Take a Scenic Drive Along Wisconsin's Frank Lloyd Wright Heritage Trail

Stretching nearly 200 miles across the southern part of the state, Wisconsin's newest heritage motor route includes more than a few architecturally significant pit stops. . (Photo: TravelWisconsin.com)

It's Frank Lloyd Wright's 150th birthday and, holy smokes, there's a lot going on.

From a proper fête at Manhattan's Guggenheim Museum complete with reduced admission and birthday cake to a one-off doghouse exhibition in Marin County, California, a sizable swath of the country — and the Midwest, in particular — is likely to have a FLW-induced hangover come Friday morning.

And while there are dozens of special events (open houses, exclusive tours, special lectures, screenings, cocktail-fueled shindigs, etc.) honoring the legacy of the influential American architect on his birthday proper, the festivities continue well into the summer and beyond. Most notably, a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City titled "Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive" opens on June 12 and runs through Oct. 1.

For Wright fans itching to hit the road, there's the Wisconsin's Frank Lloyd Wright Trail, a freshly dedicated heritage motor route that stretches 200 miles across nine counties to link nine different iconic Wright-designed sites located within the Badger State.

Wisconsin, of course, is the home state of the scandal-plagued proto-starchitect who, during his lifetime, was just as famous as a tabloid fixture as he was the 20th century's most lauded designer of buildings. In total, there are over 40 different Wright-designed structures spread out across his native Wisconsin, ranging from wooden windmills to churches to a decent number of private homes.

The self-guided trail is limited to the southern section of the state, stretching from Interstate 94 near the Illinois state line in Kenosha County westwards to bucolic Richland County where Wright was born to William Carey Wright and Anna Lloyd Wright (nee Jones) in 1867. All of the sites included on the route including Taliesin, Wright's famed 600-acre family estate and summer studio, offer public tours. (It's worthing noting that a small handful of other Wright sites in Wisconsin not included on the route are open for public tours and/or are hosting special events throughout the summer in honor of his birthday.)

Signage of Wisconsin's Frank Lloyd Wight Trail
To be included on the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail, sites must be open to the public, full-time or partially, and located no more than 15 miles off the designated route. (Photo: TravelWisconsin.com)

The trail itself is designated with large freeway guide signs, route markers and directional and trailblazer signs — all rendered in unmistakably Wright-inspired typography. Sections of the trail, particularly as it passes through the more rural southwestern counties, are bike-able. Travel Wisconsin recommends a three-day/two night itinerary, which, in addition to tours of each site, leaves room for a variety of local diversions and food-related detours including frozen custard in Milwaukee and Racine's legendary kringle — you gotta have the kringle.

"Lovers of architecture and nature alike are sure to enjoy this spectacular trail, and we invite travelers from far and wide to put the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail on their bucket list this year," said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at a ribbon-cutting ceremony held at the trail's eastern terminus, the S.C. Johnson Research Tower and Administration Building in Racine, in May.

In March 2016, Walker signed off on bipartisan-approved legislation — Bill 512, "The Frank Lloyd Wright Trail Bill" — which dedicated $50,000 in Department of Tourism funding to the Department of Transportation to create the route's signage. Now that the signs are in place and the marketing blitz has commenced, the route will operate as a joint effort between the two departments.

Without further ado, here's a look at the nine buildings — a fascinating and motley assortment to be sure, offering just a taste of the sheer breadth and diversity of the visionary Wisconsinite's oeuvre — featured along the country's first official Frank Lloyd Wright heritage motor trail.

S.C. Johnson Administration Building (1939) and Research Tower (1950) —Racine

Frank Lloyd Wright's SC Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower; Racine, Wisconsin
S.C. Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower; Racine, Wisconsin. (Photo: Daniel X. O'Neil/flickr)

The trail kicks off with a double-header at the Racine headquarters of American cleaning product behemoth S.C. Johnson & Son. While Wright is perhaps most famous for his awe-inspiring, nature-infusing private residential commissions like Fallingwater in rural Pennsylvania, he did design a small number of office buildings and corporate campuses.

In fact, the 14-story research tower, which is no longer in active use but has been painstakingly preserved by Johnson Wax, is one of only two commercial high-rises designed by Wright and remains one of the tallest cantilevered buildings in the world. Both structures were designated as National Historical Landmarks in 1957.

Wingspread — Wind Point (1939)

Frank Lloyd Wright's Wingspread; Wind Point, Wisconsin
Wingspread; Wind Point, Wisconsin. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Just as Fallingwater was built for Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann, Wright embarked on numerous big money commissions for other early 20th century business tycoons. This includes, not surprisingly, Herbert Fisk Johnson Jr., former president of S.C. Johnson Wax. After all, if you're going to design a family-owned company's corporate headquarters, it only makes sense that you simultaneously design the family home, too.

Dramatically perched above Lake Michigan just north of Racine, Wingspread gets its name from the home's four massive arms that extend from a central, social hub: the parents' wing, the children's wing, the guest's wing and the service wing. A plus-sized example of Wright's iconic Prairie School style, this sprawling manse also showcases Wright's concept of organic architecture in that it incorporates myriad natural, local-sourced construction materials while melding seamlessly into the surrounding natural landscape. Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1989, the 14,000-square-foot compound is now used as a conference center by the Johnson Foundation.

Burnham Street Historic District — Milwaukee (1915, 1916)

Frank Lloyd Wright's American System-Built Homes, Burnham Street; Milwaukee, Wisconsin
The 'Model B1' bungalow; Burnham Street District, Milwaukee. (Photo: Wright in Milwaukee)

Always way ahead of his time, in the early 1900s Wright entered a somewhat strained partnership with Wisconsin builder Arthur L. Richards to introduce American System-Built Homes, a line of affordable, standardized dwellings that are often classified as proto-prefab homes although the homes' major components were not assembled off-site as modern prefabs are.

The first six of the homes — four duplexes and two modest bungalows — were erected on a single block along West Burnham Street in Milwaukee's Burnham Park neighborhood. A small number of standalone American System-Built Homes were constructed elsewhere in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Iowa. The six Burnham Park homes were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. The Arthur L. Richards Small House — aka Model B1 — is open to the public as a museum.

Monona Terrace — Madison (1997)

Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Terrace; Madison, Wisconsin
Monona Terrace; Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo: BJ Hale/flickr)

Some Wright purists may take issue with the inclusion of this posthumous work that was realized nearly 40 years after the architect's death. Still, despite the decades-long delay and the fact that Wright's original design was altered numerous times over the years, the exterior of this sleek lakeside convention center located opposite the Wisconsin State Capitol Building in Madison is technically considered a Wright design.

First proposed in 1939, Wright continued to push for — and alter the design of — Monona Terrace for the next 20 years. But a variety of factors — war, financing issues, antagonistic county board members — prevented construction from commencing. Today, Monona Terrace is a LEED Gold-certified economic powerhouse, hosting a large number of conventions, weddings and large-scale events each year. Offering sweeping views of downtown Madison and Lake Monona, the building's rooftop café is an ultra-popular summertime brunching destination.

First Unitarian Society Meeting House — Shorewood Hills (1951)

Frank Lloyd Wright's First Unitarian Society Meeting House; Madison, Wisconsin
First Unitarian Society Meeting House; Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo: Teemu008/flickr)

The son of a itinerant Baptist minister who later converted to his Welsh wife's Unitarian faith, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a small handful of houses of worship during his career including Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania (1954), Milwaukee's Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church (1962), and Unity Temple (1908), a Unitarian church in Oak Park, Illinois, that's widely considered one of his early masterpieces.

First Unitarian Society Meeting House, however, boasts the distinction of being a church in which Wright was an active member of the congregation during his later years. Located in the suburbs of Madison, the trail itinerary notes that the soaring edifice is "hailed as one of the world's most innovative examples of church architecture, as well as a key structure defining Wright's contribution to American culture." Open for regular tours, it was named a National Historic Landmark in 1994.

Taliesin — Spring Green (1911-1959)

Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin; Spring Green, Wisconsin
Taliesin; Spring Green, Wisconsin. (Photo: Kent Wang/flickr)

A bucket list destination for any Wright aficionado, Taliesin, located in the picturesque village of Spring Green, was Wright's summer studio (later in life, he decamped to his Arizona snowbird compound during the winter months) and estate. Built on 600 acres of rolling countryside that originally belonged to his maternal family, Taliesin is the site where Wright designed some of his most famous works. It was also the site of not one but two structure-destroying fires, a brutal mass homicide and a scandal-making affair carried out by Wright and his mistress, Mamah Borthwick. Needless to say, the place has some history.

Today, Taliesin — now in its third incarnation following the two aforementioned fires — operates as a museum managed by the nonprofit Taliesin Preservation. Needless to say, the site, which has been blown some structural knocks over the years as Wright didn't exactly design the main building to stick around for the long haul, is hosting a slew of special events to commemorate Wright's 150th birthday alongside regularly scheduled house and estate tours and a popular summer camp program for pint-sized aspiring architects.

Wyoming Valley School Cultural Arts Center — Spring Green (1957)

Frank Lloyd Wright's Wyoming Valley School; Spring Green, Wisconsin
Wyoming Valley School Cultural Arts Center; Spring Green, Wisconsin. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Located just a couple miles down the road from Taliesin in rural Wright country, this oft-overlooked structure was used as an actual public school (Wright donated both the land and the design in honor of his mother, an educator) by the Wyoming School District and later the River Valley School District all the way through 1990. In the following years, the building changed hands several times and fell into an extended period of vacancy and neglect.

In 2010, the property was acquired and spruced up by a local nonprofit community arts organization and reborn as the Wyoming Valley School Cultural Arts Center. The organization "promotes the arts and culture of the surrounding region by opening the dynamic architecture of Wyoming Valley School to provide incomparable spaces for workshops, performances, lectures, and exhibits for all ages." In addition to scheduled events and private functions, the erstwhile school is open for public tours on weekends.

A.D. German Warehouse — Richland Center (1921)

Frank Lloyd Wright's AD German Warehouse; Richland Center, Wisconsin.
A.D. German Warehouse; Richland Center, Wisconsin. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Some might find it a bit odd that the westernmost stop on the Wisconsin Frank Lloyd Wright Trail — in the architect's actual birthplace, nonetheless — is a warehouse. But my oh my, what a warehouse it is.

Built in heavily ornamented Mayan Revival style, a style that subsequently garnered Wright much attention and acclaim, the A.D. German Warehouse is also the only structure designed by Wright in the farming community of Richland Center. You'd think there might be more gems in the hometown of the greatest American architect of the 20th century, but this is it. Used over the years to store flour, sugar, tobacco and other goods, today the top-heavy warehouse is home to a gift shop, theater and modest exhibition area that are all open to the public during limited hours. And by the way, this year's theme for the town June Dairy Days/Rodeo Parade is, drumroll please ... "Dairy the 'Wright' Way!"