Mirror, Mirror

Seth Peterson Cottage

Seth Peterson Cottage

I’m not sure what time it was when the light started coming into the bedroom. It was morning. It was when the earth turned. It was when the wildlife woke. It was whenever it happened.

I saw it through the windows of the Seth Peterson Cottage, because there are no shades or curtains, which is how the designer, Frank Lloyd Wright, wanted it.

The house was quiet, as it had been the day before when my wife and I rolled into the snowy drive. It was as quiet as it had been for the twenty-four years the cottage lay abandoned and rotting in the middle of Mirror Lake State Park.

It’s a place with a strange story: The house’s namesake was a young computer programmer at the Department of Motor Vehicles who wanted to study architecture at Taliesin but was rejected. So instead, he commissioned the cottage from Wright but committed suicide before it was finished in 1959, the same year Wright died. After that, it was sold to another family, who finished it, then sold it to the state in 1966.

For the next twenty-four years, the cottage sat empty, becoming more and more a part of nature, until a Milwaukee woman who owned a cottage on another part of the lake doggedly took up the cause of its revival restoration.

After we’d arrived, we brought our things inside and stood staring out the window on the south side of the cottage. It’s a massive wall of glass that looks out into the woods that surround the cottage and run down to Mirror Lake, which you can see through a break in the trees. The way the light comes through these windows gives the space a feeling that’s hard to describe. Energy? No. Symmetry? Not quite. Calm? Not exactly. It’s some convergence of these things that makes it feel restful and exciting at the same time.

Whatever that balance is, the Seth Peterson Cottage feels like Wright done right. It’s small—880 square feet—and built of wood and stone and glass that give it an earthy, grounded feel. It’s like a solid island floating on the splashy river of fun that is the Wisconsin Dells.

“Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you,” Wright is said to have told his apprentices. It’s a sentiment that couldn’t be further from the rest of the animatronic nonsense that goes on in nearby Lake Delton. “I believe in God,” is another oft-quoted Wright line, “only I spell it Nature.”

That is the sentiment at the heart of much of Wright’s work. He called it “organic architecture,” which makes it sound like something found between the produce and patchouli aisles at the Willy Street Co-op. I think the description is misleading, because at its heart is a lie: The belief that there is something inherently good in nature, that it is superior to the human-made. Philosophers call this the “naturalistic fallacy,” and it has caused much confusion among Dane County politicians, attachment parents and hippies the world over.

Because if you truly believe nature will never fail you, you must redefine “fail.” Nature will kill your children and wipe out your species without a second thought. It will turn your building into a pile of wormwood in half the time it takes to marry three different wives. Nature doesn’t care. Nature is value-neutral.

And yet as I sat in the Seth Peterson Cottage, looking out the window as the sun stretched across the frozen surface of Mirror Lake, I couldn’t help but feel like there is genius at work in this place, like Wright was on to something. After all, when all his contemporaries could think to do was re-create little Europes across America, Wright looked out into the trees and saw something new. He looked at the land and saw something great. And he looked into the wild and saw beauty.

Is that it? Not that nature is good or that it’s God but that it’s as beautiful as it is terrible? Certainly part of it is that Wright found a way to showcase that beauty while protecting us from nature’s cold heart.

Maybe that’s why the Seth Peterson Cottage feels so much more right than other works in Wright’s oeuvre. It is a simple structure, stripped of pretension and devoid of grand ambitions. There is an elegance to the way the rooms flow like a nautilus shell. There is a simplicity to the way the light pours in during the day and the shadows play on the stones.

I got out of bed, walked out of the room, and stood again at the window. It seemed ironic that so much tragedy went into the genesis of this cottage, and that so much desperation and sadness could result in an apotheosis of all that Frank Lloyd Wright believed: A building that felt fully alive.

Or maybe not. Maybe that was the most natural thing of all.

Contributing writer Frank Bures’s stories were selected as “Notable Travel Writing” in the Best American Travel Writing 2008.

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