the Taliesin Fellowship

My First Summer at the Fellowship

I was discharged from the Army Air Force in September of 1946. One of the first things that I did was to write Frank Lloyd Wright seeking entrance to the Taliesin Fellowship, a dream of mine ever since I had first learned about the Fellowship in 1939. Now the GI Bill made that dream a financial possibility. I received a reply from Gene Masselink saying that Mr. and Mrs. Wright had left early for Arizona, suggesting that I contact him at a later date. I drove to Arizona that December for an interview with Wright but remember little about that experience except that he said to "come and see us in Wisconsin." I was not clear about what he meant by that phrase, but since there was no outright rejection I decided to be prudent and not pursue the question.

In June of the following year, I faced the dilemma of deciding how to approach the question of joining the Fellowship. I decided to take the positive approach and assume that Wright had meant for me to join the Fellowship in Wisconsin. My bags packed, I drove to Taliesin and presented myself to Gene Masselink. His response was "Who are you?"  He did nonetheless usher me into the loggia for an interview with Mr. Wright. Again, I remember nothing about that interview except that I must have been accepted because I was next shown to the first room behind the hill kitchen at Taliesin. The space contained a bed, and maybe a chair, but nothing else. That didn't matter; I was in, if not truly accepted. I suppose one might have expected some sort of orientation or at least an introduction to other apprentices, but nothing like that happened. My next door neighbor was David George. He was the first real live apprentice I met, followed by Dick and Mary Lim who had the end room.

 My understanding versus Mr. Wright's understanding might vary as to a tacit agreement to pay $1,500 ($15,000 in 2006 dollars) a year for room/tent and board, the privilege of working 40 hours a week on Wright's behalf, and my willingness to attend Saturday evening and Sunday morning and evening events on a regular basis in exchange for his agreement to teach me absolutely nothing. This was, after all, an apprenticeship and not a school. All Wright was asking for was my ever laboring body on a weekly basis, a commitment to the week end regimen and, not incidentally, an implicit commitment to excellence "In the Cause of Architecture." Wright was probably correct in assuming the impossibility of teaching someone to be creative in the cause of architecture. A quotation from Whitman's Song of the Open Road, lettered in 1932 on the Hillside playhouse wall to the right of the stage opening, probably best expresses Mr. Wright's feelings on the subject.

From stanza 6, the verse reads in part….

Here is the test of wisdom (creativity);
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools;
Wisdom cannot be pass'd from one having it, to another
not having it;
Wisdom is of the Soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its
own proof,

Something there is in the float of the sight of things that
provokes it out of the Soul

At the same time that Wright was choosing poetry to be lettered on the walls of the Playhouse, he penned the Taliesin Work Song (See: An Autobiography, Book Five), extolling the virtues of ethics in architecture. The poem is called the Work Song, though, for good reason. At the same time Bertrand Russell, half a world away, was writing his essay In Praise of Idleness. I admit to no more than a skimmed reading of that essay, but I certainly do like the idea. Walt Whitman was expressing a similar idea in his Song of Myself in 1859 with "I loafe and invite my Soul." So why was Wright writing a Work Song? There are two reasons. The first is the work ethic he experienced with his labors at the farm of his Uncle Jenks in his youth. His mother wisely decided that he might be too soft for his own good and needed to be toughened up. She was correct. Experience of the work ethic was probably a major factor in the personality development of the mature Wright; if he can ever be considered a mature personality. The other reason was a very practical one. He envisioned the Fellowship as a work force to accomplish his construction goals at Taliesin and Hillside, and the establishment of an architectural office, which he took for granted. He always had draftsmen working for him who were paid modest sums, if anything at all. The Fellowship apprentices needed to be conditioned to accept the realities of what it meant to be an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright. The Work Song was a step in that direction. The essays by apprentices for the Capital Times newspaper in Madison during the early days of the Fellowship are replete with phrases like "organic lifestyle" and references to the work ethic, indicating that they got the message. The 'work ethic' was still present in 1947, but more implicit than explicit.

I may sound as if I am presenting this scenario in a cavalier frame of mind but, when dealing with genius, a modicum of humor and perspective is not only helpful but essential. Frank Lloyd Wright was no ordinary man and the Fellowship was no ordinary institution. Mr. Wright obviously held the leadership role, but the apprentices were neither students, nor employees, nor indentured servants, but apprentices, and reasonably intelligent individuals who knew, at least in general terms, what joining the Fellowship would require of them. This was no prison and the apprentice was free to leave at a time of his choosing. One friend left after the first weekend and another stayed a lifetime. For Mr. Wright, the Fellowship was simultaneously an opportunity to apprentice a group of enthusiastic young men and women, a source of income (26 x 500=$13,000 per year in 1932 dollars or $166,545 in 2006 dollars) and a labor pool for the drafting room and construction projects at Taliesin, and later, Taliesin West. For the apprentice it was an opportunity to participate in the creation of a world-class architecture and to observe a genius at work and play. The match was made in heaven, or maybe hell, depending on your point of view.

Wright's philosophical perspective on the Fellowship is probably best stated in The Hillside Home School of the Allied Arts, Why We Want This School (Frank Lloyd Wright, Taliesin, Spring Green, Wisconsin, October, 1931. page 3):

"…What we seek now is the soul of the thing itself.

The soul must be wooed if it is to be won. It cannot by 'taught'. Nor can it ever be 'forced'. To be more specific this means that the nature of our livelihood, commercial industry, both by machine and process, must be put into experimental stations where its many operations may come into the hands of sensitive, unspoiled students inspired by such creative artists as we can obtain for them."

Use of the word 'student' implies a teacher, but by the time the Fellowship was formed a year later, the idea of a teacher had been abandoned forever. There were no teachers at the Fellowship and no one was taught anything. If we learned anything at all, it came by the process of adsorption by being immersed in the Wright environment.

Another publication from Frank Lloyd Wright in 1932 was Advice to the Young Architect, which has an obvious connotation. This first square tri-fold publication, printed in black and red inks, was later reprinted in a new format for inclusion as an insert to the Journal of the Taliesin Fellows (Issue #4, Summer 1991; researched and typeset by Dennis Stevens, with graphic design by JTF Editor and Art Director, the very competent Louis Wiehle).

My understanding of the Fellowship bargain was probably different from that of Mr. Wright's on another level. In exchange for the privilege of being there, I felt a responsibility to be productive on a daily basis and to keep the ethical ledger in balance which, in turn, left me free to leave at a time of my choosing with a clear conscience. I fulfilled my end of the deal from my perspective. How Mr. Wright felt about my contribution was irrelevant. I was in no position to judge or control how he felt about anything. All I could do was uphold my part of the bargain from my own point of view. I did not expect any accolades from Frank Lloyd Wright. Such an expectation would be foolhardy.

The Taliesin Fellowship was an unconventional organization from day one. Frank Lloyd Wright was a complicated man and no angel, but he did have a vulnerable side which he protected with a good deal of bravado. Apprentice Bob Bishop discusses, in a letter to his fiancé, a conversation he had with Wright in 1934, "…We discussed at length his inability to have close friends, and he 'confessed' that his worst weakness, and the most conscience-pricking, was his unconcern for others as people in their own right, to be cherished, remembered, and befriended…" (Edgar Tafel, About Wright, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., page 109).

The other side of the coin was apparent in a conversation with me in Arizona. I had been back at the Fellowship about 8 months after supervising the construction of the Zimmerman house in Manchester, New Hampshire. Mr. Wright stopped me one day under the trellis outside the drafting room and said, "I know it is not easy being back here after being out there in touch with the glory of the thing." I was stunned. I had no idea that Mr. Wright had concerned himself with my personal feelings, but most of all that he had made the opportunity to express those concerns to me. I wasn't the first apprentice to return to Taliesin after supervising a job and I am sure my state of mind was familiar to Wright. Frederick Gookin best assesses the Wright personality in a 1919 letter to Sir Edmund Walker, as quoted by Kevin Nute in Frank Lloyd Wright and Japan:

"Frank Lloyd Wright I think you know something about. He is a fascinating, adorable, and utterly irresponsible genius; full of magnetism, selfish to the extent of violating all conventions if he sees fit; and an artist to his fingertips. I know of no better judge as to the quality of prints." (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1993, p. 151).

Whatever benefits were derived from being exposed to the "Wright" environment was up to the individual apprentice. What were the rewards? Primarily, at least superficially, the experience was architecture, architecture and more architecture, and an opportunity to participate in the creation of a world-class architecture "In the Cause of Architecture." In the big picture this probably worked more for the benefit of society than for Wright, the client, or the apprentices. The two two masterpieces of Taliesin and Taliesin West were part of the package, and the reward of living in those environments on a daily basis. Was it worth it? Only the individual who participated can answer that question, but if you pose the question to those who did, I think that you would find that the experience was, for the majority of the apprentices, the most important experience of their life, outside of marriage and family. Why that is so remains another question, one that has never been adequately addressed. I don't have any ready answers, but will attempt so find an answer to the big "why" question here later on.

The GI Bill paid $900 of the $1,500 annual fee, which left $600 for me to pay. At the end of my first month I took a check for $50 to Gene. He looked at me as if I were some sort of an idiot, and asked "Why are you doing this?" That was the last time I ever did that. Money was never mentioned again.

The social structure of the Fellowship was organized by Mrs. Wright on a model established by Gurdjieff at his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in France. However, her model took on more of a semblance to the royal court at a small European principality. The Fellowship never pretended to be a democracy and was, in fact, an oligarchy, with Mrs. Wright being the primary oligarch. Mr. Wright had absolutely no interest in the day to day affairs of running the Fellowship but, if a dispute arose, he made the final decision. Mrs. Wright's followers became known as "the little kitchen crowd" because they hung out in the little kitchen at Taliesin (See John DeKoven Hill's oral history, page 477, The Regents of the University of California, 1977). Mr. Wright had no courtiers, only his loyal secretary Gene Masselink, construction manager and structural engineer Wes Peters, and Jack Howe who managed the drafting room.

Mrs. Wright's primary assistant was Kay (Schneider) Davison (Rattenbury) who, among her other responsibilities, scheduled the food preparation chores. Those duties were assigned on a weekly basis, except for the food servers who were required on a daily basis. There was a breakfast cook, a lunch and dinner cook, a tea cook, and two kitchen helpers who served breakfast and worked from 5:30 AM until after dinner was concluded at about 7:30 PM. If you were lucky, you got a couple of hours off in the afternoon. The tea cooks prepared their own offering and cleaned up their own mess. The two daily servers served lunch and dinner, then cleaned up the kitchen after dinner. On a daily basis the apprentices washed their own dishes, but on weekends the daily servers washed all the dishes for the evening meal and cleaned up the kitchen. Being a kitchen helper was a very tough job, but the task was evenly distributed among the male apprentices. There were about six or eight each of the breakfast and regular cooks, assigned on a rotating basis. I was a breakfast cook. The regular cooks tended to be female and wives of apprentices, but not always. The senior apprentices did not partake of the kitchen chores except as an occasional cook. On a yearly basis we probably spent no more time on household chores at Taliesin than any individual would spend maintaining his/her own private environment.

On my first full day at the Fellowship I was hanging out in the living room at Hillside, because I didn't know what else to do, when Wes appeared and asked me if I would like to help with I don't remember what kind of a construction project. To ask if you would like to participate was typical of Wes Peters. I was pleased to be noticed.

Later on that summer Jack Howe asked me if I wanted to work in the drafting room, and I was thrilled to be afforded that opportunity. He assigned me the task of doing the working drawings for the Melvin Maxwell Smith house. He didn't know it, but I had had some experience with the working drawings for a house by Frank Lloyd Wright. In about 1941 a group of students from the University of Minnesota took a trip to Michigan on the pretext of seeing the Michigan/Minnesota football game. What we were really about was to see Wright buildings. We knocked on the door of the Affleck house on a Sunday afternoon to ask if we could look around outside. Affleck invited us in and gave us free range of the house. When we were about to leave Mr. Affleck asked me if I wanted to take a set of the working drawings with me to study and then return them. I jumped at the opportunity and traced the entire set of drawings before sending them back to him. I still have those tracings. [See Architectural Records, Frank Lloyd Wright Project Drawings, Affleck house] So when it came to doing the working drawings for the Smith house, I had already been through the process with a different, but well-established, Wrightian grammar.

I didn't want any sagging cantilevers on a house that I worked on, so I took it upon myself to do all the structural engineering on the carport double cantilever. My impression is that those cantilevers are still there with no deflection. I am a still surprised at my audacity in taking on that responsibility my first summer at the Fellowship, but even more surprised, in retrospect, that the drawings were sent out to the client without Wes or Jack ever questioning my actions. That says a lot about the way the drafting room was run, a subject for further discussion at a later date.

On the other side of the coin from the food preparation duties lay the benefits of the Fellowship experience. They were many. First and foremost was the architecture. I was excited, in the summer of 1947 in Wisconsin and the winter of 1947/48 in Arizona, to be part of, even if indirectly, the creation of the Huntington Hartford projects for Los Angeles, the Kaufmann projects for the Pittsburgh Point, the Rogers Lacy Hotel in Dallas, and the Unitarian church for Madison. All of those drawings were made by a select few apprentices, but we were all a part of the environment that made the entire process possible. It was a season to be remembered.

There was also music. Music had always been important to me. As a student at the University of Minnesota I could, and did, buy season tickets to the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra season for $9.00. I heard and saw the likes of Serge Rachmaninoff and Rudolph Serkin. Rachmaninoff was an imposing figure who always brought his own piano to the performance and always played the C# Minor Prelude as an encore. Meanwhile, back at the Fellowship, I joined the chorus early on. We practiced for an hour every morning after breakfast. A few years later I joined the musical ensemble as the double base player. We practiced an hour a day after lunch. Where else could you spend 2 hours a day on music and another 6 hours a day pouring concrete, doing carpentry and maybe even working in the drafting room or the kitchen, as part of your routine life? It was a productive and satisfying life style.

That first summer at the Fellowship in 1947 we had a piano quartet from the Dallas Symphony as guest musicians, an absolutely delightful musical period. They played regularly at the Sunday evening events in the living room at Taliesin and at impromptu recitals of trios or sonatas in the Playhouse at Hillside. I think that they genuinely enjoyed playing for a small appreciative audience and we, in turn, loved hearing them. The living room at Taliesin and the Playhouse at Hillside were the environments for which chamber music had been written. Mrs. Wright thought that the musicians should partake of the apprentice experience by working in the kitchen. They declined the honor and prevailed.

The Hillside Playhouse served as a venue for dinner and a movie on Saturday evenings. The architecture of the 1932 Playhouse was second only to the living room at Taliesin for its excellence of design and was at its best when set up for the Saturday night event. There was something presumptive and very satisfying about having your own private theater.

Sunday mornings were set aside for a formal breakfast in the dining room at Hillside or Taliesin West. An apprentice was designated to set up the tables in a suitable arrangement to show his or her design skills. Mr. Wright delivered his 'sermon' after breakfast on Sunday morning with varying results. One I clearly remember had to do with muscular development. He was talking about developing a muscular body and then said, "…and through exercise of the spirit you will develop a spiritual muscularity." I loved the phrase "spiritual muscularity." In about 1948 Edgar Kaufmann Jr. gave the Fellowship a reel-to-reel tape recorder and Bruce Pfeiffer recorded the Sunday morning talks from that time on.

Sunday evenings were routine with dinner in the living room and music afterwards by the chorus, and guest musicians or by the Taliesin ensemble, but it was always a thrill to be in that living room with a group of people and the music. That room was always intended to be used by real people and not just as a photographic venue.

The major question not addressed in the foregoing is, "What was the magic that made the Taliesin Fellowship such a unique experience?" It was surely corollary to, but not necessarily the same as, the quality that imparted beauty to the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. I don't have a ready answer to that question, but do have an idea that I am working on and will present it when, and if, it becomes clearly enough defined to be presented objectively.

A Directory of Taliesin Fellowship Members

Elizabeth (Bauer) Mock (Kassler) was an original apprentice who married Rudolph Mock at Taliesin and moved to Europe with her new husband. She later divorced Mock and returned to the United States to work at the Museum of Modern Art and, in 1946, published a book for the Museum entitled If You Want to Build a House. In 1949 she returned to Taliesin for the summer with her son Fritz, and later went on to teach architectural history at an eastern university and marry Ken Kassler. After a visit to Taliesin in March of 1979 she realized the need for a retrospective directory of the Taliesin Fellowship before the upcoming 50th anniversary in 1982. She took the task of compiling such a list upon herself. This monumental task was undertaken before the day of the computer and had to be accomplished entirely by hand. The directory, 1932-1982, The Taliesin Fellowship, A Directory of Members, was published in the fall of 1981 with an imprint of 450 copies. I have copy number 441.

Cover design by Jack Howe

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation used the Kassler list to develop a separate list of apprentices for the first reunion of the Fellowship in 1987. When the Taliesin Fellows (not the Taliesin Fellowship) was founded in 1991, I obtained a copy of the Foundation list to start my own to solicit memberships for the Taliesin Fellows. I mailed all former apprentices twice a year to keep track of their whereabouts and incidentally to solicit memberships. I resigned from the Taliesin Fellows in 2000 and my list has not been updated for addresses since that time. However, I have further developed the list to include everyone associated with Wright, beginning with his marriage to Catherine Tobin in 1889. I felt it was important to track as many people as possible to present a comprehensive picture of Wright's peregrinations through life and the people with whom he was associated on that journey. Each category of participation has its own designation on my list, and there are two six digit sort fields so the list can be sorted in any imaginable way. I include two arrival and departure sets of dates from the Wright environs to track when people were, or were not there, and have included attribution fields to source information. [See also: Geiger Database]

Kassler includes in her directory a copy of the "Charter Applicants" hand lettered by Henry Klumb at the inception of the Fellowship. That list, as do mine, uses the designation of Taliesin Men (TM) to identify the people in residence at Taliesin at the inception of the Fellowship and who stayed on for a period of time thereafter, and Honorary Fellows (HF) to identify those individuals who were associated with Wright as draftsmen but did not overlap the Fellowship.

I have included three lists with this document as follows (lists open as a PDF file.):

List #1: Frank Lloyd Wright Apprentice Only List

April 1928 to April 1959. Sort is alphabetically by last name
(625: entries including multiple listings)

List #2: All Non-Apprentices Associated With Wright

1889 to April 1959. Sort is alphabetically by last name
(182 entries including multiple listings)

List #3: All People Associated with Frank Lloyd Wright

1889 to April 1959. Sort is by year of first association and alphabetically within the year.(790 entries, including multiple listings)