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Two Nights At Frank Lloyd Wright’s Cabin In The Woods

By Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)

When the electric sunset broke through the high wraparound windows and surrounding tree canopy, it looked as if pink, orange and green stained-glass panels had suddenly been installed inside the Seth Peterson Cottage. One more reason the place felt more like a cathedral than a small stone cabin in the woods.

Throughout our two-night stay at one of the Upper Midwest’s most unique and historic cabin rentals, I kept thinking of the cottage as a shrine to the two very different men who were behind such a special hideaway — neither of whom lived to see its completion.

One was among America’s most influential architects and Wisconsin’s most famous sons. The other was a modest state government employee who took his own life at 24.

Tucked away into a thickly forested corner of Mirror Lake State Park near Wisconsin Dells in south central Wisconsin, the Peterson Cottage is Frank Lloyd Wright’s last commissioned work in the state he called home. Work began in 1958. It’s also one of the craftsman’s smallest structures anywhere, with only one bedroom and 880 total square feet.

My wife and I rented the cottage this past summer, but we actually made our reservation in October 2013. That’s how far ahead you have to plan if you want to stay there in the warmer months.

We picked up the keys to the cottage in the town of Lake Delton, from Sand County Service Co., a vacation rental company whose offices are lined with pamphlets for all the Dells area’s water, duck and pony shows. That hubbub felt worlds away from where we were headed.

Set only a few hundred yards off a main park road down a gravel driveway, the cabin delivers on seclusion. A sign at the driveway gate warns that the place is off-limits to non-renters except for the second Sunday of each month, when the Seth Peterson Cottage Conservatory hosts tours.

In part because of its modest size, the cottage stands as a major example of how well Wright married his structures to their natural surroundings. And the surroundings in this case are themselves quite spectacular.

Perched atop a hill overlooking the rambling Mirror Lake, the cottage has a sharply angled flying roof and stone walls that make it look like one of the nearby stone bluffs jutting through the treetops. The walls and floor of the cabin are made of Wisconsin sandstone; the wood of the ceilings and sleek detailing also came from the area.

The large windows tie the cottage to the landscape from the inside. I seriously felt more in tune with nature staying in this architectural landmark than I usually do sleeping in a tent in a crowded state park.

On the other hand, there was a certain unnatural quirkiness to spending a few nights in a cabin that has been written about in Architectural Digest.

After we unloaded the car, for instance, I did what every blue-blooded Midwesterner does upon arriving at a cabin: propped the beer cooler upside down outside the front door to let it dry out. Soon, though, I was struck by visions of some uptight architectural society rep showing up and chastising me for ruining the cabin’s visual grace with my ugly blue plastic Igloo.

The cooler got stashed in the car.

In the end, though, our only visitors were the local pack of raccoons, one of whom climbed right up on the stone ledge outside the windows by the dining room as if he wanted to join our Yahtzee game. My daughters, ages 4 and 7, similarly liked scrambling up the sloped stone exterior walls — another reason I was glad no preservationist snobs ever showed up.

Board games, dinner and conversation felt extra special inside the cottage on the angular, Wright-designed furniture, but the most uncommon ordinary experience was sitting around the fireplace. The literal and figurative centerpiece to the cottage lights up the walls and woodwork in magical ways. It works pretty well for s’mores, too.

Come bedtime for the girls, I pulled out the coffee-table booklets by the fire’s glow and read in depth about the cottage’s tragic history.

Thanks to passion, persistence and the fact that even the master architect had a cash-flow problem, Peterson was able to persuade Wright to build the small cottage. The younger Wisconsinite was little more than an architectural fanboy who worked as one of the state’s first computer operators. He planned the cottage as a hideaway for him and his intended bride.

Whatever the early computer job paid, though, it wasn’t enough to cover the construction once it began in 1958. Peterson soon went into debt. His bride-to-be left him. The young idealist killed himself before seeing his dream finished. Wright died shortly after Peterson, in April 1959.

The cottage was completed but somehow never found a rightful owner. In 1966, when Mirror Lake State Park was designated, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources took it over and proceeded to board up the place. That was its sorry fate for decades, until 1989, when — after falling into dire disrepair — the incomparable cabin was saved by Wright enthusiasts. Renovations took three years.

©2015 Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Cliff via Flickr

Kim Gordon’s Kool New Thing

By Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

MINNEAPOLIS — Not long after forming in 1981 on its way to indie-rock domination, Sonic Youth played one of its first shows outside New York City at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. How fitting, then, that the band’s iconic bassist/singer Kim Gordon has also booked a museum gig for her first post-S.Y. trip to Minnesota with her new music venture, Body/Head — even if it’s a gig at the other big museum in town.

“I was actually a little confused by that, too,” Gordon said by phone interview, referring to the fact that this week’s performance will be at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where Sonic Youth also headlined the second Rock the Garden concert in 2000.

“I’ve always thought of Minneapolis as a city steeped in the arts, so it’s no surprise to wind up someplace else.”

A semi-improvisational, noise-caressing guitar duo she formed with a friend from her adopted hometown of Northampton, Mass. — “the most liberal corner of America,” Gordon proudly noted — Body/Head was picked to kick off an adventurous series called Sound.Art.MIA.

Gordon, 60, said she especially prefers to perform in museums nowadays “because it changes people’s expectations, and lets them know they’re not going to see a conventional rock ‘n’ roll show.” Her duo has also performed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art, to name two.

In a separate conversation, her new bandmate, Bill Nace, explained further: “At rock clubs, people are always there for different reasons, and that’s great, but what we’re doing maybe requires a little more attention than usual.”

Nace and Gordon first bonded over film (he worked at the indie theater in Northampton). They started playing music together in 2012 after she was asked to cover Peggy Lee’s “Fever” for a compilation disc by the Belgian label Ultra Eczema. That progressed into some basement jam sessions, which led to a European tour and an album, “Coming Apart,” released in September via Matador Records.

“I didn’t have any huge desire to start another band, or do any kind of solo thing under my own name,” said Gordon, who laughed off the notion she would’ve had an all-star cast of musicians lined up to perform with her. “If I did anything like that, it’d probably be to do a jazz record or something weird like that.”

With the relatively unknown Nace as her lone bandmate, “it’s more about what we can create together,” she said.

“Bill’s a really great guitarist — ‘tasteful’ is probably a good word, but also very innovative,” Gordon said, offering the term “scripted improvisation” to describe their approach. “We have certain lyrics and a little song structure that carries over from show to show, but there’s a lot of freedom involved.”

More freedom, she noted, than even the experimental, improv-prone Sonic Youth offered. “Not having any sort of strict song structure is really liberating and interesting,” she said. “I’ve never thought of myself as having a ‘singer’ kind of voice, so in a lot of ways this is a better fit for me.”

Despite her renown as a bassist, she likes playing guitar, which she also did toward the end of Sonic Youth. “It’s better on my tendinitis,” she quipped.

Gordon said she was freed up in more ways by the abrupt end of her old band in 2011. While the details of the breakup remain gossip-blog fodder — her ex-husband/bandmate Thurston Moore was having an affair — she has been making the most of her time away from Sonic Youth’s heavy tour schedule. Likewise, her and Moore’s daughter, Coco, has since gone off to college.

An art student before joining a band, Gordon put together an exhibit of recent paintings and other visual art work last year for the White Columns gallery in New York City. What’s more, she is writing an autobiography, which she hesitated to talk about except to say, “It’s not really going to be the story of Sonic Youth, but more about my personal evolution.”

Both Gordon and Nace noted that fans of her old band have been receptive to Body/Head, which just finished a new 7-inch single and has more tour plans this year.

“No one’s been shouting out ‘Kool Thing’ or anything like that,” Nace said. “I think it speaks to how much people respect Kim.”

For her part, Gordon said simply, “Sonic Youth couldn’t go on forever.”

Photo: Kelly Chambers via Flickr