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Monday, October 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 46.0° F  Fair
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The Taliesin massacre
Death in a Prairie House probes the effect of a gory murder on residential architecture
The murders of Borthwick (left) and others by Carlton (right) have never been fully explored in Wright literature.
The murders of Borthwick (left) and others by Carlton (right) have never been fully explored in Wright literature.

Once again, an author has packed murder and architecture into the same literary box and tied it up with a gory ribbon of horrific detail. Two years ago, Erik Larson's massive nonfiction best-seller The Devil in the White City creepily intertwined two unlikely tales: architect Daniel Burnham's design of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago and the heinous career of serial murderer H.H. Holmes. The stories had nothing in common except their timeline (Holmes was using the fair as a pretext to lure his victims). As Larson skipped back and forth between the lofty aspirations of Burnham and the devilish schemes of Holmes, the plots balanced one another, in a sick way. Just as you began to yawn at yet another description of Burnham's tight building schedule, you were plunged back into the chamber of horrors that Holmes was preparing for his loved ones in the rooming house he owned on Chicago's South Side.

Now local author William R. Drennan invites us to delve into Death in a Prairie House, his chilling account of the 1914 murders at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin. With The Devil in the White City, Larson's gambit was transparent ' an unabashed sop to our baser natures. Drennan's approach to the Wright tragedy is more nuanced, though I suspect he shares Larson's shrewd understanding that nothing sells like a good murder mystery.

But Drennan claims a nobler purpose: Through close scrutiny, he aims to shed light on a crime that 'may well have exerted a significant influence on American residential design throughout the remainder of the 20th century.' Other Wright biographers have shied away from the subject; Drennan cites their neglect and his own determination to 'treat the murders ' not to mention their victims and their perpetrator ' as something more than footnotes to Wright's ultimate artistic triumph.'

The book is not entirely about the crime. A compelling sketch of Wright's early years, from Madison to the halcyon Oak Park idyll, is enlightening for those hazy about Wright's relationships with monstrous mother Anna, meek wife Catherine, and regal Mamah Borthwick, Wright's muse and, eventually, one of the murder victims. But all along, we know what's coming. And when Drennan finally does get to the murders, look out. Every hatchet blow, every blood spatter, every last scream, gasp and convulsion is faithfully recounted in a meticulous, some might say obsessive, re-creation of the crime.

To get all these details right, you'd need to go back and read the newspapers, the police reports, the eyewitness accounts and the court records from the period, and that's just what Drennan did. Swinging abruptly from breezy architectural historian to hard-nosed detective, Drennan sifts through the facts, analyzes the chronology and ponders the motive, which has never been satisfactorily explained. This can get annoying ' are we trying a court case here? ' but Drennan has his reasons; among them laying to rest, once and for all, the notion that Wright had anything to do with the crime. Though '[q]uestions and nagging doubts persist... we now think we have the essence of the thing right,' he says.

'The essence of the thing' was unthinkable. As Drennan tells it, one hot August day in 1914, Frank Lloyd Wright's mistress, Mamah Borthwick, sat down to luncheon with her two children on a screened terrace just off the Taliesin dining room. A recently hired servant named Julian Carlton stood behind her. Decorously, Carlton served the family soup. As Borthwick bent her head over the bowl, Carlton raised a hatchet and...I'll spare you the gory details here (though Drennan, often gratuitously, does not). Suffice it to say, seven people, including two children, died that day at the hand of the mysterious servant, and Taliesin was reduced to 'ashes and burnt timbers.'

Frank Lloyd Wright was not at home. When the architect returned from Chicago at around midnight, he recalled seeing Taliesin 'swept down and away in a madman's nightmare of flame and murder.... The great stone and tall on the hillside, their fireplaces now gaping holes,' and later, the 'charred and axed remains of the victims' strewn about under sheets at his aunt's home in Spring Green.

Horrified? Sure you are. So, presumably, was Wright, although he was largely silent on the subject, as were his many chroniclers. For that reason I'll argue, along with Drennan, that to fully appreciate the effect of this tragedy on one of America's most influential architects, you should read Death in a Prairie House. The book's gruesome imagery is hard to stomach (Mamah 'fell forward on the table, her head belching blood'), but Drennan, with all his graphic reimaginings, has done what no one else has deemed quite necessary: He's summoned the victims, reclothed the murderer in a 'clean, white coat,' set a cooling breeze wafting through the loggia as the family sat down to luncheon, and unleashed the mayhem, while we stand there, appalled, but unable to look away. If only Carlton had not been hired on a flimsy reference, if only Wright had not gone to Midway Gardens...surely these thoughts plagued Wright himself in the months and years following the crime.

Not even Wright's most reliable biographers have devoted more than a couple of paragraphs to what really happened at Taliesin that hot August day. But shouldn't those who revere Wright's work, who talk as if they know the man, be willing to look upon the scene of devastation that met their hero's eyes upon his return to Spring Green?

I wish Drennan, a professor of English at UW-Baraboo/Sauk County, had made more out of his claim that Wright's designs were profoundly influenced by the Taliesin tragedy. Instead, he relegates this discussion to the epilogue. 'Starting in 1915, his new designs betrayed an infinitely more somber, more cautious and less illusioned worldview,' says Drennan. 'What had been broad windows, open to the natural world all around, become slits; slab roofs most often replace low-hipped ones; horizontal line becomes vertical blocks of poured concrete.' Whether or not these changes were a direct result of the Taliesin tragedy is a matter of debate; Wright had been growing restless as the leader of the Prairie movement before the murders, and though Drennan quotes eminent Wright biographer Robert C. Twombly as saying, 'Wright's Prairie period ended in 1914 with the death of Mamah Borthwick,' the case has also been made (by Twombly) that Wright 'had lost touch with the genre before 1909.' And to say that 'gone was the happy consanguinity between structure and site' is to defy a central, lifelong precept of Wright's work.

Still, the book is absorbing, and you won't want to skip the architecture part. It's always fascinating to read about Frank Lloyd Wright, and Drennan's confiding, slightly acerbic tone invites outrage, as well as admiration, for the architect's 'uebermensch' mentality. Knowing exactly what the man went through in 1914 may inspire new respect for his extraordinary ability to reinvent himself. After the crime, Wright's most prolific period lay ahead of him.

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