Visiting Taliesin West
Believe it or not it wasn’t the perfect weather or the endless sun-filled days that made me want to visit Scottsdale. Nor was it spectacular desert scenery or the terrific sounding food scene. No, the main (initial) reason for me wanting to visit Scottsdale had to do with a certain Frank Lloyd Wright, well to be exact, Taliesin West, his “winter home.”
Ever since I first visited Fallingwater in southwestern Pennsylvania, a magnificent home Wright designed back in the 1930s, I’ve been mildly obsessed with seeing as many of his buildings as possible. I trekked out to Oak Park, Illinois on an extremely cold (and typical) Chicago winter day to visit his house and studio. I even made a return visit to the Fallingwater area when I toured another house he designed, Kentuck Knob (the lesser known and more down to earth residence). If you’re wondering is there a Taliesin East, well, there is. But its name is just Taliesin, and it’s located in rural Wisconsin. As Taliesin West is located in Scottsdale, less than a 30 minute drive from the Phoenix Airport, well, it’s obviously infinitely easier to get to.
If you’re thinking right about now, “well, I don’t have any interest in visiting some dead person’s house,” or more bluntly, “I could care less about architecture,” think again. When you tour a Frank Lloyd Wright design, you’re not just touring a building. You’re literally seeing firsthand the inner workings of a design genius; Wright never envisioned a house like any person would. He designed a house while incorporating dozens and dozens of slightly eccentric yet incredible details into the mix. The majority of what you see at a Wright building was in fact designed by Wright himself (and sometimes his students); this includes even articles like furniture and lamps.
Taliesin West is set quite a ways back from Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, which means it’s a windy, semi-desolate trek up Taliesin Drive. But then it offers incredible views of the stark landscape before you, complete with my favorite, a plethora of massive cacti. My only regret is not being able to walk the length of the driveway. Surely it would have looked a “tad” different back in 1937 when Wright purchased the plot of desert land that would become his home. He paid $3.50 an acre on a southern slope of the McDowell Range overlooking Paradise Valley. And in case you’re wondering about the costs involved in building a house in the desert back in the 1930s, an investment of over $10,000 (that’s over $172 million in 2017!) was needed to dig a well deep enough to provide sufficient water for the residence.
Just as Fallingwater is “part” of the Laurel Highlands in Pennsylvania, the desert plays an equally important role at Taliesin West. He’s famously remembered for saying, “Arizona needs its own architecture… Arizona’s long, low, sweeping lines, uptilting planes. Surface patterned after such abstraction in line and color as find ‘realism’ in the patterns of the rattlesnake, the Gila monster, the chameleon, and the saguaro, cholla or staghorn – or is it the other way around—are inspiration enough.”
The walls at Taliesin West are made of local desert rocks, stacked within wood forms, and filled with concrete. When you tour the rooms there, you’ll also see how much a role natural light played in the design. In the drafting room, Wright originally used translucent canvas to act as a roof (although this was later replaced by plastic due to the intensity of the Arizona sun).
Once Taliesin West was built, it became the “winter” home of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture; the original Taliesin serves as the summer home since let’s be real, a winter in Arizona is much more agreeable than one in Wisconsin. Today, the Taliesins still educate students who are working towards their master’s degree in architecture and as our guide told us, it’s an extremely competitive program with admittance only granted to a select number.
1) The “famous” Chinese statues. Although Wright owned an absurd number of cars (and by cars I mean luxury ones), he was a spendthrift in just about every other area including a series of Chinese statuaries that are found throughout the grounds. He came across these in San Francisco’s Chinatown and when he was told the price, he said no. But then he was offered ones that were broken and chipped and he said yes.
2) The tiny cactus that grows from the walls.
3) The beautiful desert flowers and of course, the cacti, which were located all over the grounds.
4) The Native American petroglyph that is seen at the beginning of the tour. Wright actually stylized the figures found on it into interconnected lines which became the symbol of Taliesin West.
5) Wright’s bed which was “divided” into two sections. If he was on the one side of the divider, it meant he was just napping so you could disturb him. However, if he was on the other side, it meant he was sleeping and by no means should you wake him.
6) The cabaret theater is built with six sides in an irregularly hexagonal shape. It offers occupants what someone described as “95% acoustic perfection,” meaning someone in the back row could hear the lightest whisper from a speaker on stage. Remember what I said about him being ingenious?
The Red Headed Traveler’s Tips to Visiting Taliesin West
-Buy your tickets in advance. There’s a limited number of people on each tour and tours do sell out.
-Tickets aren’t cheap ($34 if purchased in advance for its Insight Tour, $36 for walk ups); however, unlike at Fallingwater and his house and studio in Oak Park, you could actually take pictures inside the rooms. I felt this more than warranted the steep cost.
-A car is needed to get there. However, I did see some reviews on TripAdvisor about people taking an Uber so you may want to look into that.
-As it’s the desert, be sure to apply sunblock and don’t forget your sunglasses and/or a hat. You’ll be outside for a good portion of the tour, standing in sun where there’s not really any shade.
-Go with an open mind even if architecture and touring houses aren’t really your thing. D doesn’t share my immense interest in Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and yet at the end of the 90 minute tour, even he was saying how much he enjoyed it. It definitely helps when you have a guide as easy going and as excellent a presenter as we did.
-Leave the kids at home or at the hotel with a babysitter. They will most likely be bored (well, on the younger scale of that age range) and as tickets for children 6-12 are still $19, you certainly don’t want to waste that money.
Have you ever visited a Frank Lloyd Wright building?