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Travel

Tale of two unique houses defines one Wisconsin town

Email|Print| Text size + By Ellen Albanese
Globe Staff / August 3, 2005

SPRING GREEN, Wis. -- This town's primary claim to fame is Taliesin, the country home of Frank Lloyd Wright that expresses on an intensely personal level the architect's enduring theories on shelter, landscape, space, and the environment.

But Spring Green, about 35 miles west of Madison, is also the site of another well-known house, the sprawling, surprising, and occasionally kitschy House on the Rock. Designed by architect Alex Jordan in the 1940s, the original 14-room house perched atop Deer Shelter Rock has grown into a 200-acre complex with a wildly diverse collection of dolls, armor, Americana, music machines, and a carousel reputed to be the world's largest.

As diverse as these houses might seem, each takes unique advantage of its geographical setting. Taliesin, which means ''shining brow" in Welsh, is perched on the brow of a hill overlooking undulating meadows and the Wisconsin River. The House on the Rock sits atop a 60-foot-high pillar of rock and offers 30-mile views of Midwest hills and valleys.

Tara Mahoney, a registered nurse who was born and raised in Spring Green, said she uses the landmarks to define where she lives. ''People ask where I'm from and I say 'Spring Green,' and they don't react," she said. ''Then I say, 'You know, House on the Rock, Taliesin,' and they say, 'Oh, of course, Spring Green.' "

Visiting Taliesin can take an hour or a day. The complex covers 600 acres and includes several buildings. Wright worked on Taliesin's construction, reconstruction, and continual expansion from 1911 until his death, at 92, in 1959. Today it operates as the eastern campus of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture; students spend six months a year studying here and six months in Scottsdale, Ariz., home of Wright's Taliesin West.

We took the two-hour house tour and got our first glimpse into Wright's genius before we even entered the house. As the tram that had carried us from the visitors center turned a curve making its way down the hill, a hush fell over the landscape. Because of the way the road curved into the hill, its motor noise was muffled.

To maximize the light and the view, Wright brought panes of glass together at the corners of rooms, creating a wonderful integration of indoors and out. In his study a large mural on one wall of two cranes nesting by a river echoes the view through the window in the adjoining wall.

Wright's home was also his laboratory. Many of the furnishings are made of plywood, since they were working models. There are surprisingly modern pieces, such as tray tables that fold back into living room chairs. The ''great room" he devised was a precursor of today's family room.

In a room overlooking the garden is a display of seashells. While Wright's early work, including Taliesin, was strongly rectilinear, in the 1940s he began to move toward curvilinear forms, said Craig Jacobsen, Taliesin's public access manager. ''Mr. Wright used seashells to teach his apprentices to examine nature for inspiration for design," Jacobsen said, adding that the best-known of Wright's seashell motifs is New York's Guggenheim Museum.

It was quite a leap from the open, light-filled spaces of Taliesin to the dim, almost subterranean atmosphere of the House on the Rock. At the bottom of a long, descending boardwalk, we entered a low-ceilinged gatehouse. From there we followed a mazelike route through 200 acres of rooms, streets, buildings, and gardens.

Highlights include the Infinity Room, which tapers to a point as it extends 218 feet above the treetops over Wyoming Valley and actually sways slightly, and an amazing collection of room-size music machines that play when visitors deposit tokens. The collection of Tiffany-style glass, in lamps, windows, and panels, is impressive, as is the display of 250 dollhouses. The carousel features 20,000 lights, 182 chandeliers, and 269 animals, including zebras, unicorns, and giant peacocks. Built for the House on the Rock, it is 80 feet wide and 35 feet high, weighs 36 tons, and is valued at nearly $5 million. It is purely for show, however, and has never been ridden.

Ellen Albanese can be reached at ealbanese@globe.com.

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