Lumberjacks, Architects & Spies–Oh, My!

Like Niagara Falls, the Dells are a mash-up of glorious natural beauty and outrageous man-made kitsch that is somehow irresistibly American.  As exhibit A, here’s our drive to breakfast:

The gigantic flamingo waiting to strike unsuspecting tourists.

The replica of the Roman Colosseum built around a motel because Dells.

The Ducks!

That old standby, the Roman Temple combined with a roller coaster.

An upside down White House, helpfully labeled “White House,” with a crashed limo and a T-Rex.

And, then, breakfast courtesy of Paul Bunyan (who to be fair, has his name spelled “Paul Bunyon” inside the restaurant, so I’m not sure he actually works there).

Although the physical evidence is pretty compelling …

For example, here’s the talking, decapitated head of Babe the Blue Ox.

The Cook Shanty itself is less “shanty” and more log cabin with bunches of people squished inside.  Breakfast is pay-up-front, all-you-can-eat: buttermilk donuts, sausage gravy and biscuits, scrambled eggs, breakfast sausage and kielbasa, hash browns, pancakes, coffee, milk, and juice.  The family love comes free with every meal 🙂

Note the awesome Ducks shirt again showing up for the second day in a row!  Ned’s pointing out that the highlight of this meal was unequivocally the donuts.  We could smell them from the parking lot and would have happily sat here eating them all day.

The kids walked (waddled) out with awesome new slingshots as parting gifts.  Mine was even better!  The night before, I’d grumped around after failing to book a tour of Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate in Spring Green, Wisconsin.  Ned snuck away from the table and managed to book us a late day tour!  Yay, Ned!!

I was so happy, I even consented to the kids (all three) taking a $5 haunted house tour while I cooled my tootsies in the car to the mellow dance moods of Jamie xx.  They came running out completely freaked … and loved it!

On the way to Taliesin, we stopped at the wonderful Wisconsin chain, Culver’s, home of the ButterBurger (TM).  We knew this visit was special when we walked past the photo and story of the employee of the month, Bev, and saw her waiting to serve us.  “Bev!” we shouted in unison, “You’re the employee of the month!”  She beamed!  Oh, Wisconsin!  How my ButterBurgerBabies love your deliciousness and friendliness.

After we split a couple ButterBurgers (TM) and had a free cone of the crazy-creamy custard flavor of the day, Butter Brickle!!, we drove up the road to the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center, which was–itself–designed by Mr. Wright in 1959.  By the way, everyone there refers to him reverentially as “Mr. Wright” and recognizes his genius while still being honest and open about his oddness and unusual life.  It was just the best!

Wright grew up in this Wisconsin River valley with his extended Welsh family.  He fell in love with its beauty, and his signature “Cherokee Red” color originated with the lilies he saw lining the hillside in his childhood.

Wright created this artificial lake for entertaining (it’s stocked with fish), adding the waterfall for its musical sound that could be heard from his home.

Our guide Victoria was incredibly smart and funny.  Taliesin allows photos only outside, so that’s all you’ll see.  Students and some faculty (and their families) in the Wright Architecture School actually live here in the spring and summer!  Back in the day, Wright started the school because he was broke, and the apprentices (as they were called) had to help build and rebuild Taliesin, worked the field, and more–paying for the privilege of learning form Wright.  Today, when the students head to Taliesin West in Arizona, they have to live the first year in a tent and then design and build a structure to live in for year two.  As Victoria put it, “This school is for a special kind of student.”  One of the very first apprentices (who became “fellows” upon graduation) still lives at Taliesin; he’s in his 90s.

The huge purple hollyhocks are almost black–gorgeous!

The house is built into the crown, not the top of the hill.  Wright built first for luxury and second for necessity, which makes the job of the Taliesin restoration group a lifelong one.

Some of the features are very handmade: this is actually a milking station turned on its side, painted Cherokee Red, and affixed with small painted wooden blocks.  But, it’s lovely!

The house is designed to be as inviting outside as inside with one flowing into the other.

Stairways are narrow, with a goal of hurrying you through.  The same principle applies to ceiling heights; when he wants you to move through a space more quickly, the ceiling heights are compressed, to make you uncomfortable.

Old timey!

Listening to the waterfall.

Wright loved Asian culture.  Taliesin is filled with lovely Japanese and Chinese screens, Buddahs, vases, and these dragons.

As I mentioned, maintaining Taliesin can be rough sledding.  Oops, the wall’s falling again!

As I mentioned, the apprentices built much of Taliesin.  They began the wall learning Wright’s technique for popping out fieldstone, but were too perfect in their lines.  After he corrected them to push for random, natural appearance, they finished it.

Here’s a good compressed space and the last photo I took before entering the home.  This is the ceiling in the entry portico.  I’m 5′ 5″.

The house was simply divine.  You can Google photos to see it.  We were among the first tour groups to see the newly restored blue room, so we felt particularly lucky.  The tour ended in Wright’s personal garden, which extended the hallway into nature.  You quickly understand why his style is called “organic architecture.”

More milking stalls make up the arbor.

A little glimpse into Wright’s bedroom.  Fun fact, when he had two window panes meet to create a frameless corner, there’s about a half inch of open space between the frames–no insulation, no nothing.  As Victoria put it, decades of winters with gaping windows and no internal heat beside fireplaces could be what motivated his build out of Taliesin West.

Wright used Taliesin as his experiment house, building an rebuilding it repeatedly.  The ceiling in one room was redesigned about 21 times.  Here’s a great view of an experiment for Falling Water.

It overlooks this view (that’s a musical note!).

The tour took two hours, and the kids were transfixed.  According to Harper: “I thought this would be boring, but I loved it!”  Penn marveled at Wright’s ingenuity.  Highly recommend!!

We went from one Wisconsin historical architectural beauty to another: the Pfister.  When we were making our plans, I knew we should stay within walking distance of the Summerfest grounds, but I kept wavering back and forth between hotels.  Finally, Ned asked, “When you were growing up, which hotel would you have picked?”  In a heartbeat, I said, “the Pfister.”  “Book it,” was his response.  And, that’s why he’s the best!  Look at it … just gorgeous. Plus, the kids got to call it the P-Fister during our stay.

We stayed in the historic half of the hotel, not the modernized half, so the hallways were massive, with historic wallpaper, curved doors, and ornate hardware.

Stephanie, our desk clerk, recommended the Safe House for dinner.  We would need a password to get in, which she didn’t have, she warned us, but it would be worth it.  The entry is off an alley and is marked as an import-export business. 

Sure enough, we needed a password, but the agent quizzed the kids to assure we were, indeed, agents.  Then, a bookshelf swings open to reveal that this is no import-export business at all.  It’s the Safe House!  What!

Our table was in a tiny, step-up alcove, and since we showed up literally 15 minutes before the kitchen shut down, we were as nervous as actual spies.  In the end, it was all fine.  Turns out the Safe House has been around since the mid-60s, so it has a lot of Soviet-era decor. 

After our very-late dinner, we wandered the few blocks around our hotel, seeing the beauty of old Milwaukee.

And, of course, the Fonz statue.  We’re guessing this is pretty close to Henry Winkler’s actual height.
Check it out: the Summerfest smile!

Stephanie talked us into upcharging for the Pfister Club, which was a fantastic decision!  A huge space overlooking downtown (this is in the modern tower) with well stocked fridges and pantries plus a full breakfast buffet every morning.  Loved it!

From the future to the past, we climbed into our comfy, welcoming beds …

And bid Goodnight, Moon, to Milwaukee.

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