Food by VICE

A Sustainable Farm Rises from the Ashes of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin

In 1914, Frank Lloyd Wright's mistress was murdered, and the home he built for her was burnt to the ground. A century later, a team of farmers is trying to restore a sustainable farm on the property.

by Sarah Freeman
Jun 17 2016, 6:00pm

All photos by Sarah Freeman

On August 15, 1914, Frank Lloyd Wright's mistress Martha Borthwick Cheney sat down for lunch with her two children and six others in Taliesin, the home Wright built for her on 600 acres of prime Wisconsin farmland. Julian Carlton, who was hired with his wife to cook and serve food at the house, placed a bowl of soup in front of Cheney—affectionately called "Mamah"—and then promptly split her head open with a hatchet. Her children and several others received the same fate as they tried to escape the 37,000-square-foot home, which Carlton doused in gasoline and set on fire. When Wright returned the next day from working in Chicago, his mistress and six others were dead, two were injured, and his architectural masterpiece was ashes on a hillside.

The tragedy marked the end of Wright's Prairie House period, his signature architectural style recognized for effortless transitions between land and the structures built on that land. Taliesin was and still is—since Wright rebuilt it twice—a prime example of that period. Wisconsin limestone, hipped roofs, and outdoor courtyards make the home appear like it is a part of the hill that it is perched upon, rather than simply sitting on top of it. It also shows characteristics that mark homes built in the latter half of Wright's career, such as the use of fireproof materials and fortress-like layouts with hidden entrances. However, that fateful summer day also marked the beginning of his newfound commitment to the land surrounding Taliesin.

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Frank-Llyod-Wright-Taliesin-Katie-Wyer-61616 Taliesin chef Katie Wyer

More than 100 years later, there's a new cook at Taliesin, and she promises not to murder anyone. Katie Wyer is part of a team, spearheaded by farmers John Middleton and Lidia Dungue, to restore a sustainable, full-circle food system on the property with net-zero waste. Thirty-year-old Wyer (Colton was the same age when he committed the brutal murders) comes to Taliesin from Chicago, where she worked as a pastry chef and, most recently, prepared meals for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Last July, she accepted a position at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, responsible for cooking 12 meals a week for students and staff using ingredients grown on the property.

"I thought it was seasonal and I thought, by the end of October, I would learn what I needed to learn and leave. But I think I'm part of John's manifestation of what he wants this to be," Wyer says. One part of that vision is to return Taliesin to a fully diversified farm; contoured rows crops cover the Welsh hillside, hundred-year-old trees are tapped for maple syrup, grapevines produce fruit table wine, and cows freely graze on the pasture before being milked or slaughtered for meat. But Taliesin is also meant to be a self-sustaining community of chefs, farmers, and architects contributing to the property as they once did as part of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fellowship Program, established in 1932. According to a 1934 brochure the program had fellows "farming, planning, working, kitchenizing, and philosophizing in voluntary co-operation in an atmosphere of natural loveliness they are helping to make eventually habitable."

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Taliesin worked closely in conjunction with Taliesin West, which Wright built in the McDowell Mountains of present-day Scottsdale in 1938 as a winter retreat for himself and the majority of the Wisconsin residents. Throughout the colder months, eggs, milk, butter, cheese, and preserves were sent by rail from those looking after the farm to their peers in Arizona. Wyer plans to revive this tradition this season with a shipment of preserved produce.

Sounds kind of like a commune, right? It closely resembled one. So much so that shortly before Wright's death in 1959, a Wisconsin circuit judge determined that Taliesin was in fact operating for the sole benefit of Wright and not as a non-profit organization. Whether Taliesin was an Emersonian utopia or labor camp is still up for debate, along with the stigma surrounding the property's existence. "Throughout the whole history of this place, they were so isolated that people in town shunned them, called them socialists, and didn't want to get involved with them. They didn't know what was going on with them and didn't want to know," Dungue says. "I think that carried through history and people still don't know."

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In the years after Wright's death, the farm was leased to nearby farmers. Subsequent decades of conventional commodity crop production led to land degradation and soil erosion—a real waste of the nutrient-rich farmland located half-a-mile from the Wisconsin River. So, in 2001, Gary Zimmer, founder of Midwestern BioAg and owner of Otter Creek Organic Farm, took over farming operations at Taliesin. His first step was revitalizing the soil, followed by transitioning the farm to organic, and, finally, bringing on Middleton and Dungue of Fazenda Boa Terra to cultivate the land. This summer, for the first time, 100 guests will feast on dinner sourced almost entirely from Taliesin.

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Guests will not be eating soup, although Wyer's contract states that she must serve one soup every day. Instead, the first of the series of three dinners—happening on June 25, August 21, and October 2—will feature meat from a cow that has grazed on Talisein grass and cooked over two charcoal grills set up in the fields. Wyer says this is the first time that an animal raised on the property will also be cooked and consumed on it since Wright's time. The second dinner will star a whole hog, also raised nearby. The final dinner is a fermentation fest celebrating a season's worth of pickled and preserved produce, paired with cider pressed from Taliesin's apple trees. The proceeds from these three dinner will help revitalize the Midway Barn, painted in Wright's signature burnt red and topped with a spire that can be seen from almost anywhere in the fields.

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"The whole purpose of the farm and kitchen, and then farm dinners, is to bring people here that don't necessarily care about Frank Lloyd Wright, but who care about food, the environment, and art of nature," Dungue says. "When we bring them here, we can expand on what this place is all about and what Frank's legacy is."

Before calling his former estate home, neither the farmers nor Wyer knew much about the man who not only was a pioneer of organic architecture but also organic farming. But since their residency, they have drawn inspiration from his teachings and how he lived in order to bring new life to the site of the biggest single incident of mass murder in Wisconsin history. "We're trying to reinvigorate Frank Lloyd Wright's legacy," Middleton says. "It's funny, if you look at some of the historical pictures, the only ones he's ever smiling in is when he's in the fields—on the potato planter, hand-racking hay. He was inspired by farming."

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Purchase tickets to the Taliesin farm dinners here. For more information on the history of Taliesin, check out William R. Drennan's Death in a Prairie House.

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Frank Lloyd Wright
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