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By Richard C. Ross

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Dana-Thomas House - East elevation
Read about an excursion to the Dana Thomas House and Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield


Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Wisconsin



















Fall colors on Mirror Lake Of course there are many facets involved in the planning of an excursion; one of the things that makes a decision easier is to find a destination that requires but a single tank of gas... for the entire round trip.  There are many of those places available -- some are well-known, while others are often located right under our nose but often ignored for one reason or another.  One such gem is located just about an hour's drive north of Madison, Wisconsin on Mirror Lake (located just outside of the Wisconsin Dells, our round trip excursion totaled 355 miles and took a mere 10.75 gallons of gas).  Our selected destination was a small, one-bedroom cottage of 880 square feet in size, located on a hilltop overlooking the placid waters of Mirror Lake, in a remote area of the State Park there.  We were there to enjoy a Fall Color Boat Tour and Reception at the Seth Peterson cottage, hosted by Seth Peterson Cottage Conservancy, Inc.

Frank Lloyd Wright was perhaps the most prolific and by far most influential architects of the twentieth century.  Over his 70-year career, he designed over 1,000 buildings... of which over 400 were built (about 300 remain) -- an incredible statistic in and of itself.  A testament to his genius, many of the structures are now over 100 years old and still standing.  Interestingly, there are only four in which you can actually spend a night or weekend... unless of course you have the incredibly good fortune and wealth to own a Wright home.

The Seth Peterson cottage from the driveway - entrance sideOne of the very last Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structures ever to be built, the Peterson cottage was another example of Wright's Usonian homes, commissioned in 1958 by Seth Peterson while Wright was finishing work on the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York -- a project that occupied some sixteen years of Wright's life.  Mr. Peterson however, never spent a night in the cottage as he presumably committed suicide before the place was finished.  Whether or not Wright himself ever visited the cottage is questionable; on April 9th, 1959 at the age of 91, Frank Lloyd Wright passed away.  For the next twenty-some years, the cottage was left to the ravages of Mother Nature; time, neglect and the elements nearly destroyed it.  But, as luck would have it, a woman by the name of Audrey Laatsch was canoeing on Mirror Lake one day when she somehow spotted the ruins of the cottage up on the hill.  Research indicated that the crumbled cottage was indeed a Frank Lloyd Wright design.
Rehabilitation of the Peterson cottage was not easy, nor was it cheap.  But those volunteers dedicated to the preservation of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structures are resolute and determined; many of those who were responsible for the restoration of the Peterson cottage were local residents, and heading the group was none other than Laatsch herself.  Their efforts, starting with the founding of the Seth Peterson Cottage Conservancy (a non-profit organization) in 1989 resulted in a $300,000 project that took three years to complete and included elements (such as a radiantly heated floor) from Wright's original design that apparently had never been built.  The work was finished and the cottage became available for guest lodging in June of 1992, the 125th anniversary of Wright's birth.

Important to note is that the Seth Peterson cottage is actually a rehabilitation ("repair" - perhaps with different materials) and not a restoration ("return to original condition") -- the difference being that although the design is the original, some aspects, such as the thermal-pane windows created especially for the cottage by Pella, are not.  Personally, I think it is splitting hairs, but I wouldn't want to broach that subject with a Wright aficionado... 

The massive fireplace is the "center" of the cottageThe cottage is really only two rooms (not counting the bathroom) but actually seems quite large; the locally-obtained red sandstone in the walls and on the floor, along with ambient and electric lighting create a comfortable and welcoming warmth.  A small, open kitchen is just to the right upon entering and is equipped with a sink, an electric stove and refrigerator.  Straight ahead is the main room: a gorgeous view into the oak woods is available out the south-facing, floor-to-ceiling windows and a monstrous fireplace can provide a roaring fire when the mood or the weather demands.  A porch on the west side of the cottage provides a perfect place to enjoy a view of the sun as it sets over Mirror Lake.  The cottage is perfect for a special getaway and it is available for overnight or for longer stays.  Best for one or two guests, the cottage will accommodate up to four guests;  it can fairly comfortably hold twenty guests (There were about twenty-five of us in the cottage for the reception) for special events or perhaps a dozen for special meetings.
Aboard the pontoon boats for the fall tourPerhaps one of my favorite parts of our tour was the actual "Fall Color Boat Tour" portion of the day.  Three pontoon boats awaited us at the small dock at the end of the path leading down the hill from the cottage.  We had the good fortune to have drawn Waldo Peterson (no relation to Seth Peterson) as our guide.  Easing back from the dock and heading down the narrow portion of the lake toward the State Park boat launch, Waldo began to describe how Mirror Lake had gotten its start -- he had actually grown up here as a boy and had known the area when the land around Mirror Lake was privately owned.  In 1925, he quipped, a concrete dam replaced a wooden one constructed in the mid 19th century, the purpose of which was to power a watermill to grind local grain into flour.  He also told us about the creation of the State Park in 1962, pointed out special places of interest, like "Pulpit Rock" (from where then-governor of Wisconsin Robert La Follette  -- driving force of the Progressive Movement --  spoke prior to his election to the U.S. Senate in 1905), the secluded cabin where many of the scenes from Public Enemies were filmed, and popular Ishnala Supper Club, as well as a unique rock formation referred to as the "Devil's Post Office".  Perhaps the best "tour guide" (although not paid as such) we have ever had, Waldo Peterson was one of the most incredibly easy-going and likeable people I have ever met.  Mostly he just smiled as he piloted us along the stretches of the 137-acre lake that he loved, while he reminisced about some of the colorful history of the lake and its residents...  The fall colors from the maples were just beginning to show themselves and the serenity was all-encompassing as the sun was setting on the placid waters of Mirror Lake; it was easy to understand how the lake got its name.
The Seth Peterson Cottage just before sunsetThe chill from the boat ride was quickly replaced by the warmth from a blazing fire that awaited us back at the cottage, along with hot cider, sandwiches, and conversation.  The tour had come to an end, but we had one final place to check out before our day could be over.  We stopped briefly at the Hilton Garden Inn Wisconsin Dells for a change of clothes and headed to the Del Bar Restaurant... conveniently right next door.  Designed by a protege of Frank Lloyd Wright, it was a place at which we had always wanted to stop.  The Master Architect's influence is definitely visible -- in the lines of the structure, in
the design if the doors and in the interior as well.  The Del-Bar Restaurant It was a fitting way to end the day, just sipping a cocktail and munching on some delicious smoked salmon... and trying to decide when the best time would be to plan a trip to stay at "The Seth" as Waldo had referred to the Peterson cottage.  And planning is certainly necessary; the place is booked solid until November of 2010...  Even if you don't have a special event to celebrate, it's never too early to start planning a reservation at one of the very few Wright buildings in which you can actually stay -- and take as many pictures as you like.  If simply a tour of the cottage is more to your liking, a monthly open house and guided tour is available or, take the Fall Color Boat Tour & Reception, as we did.  Either way, this is a perfect, one-tank-of-gas excursion!      

Staff Writer, On the Fox

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