Wisconsin’s Frank Lloyd Wright Trail
Last Updated: 12/19/2016
Just in time for Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th birthday in 2017, a new trail takes travelers on a self-guided architectural adventure through nine counties in southern Wisconsin.
Wright was widely regarded as America’s greatest architect. Born in the state’s rugged Driftless Region, he spent his boyhood summers working his uncle’s farm in Spring Green and eventually built his own famous home and studio just a mile away.
Nine stops across southern Wisconsin trace the steps of this world-renowned architect from some of his most impressive structures to his home and birthplace.
The designated motor route spans from Kenosha County to Richland County. It begins on Interstate 94 at the Illinois state line, continues to Madison and then on to his home in southwest Wisconsin. Watch for posted signs along highways.
The landscape’s dramatic bluffs and coulees inspired Wright’s natural, organic architecture and the style for which he is famous, the Prairie School. All told, more than a third of his buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places or are included in the National Register of Historic Districts.
While Wright’s structures are scattered throughout the World, Wisconsin is home to a great number of them in close proximity. Hop on the trail and discover what you didn’t know about this architect and his unique structures that all have a story of their own. There’s so much to do and see along the way!
This pair of structures serves as the worldwide headquarters of household cleaning product manufacturer SC Johnson.
The 1939 SC Johnson Administration Building has been called one of the top 25 buildings of the 20th century, and Wright designed everything down to the furniture. Perhaps most impressive is the Great Workroom, with a half-acre of open space and massive tree-inspired columns. You’ll get the best views riding the “birdcage” elevators that run from the basement to the penthouse.
The Research Tower, completed just more than a decade later, is one of the world’s tallest cantilevered buildings. Like the Administration Building’s 43 miles of glass windows, Wright used thousands of Pyrex tubes to reduce glare and refract light in the tower. The building’s most renowned exhibit is a replicated 1950s laboratory, where the company’s scientists developed early products.
Wright’s work for the Johnson family didn’t end with their worldwide headquarters. H.F. Johnson Jr., the SC Johnson Company’s third-generation leader, also commissioned the architect to build his family estate. With four wings jutting out across 14,000 square feet of space, Wright completed his sprawling creation in 1939 and named it “Wingspread.”
Though it’s the largest of Wright’s Prairie School houses, the estate stays true to the architect’s organic roots by blending into the surrounding 30 acres of woodland and prairie with the architect’s use of natural materials like limestone, brick, stucco and unstained wood. A 30-foot chimney rising to the middle of a teepee-inspired clerestory ceiling covered in windows combines to lift the home skyward.
Want to stay the night in the Racine area? Harbourwalk Hotel offers lakefront views of Racine Harbor, and sits right in the thick of Downtown Racine’s shopping and dining district.
Wright didn’t just build custom mansions and towering workspaces – he had a dream of building homes that were affordable to the typical American family. His American System-Built Homes were a short-lived venture between 1915 and 1917, and just 16 of these models have been identified throughout the Midwest today.
This home is one of six still standing on West Burnham Street and Layton Boulevard in Milwaukee, a developing area that was still considered the edge of town when the houses were built in 1915 and 1916. Tours of the Burnham home are given on select weekends by trained docents, and you don’t even need a reservation.
Milwaukee is a foodie’s dream, with restaurants of all styles, trends and specialties. Pop in to Leon’s Frozen Custard for the classic touch, or get your Bloody Mary fix at Sobelman’s Pub. These Bloody Marys are monstrous!
Popping out of the Madison skyline, Monona Terrace frames the lake for which it was named on the eastern side of Madison’s famed isthmus. Wright envisioned that his “dream civic center” would link the shores of Lake Monona with the Wisconsin State Capitol.
Though Wright first proposed the project in the 1930s, numerous setbacks meant the terrace wasn’t completed until 1997, nearly four decades after his death and 59 years after the inception of the project. Today, Monona Terrace is a popular spot for meetings and conventions, community programs and weddings, with an on-site café and gift shop full of Wright memorabilia.
Wright was a member of this congregation, and his preacher father was one of the founders. What has become one of the architect’s most famous commissions was also one of the closest to his heart. It was completed in 1951, just a few years before his death, and has been hailed as one of the world’s most innovative examples of church architecture, as well as a key structure defining Wright’s contributions to American culture.
In addition to the original meeting house, with its pitched copper roof, deep-red concrete floor and prow of interlacing wood and glass, Taliesin Associated Architects have added two major additions, one in 1964 and one in 1990.
Stay somewhere in Madison that also has a bit of history and character. Mansion Hill Inn and Livingston Inn, both beautiful bed and breakfasts, offer cozy hospitality that combines historical home with modern accommodations.
For the Frank Lloyd Wright fan, nothing tops his 800-acre estate overlooking the Wisconsin River. Taliesin, which means "shining brow" -- a nod to Wright’s Welsh grandparents -- has been rebuilt from two fires since construction was completed in 1911, and other renovations have been ongoing since the architect’s death in 1959.
Today, the Taliesin Preservation manages the grounds and offers six touring options of the estate, along with other arts and cultural educational programs and special events like a farm dinner series, biking tour and Winter Festival tours.
Freddy Valentine’s Public House is a favorite for grabbing a delicious meal at the right price in nearby Spring Green. Situated in an old, renovated bank, furnishings are repurposed to offer unique décor that adds so much to the experience. Don’t miss the original vault!
Located three miles from Taliesin, Wyoming Valley School is a nonprofit organization promoting the arts and culture of the surrounding region. Designed and donated by Wright in honor of his mother, Anna Lloyd-Jones Wright, the School provides spaces for workshops, performances, lectures and exhibits for all ages. While paying homage to Wright, the School offers the necessary opportunities to bring young students and their families together in pursuit of creative education.
Workshops in architecture, music, science and painting are some of the offerings available to engage young students and enhance arts education and creativity.
Stay nearby at Round Barn Lodge, featuring country style décor. Unwind and relax with a glass of wine next to the waterfall. Or, if the whole family is tagging along, rent out Aldebaran Farm, which was the home of Wright’s uncle, James Lloyd-Jones, and renovated by Wright’s architect son-in-law William Wesley Peters.
Completed in 1921, this four-story warehouse is probably the most notable commission Wright took on in his hometown. Once a storage place for sugar, flour, coffee, tobacco and other commodities, today it houses a gift shop, small theater and exhibit of large murals illustrating Wright’s architectural work.
The warehouse is notable because it’s one of the few major public buildings he designed around that time that was actually built, and it’s his best remaining example of sculptural ornamentation. A frieze of repeated cast concrete motifs encircles the top of the building.
Explore the history and genius of Wisconsin architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Take to the trail anytime. You’re sure to learn new details each visit. Enhance your trip further with accommodations that have ties to Frank Lloyd Wright!