Thursday, November 6, 2014

Be sure your [their] sins will find you out

Please don't think that I'm a daytime TV person. Truly, it was only on because the cable guy was here - and that's how I happened to catch a bit of a programme on the Travel channel about Frank Lloyd Wright and his house Taliesin near Spring Green, Wisconsin. I visited the house in April, taken there by the local tourism people on a busy day that also included the extraordinary House on the Rock, Madison, Middleton and Lake Monona.

The house is elegant, bright, airy, long and low and vaguely oriental in feel. It's an example of Prairie School architecture, built of stone and glass and fitting in with the contours of its site. It's also slightly miniature. FLW, we were told, considered his height (5"8") ideal, and anyone over six feet to be a "waste of materials" and so he designed his rooms and - crucially - the height of his doorways to that scale. Anyone taller going round the house has to be prepared to do a bit of ducking. Even at the end of winter with the landscape outside still brown grass and bare trees, the house felt cosy and colourful, and it's full of interesting and beautiful detail that was pointed out to us by the docent showing us around.
Curiously, though, she didn't breathe a word about the subject of the TV documentary - that in 1914 a manservant had gone mad, set the house on fire and hacked to death Wright's mistress, the oddly-named Mamah Borthwick, before retreating to the basement and swigging hydrochloric acid, from which he later died. The house caught fire again some years later, and was rebuilt a third time. There may have been mention of the fires, but I'm sure I would have remembered about Mamah, especially since the affair was a huge scandal at the time.

I'm suspecting that our docent thought the whole business was too tawdry to mention, compared with the professional achievements of FLW and his intellectual and artistic contributions to world architecture. She rose above it, in the same way that Chicago tourism glosses over that whole tiresome Al Capone business, preferring to concentrate on the city's more positive aspects. Daft. Do they really think that if they don't refer to these things, it's as though they never happened?

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