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Weekend Destination: Arizona and Two Frank Lloyd Wright Landmarks

TALIESIN: The structure’s walls are made of local desert rocks, stacked within wood forms, filled with concrete – colloquially referred to as “desert masonry.”

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January 22, 2023

By Lydia Ringwald

A Day Destination can turn into a ‘weekend’ destination if one keeps driving. Only another four hours out of Palm Springs, one is in Phoenix, Arizona and can enjoy travel opportunities that would include an overnight.

The drive through the desert on Highway 10 is a meditation. The empty road curves through desert landscapes, with mountains in the distance, solid and earthbound at the bottom but rising up into the mist.

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WRIGHT favored using materials readily available. The flat surfaces of the rocks were placed outward facing and large boulders filled the interior space so concrete could be conserved.

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Plains of sandy terrain, spotted with sporadic sage growth, meet the serene sky with grace and dignity. The hum of the tires on the road resonates with the eternal meditative ‘ommmm’.

Then Phoenix rises, like the infamous mythical dragon that consumes itself in fire and  resuscitates back into life in full fire-breathing form.

There is plenty to see in Phoenix, but since we only have a weekend, we will focus on the renown American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s historical landmarks that make this city famous.

When the Biltmore Hotel was completed in 1927, Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix, was in the middle of nowhere. But entrepreneurs Warren and Charles McArthur and John McEntee Bowman and investor William Wrigley Jr. (Wrigley’s chewing gum) had a vision that would transform acres of desert into a luxury hotel to attract the world’s notables.

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FIREPLACES at the Biltmore Hotel are spectacular.

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Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned for the project. The buildings were to be constructed in square concrete blocks, called ‘Textile Blocks’ originally designed by Wright and incorporated in the construction of several of his Los Angeles homes. The block designs were later elongated into rectangular blocks by Arizona architect Albert Chase McArthur who completed the hotel project. The blocks were manufactured out of local sand and gravel at the building site where there was certainly plenty of sand. 

Although the materials may have been simple, the results were magical with uniquely designed concrete blocks supporting the dramatic two story interior lobby with mezzanine and surrounding suites. 

Adjacent the lobby is the Aztec Room, with its stunning ceiling covered in 24 carat gold leaf, that has hosted elegant wedding receptions, inaugurations and other celebrity events since the opening of the hotel.

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GAIA GODDESS SCULPTURE at the Biltmore Hotel in Scottsdale, AZ.

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A path from the lobby leads through a garden path to refreshing swimming pools surrounded by deluxe cabanas and exclusive, secluded neighboring bungalows.

Rooms are also ‘dramatically’ priced, but if one decides not to stay overnight, but instead schedules a massage in the spa or dines at one of the two restaurants in the hotel, one can enjoy the delightful ambiance of this exquisite place and also be entitled to valet parking. 

Also, visitors can enjoy a guided tour of the hotel for only $45 with guide that offers intriguing insights into the history of this magnificent landmark property.

During the late 1920s and 30s, the hotel hosted numerous Hollywood stars including Clark Gable and Carol Lombard who always reserved their special room on the second floor near the ‘Library’, with revolving book shelves that hid a bar behind filled with bootleg liquor. During Prohibition, a guard with a spotlight posted on the copper roof of the hotel would watch for police and warn guests inside the ‘Library’. 

Over the years, most U.S. Presidents have been guests in the hotel’s prestigious Presidential suite. Historical photographs of Presidents sporting golf clubs and tennis racquets is featured in the hallway of the hotel property.

Songwriter and composer Irving Berlin was a frequent guest at the hotel and legend has it that while staying there one winter to enjoy the beautiful Arizona weather, Berlin wrote the music and lyrics of ‘White Christmas’ one of his most popular tunes. It was interesting irony to learn that ‘White Christmas’ was not written while in the snow, but in the desert.

The hotel resonates with even more legend and lore when Frank Sinatra performed spontaneously late at night with Dean Martin and other ‘Rat Pack’ pals in the Biltmore lobby. Hotel guests in bathrobes and slippers came out of their rooms to participate in the fanfare.

Of course, there must be mention Marilyn Monroe, the elegant Hollywood goddess who graced the hotel swimming pool when she visited in the mid-1950s with her then husband Arthur Miller.

The next day, after a peaceful overnight rest, enjoy an opportunity to visit Taliesin West, the design headquarters of Frank Lloyd Wright. Constructed in the early 1940s out of the local stones and concrete mortar on site, Wright created an architectural masterpiece, a building that would nestle into the desert terrain in harmony with the mountain landscape. 


THE MAGNIFICENT Living room at Taliesin West.

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Wright’s aesthetic when approaching a building site was to respect nature with a structure that would blend into the natural setting and not be in violation of it, a feat he achieved with Taliesin West.

The property was built during World War II, when building supplies were scarce, but after WW II, Wright made upgrades incorporating surplus materials that the government was selling at a discount.  Frank Lloyd Wright designed the bathroom walls on the property, using aluminum sheets that had been used to build airplanes, with a unique sheet metal aluminum bathroom design would inspire decorators today. 

It’s interesting to note that Wright was a Pacifist who basically objected to all ‘wars’ that would destroy the infrastructure that he had worked so hard to design and build. During WWII, when Tokyo was bombed, Wright hoped that his Imperial Hotel, that he had designed in the early 1920s for the Emperor of Japan, would be spared. Fortunately, the bombs missed this landmark and the hotel became a hospital and shelter for Japanese during the war.

During WWII, Wright also encouraged the young men who were architects and engineers at Taliesin West to protest when they were drafted. Several suffered the consequences with internment in Arizona POW camps.

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CHINESE SCULPTURE (left)damaged Chinese pottery used as architectural gate highlights Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West Scottsdale AZ.

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Wright, a devotee of the music of Beethoven, admired German technology and invention. Still also one of his most famous patrons was the Solomon Guggenheim, a billionaire Jewish entrepreneur and art collector who commissioned him to build the famous Guggenheim Museum in NYC, one of Wright’s most famous and futuristic landmark properties. The Guggenheim was completed in 1959, a few months before the end of Wright’s life at age 91.

Wright believed that he was beyond the political conflict of his time. He was an iconoclast, a visionary, inspired by power of nature, who would draw from the power of the past and would design and build for the future. Perhaps his Pacifist protest can also be understood in this context. 

It’s wise to schedule the 90-minute tour of Taliesin West online well in advance for this popular destination. The guide offers intriguing insights while touring the Taliesin studios and living spaces so it’s well worth the fee to take the tour.

Visit franklloydwright.org for more information.

There is still much more to see in Phoenix, so we must return another time.

Since this is only a two day excursion, it’s best to schedule your tour of Taliesin West in the morning and enjoy an afternoon drive back to Los Angeles. 

Since it is a long road trip, make it a lovely end of the day and consider a late lunch/early dinner in Indio or Palm Springs before embarking on the last leg of the journey home.

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