Education at Taliesin

Students walking the grounds at Taliesin
Photograph provided by Taliesin Preservation

For many, autumn is associated with heading back to school after summer break, but at Taliesin, education is a year-round activity deeply rooted in the history of Frank Lloyd Wright and his family.

Imagine a school day in which you and your classmates helped make and serve breakfast to your peers. Next, the entire school meets for a morning assembly filled with reading and singing. Later, your teacher takes you for a walk through the prairie, where you sketch and identify flowers, birds, and insects. After lunch, you do farm chores before heading to science class to do some experiments. After dinner, you help with dishes and write home to your family before settling into your bed, which you made perfectly early that morning.

This is what life may have been like for students of the Hillside Home School around the turn of the 20th century.

The Hillside Home School was established by two unmarried aunts of Frank Lloyd Wright, Jane and Nell. Located in the rural Wyoming Valley near Spring Green, Wisconsin, and settled in the 1860s by Frank Lloyd Wright’s maternal ancestors, the school served as both a co-educational boarding school and day school from 1887 to 1915.

Hillside was a unique school. Mary Ellen Chase, a former teacher at the Hillside Home School, wrote of her experience in A Goodly Fellowship:

I suppose that the Hillside Home School, were it existing today exactly as it was existing in 1909, would be termed a progressive school by all the supporters and disciples of such institutions. … Hillside was too busy doing its job to define itself in pedagogical terms. It was simply a school, a home, and a farm all in one, and the contribution and strength of each element lay in the fact that each was never separated from the other.

Not only was the schooling philosophy unique and hands on, but the school building itself was unlike any other, as it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Present day visitors to Taliesin can view the Hillside Home School on many of the various tours offered. Hillside gained acclaim over the years and attracted students from across the Midwest. Unfortunately, as the aunts aged and the school encountered some financial challenges, the school closed in 1915.

Upon its closure, the aunts turned the building over to their nephew, Frank Lloyd Wright, on the condition that he promised to use the building for educational purposes. For several years, the building was underutilized, until the Great Depression struck. The Great Depression had a significant impact on the architecture world, and very few new buildings were being commissioned, meaning Wright had little paid work.

The original school buildings were designed by a very young Wright in traditional Victorian style in 1887. In 1903, Wright designed a new building for the growing school, which is the building still standing on the Taliesin estate today. Wright had the early buildings torn down after the school closed, as he no longer found the Victorian architecture appealing.

By this time however, Wright had built his home, Taliesin, very near the site of the Hillside Home School, and he had built a career as a world-renowned architect.

As Wright had great concern of the training of a new generation of architects in his time, Wright’s wife, Olgivanna, suggested that Wright begin a program to train young people interested in becoming architects. Wright took much inspiration from the learning-by-doing approach of his aunts’ Hillside Home School when designing his apprenticeship program.

The apprentices would live and work on the estate, maintaining all aspects of life, including tending to the animals, working in the fields, fixing meals in the kitchen, and repairing equipment. As a result, the Taliesin Fellowship was founded in 1932.

As time passed, the Taliesin Fellowship evolved into the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, now School of Architecture at Taliesin, an accredited master’s degree program. Student’s in the program continue to immerse themselves in the “Taliesin Way of Life,” living on the Wisconsin estate from May through October and spending the winters at Wright’s Arizona home, Taliesin West. Students in the program are assigned weekly duties, which include helping in the kitchen, tending to the vegetable garden, and preparing the dining room by arranging the furniture and creating decorations.

Taliesin Preservation continues Wright’s legacy of educating the next generation of architects and designers through innovative, hands-on, and place-based K–12 programs and summer camps. Imagine 20 or so middle school students scattering across Wright’s famous house sketching various elements of his design or writing poetry about how the buildings make them feel. Students feel elements of compression and release as they explore the path of discovery through Wright’s buildings and landscapes. They might use their initial sketches or writings for projects, such as books, essays, or pieces of art and architectural designs inspired by their experience at Taliesin.

Today, educational programs at Taliesin are key to sustaining the life within these unique and important historic structures. From a group of art students sketching Wright’s architecture first hand to summer-camp students presenting models of their own designs, these educational programs seek to engage and inspire youth to explore the interconnected nature of our world—to see how nature, architecture, food, farming, music, history, and so much more can collide and coexist in one place and to use learnings and observations from the past as a springboard for planning and developing our shared future.

Abby Howell-Dinger has been the Program Coordinator at Taliesin Preservation since March 2019 and enjoys hiking and exploring in the Driftless region with her fiancé and their two dogs.

Taliesin Preservation Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center
5607 County Rd C
Spring Green, WI 53588