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A letter from Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, Director of Archives at Taliesin West,
and author/editor of more than forty books about Frank Lloyd Wright
Taliesin Reflections pays tribute to Frank Lloyd Wright,
shows his influence on California architect Earl Nisbet
by David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network (West Virginia)
Hinton, WV (HNN) — In the 1940s and 1950s, any man or woman dreaming of a career in architecture considered being an apprentice at the Taliesin Fellowship run by Frank Lloyd Wright the ultimate achievement — at least for those who were admirers of the Wisconsin-born Wright (1867–1959).
Born in San Jose, California in 1926 — he turned 80 this past July — Earl Nisbet was a California dreamer, seeing himself as a Taliesin Fellow in the original Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. He achieved his dream in 1951, following service in World War II and graduation from a San Francisco engineering institution, Heald College, where he studied architectural engineering.
In a lavishly illustrated, large-format paperbound book, Taliesin Reflections: My Years Before, During, and After Living with Frank Lloyd Wright (Meridian Press, Petaluma, California, 240 pages, $24.95) Nisbet gives the reader a look inside the two Taliesins, where future architects were toughened under the watchful eye of Wright’s wife Olgivanna. If they didn’t pass the formidable muster of Mrs. Wright, they were kicked out of the fellowship.
The cost was considerable when Nisbet was an apprentice from 1951 to 1953 — $1,000 a year. It included taking out the trash, cooking and canning, and maintaining the buildings, something that required constant work, as anyone familiar with Wright’s designs knows. Nisbet provides the reader with plenty of inside information about Taliesin operations and the book is full of black-and-white and color illustrations. There’s even a leaking roof anecdote that will delight architecture buffs who consider leaking roofs part of the charm of a Frank Lloyd Wright house.
After leaving Taliesin, Nisbet began an architecture practice in Northern California — and after a nine-month interlude in Tahiti, described with humor and charm in this book — in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he designed the S. C. Doo House on Black Point, among other buildings. He moved back to his native region, the southern San Francisco Bay area, after several years in Hawaii. Now a resident of Aptos, California, outside Santa Cruz, Nisbet is still active in the Northern California chapter of Taliesin Fellows and travels as much as possible. His wife Barbara died about a decade ago and Nisbet’s reminiscences of their life together reveal what a wonderful relationship is all about.
As a fan of Wright’s architecture from my years of living in Chicago and Milwaukee, I particularly enjoyed the parts about the two Taliesins (the name means “shining brow” in Welsh). Nisbet was a woodworker extraordinaire, which appealed to me since I was a shop rat in high school and had a strong Industrial Arts minor in college to oddly compliment my major of English. Nisbet’s skill with automobiles and trucks gave him the opportunity to use his mechanical skills at both Taliesins.
Nisbet began his Taliesin Fellowship in 1951, nineteen years after Wright and Olgivanna began the fellowship in Spring Green, with thirty apprentices. The year 1932 was a tough year for everyone, but especially so for architects. Few people were building anything, and the Taliesin experiment managed to keep the distinguished architect in business.
Judging from the photos of the Doo House and Nisbet’s first solo commission, the Cabana Tanglewood built in 1954 in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Nisbet drank deeply from the Wright design well. They’re outstanding designs and attest to his skill as an architect and hands-on engineer. As a woodworker myself, I approved of the furniture designed and built by Nisbet for the Doo house. The author got his woodworking start working in his dad’s hardwood flooring company in pre–Silicon Valley San Jose.
If you’re seeking a perfect gift for an architecture buff — especially an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright — look no further than “Taliesin Reflections” by Earl Nisbet. It’s a beautifully designed book that will provide hours of delightful reading.
Book revisits years at Wright school before early departure
by Lindsay Butler
East Valley Tribune (Arizona)
Leaving Taliesin was one of the most difficult tasks Earl Nisbet ever had to do. But paying tuition for the architecture school led by Frank Lloyd Wright was becoming very difficult for his mother, and the young architect had to leave. Now, Nisbet has revisited the site of his architectural training in a book titled Taliesin Reflections: My Years Before, During, and After Living with Frank Lloyd Wright.
The author details his youth in San Jose, California, his service in World War II, the time spent at Taliesin and his subsequent career in architecture. Nisbet, 80, said he worked two years on the book, compiling photographs and memories. “Living and studying architecture with the world’s greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was the most memorable and the most effortless to relate, because it was such a wonderful experience,” he wrote.
All of the proceeds from the book will go to preservation efforts at Taliesin in Wisconsin, Nisbet said. Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, director of archives at Taliesin West, said the Nisbet book is a much closer, much truer account than many books written about Wright. “As an apprentice he was regarded very highly, and in general it’s a very pleasant read,” Pfeiffer said. “He was an apprentice who actually knew Wright.”
Nisbet was accepted into the architecture school in 1950, and lived with the other apprentices at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona until 1953. Nisbet learned Wright’s theory of the “whole man,” meaning all the apprentices pitched in with the school’s daily operations, including repairs, cooking and cleaning. He was usually called to kitchen and garbage duty.
“For some reason, Mrs. Wright felt I would never become a cook, no matter what the level,” he wrote. According to Nisbet, Wright’s third wife, Olgivanna, was a strong-willed woman who insisted that things be done her way. Once she walked up to Nisbet and asked him if he was afraid of her. He said, “Why no, Mrs. Wright. Should I be?”
“Her face took on a bewildered expression and without responding, she turned and walked away. During my years at the fellowship, that was the only time I found Mrs. Wright to be speechless,” Nisbet wrote.
Nisbet spent three years with the Wrights before it became financially impossible to continue his education. When he broke the news, the Wrights offered to waive tuition, but Nisbet needed to go home and support his mother. “You never forget things like that,” Nisbet said by phone. “It was a sad, sad day.”
Local man’s memoir recalls studying under Frank Lloyd Wright
by Chris Watson
Santa Cruz (California) Sentinel
Architects starting out today may not know why they design open-plan rooms, or who was responsible for the first carport, or even when the notion to merge interiors with exteriors became popular in the US, but Earl Nisbet of Aptos knows.
Nisbet, who turned 80 last month, is a retired architect whose career has been deeply influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), widely considered the greatest architect of the twentieth century.
Nisbet apprenticed under Wright at both Taliesin East in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona, and then went on to a successful career of his own.
After leaving Taliesin at age 27 — but still flush with the principles of using native materials, designing from the ground up and always keeping nature in mind — Nisbet designed “Cabana Tanglewood” in the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1954 for his friend Jim Moore, featured in a Better Homes and Gardens magazine, as well as the “Elysian Fields” home for Donald Falconer in Soquel in 1955, the Sedgwick Pharmacy in Capitola, and a number of residences throughout Northern California.
His best-known building, however, remains “The Crest” at Black Point, Oahu, a residence that thrusts itself into the fabulous ocean-front view in a way that earned Nisbet more media coverage in the late 50s.
Nisbet’s also been a lifeguard, a prankster, a soldier, a car aficionado and a world traveler, life events you can read about in his new memoir Taliesin Reflections: My Years Before, During, and After Living with Frank Lloyd Wright.
First and foremost, though, Nisbet’s been the apprentice of an architect — “the master,” as he calls Wright in his book.
“I was at home, looking through boxes that I’ve carried with me when I’ve moved from one place to another,” he said recently.
“In one box were some photos I’d never seen before — photos of my parents in their courting days, a picture of me from 1930 — and I began thinking that I’d like to write about my parents.”
But when Nisbet began planning it out, he realized he could never write a book about his life or his parents’ lives that didn’t include Frank Lloyd Wright.
Not only did his mother give him an autobiography of Wright for his nineteenth birthday, but his father died while he was at Taliesin, and Nisbet married his wife Barbara on Wright’s birthday.
It wouldn’t be right to write a story without Wright.
Only a third of Nisbet’s memoir covers his years studying under Wright, but every page conveys Wright-ian principles, including the last page, on which Nisbet mentions Wright’s “brilliant way of teaching one to do everything.”
Indeed, while at Taliesin, Nisbet and the other apprentices had to do it all: washing dishes, building structures for the pigs, repairing automobiles, serving meals, grading roads and, yes, drafting designs and pounding nails.
“Mr. Wright believed you have to know how things work, how they operate from the ground up,” Nisbet said. “The more you know, the better your building will function.”
In his book, Nisbet also recalls those moments when Wright took a moment to ask him his opinion.
And he tells of the calling-on-the-carpet he earned after arriving back at Taliesin two days later than expected because he was touring Wright’s buildings.
Nisbet also does a little name-dropping in his book: Rocky Graziano, James Michener, Merv Griffin, even Imelda Marcos, whose relative bought one of his homes.
A lot of time has passed since his days at Taliesin.
Many of Nisbet’s fellow apprentices have passed on, too.
And although busloads of tourists crowd the Taliesin compounds and regularly pay the entrance fee to other Wright homes open to the public, Nisbet feels that an era is passing, that the days of Wright’s influence is waning.
“After my generation passes, after the people who knew Wright are gone, that’ll be the end,” Nisbet said.
While Nisbet admits that the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright will still be available to future generations, he looks around at what’s being built today and is disappointed.
“When you drive across the country, you see the same buildings being built in the east, the south and the west.
”People don’t know they’re missing out,“ he said, ”but to live in a work of art is a revelation.“
Taliesin Reflections by Earl Nisbet ($29.95) can by purchased from Meridian Press or by calling 1-800-247-6553.
All proceeds from sale of the book will benefit Taliesin Preservation, Inc.
The best of the best
Earl Nisbet was an architectural fellow at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compounds in both Wisconsin and Arizona for three years, leaving in December 1953.
Over the years, Nisbet visited close to 80 of the master’s buildings, a relatively small number compared to the 532 that were built, and 409 that still stand today.
Of the buildings he visited, Nisbet has his favorites, and they’re not the ones you might expect: not Fallingwater in Pennsylvania (built over a rushing stream), the Guggenheim Museum in New York City (with its unique spiral ramping gallery) nor the Marin Civic Center, which northern California highway travelers know intimately.
Nisbet’s favorites include:
Some reviews from Amazon.com:
This is not an impartial review of Earl’s book
by Richard Blois, Carmel, California
This is not an impartial review of Earl’s book. We both attended San Mateo High School back in the 1940s. At that time Earl’s talents as a designer and craftsman were already evident in the form of what today would be called “street rods.” Three of his cars are pictured in the early portion of his biography (dealing with the time before his living with Mr. Wright). They were indeed objects of beauty and greatly admired by everyone, including, as he notes, Merv Griffin, also a San Mateo High student at the time. After graduation from high school Earl entered the Army. I went into the Army a year later and completely lost track of Earl until 1955. At that time my wife and I were living in a small Palo Alto cottage. When we learned of Earl’s experience with Frank Lloyd Wright, his property in the Portola Valley, and availability to design a house for us, we could hardly wait to get started. The next few months were a great adventure as our small home took shape under Earl’s expert supervision. We were delighted when it was finished, and were very happy and comfortable living in it for several years. So my review of his book is from the standpoint of an old friend, and one of Earl’s earliest and very happy clients. The book itself is divided into three parts of Earl’s life — before, during, and after his living and working with Frank Lloyd Wright.
Not being a book review expert, I will fall back to my basic test of every book I read: is it a good read? In this case my response is an enthusiastic yes. I was particularly interested in his description of his personal life and experiences as an apprentice to Mr. Wright, and I suspect this will be the portion of the book that is of special interest to Frank Lloyd Wright fans. His description of a tearful goodbye meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Wright on his departure in 1953 by itself could be a great closing scene for an Academy Award. In short, I am happy to recommend this book to anyone interested in learning what life as an apprentice with Frank Lloyd Wright was like, to anyone from San Mateo High during the years of 1942 to 1945, and to any reader who might enjoy a good read about some talented and interesting people.
Beautifully illustrated insights
by Angela M. Hey, Portola Valley, California
Like another review, from Richard Blois, this review is not unbiased, as I live in the house that Nisbet designed for Blois, referred to as the Blois House in the book.
Earl Nisbet has a reverence for Mr. and Mrs. Wright, as he calls them, that intensifies the longer he stays at Taliesin and then is carried through into his architecture. It is a very personal book, about the struggles and triumphs of the Taliesin training, the rigors of the business of architecture and the pleasures of companionship.
I would recommend this book to any student who is thinking about being an architect, because even though techniques, tools and materials have changed, the principles that Wright championed, such as respecting the land are very much relevant today. Also Frank Lloyd Wright fans who have room on their bookshelves for more than books on Falling Water and Usonian designs will find the book a good read.
The book is illustrated with pictures and floor plans of varying quality — ranging from snapshots to stunning portraits — that make the book appear alive and genuine. The font is sans serif that is well spaced to make the text clear and appealing. Chapters are divided with subheadings into paragraphs — so if you want this for bedtime reading you can read it in small chunks, enjoy the pictures and contemplate Mr. Wright’s influence on both Earl Nisbet and building styles in general.
An apprentice’s autobiography
by David Sides, Cherry Hill, New Jersey
Taliesin Reflections is more than a recounting of Earl Nisbet’s experiences with Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s an autobiography of his life and is written in a style not unlike Wright’s autobiography. It’s not a narrative, but instead is a journal with interesting observations and stories throughout.
As a Wright fan, I enjoyed reading about the stories related to Taliesin of course, but also found myself reading the entire book with an interest in his stories of travels and experiences in Tahiti, Hawaii, China, Japan, Egypt, various parts of Europe, etc. The book is beautifully typeset and has color photographs throughout. I’ve read some about Frank Lloyd Wright over the years, but Mr. Nisbet’s book has made me want to read more about his apprentices. I’d give the book five stars except that as a Wright enthusiast, I wish it had an index!
Journey of an architect
by Andrea Hall (“biography maven”), Santa Cruz, California
This delightful look into the life of a young architect, who by a chance acquaintance with an ex-Taliesin apprentice finds himself motoring across California to Spring Green, Wisconsin, and the doorstep of the formidable Frank Lloyd Wright. Lured by the possibility of being accepted as one of these earnest apprentices, he manages to assuage the obvious doubts of the third Mrs. Wright, Ogilvanna, co-ruler in many respects of this remarkable enterprise and creation of Wright.
With much gentle humor, the author’s insights are revealed in a pleasingly understated style, and cover a wide range of travels around the world in his pursuit of his architectural career. The book is blessed with many fine color photographs, covering a time period of some of the best examples of American architecture. The personal narrative of the author provides a warm and often insightful backdrop for the reader, with many humorous anecdotes and glimpses of the “nearly famous.” This is an excellent addition to the collection of Wrightiana and the ongoing influence of his genius on so many lives and careers.