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Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West Gets New Restoration Master Plan

Taliesin West. All images by Andrew Pielage, copyright Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, unless otherwise noted.
Taliesin West. All images by Andrew Pielage, copyright Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, unless otherwise noted.

One of the initial steps toward a large-scale restoration of Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's winter complex in Scottsdale, Arizona, will be taken today when a proposed preservation master plan is presented to the public. Formulated by Gunny Harboe, a respected restoration architect whose Chicago-based firm, Harboe Architects, has worked on previous Wright properties, including the Unity Temple, and approved by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in June, the more then 200 page document includes a detailed overview and analysis, as well as suggestions as to what alterations and repairs might be needed to preserve and protect one of Wright's signature works.

"When you have a place like this that's so vast, you need quite a bit of money just to maintain it," says Harboe. "We want to do this in a way that makes sense for the Foundation and Talisein, and if we change anything, we want to change it back, not change it away."

Taliesin West by Frank Lloyd Wright. The exterior is stone with a red sloping roof. The house is surrounded by desert. Andrew Pielage
Taliesin West is celebrated for the way it blends into the surrounding landscape near the McDowell Mountains.

Harboe and his team started researching Taliesin in January 2014, and has spent roughly 18 months examining building, sorting through thousands of old photos (including shots by Pedro Guerrero), holding workshops, interviewing staff and foundation members, and consulting old sketches, including Wright's original brown paper drawings (he liked using the darker paper to sketch in the desert because it reduced glare). He says the opportunity to work on such an important structure, one that's part of the Wright UNESCO World Heritage nomination, is an honor.

The entire proposal, according to Harboe, is aimed at maintaining and preserving the structure to its "primary period of significance," which was determined to be during the lifetime of Frank Lloyd Wright (1938-1959). Originally designed and built as a reflection of the desert landscape in 1937, the site in Scottsdale functioned as a winter camp for Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship, who rotated between Arizona and the original Taliesin in Wisconsin. "It was an optimistic place," says Harboe. "All those things that Wright was talking about in terms of being in nature … here, he was really doing it."

Wright constantly reworked the building until his death in 1959; during his research, Harboe spoke with Joe Fabris, a Taliesin Fellow, who recalls constantly working with Wright and tinkering with the masonry (these types of ad-hoc alterations added to the challenge of documenting Taliesin's evolution). Afterwards, Wright's wife, Olgivanna, wanted to spend more time in Arizona, the school grew, and the buildings were then climatized with glass enclosures and air conditioning.

The top of the bell tower.

One of the key difficulties of any project of this scope is that Taliesin currently functions as a working school and education center, and underwent significant changes after Wright's death. The proposed master plan recognizes these changes and organizes the entire 80,000-square-foot site into preservation zones, rating the significance of each structure and how integral it is to the original vision of Wright. As this master plan is the beginning of a longer discussion and debate as to the scope and cost of any restoration, this system is meant to guide decisions on what should be fixed, altered or changed.

"All those things that Wright was talking about in terms of being in nature … here, he was really doing it," according to Gunny Harboe.

While Harboe says that additional study is required before making any extensive changes, including researching materials, doing a cultural report and evaluating the landscape, there are some alterations he can already recommend. The biggest proposed change would be restoring the roofs. According to Harboe, the wood on the roofs have been replaced once or twice since Wright's lifetime. The report recommends returning, as much as possible, to the original fabric panel roofs included in the original design (akin to sails, the system was adjustable, able to be opened to allow the desert breezes to blow through the buildings).

"The purpose of the master plan is to get our head around the place," says Harboe. "We still have a lot of work to be done. This is such a big place, there's no good way to estimate how long restoration would take. This isn't an answer, this is a road map."


Frank Lloyd Wright House Is Rebuilt Anew, Piece by Piece, in Arkansas [Curbed]
50 Shades of Gray: Matching Concrete and the Challenges of Restoring Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple [Curbed]
Where Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School of Architecture Was Born [Curbed Chicago]