Frank Lloyd Wright’s Encounter with the Arizona Desert

By Anne Hattes

World renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright moved to Arizona as a winter home in his seventies, at first setting up a very rustic “desert camp.” Here, at what would become Taliesin West, Wright created such masterpieces as the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Frank Lloyd Wright had two momentous encounters with the Arizona desert: the Biltmore Hotel and Taliesin West. Wright aficionados can immerse themselves in Wright’s desert architecture by taking a meal at the Biltmore and touring the architect’s private living quarters at Taliesin West, restored to their appearance during Wright’s lifetime.

The Biltmore, on which Wright acted as consultant architect, collaborating with a former student, was his first hotel project and remains the only existing hotel in the world with a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired design. Wright also worked on Tokyo’s Imperial but that was destroyed in 1968 to make way for a high-rise.

Taliesin West was recognized in a 1991 survey in Architectural Record as twenty-fifth in the list of one hundred most significant works of architecture in the world in the preceding 100 years.

Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa (www.arizonabiltmore.com)

The Biltmore, Arizona’s “Grande Dame” and a playground for the rich and famous, is the resort that set the stage for the development of the state into a major tourist destination.

Since it first opened over 75 years ago all the U.S. Presidents since Hoover have stayed here – Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush. Clark Gable honeymooned here and Marilyn Monroe had her favorite swimming pool, the Catalina. Current celebrities like Nicole Kidman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Michael Jordan continue to frequent the resort.

The spirit of the dramatic Wright style that favors indigenous materials is imbedded throughout the hotel. Erected entirely of “Biltmore Block”, the hotel is long and low, reflecting desert lines. The pre-cast textile-like blocks, invented by Wright, were made from desert sand on site and created in 34 different geometric patterns inspired by the trunk of a palm tree. Sun, shadows and nearby palms create shifting geometric patterns throughout the day. Blocks of glass built into the walls bring in natural light.

The Arizona Biltmore, sitting at the center of Phoenix’s top attractions, is renowned for its grounds featuring magnificent flowering gardens, palms and cacti. Golf on two 18-hole championship courses adjacent to the resort.

There are several dining options at the Biltmore. In winter from November to May you can take afternoon tea in the Lobby Tea Court daily between 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. A delectable selection of finger sandwiches, teas, scones and desserts is served.

Wright’s, the resort’s signature award-winning restaurant, features traditional Napa Valley entrees complemented by an award-winning wine list and served in an architecturally striking ambiance featuring glass walls and ceiling. Wright’s also offers a romantic setting for private dinners for up to eight guests in the wine cellar, an intimate patio, renowned Sunday Brunch and a popular children’s menu.

For more informal dining, the Biltmore Grill & Patio offers a satisfying taste of the Southwest for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Patio dining with a roaring open-pit fireplace is adjacent to the resort’s colorful gardens. Squaw Peak Lounge also offers a choice of indoor or outdoor seating with spectacular panoramas of Squaw Peak and the North Patio lawn and fountain. It’s a favorite spot for cocktails and light dining.

Taliesin West

In 1937 and in his seventies, Wright purchased desert land in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains for his winter home. Taliesin West was built literally “out of the desert” by Wright and his apprentices who gathered rocks from the desert floor and sand from the washes to build the structures that are still used today for the purposes for which they were designed.

Rocks were judged by how many it took to carry them. For a big rock, Wright might have said “I need a 4-man rock over here.” The massive angled walls, termed “desert masonry rubble walls” by Wright, were inspired by the angles of the mountain range behind.

In the beginning, Wright, his family and apprentices lived under very primitive conditions. Taliesin West was indeed a “camp.” There was no glass in any of the rooms. It was all open air with Nature coming and going, and the canvas as the ceiling giving shadow less light. Taliesin West was and is truly of the desert with no poured foundation, its walls sitting right on the desert floor. Eventually glass did replace open air windows.

Here Wright was invigorated by life in the desert and the enthusiastic activity of the young apprentices around him. At the end of his life, Wright had more commissions than at any other time in his career. In all, Wright designed 1,191 works, including architecture, furniture, lamps, fabrics, carpets, china, silver and graphic designs. Of those, more than 500 buildings were executed.

Taliesin West Tours

The impact of living in a desert shelter is very strong. In fact, the lure of living in harmony with the environment is what draws many to the Wright school. Taliesin apprentices conduct once-a-week tours, December through April, of their self-designed and self-built personal living spaces.

A broad range of other tours is also offered including a one-hour Panorama tour, 90-minute Insights tour, three-hour Behind the Scenes tour, 90-minute Desert Walk, and two hour Night Lights on the Desert tour.

When You Go

* Arizona Biltmore: 602-955-6600; 800-950-0086
* Taliesin West: 480-860-8810
* Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau: 602-254-6500

Fodor’s Arizona makes an excellent guide for researching your trip.

Ann Hattes can be reached at hattesn@ix.netcom.com

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