Historic Preservation

Posted January 30, 2019
  • The Center for Architectural Conservation at Taliesin West

    Mia Maloney, a student in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation who works with the Center, conducts an assessment on the wooden features of the original dining room.

A New Partnership with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Illuminates the Architect’s “Experiment in the Desert”

It was just over a decade ago that the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum unveiled the freshly-restored exterior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic building on Fifth Avenue, and it was one of the most closely watched architectural conservation projects of the new century. Among the project’s key advisors was PennDesign’s Frank Matero, and now he’s leading a team to protect another Wright design for future generations.

The Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at PennDesign, which Matero chairs, has entered into a 5-year collaborative research agreement with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to assist in activities leading to the study and preservation of Taliesin and Taliesin West. The partnership will allow students and faculty to engage in graduate studios, internships, seminars, and theses on topics related to the life and work of Wright.

According to Matero, a professor of architecture who also directs of The Center for Architectural Conservation, the partnership will advance the conservation and management of Frank Lloyd Wright’s built legacy by exploring the full range of design and conservation issues associated with Wright’s work and his long legacy of experimentation at both Taliesin—the home, studio, school, and 800-acre agricultural estate of Wright in Spring Green, Wisconsin—and Taliesin West, the architect’s winter home and school outside Scottsdale, Arizona.

Continuing the Preservation program’s long tradition of ‘learning by doing’ through field-based research with partner institutions, the collaboration draws on the skill, research, scholarship and deep experience of PennDesign’s faculty and allows students the opportunity to experience the genius of Wright and the many conservation issues associated with his built designs. 

Matero says, “Wright stands apart from his contemporaries in the sheer volume and originality of his collective work: the writings, drawings, buildings, and decorative arts. This affords a rich opportunity to consider and debate what preserving his built legacy might be going forward, in terms of contemporary practice.”

The first research program to be undertaken through the new partnership will address the conservation of Taliesin West, a National Historic Landmark nestled in the desert foothills of the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale, Arizona. Built and maintained almost entirely by Wright and his apprentices, Wright’s winter home continues to be the headquarters of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and hosts the School of Architecture at Taliesin.

Emily Butler, the Foundation’s preservation manager at Taliesin West, situates the PennDesign parternship within a long tradition. “There is a strong legacy of learning by doing here at Taliesin West,” she says, adding, “Wright used the site as a laboratory and teaching tool for his apprentices.”

In January, Matero and a team that includes faculty members Andrew Fearon, John Hinchman, and Laura Keim, along with students Mia Maloney and Ashley Vail Losco, began studying several spaces within the campus to better understand their complex history of evolution and current conditions.

At the Foundation’s request, Taliesin’s original Dining Room and the Garden Room will be the subject of the two students’ theses.

“These rooms were a focal point for Fellowship life and occupy a very important space in the complex hierarchy,” Matero notes. “Their continued use today, as with the entire campus makes this a particularly interesting problem.”

Over the next five years, additional projects will include the study of Taliesin West’s surrounding landscape and the looming threats from development and climate change in conjunction with the Department of Landscape Architecture department.

Matero explains, “Wright’s treatment of the landscape and the intense relationship it shares with the buildings may well be the most complex and fragile aspect of Wright’s ‘experiment in the desert.”

Matero’s experience with the conservation of Wright buildings dates back to 1995, when he began a study of the exterior of the Guggenheim Museum that lasted over a decade. In 1996, he and Wright scholar David Delong, professor emeritus of architecture and historic preservation at PennDesign, led a seminar entitled Preserving Wright funded by the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training of the National Park Service and The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy.

For all his previous experience, Matero sees the Taliesin project as a new chapter in his work on Wright. 

“Balancing the needs of a working architectural school existing within a National Historic Landmark and pending World Heritage Site with over 110,000 visitors a year is no small challenge,” he says. “The somewhat raw and immediate nature of the construction in the harsh desert environment makes its technical conservation and interpretation very challenging.”