe that required spreading a grainy filling onto a wheat dough, rolling it up and baking it jellyroll-style for an Instagram-worthy bread with a swirling, savory center.
Mostly, we used artisan flours from Meadowlark Community Mill, a small Wisconsin mill that sources grain from regional organic farmers.
“Good bread is also good conservation,” Ms. Piper vowed, repeating one of the themes of the grain-focused workshop, which included meeting an organic rye farmer and a miller between hands-on sessions.
Working around stainless steel counters in the commercial kitchen at the visitor center — a Wright-designed building that was originally opened as a restaurant in 1967 — we made our dough with fervor, experimenting with different kinds of flours and grain fillings.
While it was rising, we started on the sourdough project, beginning with a batch of starter supplied by Ms. Piper’s baking assistant for the weekend, Bazile Booth, a local chef and entrepreneur with an infectious enthusiasm for baking.
“This starter is bubbly happy to meet you,” Ms. Booth smiled, doling out the aerated goop that is essentially fermented flour and water and requires daily feedings of both to remain vigorous.
In the afternoon, as camaraderie developed over botches and breakthroughs, we alternated between rolling and raising our wheat dough and, every 30 minutes, stretching and folding the sourdough, which gradually went from sticky to shapely.
By about 6 p.m., as the sourdough boules were left to rest overnight, the wheat loaves emerged from the ovens fragrant and invitingly browned.
We collectively admired our work, wary of slicing into such perfection, until Ms. Piper broke the spell.
“Can we all agree the heel is the best?” she asked, as she sawed into her sorghum loaf. Ms. Booth offered hers, a rich buckwheat. We then agreed to try the teff, kernza, oat and cornmeal varieties, until nearly every loaf had been trimmed and the slices sectioned into morsels slathered with butter that melted on contact.
Outside of workshop hours — which took most of the day — we had full access to the private estate. Determined to maximize such a rare gift, I rose at dawn daily to walk for miles around the grounds, flushing deer from the corn rows and listening to the migrating sandhill cranes that flew overhead.
Taliesin, as intended, seemed rooted in the leafy landscape, its broad limestone and plaster frame nestled into the brow of a hill (its name means “shining brow” in Welsh). Purple asters in mid-bloom awaited the rising sun. A pileated woodpecker swooping tree to tree drew me to the school. There, a mowed path that channeled through shoulder-high prairie grasses and wildflowers ascended a hill crowned by the Romeo and Juliet Windmill, designed by Wright to pump water to the school; the first rays of morning light reached the mill-top placard in Wright’s signature accent color, cayenne red.
On my Saturday lunch break, I hiked the estate’s sole public trail, the roughly mile-long Welsh Hills Trail, which travels through forests and meadows connecting the visitor center with Unity Chapel — Wright designed its interiors at the age of 18 — where many of the Lloyd Jones family are buried.
Wright, too, was originally interred here, and later moved to Arizona. But his spirit lingered in the fittingly wooded cemetery where his gravestone read, “Love of an idea is love of God.”
‘In the service of butter’
On Sunday morning, we met representatives of the Artisan Grain Collaborative, a nonprofit that supports regional growers, and the Meadowlark mill to discuss flour varieties (hard versus soft, spring versus fall, red versus white) and technicalities like extraction levels, measures of the amount of bran and germ in the flour, all of which affect a bread’s flavor and structure.
The conversation teased out the excitement of the main event: baking the sourdough loaves. After preheating lidded stew pots and Dutch ovens to 500 degrees, we dumped our shaped doughs into them, scoring the tops in signature slashes that would both stylize the loaves and allow steam to escape, producing the oven-spring, or puffiness, that characterizes airy sourdough.
This time when they emerged, steaming and crusty, we sampled the range with abandon.
“All of this,” Ms. Piper said, in a final pronouncement that had nothing to do with conservation or craft, “is in the service of butter.”
If you go
In 2023, Taliesin Preservation plans to offer eight weekend workshops from August through December on topics including photography, writing, biophilic design, painting and bread baking. Workshops cost $1,200 for three days, including lodging on the Taliesin estate and most meals. The Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center, gateway to Taliesin, is about 40 miles west of the Dane County Regional Airport in Madison.
Elaine Glusac writes the Frugal Traveler column. Follow her on Instagram @eglusac.
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