Frank Lloyd Wright
Seth Peterson
The Seth Peterson Cottage
The Rehabilitation
Early Years and the Future

Frank Lloyd Wright 
Frank Lloyd Wright | Credit: Robert M. Kueny, AIA
At the time Seth Peterson approached Wright to design the Cottage, the architect was nearing ninety years old, in the seventh decade of the most creative and innovative architectural practice in American history.

Frank Lloyd Wright is a native son of Wisconsin. Born in Richland Center on June 8, 1867, he always regarded Wisconsin as his home. After early years in Madison and Spring Green, he ventured to Chicago in 1887, where he developed his revolutionary ideas and created a thriving practice in the prosperous suburb of Oak Park. In 1911, he returned to Wisconsin, taking a farm near Spring Green and turning it into a laboratory where he developed and built his ideas for more than fifty years.

These ideas and ideals spread from the Midwest throughout the United States, then worldwide, and have entered the very fabric of our American culture.

In the late 1950’s, Wright was the center of an astonishingly successful architectural practice, and was involved in such major projects as the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, the Marin County Civic Center near San Francisco, and the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church near Milwaukee. In addition, he was designing many private homes.

The 1958 Seth Peterson Cottage is Wright’s last Wisconsin building. Wright died in April, 1959, before Cottage construction was completed.

Photo credit of Mr. Wright: Robert M. Kueny, AIA
Seth Peterson 
Mr. Seth PetersonSeth Peterson, who shared his birthday with Frank Lloyd Wright, and grew up in Black Earth, WI, a village about twenty miles from Spring Green, was interested in art and architecture even as a boy. Wright, it seems, was always a presence in Peterson’s life. While still in high school, he and a friend would take the train to Oak Park, Illinois to stroll the shady sidewalks viewing the many Wright-designed buildings in that city. Later, young Peterson requested admission to the Taliesin Fellowship. At the time no space for a new apprentice was available, but his friendship with Wright continued.

After a tour in the Army, Peterson returned to his hometown and took a job as one of state government’s first computer operators. He retained his dream of working with Wright, though, and on several occasions he asked the master to design a home for him. Wright refused because of the press of other work, but eventually Peterson sent Wright a retainer, which Wright promptly spent. So he was finally obligated to design Peterson’s dream house.

Peterson had purchased a piece of property on quiet Mirror Lake, near Wisconsin Dells, and it was for this dramatic wooded site that he asked Wright to design a small house just big enough for Peterson and his intended bride.

Sadly, Peterson never saw his dream realized, due to his untimely death at age 24 before the cottage was finished.
The Seth Peterson Cottage 
The Seth Peterson Cottage | Designed by Frank Lloyd WrightThis tiny house, with just 880 square feet of living space, brings together many of the qualities that mark Frank Lloyd Wright as one of the world’s foremost architects. The Cottage is balanced just on the edge of the steep wooded hill that plunges down to Mirror Lake. Framed by strong terrace buttresses of local Wisconsin sandstone, and with walls of the same stone, the building possesses a monumentality that is surprising to find in such a small structure The massive chimney and walls of the building, rising two stories over the bathroom and kitchen, are strong vertical elements that anchor and offset the energetic wedge of the roof. The great flying roof, seeming to hang in space without support, frames the principal views to the west and south. The flagstones used to pave the outside terrace continue inside the building as the cottage floor, manifesting Wright’s philosophy of making little distinction between the outside and inside worlds in which we live.

Inside the cottage, the soaring roof is offset by the lower stonewalled enclosure of the east side, a cozy retreat centered on the fireplace. In the bedroom a ribbon of narrow windows just beneath the roof provides a wash of light offering shelter and privacy.

Only one element of applied decoration marks this elegant and simple cottage: a frieze of stylized pine trees cut from plywood and set into a narrow row of windows above the main living room windows.

The Cottage was purchased by the State of Wisconsin in 1966 as an addition to the recently created Mirror Lake State Park. No appropriate use could be found for the Cottage so it was boarded up for safety and preservation reasons. It remained that way
until 1989 when the Seth Peterson Cottage Conservancy was formed by local residents and Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiasts. The Conservancy signed a 15-year renewable lease with the Department of Natural Resources to rehabilitate and operate the Cottage.
The Rehabilitation 

The Seth Peterson Cottage RehabilitationRehabilitation of the Seth Peterson Cottage took more than three years. The Seth Peterson Cottage Conservancy hired architect John Eifler, who was experienced in restoring Wright buildings, to direct the project.

When rehabilitation work began in 1989, the boarded-up building was in total disrepair. Water damage had destroyed the flat roof over the bedroom as well as part of the sloped living room roof. The heating, electrical and plumbing systems were completely deteriorated. Kitchen, bedroom and bathroom cabinets and fixtures were either missing or too badly damaged to salvage and windows and door frames were in disrepair. Much of the glass was broken or missing. The sandstone walls and flagstone floor were the only portions of the building still in good condition. Volunteers removed and sanded salvageable woodwork. Wisconsin Conservation Corps crews removed and numbered each floor flagstone, following a detailed floor diagram. Crews also removed the old hot air heating ducts, the furnace and the concrete slab under the flagstone floor.

Rehabilitation continued with replacement of the roof, installation of new electrical and plumbing systems, and a new well and septic system. Woodwork was refinished or replaced, new custom-made windows were installed, and the flagstone floor was re-laid over the new concrete slab in which the pipes for the hot water radiant heating system are embedded. Wright’s original design called for this type of heating system, but was not installed for cost reasons as part of the original construction.

Kitchen, bedroom and bathroom cabinets and shelves were rebuilt using the ruined units as models, and the furniture Wright designed for the house was finally built. To fully furnish the cottage for rental purposes, John Eifler designed additional furniture pieces to complement Wright’s design.

Early Years and the Future 
The rehabilitation of the Cottage, after many monetary and in-kind donations, still left a debt of $27,000 in 1992. With cottage rentals quickly becoming popular, this debt was repaid within four years. Since that time, the Cottage has remained totally self-sufficient, depending largely on rental income, the cooperation and aid from the Mirror Lake State Park staff, and an army of talented volunteers who handle minor repairs, visitor tours, annual spring work weeks, production of the newsletter, and much more.

The past twenty years have also seen significant improvements made to the Cottage and environs. Architect John Eifler designed a complementary storage shed, and board member Paul Wagner designed a shed to store all the firewood culled from Mirror Lake State Park. To enable guests to take full advantage of Mirror Lake, a dock was built and a canoe was donated.

Other improvements included the attractive red entrance gate designed by Bill Martinelli, new outdoor lighting, and extensive landscaping. In 2005 air conditioning was installed for the comfort of our rental guests. In 2006 a mini rehab was completed with the furniture being repaired and refinished, all upholstery replaced, interior and exterior woodwork refinished, and repairs to the radiant floor. In 2008 the cedar shingles and the fire brick in the fireplace were replaced. In 2009 a high efficiency, on demand boiler was installed and in 2011 the cedar shingles on the shed were replaced and a new cooktop installed in the Cottage.

In the past two decades, the Cottage has received more than 10,000 overnight guests from most states and many foreign countries. Our monthly tours now attract more than a thousand visitors a year. The Cottage is kept in the public eye through many feature articles, including those that have appeared in Architectural Digest, The New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune.

All who love and treasure the Cottage look forward to the next ten years of success, and to the continued hard work of the many volunteers and board members who make this little masterwork available to all.