The Gardens of Taliesin

The Gardens of Taliesin

Part of Ep. 1801 More Places to Visit

Travel to rural Spring Green for a special tour of the gardens at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin. Frances Nemtin, master gardener for the Taliesin Estate in Spring Green, gives a tour of the gardens. Since the end of World War II, she has participated in every aspect of life at Taliesin.

Premiere date: Mar 06, 2010

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley:
We have a special treat. We are going to visit a special garden and a very special gardener. We are at Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin, near Spring Green and I am with Frances Nemtin. Frances, before we start talking about the gardens we really have to talk about you a little bit. You were born in India. And I have to ask how does a woman born in India end up in rural Spring Green, Wisconsin?

Frances Nemtin:
After we returned from India where I spent the first 12 years of my life we settled in the East. I went to Bryn Mawr, and my first job was at the Metropolitan Museum. That led to Milwaukee Art Institute where I became director when I was only 24.

Shelley:
And this was in the '40s. 

Frances:
Yes. It's a wonderful chance for a young woman. My work there culminated in a big show of Mr. Wright's work which led directly to my coming here when I impressively asked Mr. Wright if I could join Taliesin. And he said, "Certainly, come along. We're leaving for Arizona in three weeks. I think you'd be a good addition."

Shelley:
So you gave up the directorship of the Art Institute to come out to this place in the country. 

Frances:
As an apprentice. Doing anything I was asked to do. Covering flats for the roof, cooking, whatever. I was immersed in a big group life which I loved, it was attractive because of the energy, creative energy I saw here. 

Shelley:
So it was a big adventure. 

Frances:
It was. 

Shelley:
One of the things that you did as part of your experience here at Taliesin was you ended up in Iran.

Frances:
Yes. My husband and I were sent there to supervise construction of three big Taliesin design projects. Two were for the Shah's older sister, Princess Shams, for whom we designed a beautiful pearl palace so called, outside Tehran. Where I helped install the gardens, both interior and exterior. And then she was so enamored of that building and the whole project, she asked us to do a second project up in the Caspian to be her summer villa.

Shelley:
Wow.

Frances:
So up there we had 77 acres to shape and improve. And that was a very wonderful learning experience for me, because I was not a professionally-trained landscape architect at all.

Shelley:
But after that you were bitten by the bug.

Frances:
Yes. I returned from Iran. I saw these gardens needed help, so I asked Mrs. Wright if she'd consent to my taking responsibility for them, which I did.

Shelley:
So you've been the gardener here...

Frances:
Since 1980, yes.

Shelley:
And you do everything from the design, directing a group of people, tell me about it.

Frances:
Selecting new plant material and designing the gardens. It's a year-round activity for me. Physically, I can't do the physical work anymore. But I've attracted about 20 gardening volunteers who come in May to install the gardens with us, and October to close the gardens. And during the summer to maintain them. So it's a continuing activity.

Shelley:
And tell me a little bit about Frank Lloyd Wright's philosophy on how the gardens should work with the buildings here at Taliesin.

Frances:
All of his buildings are integrated in the landscapes. And in this case, he wanted the planting to augment the architecture. Next to his front door he planted a fern bed. He said, please maintain this only as greenery. I don't want anything to compete with the architecture.

Shelley:
Okay, so he had good ideas that he was very specific about. 

Frances:
The gardens themselves weren't that distinguished. They had the usual perennials, asters, phlox tiger lilies, but not much variety and not much longevity of bloom.

Shelley:
So you had some areas that you could really play with to improve and brighten up. 

Frances:
In the beginning, the carriageway approached the house, it's right here behind us.

Shelley:
The shaded area.

Frances:
That was bordered with hollyhocks. But when he saw a car was coming along he decided he didn't want that noise and dust coming near the house, so he changed it. And this was no longer a carriageway approach. And the hollyhocks went, it became a shade garden as you see with hostas and begonias for color.

Shelley:
And you have another beautiful spot. We should mention, this is late in the growing season, we're looking at some beautiful fall gardens. This courtyard is lovely.

Frances:
The courtyard has asters, Japanese anemone, and a flower for beautiful stately, white, vertical accents. Mr. Wright wanted to integrate architecture, landscaping lawns, flowers and trees, vineyard, orchard all into one organic idea nestled in the hill here. They named this Taliesin because "taliesin" is a word meaning "shining brow." And this describes how all the architecture is nestled in the side of the hill, the brow of the hill, not on top. Nothing should be on top of a hill. In fact on the top of the hill, he removed a lot of trees he wanted to open up the view. And that's adjacent to one of my favorite places in the garden, the tea circle. It's a curved stone bench underneath a giant burr oak, which grew here until a 1998 storm took it out. That was where we had daily tea with Mr. and Mrs. Wright and their guests, who might include Paul Robeson Georgia O'Keeffe, Bucky Fuller...

Shelley:
Just a few friends.

Frances:
Dorothy Leavis, many creative people whom they attracted. 

Shelley:
Water, to me is always an important part of a garden. Was that the case here at Taliesin, as well?

Frances:
Yes, Mr. Wright included two little reflecting pools one of which had a fountain. Carl Milles gave him a little fountain, a little sculpture, of Jonah and the whale that served as a fountain. And that was in the upper pool. The lower one had a little waterfall Mr. Wright created by inserting a semi-circle of glass in the stone wall's layers. And last summer when I saw it was empty, I was really heartsick and I thought why isn't that working? Why don't we have water sparkling there? And I was told, no, they leak so badly we can't fill them. And I thought it would take two stonemasons a month and $3,000 to restore them. So I raised that money and this summer they did the work. And now again they're full of water and sparkling and pretty and noisy and that makes me very happy.

Shelley:
And it means we're sitting in a beautiful, peaceful spot, because of your work and your effort.

Frances:
Well, the flowers and the water complement each other.

Shelley:
Frances, this is a beautiful spot and I can't thank you enough for sharing it with me.

Frances:
You're very welcome.

Shelley:
This is another great place to visit especially on a cold, wet day. D.C. Smith Greenhouse on the UW-Madison campus. For more information on this greenhouse and the other gardens featured on today's program, please check out our website at wpt.org/garden. I'm Shelley Ryan. As always, thanks for watching the Wisconsin Gardener.

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