An 880-square-foot cabin tucked in the Wisconsin woods, the Seth Peterson Cottage is one of the lesser-known Frank Lloyd Wright designs, a Usonian-style dwelling at home amid the trees on a prime site in Lake Delton, perched on a promontory. It’s perhaps the architect’s smallest building, but as a new documentary suggests, it may have one of the largest stories.
The Jewel in the Woods, an independent documentary being released later this month, tells the surprising, occasionally tragic, story of the Seth Peterson Cottage. An in-depth look at how a committed fan convinced the master architect to design a home for him, as well as a decades-long story of rediscovery and renovation, the film shines a light on an obscure part of Wright’s final chapter.
"It’s smaller than most modern garages, but when you get inside, it seems so spacious," says Bill Kult, the director and owner of Elevate Media Group, which is producing and releasing the film. "It’s an amazing space."
Seth Peterson grew up in Black Earth, Wisconsin, near enough to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin that he visited frequently, attending concerts and becoming obsessed with the work of the world-famous architect, with whom he shared a birthday. In high school, the passionate fan traveled with a friend to Chicago to tour Wright’s residential work. While they were separated by decades, Peterson saw something in Wright’s work and Wisconsin upbringing that struck a chord. Wright was a "movie star" to Peterson, says Kult.
But Peterson took his love of Wright’s style further than most. After applying and never making it into Taliesin as an apprentice, the 20-year-old became a computer operator for the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, but never let his architectural dream die. Peterson settled down and moved into a small cabin on Lake Delton, but when the structure burned down due to a faulty heater, he decided he’d give Wright, then 91 years old and working on the Guggenheim, another shot.
"Wright was so broke at the time, that he would cash any check sent to him, and Seth Peterson knew this," said Kult. "So Seth sent Wright a check for $500, and he promptly cashed it, making him obligated to design the cottage for him."
Wright’s plans for single-bedroom home, his smallest residential design, resembled a single room with a sloping roof. Despite the tiny footprint, the cottage, in the words of the architect’s assistant William Wesley Peters "contained more architecture per square foot than any building Wright ever built." Wrapped around a central fireplace, the cottage offers clears views through large window to the east, south, and west.
Peterson loved the plans, which were delivered in April of 1959, and he began hiring laborers for construction, who fashioned the square, Usonian-style home out of sandstone, Douglas fir, and cedar shingles. Peterson was thrilled seeing the structure come together, until he heard the tragic news of Frank Lloyd Wright’s passing. In early 1960, as the cottage neared completion, Peterson, depressed over Wright's death as well as a number of personal issues, tragically took his own life.
After Peterson’s death, the cabin and land was purchased by another owner, who finished the structure. By 1966, the area was absorbed into a nearby state park. While there was talk of turning it into a nature center, shelter or even a Wright memorial, it was deemed too expensive, and located too far from the park headquarters. State officials boarded off the property, and it fell into disrepair. Vandals ripped off boards and burned it in the fireplace, and Wright fans stripped off pieces of the building as souvenirs.
Kult became involved in the cabin’s long story decades later in 1988, when his mother, Joyce, wrote an article about the Seth Peterson cottage in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She discovered that the state owned the cabin, since it was in the middle of a state park, but it had fallen into disrepair, lamenting that the perfectly positioned home in the Wisconsin bluffs was "like a headstone."
At the same time, a local group began spearheading a movement to restore the building, and was instrumental in forming the local non-profit that helped restore the cottage with an award-winning, three-year, $300,000 restoration completed in 1992. Now, it's an outlier in Wright’s body of work. Located within a state park and overseen by a non-profit, the cabin is available for private rental.
Sadly, years later, Kult’s mother was never able to see the cottage in person. After Kult showed her footage of the cabin, which her work had helped restore, she passed away four days later before making the trip out to the lake.
For the last 16 years, Kult has made telling the cabin’s story a personal project, spending extensive time interviewing Peterson’s associates and family members. While he never expected to spend this much time on the project, he’s glad he was able to spend the time to do it right. After viewing other Wright documentaries, he decided to approach it like the architect would approach designing a home, as a unique project unlike those that came before. He focused on the house, instead of Wright, and eschewed the standard-issue classical music. While there’s a tragic, emotional part to the story to the cottage, Kult believes the film shows Peterson’s vision and love of architecture inspired the creation of a unique structure.
"But then you look at the story, and how everyone came together to finish the cottage in the way that Seth Peterson wanted it, and there’s a happy ending to it," he says. "When you stay there, there’s a sense of peacefulness and happiness that you don’t get at the other Wright structures I’ve been around. It has it’s own aura."