Today, Frank Lloyd Wright stands as one of America's most iconic 20th-century architects, responsible for innovative designs ranging from Fallingwater House in western Pennsylvania, built atop a gushing waterfall, to the spiral-shaped Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
But in 1914, the successful 47-year-old Chicago-based architect was notorious throughout the Midwest for a scandalous affair—and for the tragic murder that took place at Taliesen, the Wisconsin home and studio he shared with his mistress.
The woman in question was Martha “Mamah” Borthwick Cheney, the wife of one of Wright’s clients. Not long after being commissioned by businessman and Oak Park, Illinois, neighbor Edwin Cheney to design a house in 1903, Wright began to covet his new client’s wife. Married with six children of his own, the architect fell in love with Mrs. Cheney and the pair eventually ran off to Europe together. While the Cheneys divorced, Catherine Wright refused.
Seeking a hideaway where he and his mistress could live, Wright built a residence and studio in 1911 in Spring Green, Wisconsin. While the architect dubbed his estate Taliesin, in honor of the Welsh bard, the press branded it the “Love Cottage” and “Castle of Love.”
Local residents were not welcoming of their new neighbors. The superintendent of Iowa County’s schools, told a reporter, “The scandal is bound to have a demoralizing effect on the school children of the community. It is an outrage to allow young men and women and boys and girls to grow up in the belief that a man and woman can go disregard the marriage bonds.” When sharp tongues, disapproving looks and even threats of tarring and feathering failed to drive the couple from Spring Green, townspeople called upon the local sheriff to arrest Wright.
The eccentric architect, however, cared little about standard conventions or what the outside world thought of his relationship. “Two women were necessary for a man of artistic mind—one to be the mother of his children and the other to be his mental companion, his inspiration and soul mate,” he told one reporter. To another he said, “Laws and rules are made for the average. The ordinary man cannot live without rules to guide his conduct. It is infinitely more difficult to live without rules, but that is what the really honest, sincere, thinking man is compelled to do.”
On the afternoon of August 15, 1914, Wright was in Chicago working on the design for Chicago's Midway Gardens when his mistress and her two children, 8-year-old Martha and 12-year-old John, sat down for lunch on the porch at Taliesin. Inside the main dining room, at the other end of a 25-foot-long passageway, Wright’s draftsmen and laborers also gathered around a table to be served lunch by 30-year-old Barbados native Julian Carlton, a handyman and servant who had spent the summer waiting tables and performing housework at Taliesin. Carlton’s wife, Gertrude, did most of the cooking.
As the workers ate their soup inside the dining room, 19-year-old draftsman Herbert Fritz and his table mates noticed something unusual. “We heard a swish as though water was thrown through the screen door. Then we saw some fluid coming under the door. It looked like dishwater. It spread out all over the floor,” he recalled.
Having just served soup to Wright’s mistress and her children, Carlton instructed his wife to leave. He then returned to the porch wielding a hatchet and attacked Borthwick and her two children before dousing the floors with gasoline and setting the entire house ablaze.
The dining room burst into flames. The door was slammed shut and locked. With his clothes burning and hair afire, Fritz jumped out the window next to where he was seated and rolled down the hillside to put out the flames. As Fritz looked back, he saw Taliesin in flames and Carlton wielding his hatchet against his co-workers who had broken through the barricaded door or tried to escape through a window to the courtyard.
Although badly burned and wounded, both 35-year-old master carpenter Billy Weston, who had built Taliesin, and landscape gardener David Lindblom managed to escape with Fritz. They hurried a half-mile to the nearest house with a phone to call for help. The townspeople who rushed to the scene found the bodies of Borthwick, her two children, two workers and a 13-year-old boy. Lindblom later succumbed to his burns. Seven people had died. Only two survived.
Hours after the attack, Carlton was discovered barely conscious inside the basement furnace of the house, having swallowed muriatic acid. The handyman never gave a motive for his attack and died from starvation seven weeks later. Gertrude Carlton said her husband had become increasingly paranoid in the weeks prior to the attack, even keeping a hatchet in a bag next to his bed.
According to Meryle Secrest’s biography Frank Lloyd Wright, a witness recalled Lindblom having said of Carlton, “If anyone around there ever did him any dirt he would send him to hell in a minute.” There were rumors of workers possibly directing racial slurs at Carlton and of a dispute with him a few days earlier about saddling a horse. One of Taliesin’s surviving workers said that Borthwick had told the Carltons they were being let go. The killer’s wife confirmed they were due to take a train back to Chicago that night.
Even after tragedy struck, the public remained fixated on the relationship between Wright and Borthwick. In their reports on the murders, newspapers still referred to Taliesin as the “Love Cottage.” The Ogden Standard even reported that some neighbors pointed “to the tragic ruin of the ‘kingdom of love’ as the strongest argument that the Avenging Angel still flies.”
Through his grief, Wright set out to resurrect Taliesin, much of which had been destroyed by the fire. By the end of 1914, the residential wing of the estate was rebuilt, and by the end of the year, Wright had proclaimed his love for another woman who had penned him a condolence letter. The two would wed in 1923—after Catherine finally agreed to a divorce—two years before Wright’s estate burned to the ground once again, this time from faulty wiring. Wright once again rebuilt Taliesin, which today is a National Historic Landmark.