In the world of architecture, there are not many names that are as instantly familiar as Frank Lloyd Wright. Born in 1867, the American architect would display innovation and genius throughout his career, designing over 1,000 structures of all types, including such famous landmarks as the house in rural southwestern Pennsylvania called Fallingwater (1935), which has been called “the best all-time work of American architecture,” and in which Wright’s flair for organic architecture blended into the environment is on full display. He is widely considered to be the best American architect of all time, but he was also well- known for his colorful personality and his tempestuous private life. It is here where we get into the darkness behind the legend, and one of his famous works would end up being notorious for the dark cloud of death surrounding it.
In 1903, Wright was commissioned to work on a home for a wealthy business man by the name of Edwin Cheney, and that was how he met Martha “Mamah” Borthwick Cheney, Edwin’s wife. By all accounts he was completely smitten with Martha, and became obsessed with her, a sentiment that seems to have gone both ways. Before long the two were embroiled in a passionate affair, but there were two problems. One was that Martha was married with two kids, and the other was that Wright himself was not only married to Catherine Lee “Kitty” Tobin, but also had six children of his own. For Wright this was really no big deal, as he firmly believed that Martha was his intellectual equal and so was different, once saying. “A man needs two women. One to be mother of his children and the other to be his mental companion, his inspiration and soulmate.” Nevertheless, this was quite the conundrum, but it didn’t bother Wright at all. As a solution, he came to the conclusion that the best thing to do was simply leave his family and built a separate house where they could have privacy and go on with their affair unfettered, although it was the worst kept secret in town.
After running off to Europe together for a time, the construction began in earnest, and the result was the magnificent structure called Taliesin, which means “Shining-Brow” in Welsh, and was to be a residence and studio he secretly had built in 1911 in Spring Green, Wisconsin. It is a handsome, stately building, as one would expect from a design by Wright, and he did some of his best work while living there. Here the two lovers lived mostly in peace at first, along with Martha’s two children, and the media ate it up, often calling the building the “Castle of Love.” There was nothing discreet about any of it, and dark clouds were in the horizon, as the property would later seem to be cursed with bad luck.
In August of 1914, Wright was out of town in Chicago in order to work on one of his most iconic designs, the Midway Gardens, in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, while his mistress stayed home at Taliesin. On August 14, Martha, her two children, and various laborers and draftsmen gathered in the main dining hall to enjoy a sumptuous dinner served by a house servant and handyman by the name of Julian Carlton and his wife, Gertrude. In would soon turn from a joyous get-together to sheer horror when Carlton suddenly asked his wife to leave and then attacked Martha and her kids with a hatchet, before dousing the room with gasoline and setting it alight. The panicked guests soon found that the doors had been barricaded, and the stark-raving Carlton ran around indiscriminately hacking at the victims with his hatchet the whole time as they tried to escape the inferno. In the end, while two people managed to escape the blaze, the horrific incident left the other 7 dead, including Martha and her two children, and much of Taliesin in smoldering ruin. The attacker, Carlton, tried to kill himself by swallowing muriatic acid, but was found unconscious in the basement, dying weeks later in medical care of starvation due to his destroyed esophagus, without ever explaining why he had carried out his grim deed. The theory was that Carlton, who was allegedly originally from Barbados, had snapped after receiving racial discrimination from workers, or because he was due to be fired from his job, but no one really knows what made him do it.
Of course, the tragedy hit the news in a major way, and all eyes were on Wright to see what he would do. In defiance, he went about rebuilding the gutted estate, which he would call Taliesin II. In the meantime, he did much work abroad, such as the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan. He also wasted no time in falling in love with another woman named Miriam Noel, who he would wed in 1923 when his divorce from his first wife finally went through, and he would get married yet again in 1928 to third wife Olgivanna Lazović. Third time’s a charm? Bad luck continued at the house in the meantime, when another fire hit in 1925 due to faulty wiring and much of it had to be rebuilt again as Taliesin III, and the estate was nearly foreclosed on in 1927, with Wright kicked out and just barely managing to reacquire it with financial help from friends. Despite all of these issues and the tragedy that hung over its past, Wright would live there for the rest of his life up to his death in 1959, using it as his home, studio, and a museum of sorts, exhibiting a vast collection of Asian artworks. Taliesin would go on to be designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2019.
The house remains open to tourists to this day, and is visited by thousands of people every year. And yes, why it is said to be haunted. People will report cold spots, taps on the shoulder, and of seeing shadowy figures in the halls, so perhaps the dead are still around. It is all a dark, little-known look behind the romanticized, larger than life veneer of one of the greatest architects whoever lived, and serves as a strange historical oddity.