Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wisconsin Cottage

October 13, 2011

Recently I spent a weekend at the Seth Peterson Cottage, a Frank Lloyd Wright house near Lake Delton. It was my second overnight visit, my first having been in 1993, about a year after the cottage was opened for private rentals and regular public tours.

The wall of windows faces southwest.

The setting is delightful: a wooded hill overlooking Mirror Lake. Indeed, the small house is now within Mirror Lake State Park and maintained and operated by an arrangement between the non-profit Seth Peterson Cottage Conservancy and the Department of Natural Resources.

Had it not been for the Conservancy, and particularly Audrey Laatsch, the cottage might have been lost. When she came upon the house in 1988, it had been unoccupied for years and suffered serious deterioration.

Seth Peterson Cottage is small, measuring 880 square feet. The plan is simple, with a large open space that embraces living and dining areas wrapped around a large fireplace. A shed roof opens to an expanse of windows facing southwest with a patio at 90 degrees that looks northwest. It is from the west corner of the house that one gets the best view of the lake below.

The corner of the patio overlooks Mirror Lake below.

There is a small and quite workable kitchen and a single bedroom under a low, flat roof at the rear of the house.

Designed by Wright in 1958, the cottage was unfinished when the young client, Seth Peterson, took his own life in 1960. Wright had died a year earlier at age 91. After sitting empty for two years, the cottage was purchased by Lillian Pritchard for her son and finished pretty much as designed. Only a few years later, in 1966, the state purchased the house and surrounding land for $38,400 to become part of the new park. With no plans for the house, it was boarded up and languished. More than 20 years later, Laatsch and the Conservancy rehabilitated the house for public use.

Making Seth Peterson Cottage available for overnight stays was a bold idea when inaugurated in 1992. It would not be a house museum, but a residence, even if transitory, as intended by client and architect. It was the first Wright house to offer such an opportunity. Today, there are eleven Wright sites where guests can spend the night, including two others in Wisconsin.

It’s a rare pleasure to spend time in a Wright house. I’ve visited plenty of Wright buildings over the years, usually in groups that are timed, managed and directed. For our weekend at the Seth Peterson Cottage, I and my friends had the priceless benefit of unhurried time. We could sit and look, read or relax. We could take in the house and its site from many angles, inside and out. We could enjoy the changing light through the day, the sun filtered by trees with yellowing leaves in early fall.

The cottage has a large fireplace, a common feature of Wright's interiors.

To be sure, spending the weekend is an extravagance and takes a bit of planning since the cottage books years in advance. Yet I could think of no better way to mark a milestone birthday. And the real luxury is that I had the time to enjoy the experience.

Note: The Seth Peterson Cottage Conservancy offers monthly guided tours of the house and other events open to the public.

–Michael Bridgeman