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Wisconsin: The Frank Lloyd Wright Trail

This isn’t quite what I expected. I’d come to small-town Wisconsin on a Frank Lloyd Wright pilgrimage – not only to visit a masterwork of America’s most iconic architect, but also to sleep in two of his creations.

Wisconsin: The Frank Lloyd Wright Trail
Image: By InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA (Taliesin West, Scottsdale Uploaded by russavia) (CC-BY-SA-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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Yet, from the outside, this low-slung brick house in the middle of Midwestern suburbia – all freshly mown lawns and stars and stripes hanging from the porches – didn’t seem much different from its neighbours.

But then I opened the door.

The smell was the first thing that hit me – the heady, sweet scent of cypress, enveloping me as if I’d just stepped inside one of California’s giant trees. In fact, I almost had – wood cocoons the ceilings and most of the walls here at Still Bend, in Two Rivers, and the cypress laid by Wright’s team in 1939 still perfumes the house today.

A living museum of incalculable worth, it’s bewildering that you can stay here. Many of Wright’s remaining buildings across the US are open to the public – I’d fallen in love with his architecture in Chicago, and followed it to Pennsylvania and Arizona – but only for guided tours. Here in his home state of sleepy Wisconsin, though, several of his houses have been turned into B&Bs or holiday rentals, and immersing yourself overnight in Wright’s work gives you a feel for his buildings that no number of tours could produce.

The day before, I’d visited what’s perhaps Wright’s most famous creation: Taliesin, his former home near Madison. That night, I’d stayed at a Wright-designed B&B – the Arnold Jackson House in Beaver Dam, an hour away. What had, from the outside, appeared to be a compact stone house, had opened up into a sprawling cabin – all pitched roofs, wood-covered walls, and rooms melting into one another, separated only by delicate, concertina-shaped doors. In Wright’s hands, a cottage in a cul-de-sac had turned into a light-flooded prairie farmhouse; the nondescript facade concealed an extraordinary interior.

It’s a lesson I should have learned before arriving in Two Rivers, a tiny town perched on the shore of Lake Michigan, up towards the Canada border. Beyond Still Bend’s bog-standard entry, gargantuan terracotta tiles, three feet across, pave the floor; a vast living area free-flows through a lounge, library, office and dining room, glass walls blurring the divide between inside and out. The cypress staircase is more than just a means to reach the bedrooms upstairs; its sharp corners and saw-tooth balcony interlink perfectly with the complicated angles of the room below. The effect is almost of an Escher painting.

It’s an astonishing house, complete with original fittings, and, rented out by the day, it’s all mine. I work at the built-in desk, 70 years worth of ingrained pen scratches beneath my laptop, light a fire in the open plan living room, and cook in a retro kitchen that seems to have been last refurbished in the 1950s – perhaps by the Schwartz family, who commissioned the house and lived there until 1971.

In the morning, the house is flooded with light, morphing the living room into a conservatory; at dusk, it lights up like a lantern, a ribbon of carved skylights around the roof projecting shapes into the night sky. There are no curtains – Wright believed in bringing nature inside. Falling asleep with the moon outside, the smell of cypress inside, I realise that, 70 years on, Still Bend is still doing just that.

Still Bend: www.theschwartzhouse.com
Arnold Jackson House: www.arnoldjacksonhouse.com
Taliesin: www.taliesinpreservation.org
Wisconsin: www.travelwisconsin.com
Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation: www.franklloydwright.org