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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Taliesin Reflections’ Pays Tribute to Frank Lloyd Wright, Shows His Influence on California Architect Earl Nisbet

Posted by kinchendavid on October 1, 2006

By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic

Hinton, WV – 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, CA 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, CA, 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 1951-1953 — $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, 19 years after Wright and Olgivanna began the fellowship in Spring Green, with 30 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.

The book is available at http://www.amazon.com or at most well-stocked bookstores. The publisher’s address is: Meridian Press, P.O. Box 387, Petaluma, CA 94953.

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