John and Ruth Pew House, A Frank Lloyd Wright Design

On the Shore of Lake Mendota

On the Shore of Lake Mendota in Madison

The Pew House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1938-40, is seldom available for public tours, so it was with great enthusiasm that I explored this home, inside and outside, during the Wright and Like Tour held last June. Even dodging rain drops for most of the day didn’t dampen the spirit of the day. It was a good day for photographs – no bright mid-day sun – but the home is positioned neatly over a ravine on the shores of Lake Mendota, and taking any kind of photos requires gymnastics and compromises. To get a lake view, I hiked down the path towards the dock, but could never really take a photograph that truly captures the lines and beauty of this structure. There simply wasn’t enough space to get a photo of the entire home, even with my wide angle lens, and vegetation partly hides the part of the home I was able to shoot.

Hidden from View

Hidden from View, Lake Side

Not much of a view from the dock, or from Lake Mendota. The view from a boat would give you no clue that a Wright home was tucked into this hillside.

The home is a two-story Usonian design, unusual but delightfully compact and full of Wright’s built-ins. In one of the small bedrooms, tiny in size, the room worked well because everything was built into the room – bed, desk, storage. No photos were allowed of the interior of the house, but it is full of charm typical of Wright’s style.

I read a delightful story about an interview with Ruth Pew who voiced unhappiness with the home for the first two years she lived there. It seems she felt that Mr. Wright did not take her wants and needs into consideration when he designed the home, and she was nearly ready to put the home on the market. Instead, she decided she would “give the house a year without struggling with it.” And in that year, she discovered that the home had been built not for the woman she was, but for “the woman I could become.” Talk about self-discovery!

View from Deck into Living Room

View from Deck into Living Room

The Pew House is referred to as a “poor man’s Fallingwater,” because it was built straddling a ravine (instead of Fallingwater’s stream) and on a tight budget with salvaged materials. According to a docent on the tour, one of the windows in the living room had to be replaced because the faint logo of a local establishment became evident after the house was inhabited.

The Wright and Like Tours are held annually, in a different Midwest city, each June. 2010’s tour will be in Racine, Wisconsin. If you are a Wright fan, it’s a great opportunity to see a half dozen or so buildings designed by Wright and his contemporaries.

About Bo Mackison

I'm a photographer, book-artist, traveler, naturalist, and creator of the Contemplative Creatives Journey, An Online Workshop and Community and Desert Wisdom Cards and Workshops. Though often not well known, I find the desert a welcoming place - a healing space. Its mysteries and gifts transformed me several years ago. Since that first encounter, I return again and again to fill my well in what most people think of as a desolate region. I'd love to share my desert discoveries and wisdom with you. Please subscribe to receive my five part mini email course The Gifts of the Desert. It's my gift to you.


  1. How fortunate you were able to take this tour, Bo. I’m a Wright fan as well and your story is delightful. The bit about Mrs. Pew’s decision to stop fighting with the house then discovered the real self sorta gave me chills. I’ll research this tour and plan our return trip to Wisconsin around it – that’s a plan! Thanks for a fabulous post! I wonder why the vegetation is so grown up around this treasure….

  2. I’ll second Debi’s comment. FLLW has some wonderful pieces. I’d like to take that tour.

  3. Peter Nause says:

    Bo I enjoyed your posting – even more that the Pew House gets better known – this little known and seldom seen location hidden on Madison’s southern shore overlooking Lake Mendota in the Village of Shorewood Hills is a treasure that few are aware of.

    I have a personal affinity since I spent nearly 3 years working on the stonework and ravine landscape of the Pew House. I had a chance to experience this intimate wooded hillside in every season and weather while rebuilding the steep hillside from the carport entryway down under the cantilevered bridge portion of this historic structure. I came away from that experience with a profound respect for Wright’s fabled “genius loci”.

    Thanks for sharing the nice photos !

    Here’s a link to a photo showing that rebuilt ravine at the Pew House:
    Peter Nause Landscape Architect Madison, Wisconsin

  4. Donna Uchimura says:

    Do you know who lived in the home in 1956? I was visiting Mary S. North on Lake Mendota and 10 years old at the time. Thank you. Donna

  5. David J Gill says:

    I was fortunate to have been invited in to see the Pew house in about 1979.

    I was an enthusiastic high school student at the time and had just appeared at their door. Owning a Wright home can be maddening because of just this kind of ceaseless intrusion by Wright fans, but Mr. Pew was gracious and energetic, as if he and his wife had just moved in. He apologized for having installed wall to wall carpet. The house was pristine and uncluttered and the Eames plywood dining chairs they had brilliantly and famously put at Wright’s built-in table for the first photo shoot were there.

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