Visitors approach Wingspread at the entrance of Four Mile Road. The drive, marked by easy turns which follow the land lines of the prairie, crosses a wooded ravine before the building comes into view with its dominant earth colors.
The 12-acre conference center site is extensively landscaped in a manner which follows the natural contour of the Midwestern terrain, with a formal planting in the area near the house. The plantings of evergreens and other trees specified by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1938 have now matured to create a harmonious balance with the architecture. To the observer the effect is one which combines strength with composure.
The Wingspread site is part of a larger, contiguous area on Wind Point, which has been designated as a Wisconsin wildlife refuge. Wind Point is itself a promontory jutting east into Lake Michigan and dominated by a headland lighthouse. Wingspread is therefore within walking distance of Lake Michigan”s western coastline. Another feature of Wingspread f s grounds is a ribbon of nature walks extending through woods, pasture, the ravine and beside reflecting pools.
Architects find particular interest in the zoned plan of the structure and the tall spaces of the central living area flowing upward around the chimney shaft, which extends through the clerestory roof.
Wright called Wingspread the last of the prairie houses which he began thirty years earlier. It is the largest and most dramatic of his prairie- inspired homes and draws for its central portion upon the prototype of all prairie houses the Indian wigwam, with a fire in the center and a hole in the top to let the smoke out.
The domed structure of the former Johnson family residence housed the living areas, with the elliptical chimney stack as the central feature of the massive room. Four wings are flung out from the living area. Origi- nally, these were a master”s wing ending in a cantilevered porch andextending, at its opposite end, into a mezzanine overlooking the living room; a children”s sleeping wing with its own playroom overlooking the swimming pool; a guest wing to the west; and a service wing.
The wings now are used as conference rooms, including a theatre-conference room for showing films, and offices clustered about the central lounge.
Through his use of widespread wings, Wright laid the basis for the zoned plan of the house, which was the principal departure from his previous house designs. The zoned plan was carried out in the living area despite the great height of the clerestory ceiling about the chimney stack. The structure provides a low- ceiling sitting room under the mezzanine, with a library alcove from which steps lead up to conversational furniture groupings on the long sides of the chimney stack.
The stack offers a separate fireplace to groupings on each of its four faces, as well as one on the mezzanine level. The portion of the central room adjoining the service wing formed the dining area. The great room opens on four sides to terraces through walls of high, narrow glass doors.
A number of the interior walls are finished in Cherokee red, slightly concave brick and rough plaster. The wood in the interior of the building, including several expanses of paneling in the living room, is American oak. The grain of the wood is used to emphasize the horizontal and vertical lines of the architecture.
Exterior walls are formed from the same red brick found on the interior, with cantilevers and balconies of lap siding cut from California cypress, a wood also used in the pergolas, on which there rests a full growth of wild grape vines.
The chimney stack rises in three tiers, pagoda-like, and culminates in a glass lookout or belvedere. From there one can see the 30-acre grounds and Lake Michigan about 1/2 mile to the east.
Wingspread and the Johnson”s Wax Building in Racine were built at about the same time (1937-1938). Herbert Fisk Johnson was the President of Johnson”s Wax Company. Wright considered the Herbert F. Johnson House the finest (and most expensive) house he had built up to that date. It is so completely wedded to its site, rolling grassy slopes and shallow ravines, that it seems to grow naturally from the earth. This large Prairie house sitting squarely on the land has the same surprise feeling upon entering a sense of expansiveness, of soaring, moving, unending space, rather like a Gothic cathedral. Wright said that the reality of a house is not its walls or roof, but the space within. He spent a lifetime exploding the box-like rooms of traditional houses. He designed integrated, beautiful rooms to live in and extraordinary exterior forms that are inseparable from them. The Johnson house also displays what Wright called the eloquence of materials, beautifully finished and integrated surfaces of wood, concrete and brick put together with respect and taste.
Hitchcock, in discussing the Herbert Johnson house at Wind Point north of Racine, quoted Wright as saying that it was the last of his Prairie Houses. The house is zoned in great radiating arms the living quarters in the center, the masters” rooms in one wing, a children”s wing, services in the third and guest rooms and garage in the fourth. It is an elaborate expansion of the plan for the Coonley House (1907) in Riverside, Illinois. Resembling a great bird or an ocean liner, it seems to float over the grassy slopes and gentle ravines. The complex was presented by Mr. and Mrs. Johnson to the Johnson Foundation in 1959 and today it is one of the most important educational and cultural conference centers in the Middle West.
Frank Lloyd Wright planned the house so well that no major architectural changes have been necessary in converting the building into a conference center. The grounds also house an outstanding collection of sculpture including works byCarl Milles, David Aronson, Robert Cook, Milton Hebald, Berto Lardera and Emilio Greco. The master builder for both the Johnson”s Wax Company building and Wingspread was Ben Wiltscheck, who executed a number of Wright”s works.
Frank Lloyd Wright was ignored after he finished his earthquake-proof Imperial Hotel in Tokyo in 1922. In the 1930s came a series of commissions that would, once again, put him in the forefront of American architecture. Houses like Wingspread and Falling Water were designed and built. This fallow period in the late twenties was not lost on architectural critics: Lewis Mumford praised Wright not only for his pioneering residential work that revolutionized the intent and technique of architectural design the world over but also for a philosophy and insight into human needs of permanent value. Alexander Woollcott, writing in a New Yorker Profile, concluded that If I were suffered to say who is the one American genius, it would be Frank Lloyd Wright.
Sources / Bibliography
Johnson Foundation, Wingspread Publication, 1981
National Historic Landmark Photos, National Park Service, http://pdfhost.focus.nps.gov/docs/NHLS/Text/75000076.pdf
National Historic Landmark Photos, National Park Service, http://pdfhost.focus.nps.gov/docs/NHLS/Photos/75000076.pdf
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