A Winter Day at Taliesin

All photos © Mark Hertzberg (2022)

I have been to Taliesin countless times, but never in winter, until Sunday when we had a lunch date with our friend, Minerva Montooth. It had snowed overnight. We would not be able to get to Spring Green until Noon, so there would be no photos in the morning’s “golden light.” I fared better in that respect in the late afternoon. But in between, at Noon, there was a rich, rich blue sky.

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Except for this first photo, I am taking you on a tour of Taliesin in the order I photographed the estate. Get comfortable, there are lots of photos. and you will see how my day’s take evolved. The first stop was a drive through the Visitor’s Center or Riverview Terrace. First, this establishing shot, and then a few details that caught my eye:

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Then onto Hillside, to enter the estate from that end…but I found that the driveway is closed for winter. No matter. I saw these views of Midway Barn and Romeo and Juliet windmill on the road to Hillside. The towers are vertical punctuation marks to the horizontal composition of Midway:

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I played with different ways to photograph Romeo and Juliet and Tan-y-Deri as we approached the driveway to Taliesin:

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The house as seen from the approach did not photograph well at midday, but I took record shots. I wish there was more snow on the hill below the birdwalk:

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I was happier with what I saw from below the house, starting with the lead photo in this piece.

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I am a photojournalist. As we say in our circles, after you find a photo, you “work it.” I have to thank John Clouse again for offering to sell me his 200-500mm lens at a good price last summer. While a newspaper colleague of mine in the early 1980s – before today’s fine zoom lenses – once said that “The best telephoto lens is your feet,” (i.e., walk toward and away from your subject rather than rely on the lens), this lens was especially welcome on a cold day after a fresh snowfall. I thought of the countless treks through the estate that the incomparable Pedro Guerrero made when he took his many memorable black and white winter photographs of Taliesin. What would he have done in color, or would he have stayed with black and white, which he printed so beautifully?

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The bird walk is an extraordinary cantilever:

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Caroline Hamblen was returning from feeding her chickens in the apple orchard as I crested the hill:

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Then it was time to park and explore on foot:

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The next photo is at Minerva’s front door:

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I saw this on my way in:

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I saw this on my way out after lunch and lively conversation:

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Then, one more swing through the estate with magic light at the “golden hour”:

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Farewell, Taliesin, until next time!

 

 

 

The Marvelous Minerva Montooth

© Mark Hertzberg (2021) except as noted

2015 Wright Birthday Taliesin 017.JPGMinerva Montooth at the 2015 Wright birthday celebration at Taliesin.

Frank Lloyd Wright not only upended the world of architecture, he also untied Minerva Jane Houston’s tongue and eventually convinced her to marry a “Greek god.” If you know Minerva, now Minerva Montooth, you would be gobsmacked that she describes herself as having once been “pathologically shy.” Let her explain, “We (she and her twin sister, Sarah) didn’t speak to anyone in grade school, high school, college who was one day older. We’d have a fight when we went to the restaurant for lunch who would speak to the waitress.” Then she met Olgivanna and Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin in 1949. They had driven up in their just-delivered diminutive red Crosley Hotshot roadster. Mrs. Wright was at the wheel. “The minute I met them it was like a thunderbolt, I lost my shyness at that moment. If I can talk to Frank Lloyd Wright, I can talk to anybody!” 

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The Wrights in their Crosley Hotshot Courtesy of  Wisconsin Historical Society

Not only did Minerva talk to Frank Lloyd Wright, but Wright then invited her and her future husband, Charles Montooth, to dinner with them at the dining table at Taliesin. What was for dinner? Wright had ordered ham and eggs. As students of the Wright know, ham and eggs or not, dinner with the couple was not always just dinner. It would often be followed by entertainment. “Afterwards we watched television, which was pretty new, in the loggia. Helen Hayes. They knew her. Mr. Wright said, ‘She is not made for that screen. She is bigger than that!’”

1952 Honeymoon.jpgMinerva and Charles celebrate Mardi Gras on their honeymoon in Mexico. Courtesy of Minerva Montooth

But we have gotten ahead of ourselves. The story of Minerva’s journey to Taliesin is as interesting as her first meeting with the Wrights. Minerva graduated from Northwestern University in 1945 with a degree in English, “everybody’s copout degree.” A native of tiny Rushville, Illinois (population 2,682 in 1950), she moved to New York City to work as a specialized librarian for an advertising agency. Their offices were on 44th Street, overlooking Fifth Avenue. Minerva was hospitalized with pneumonia in 1947, so her sister Sarah, who was dating Charles, invited her to accompany her to “recuperate in the sun” for two weeks at Taliesin West. The Wrights were not there at the time. 

The change in scenery would lead to a change in life. “The beauty of the desert, the ambience of Taliesin West. I had never seen anything like it. It was quite a shock to go from that ambience (midtown Manhattan) to the desert and the fantastic architecture. After I got to Taliesin, I completely forgot about Northwestern!”

1947 Easter 002.jpgEaster at Taliesin West, 1947. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). All rights reserved.

She knew Charles from childhood (he also grew up in Rushville). Their grandparents and their parents were friends. “I knew him in kindergarten. He was in fourth grade, one of those untouchable Greek gods! That’s my first memory of him.”

1632336947615blob.jpgMinerva and Charles strolling in Phoenix during State Fair time, shortly after their honeymoon. Courtesy of Minerva Montooth

Charles and Minerva did not start dating until the next year after Sarah fell in love with another man when she enrolled at the University of Chicago to do post-graduate work. “Charles started going with me. I guess I was second choice!” And so began the trips to Arizona to see Charles. By this time Minerva had answered a plea from Rushville to help alleviate a post-war teacher shortage (even though she had no teaching experience or training) and moved home, so she had traditional school vacation periods to see Charles. “He was always inviting me.” Mrs. Wright added her to the roster of Fellows so they would not forget to invite her to social functions, such as the famed “beautiful” Easter celebrations.

1947 Easter 001.jpgEaster at Taliesin West, 1947. Photo by Lois Davidson. Courtesy of The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). All rights reserved.

1632336912488blob.jpgThe Montooths at a party hosted by Mrs. Price at the Price House. Courtesy of Minerva Montooth

By Christmas 1951 the Wrights wondered why Minerva kept spurning Charles’s offers of marriage. She had no answer. Then they said, “‘Well, you can always get divorced.’ I was always astounded by that.” But Charles didn’t ask her again for awhile. She was back in Rushville when he finally proposed. Mr. Wright offered to host their wedding. He said it should be in the cabaret or theater at Taliesin West because Charles and she had helped build it. Her parents were “horrified” because “in those days you didn’t have a destination wedding, You were always married in a church.” The setting may have been unusual, but otherwise they had a “pretty conventional” wedding with a Presbyterian minister. The wedding reception was a bit less conventional than it would have been in Rushville. “I sat next to Mr. Wright at the dinner reception and a movie.”

Charles built them a small house in Scottsdale in which they lived for 10 years and raised three children. They were not formally in the Fellowship, but no matter. “We spent every single day going out to Taliesin West. The roads were terrible. We were lucky we had two cars because one was always getting a flat tire. Charles had his office in Scottsdale. I would spend the day at Taliesin West. I just joined in whatever activities were going on. We were in the chorus during chorus rehearsal at 7 a.m. every day. The children….they grew up in the back seat of the Plymouth station wagon. We practically lived at Taliesin.” I asked Minerva what color their car was. Need I have asked? It was red.

1962 Tent.jpgThe Montooths in the desert tent Charles preferred to an apartment. Courtesy of Minerva Montooth: “Taken in 1962 at Taliesin West by Dorothy Liebes, a famous fabric artist visiting Mrs. Wright.”

The commute came to an end when Charles got restless and wanted to move to Taliesin West in 1962. Mrs. Wright gave them a three bedroom apartment. “Charles hated it. ‘This isn’t desert living. I want a tent.’” And so they moved into a desert tent and Minerva went to work “right away” as an assistant to Mrs. Wright. “Probably for the first I was really responsible for Mrs. Wright’s well being.”

1632405469769blob.jpgMinerva and Mrs. Wright in an undated photograph. Courtesy of Minerva Montooth

Minerva’s feet were not to be planted in the desert sands or Wisconsin hills. Her responsibility for Mrs. Wright’s well being included trips to Japan, South Africa and “so many trips to Europe.” Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer and Tom Casey were along on some of those voyages. Some of the trips were Wright-related, others were leisure.

1632404278196blob.jpgRome, 1972…Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer is seated left foreground; Mrs. Wright left rear, David Dodge, Minerva, and Joseph “Dr. Joe” Rorke. Courtesy of Minerva Montooth.

“The trip to Japan was in response to a request from Wright enthusiasts who sent a ticket hoping she would be able to stop plans to destroy the Imperial Hotel. The trip to South Africa was inspried by an invitation to speak to the University of Durban students who wanted her to speak on the Imperial Hotel. The title of her speech was ‘The Tragedy of Progress.’” (The hotel was demolished in 1968).

Minerva became known as an unofficial photo historian of life at Taliesin. She “loved” photography, “Charles wasn’t interested in photography.” The one photo he took on their honeymoon in Mexico and it was double-exposed. They took their honeymoon in Charles’s pickup truck, planning to travel on a newly completed highway from Texas into Mexico. But the highway was far from finished. “We went through farmers’ fields. One time we went on the railroad tracks! It was pretty primitive.” Many of Minerva’s photographs, including their wedding photos, were lost in the 1980s in one of the floods following “desert downpours” that tore through Taliesin West.

Halfway through our hour-long conversation it was time to ask a touchy question. Many people are of the opinion that the Fellowship was divided into two camps in the 1950s: Mr. Wright’s, with an emphasis on organic architecture, and Mrs. Wright’s, with her devotion to Gurdjieff, the Russian philosopher and mystic. I asked Minerva about such a schism. 

6106.0165.jpgMrs. Wright at Taliesin in an undated photograph. Courtesy of The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). All rights reserved.

She answered quickly. “I never thought of it that way. I always thought of Mr. Wright in the terms of the fable about the blind men and the elephant. Each believed what he had felt. Mrs. Wright was kind and generous, and sweet and charismatic and oh, my gosh, the Fellowship could not have existed without her. I never had any trouble getting along with her. She was very careful of Mr. Wright’s health at restaurants, and she would get a reputation that way!” Was there a schism? “I don’t think it’s true. She worshipped the ground that Frank Lloyd Wright walked on. His main failure in personality was that he was extremely jealous of her activities. He thought it was terrible she had published a book with her name. Did he think she was trying to ride his coattails? He apparently thought she should not have written a book on her own.”

One of Minerva’s regrets is not having gone from their home in Scottsdale to Taliesin for Mr. Wright’s funeral in 1959. She says that Mrs. Wright was “frail, not herself,” before her death in 1985. “I was grateful they got to escape their mortal realm.” 

Controversy followed Mrs. Wright’s death because of her wishes to have Mr. Wright’s remains disinterred from their resting place at Unity Chapel near Taliesin, and brought to Taliesin West to be co-mingled with hers. Some people have passed judgment on Mrs. Wright, assuming she did so out of jealousy about Wright’s relationship with Mamah Borthwick, and their graves being near each other at Unity Chapel. Minerva disputes that assertion, “OH, NO!” She says that Mrs. Wright told Minerva “many times” that the Wrights “were so poorly treated in Wisconsin that he should be in Arizona,” and that was her sole motivation. “Mrs. Wright never mentioned any jealousy about Mamah. She had promised a real headstone for her grave.”

1972 John Hey T West.jpgJohn Hey took this photograph of the Montooths in 1972 at Taliesin West. Courtesy of Minerva Montooth

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Minerva and Charles at The Prairie School in Wind Point in 2005. The occasion was the dedication of the addition to the Johnson Athletic Center, designed by Charles with Floyd Hamblen. Charles designed the entire campus, except for the building at the bottom of this 2021 aerial photograph, beginning with a semi-circular classroom building in 1965. The semi-circular building, which was finished into a circular one later, is the second building from bottom.

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Hundreds of people have gotten to know Minerva as their gracious host at the annual black tie celebrations of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birthday held at Taliesin until just a few years ago.

2019 Wright Birthday 003.jpgDixie Legler Guerrero and Minerva at the 2019 birthday celebration.

A reception at Taliesin – often also featuring numerous gate-crashing mosquitoes – was followed by dinner at Hillside, served by the students, and then by a musical program in the Hillside theater. Dessert was Mr. Wright’s favorite birthday cake, a delicious one from from Mrs Wright’s recipe for a yellow sponge cake, iced with fresh strawberry sauce and cream, covered with a drizzle of dark chocolate and nuts, decorated with edible flowers. A presentation cake, exhibited to the guests, was surrounded by an abundance of fresh flowers.

Wright 150th Taliesin 052.jpgThe 2017 birthday cake at Hillside.

2019 Wright Birthday 006.jpgThe 2019 birthday cake at Taliesin.

“John Hill, Cornelia (Brierly) and I all went together after they (the Wrights) died. There wasn’t anybody else to do it. It was quite a job.” I was surprised to hear Minerva then tell me, “I’ve never been a planner. Nor is it my nature to be organized. Cornelia was organized.” 

Balderdash, Minerva. You deserve lots of credit for these celebrations, as well as for the invitations to events when students would unveil their box projects in the Hillside drafting room. You have made myriad contributions to life at the two Taliesins, to the Fellowship, to the Wrights’ legacy, and you brought untold numbers of outsiders, like me, into the Taliesin circle. You are richly deserving of your title as a Taliesin “Legacy Fellow.” Thank you for your grace, your hard work, and your friendship!

2021 Taliesin UNESCO World Heritage Site 067.JPGWisconsin Gov. Tony Evers meets Minerva at the UNESCO World Heritage Site plaque unveiling at Taliesin September 15, 2021.

2016 Minerva Montooth 6.11.16 005.JPGMinerva at the 2016 birthday celebration.

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I asked Minerva to check this profile for accuracy. She asked me why I wanted to “take space to write about a nobody.” I replied that she is far from “a nobody.” Indeed. Renee LaFleur, Minerva’s assistant interjected that her daughter, Olivia, tells everybody, “MY MOM WORKS FOR MINERVA MONTOOTH!” I also asked Keiran Murphy, historian extraordinaire of Taliesin, to weigh in. She wrote me, “I would say that she embodies the best of the social dynamics of the Taliesin Fellowship. She has this skill at remembering the details about everyone and remembering their particulars. In addition, she’s very good at putting people together at a table in order to engender conversations.”

Case closed, Minerva!

2019 Minerva Montooth Fifi 9.25.19 009.JPGMinerva and Fifi, May 19, 2019

–30–

Happy 152nd Birthday, Frank Lloyd Wright

(c) Mark Hertzberg (2019)

It is always a joy to mark Frank Lloyd Wright’s birthday at Taliesin at a party hosted by the always-gracious Minerva Montooth and Taliesin Preservation. The celebration, which is always on a Saturday, was on June 8, his birth date.This year we had the privilege of staying overnight at Taliesin for the first time because I was giving a presentation the next day at Hillside about my new book about Penwern, the Fred B. Jones estate on Delavan Lake.

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Caroline Hamblen, left, Director of Programs, and Kyle Adams, Events Manager, show Minerva the traditional Frank Lloyd Wright birthday cake, made from his favorite cake recipe.

 

Dixie Legler Guerrero chats with Minerva.

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2019 Wright Birthday 011.jpgCarrie Rodamaker, Executive Director of Taliesin Preservation, speaks under a lovely evening sky. This year’s guests were not subjected to the heat and humidity that has beset past birthday celebrations.2019 Wright Birthday 023.jpg

2019 Wright Birthday 015.jpgAaron Betsky, Dean of the School of Architecture at Taliesin

2019 Wright Birthday 017.jpgBenjamin Feiner played for the guests.

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2019 Wright Birthday 031.jpgMinerva holds Fifi as the celebration winds down at 9:30 p.m.

 

Wright Birthday Bash at Taliesin

(c) Mark Hertzberg

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A crisp blue sky greeted guests at the annual Taliesin celebration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birthday Saturday June 11. Wright was born June 8, 1867.

Minerva Montooth, who was an assistant to Olgivanna Wright, and whose late husband, Charles, was also a member of the Taliesin Fellowship, greeted guests, as is her custom at the celebration. Minerva lives at Taliesin. Mary Jane Hamilton, a Wright scholar from Madison, is behind her in the photo.

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Fewer guests than usual gathered outside because it was so warm and humid, even at 6:30 p.m.

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Lovely evening light set the scene as guests made their way to Hillside School where Jason Silverman, residence life manager of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture directed them to the theater for the evening program.

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Stuart Graff, center, CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, introduced Aaron Betsky, Dean of the School of Architecture, and Eric O’Malley, right, of OAD (the Organic Architecture and Design archives) and the PrairieMod website.

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O’Malley told the guests how moved he was seeing the original model of Wright’s San Francisco Call newspaper building when he visited Taliesin young. The model has been moved to the Museum of Modern Art, so OAD commissioned Stafford Norris to build this replica to be displayed at Hillside where the original model stood for years. Architect Randolph C. Henning was also present. Henning, O’Malley, and William Blair Scott are the three partners in OAD.

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The musical selection was Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3:

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Dinner featured braised beef short rib with greens grown at Taliesin, topped off by the traditional homemade birthday cake.

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Next year’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Wright’s birth will be marked by many special events, including a just-announced major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.