Experience Wisconsin’s Frank Lloyd Wright Trail

Written by Teresa Bitler

July 18, 2017
Home >> Travel >> Experience Wisconsin’s Frank Lloyd Wright Trail

I’m fascinated by Frank Lloyd Wright, not only because he is arguably one of the nation’s greatest architects, but also because he led a tabloid-worthy life, complete with multiple marriages, mistresses and murder.

So, when Wisconsin dedicated the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail earlier this year in conjunction with his 150th birthday, I knew I had to go.

Frank Lloyd Wright

The Great Workroom in the SC Johnson Administration Building. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Frank Lloyd Wright’s SC Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower

The trail begins in Racine, WI, with two of Wright’s most famous works: the SC Johnson Administration Building and the Research Tower. Reservations are required, but the 90-minute tours are free and offer an excellent introduction to Wright’s genius.

As is common in the travel industry, Wander With Wonder sometimes receives complimentary products and services. However, you can always count on Wander With Wonder to report with honesty and integrity on those places we believe offer wonderful opportunities for our readers. Wander earns income from ads and affiliate links on our site. Some of those links are for Amazon. As an Amazon Associate, Wander earns from qualifying purchases. None of these practices influence our reporting, but we believe in full disclosure. For further information please visit our legal page.

Campus tours begin at the Golden Rondelle Theater, the saucer-shaped visitor center which served as the SC Johnson Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. Even though Wright did NOT design it, it’s impressive and still shows the company’s Academy Award-winning documentary, “To Be Alive!,” in the theater.

For many in my group of journalists, hosted by Travel Wisconsin, the highlight was our next stop, the SC Johnson Administration Building. Wright designed everything here down to the three-legged chairs he later had to replace with four-legged ones because they tipped over when secretaries bent down too far.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Wright’s three-legged chair. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Like the others, I was wowed by the tree-like dendriform columns in the Great Workroom and the 43 miles of Pyrex glass tubes functioning as windows throughout the building. However, my favorite part of the tour was our next stop—the Research Tower.

Frank Lloyd Wright

The Research Tower. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Opened in 1950, the Research Tower is one of the world’s tallest cantilevered buildings and the birthplace of products like Raid, Glade, Off!, and Pledge. The tour takes you to a recreated 1950s-era laboratory where you’ll learn about the design dispute over the tiny elevator (Wright won) and see sunglasses worn by employees until curtains could be installed.

Our final stop was the Wright-inspired Fortaleza Hall. Inside are displays on the Johnson family, the company, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Wingspread

You can add a tour of H.F. Johnson, Jr.’s 14,000-square-foot home, Wingspread, to your SC Johnson visit. Located a few miles away, the largest Prairie home Wright designed features a teepee-inspired ceiling, a 30-foot-high chimney with five fireplaces, a glass-enclosed “crow’s nest” lookout, and a cantilevered “Romeo and Juliet” balcony.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Wingspread, the former Johnson family home. Photo by Teresa Bitler


There are several great Wright stories about the house. One is that Johnson, fed up with the leaky roof, called Wright during a dinner party to complain about the water dripping on his head. Wright instructed him to move his chair loudly enough so the guests could hear.

Frank Lloyd Wright

The “Romeo and Juliet” balcony at Wingspread. Photo by Teresa Bitler

My favorite story, however, is of Wright’s last visit. Mrs. Johnson woke the following day to find that her overnight guest had removed all her personal items and restored the house to his vision. Wright was asked to leave immediately and never invited back.

First Unitarian Society Meeting House

During my visit, we bypassed the trail’s next stop—the Usonian homes in Milwaukee—and headed to Madison, where Wright spent part of his childhood. There, we picked up the trail at the “little country church” he designed for the congregation his father helped found.

Frank Lloyd Wright

First Unitarian Society Meeting House. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Completed in 1951, the First Unitarian Society Meeting House revolutionized church architecture, which to that point had been “rectangular boxes with a cross,” according to our guide. Wright’s design was triangle-based, with interlacing glass and wood front representing praying hands.

You can tour the church Monday through Friday at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. from May 1 through September 30 or on Sunday after each worship service throughout the year. Tours are $10 on weekdays; donations are appreciated for Sunday tours.

Monona Terrace

That Wright accepted payment of only $200 in 1939 to design office space for the City of Madison shows how much he wanted to contribute to the community where he once lived. Unfortunately, he never saw what evolved into a convention center jutting 90 feet over Lake Monona; it wasn’t built until 1997.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Monona Terrace. Photo courtesy of Visit Madison

You don’t need a reservation for the daily public tours from 1 p.m., May 1 through October 31. (For the remainder of the year, tours are given Friday through Monday.) Tickets are $5.

Taliesin: The Frank Lloyd Wright Estate

As a teen, Wright was so inspired by views from his uncle’s farm in Spring Green that when adjacent land became available, he convinced his mother to buy it for him. He named the home he built in 1911 Taliesin, meaning “shining brow” in Welsh. Today, Taliesin Preservation manages an 8-acre estate about an hour outside Madison and offers six tours.

Frank Lloyd Wright

The rolling hills and farmland of Taliesin. Photo by Teresa Bitler

We were given the Estate Tour ($84), which begins at Hillside Studio. Wright designed the building for his aunts in 1902 to house their innovative boarding school. However, in 1932, he converted the abandoned building into a school of architecture that is still used today. On the tour, you’ll see the assembly hall, drafting studio, theater, and maybe a student or two.

Frank Lloyd Wright

The theater at the Hillside School. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Next, we visited Tan-y-Deri, the Usonian house his sister built. From here, you can get a closer look at Romeo and Juliet, the windmill Wright designed. On the way to Wright’s home, we paused briefly at the Midway Barn and looked over the farmlands.

Taliesin: The Frank Lloyd Wright Home

I loved Taliesin. You don’t have to be a fan of architecture or Wright to appreciate its significance; the stories are fascinating. For example, he built Taliesin after leaving his first wife and their six children for Mamah Cheney, a client’s wife. The aggrieved spouses refused to grant the lovers the divorces they wanted. Since the scandal made living together in Chicago unbearable, Wright built Taliesin.

Frank Lloyd Wright

The cantilever at Taliesin. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Tragedy struck three years later while Wright was working in Chicago. A deranged servant set fire to Taliesin and, as it burned, murdered seven people, including Mamah and her two children, with an axe. You can see evidence of this fire and a subsequent electrical fire looking up into the rafters from the breezeway.

Wright rebuilt both times and, after finally receiving a divorce from his first wife, would remarry twice: once to Miriam Noel, an addict he divorced within four years, and finally to Olgivanna Lazovich Milanoff, the official “Mrs. Wright” of Taliesin.

Wyoming Valley School

Our final stop was the Wyoming Valley School. Wright designed this public school to honor his mother, a county school teacher. He waived his fees, specified concrete to keep costs down, and paid the overage to ensure his neighbors could afford it. (He also purchased two acres of land for the school to build it where he thought it should be built.)

Frank Lloyd Wright

The Wyoming Valley School. Photo by Teresa Bitler

The school building, which now serves as a community arts center, is open for tours Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., or by special appointment. Donations are appreciated.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Watch for these signs designating the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail. Photo by Teresa Bitler

We didn’t make it to the trail’s final stop in Richland Center, where Wright was born in 1867, but I plan to come back. On my next trip, I plan to visit the A.D. German Warehouse and the Usonian houses in Milwaukee. I would also revisit some of my favorite stops on the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail.

Click here to read more about Frank Lloyd Wright on Wander With Wonder.

Written by Teresa Bitler

Teresa Bitler is an award-winning travel writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, American Way, Wine Enthusiast, and AAA publications. She’s also the author of two guidebooks (Great Escapes Arizona and Backroads and Byways of Indian Country) and a contributor to Fodors Arizona & The Grand Canyon. While Teresa would never miss a must-see attraction, such as the Statue of Liberty in New York City, her favorite travel experiences are the unexpected ones: KoolAid with a Hopi medicine man, lobster prepared by a local on a Belizean beach, or a ride in a World War II-era bomber.

You May Also Like…


  1. Elizabeth Rose

    Loved this! I’ve visited Taliesin West but never ventured East to see more of his work. Great photos.

  2. Teresa Bitler

    Thanks, Elizabeth! I’ve been to Taliesin West a few times, which is why I wanted to go on this trip…to learn more about him and to see the connections between those buildings and his work here. Definitely go if you have the opportunity.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest food, wine & travel updates! We look forward to having you Wander with us.

You have Successfully Subscribed!