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Wright again: Many Frank Lloyd Wright designs for Madison were never built. Now, some are getting a second chance.

  • 8 min to read

Frank Lloyd Wright, born 150 years ago June 8 in Richland Center, always had Madison somewhere in his mind. He designed something for his adopted hometown in every decade of his career, even though he left here for Chicago at age 19.

Wright designed a total of 33 buildings for Madison between 1893 and 1959, the year of his death, including a house discovered just last year. The designs “span the entire length of the architect’s career... from an undistinguished local resident to an international celebrity,” former Chazen Museum of Art Director Russell Panczenko said in the catalog for a 1988 exhibition at the then-Elvehjem Museum of Art that revealed all of Wright’s Madison work for the first time.

Some of those projects became world-famous, such as the soaring First Unitarian Society Meeting House and the radically simple Usonian home that he designed for Capital Times reporter Herbert Jacobs and his wife Katherine on Toepfer Street in 1936. That house, built for $5,500, became a template for the modern suburban American home.

Some of Wright’s projects for Madison were built but then demolished, like the 1893 boathouse for Lake Mendota at the end of North Carroll Street, which lasted until 1926.

But nearly half of his projects, including some of the best and most important designs, were not built. The stories of why are comic, tragic and mundane. What they have in common is that, in the end, the client and the architect parted ways.

Madison architect Josh Johnson, a former president of the American Institute of Architects-Wisconsin, said that architectural firms typically experience a dropout rate of about 30 to 35 percent before the schematic design stage. Wright’s dropout rate was 47 percent.

“Today, we design to give clients exactly what they want and engineer materials down to meet the price they set. His projects were more forward-thinking and aggressive, so you could expect them to receive a stronger response,” Johnson said.

He added, “Wright’s work really hasn’t aged. You can look at his Usonian buildings and simply see a future that we missed.”

In recent years, visionaries in other cities and states have taken some of Wright’s designs for Madison and capitalized on them. Madison itself can claim credit for building a convention-center version of Monona Terrace 60 years after Wright first conceived it as a government center and concert hall. Mayor Paul Soglin wrote in an email, “As we look at the iconic Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center on the shore of Lake Monona, it is hard to envision our cityscape without it. I know firsthand the years of hard work it took to complete the approval, planning and construction. We were fortunate that after 60 years, the site was still available for developing Mr. Wright’s vision.”

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Frank Lloyd Wright Monona Terrace 1

A Taliesin apprentice puts finishing touches for the model of Monona Terrace that was approved by voters in 1954 but then blocked by the state Legislature. A different version of it was built in 1997.

Now it appears the city may bring back another piece of the legacy.

The Madison Community Foundation on May 16 awarded $27,500 to the Madison Design Professionals Workgroup to develop the Nolen Waterfront plan, “a visionary idea for a nine-acre waterfront park in the heart of downtown Madison” that would run from Machinery Row to Monona Terrace and bridge John Nolen Drive with an overarching park. Wright’s festive 1893 Lake Monona Boathouse would serve as the eastern terminus. It would look like a giant Victorian carousel.

The waterfront between Monona Terrace and Machinery Row “could be completely redone, with a huge park on top, boardwalk, Frank Lloyd Wright’s boathouse, seasonal gardens, concert space and an upgraded Blair Street intersection,” according to the foundation.

Mark Schmitz, a spokesman for the Madison Design Professionals Workgroup, said that building the 1893 Frank Lloyd Wright Boathouse “would be a seminal achievement in completing a life vision for our city. We lost connections to our lakes decades ago.”

The boathouse for Lake Monona was one of two winning Wright designs in an 1893 competition run by the civic-spirited Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association. The winning Lake Mendota boathouse, a U-shaped structure, was built at the end of North Carroll Street on Mansion Hill.

Jack Holzhueter, the state historian who unearthed the story of the boathouses for the 1988 Elvehjem Museum of Art exhibition, saw that Wright had dated his drawing for the Lake Monona boathouse as June 8, 1893 — his 26th birthday. Holzhueter wrote in the exhibition catalog that this boathouse, 60 feet high and sporting a distinctive cone-shaped top, “was by far the more spectacular of the two.”

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Frank Lloyd Wright drawing

The 1893 prize-winning Monona Boathouse design by Frank Lloyd Wright, then age 26, may return as the capstone of a new Nolen Waterfront parkway.

Unfortunately, the money fell away before it could be built, largely owing to a national financial panic in which many banks failed. The Chicago and North Western Railway reneged on a $2,000 gift, and half of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association donors failed to pay their pledges. Mansion Hill got its boathouse, Holzhueter wrote, “while the working-class, industrial neighborhood adjacent to the Lake Monona site received nothing.”

David Mollenhoff, the Madison city historian who lives on Lake Monona and developed the Fauerbach Brewery condominiums next to Machinery Row, likes the new project. He observes in an e-mail: “To build the 1893 boathouse now would give Madison a unique distinction — two Wright buildings just 1,000 feet apart on the same shoreline, one designed during his first year of independent practice, 1893, and the other during his last, 1959.”

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Yahara Boathouse 1

The 1905 rowing boathouse designed for the Yahara River in Madison now sits on a channel of the Niagara River in Buffalo, New York. It was built with Taliesin supervision in 2007.

The Yahara River Boathouse

If it is built, the Lake Monona Boathouse will have company in other states.

The latest example is the Frank Lloyd Wright Fontana Boathouse in Buffalo, New York, which was designed for Madison in 1905 for a site on the Yahara River near the East Johnson Street bridge, but has been serving rowers and welcoming tourists since 2007.

The starkly geometrical boathouse is considered one of Wright’s most important designs because it made the “leap to abstraction,” departing from the last vestige of 19th-century architecture. Instead of a roof with peaks and gables, the Yahara River Boathouse for the first time had a flat, cantilevered, concrete slab.

The boathouse was designed for the student rowing club at UW-Madison, at the request of its “commodore,” Cudworth Bye, the son of Wright family acquaintances in Oak Park, Illinois. Bye wanted a river facility built so that he and his Wisconsin rowers could have more practice time on open water during the winter months, to better compete with Eastern schools. Holzhueter noted that rowing was second only to football in popularity at the time. Wright wrote: “My dear Cudworth, We are always ready when ‘alma mater’ calls. We will design anything for the U.W. from a chicken house to a cathedral, no matter how busy we may be.”

Wright gave the club a practical design, which he called a “shelter for rowing shells on the ground floor with floating landing piers on either side. The floor above is utilized as a club room with lockers and bath.”

Unfortunately, Wright’s design fell afoul of other events, including a national controversy over athletic casualties.

“During the 1905 season, 18 American college and high school students were killed playing football, and 159 were injured,” Holzhueter wrote in the Elvehjem catalog. Early in 1906, the UW faculty recommended that football be suspended for two years, then reorganized under university control. The status of all club sports and their finances came under a cloud. Other problems arose, and in the end the visionary Yahara River crew house was not built in Madison.

Instead, more than a century later, Buffalo has it, using Wright’s Madison plans and the guidance of Taliesin architect Anthony Puttnam, who also was the project architect for Monona Terrace.

Today it serves as the headquarters of the West Side Rowing Club, for which Bill Dixon, a prominent Madison attorney and Democratic activist, was the coxswain in his teen years. After a visit, Dixon wrote in an e-mail: “I loved its stark simplicity and its majestic setting on the Niagara. Inside it was filled with natural light, glistening rowing shells, and long, polished oars. You must get inside to see second floor private dining and meeting areas to appreciate Mr. Wright's work, although the setting alone is magnificent when standing on the dock in front with the mighty Niagara at your feet.”

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Nakoma Building 3

The Wigwam Room is the showpiece dining room of the California version of Madison's Nakoma Country Club. Taliesin architects were involved in the California project.

Nakoma Country Club

A spectacular Nakoma golf course clubhouse designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Madison now attracts players, tourists and retirees to Clio, California, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California, about an hour from Reno and Lake Tahoe.

Wright designed the Nakoma Country Club clubhouse in 1923 for the newly formed golf club adjacent to the Nakoma subdivision. Mary Jane Hamilton, the expert on Nakoma and Wright’s plan, wrote in the Elvehjem exhibition catalog: “The Madison Realty Company played upon the Indian heritage of the region for site and street names: Seminole Highway, Mohican Pass and Oneida Place, among others. Although originally inhabited by the Algonquin Indians, the area later became a summer campground for the Winnebagos,” now called the Ho-Chunk. “But since public relations rather than historical accuracy governed the development of the suburb, the owners named it Nakoma, a Chippewa word meaning 'I do as I promise.'”

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Nakoma Building 2

Wright's 1923 plan for the Nakoma Country Club clubhouse in Madison ultimately was built in California in 1995.

The club membership accepted Wright’s plan, with a $70,000 price tag. It would have bought what Hamilton calls “surely the most unusual golf clubhouse ever designed.” The great room of the clubhouse was to be shaped like an octagon, 50 feet across.

“Above its walls rose a pyramidal roof 50 feet high, which gave the outward appearance of an Immense Indian teepee,” she wrote. “There is no question that Wright had this image in mind, but he inscribed ‘wigwam’ on the plan. The Indian symbolism continued in the gigantic fireplace labeled ‘campfire’ — open on four sides — that rose up through the open interior of the room. The room was to be ‘decorated with Indian characters, symbols of the 12 (Ho-Chunk) clans.”

Two years later, in 1925, the deal was off, a casualty of rising costs, a change of club leadership and sensational publicity surrounding Wright’s marital difficulties.

The same factors at that time led to the abandonment of Wright’s eye-popping Mayan design for the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house at 16 Langdon St. A staid Tudor Revival pile, still there, was built by the local firm of Law, Law and Potter.

The Wigwam Room is now the signature dining room of the Nakoma clubhouse in the high Sierras. Entrepreneurs Daniel and Peggy Garner bought two square miles of land in 1995 and built a golf course, the clubhouse, resort lodge with 42 rooms, and, in 2013, a group of equity vacation homes called The Residences at Nakoma. Taliesin architects worked with Wright’s original plans for the clubhouse, and everywhere Wright is the presiding spirit.

Says the San Diego Union-Tribune: “Visitors to the Nakoma resort today will see Wright’s dramatic use of natural elements in the clubhouse, which incorporates a teepee design, and the Wigwam Room, the main dining space, which is an architectural feat with its soaring, wood-paneled structure. Stained glass windows and a repeat pattern wood motif carry the Native American influence further. In the cooler months guests can enjoy the mammoth four-sided fireplace which anchors the center of the room.” Just like the plan for Madison.

In 1930 the Nakoma Country Club in Madison completed work on a nondescript, neo-Gothic clubhouse designed by the subdivision’s architectural adviser, Phillip M. Homer, at a cost of $45,000.

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Nakoma Statues

16-foot, stylized female and male statues of Native American figures Nakoma and Nakomis and their children were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1924 to flank the gateway to Madison's new Nakoma subdivision. The statues now flank the streamlined Research Tower of SC Johnson Co. on its Racine campus.

Monuments go to Racine

Nakoma also gave up its other big landmark by Wright, a pair of colossal Native American statues on 80-foot reflecting pools to mark the entrance gateway to the subdivision, located in the early plan at the intersection of Nakoma Road and Manitou Way. “Nakoma,” a rounded, curvilinear female figure with a girl, bent toward the water and holding bowls, was to be 16 feet high. “Nakomis,” the male warrior, with a bow and showing his son the sky, was to be two feet taller and all sharp angles.

“Wright planned the colossal sizes of the figures and of each pool to make certain that the gateway would possess an urban-scale grandeur,” Hamilton wrote in the Elvehjem exhibition report.

But grandeur was not worth an extra $2,000 to the Madison Realty Co., which rejected a cost overrun of that amount to the $10,000 that had been budgeted.

“You act like a small man in a small way, with no real relation to the merit of the matter at hand,” Wright complained to the developer. But it was no use.

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Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright is photographed in his Spring Green studio. Wright designed 33 projects for Madison over the course of six decades. Fewer than half were built during his lifetime.

Fast-forward 50 years to 1976, when Johnson Wax Co.’s visionary leader, H.F. Johnson Jr., commissioned Wright’s sculptures to be built for the company’s Racine campus, to flank the entrance to its streamlined Research Tower. Nakoma and Nakomis were carved by Italian sculptors Flaviano Cenderelli and Bruno Borgioli for Kotecki Monuments of Ohio. The stone was granite, quarried in Cold Spring, Minnesota.

“It took two years and 6,000 man-hours to complete the pair of sculptures,” historian Douglas Steiner wrote on his Wright website. “The Nakoma sculpture is 12 feet tall and weighs 12 tons. The Nakomis sculpture is nearly 18 feet tall and weighs nearly 40 tons. For the first time in more than 50 years, the full-size sculptures were created as Wright had originally intended.”

Those singular Wright designs can be appreciated on public tours today. But you have to go to Racine to see them.