Driftless Terroir: Charlie Curtis, Stonemason, Modernist, Preservationist

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by Erik Flesch

Charlie Curtis may be the quintessential example of a Driftless Area stonemason, weaving together native Paleozoic ledge rock into enduring edifices of our regional ways of life close to the land at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, Mineral Point’s Pendarvis and many projects across southwestern Wisconsin. His stonework graces the communities of Spring Green and Mineral Point and creates for them a profound character of place.

The expert work of this Mineral Point master stonemason was grounded in vernacular masonry of the Cornish old world, but he became a modernist after being recruited by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1932, when Charlie was already 79 years old, to train Wright’s architectural apprentices in the art and science of the mason’s trade at Taliesin in Spring Green. He did the stonework for the great “abstract forest” Hillside drafting studio at Taliesin, and other notable masonry projects including the fireplace in Wright’s bedroom. Then he returned to Mineral Point to work with Bob Neal and Edgar Hellum to restore Pendarvis, which is the first significant work of historic preservation in Wisconsin and today is a state historic site.

Not much is yet known about Charlie Curtis in his young years. We do know from Chris Benson (Joan Rausch and Carol Cartwright, “City of Mineral Point, Wisconsin Intensive Survey Report,” 1992, Architectural Researches Inc., La Crosse) that, “Charles Curtis was a stonemason from Newland East, Cornwall. His father had been a stonemason, and Curtis was said to have taken up the trade at the age of 12. He immigrated to the United States around 1888 [at age 36], and he lived briefly in northern Wisconsin and Dodgeville before settling at Mineral Point in 1892. In the 1900 census he was listed as widowed, but later in that year he married his second and last wife, Kathryn Jane Ivey.” Hellum recalls that Curtis helped with restoration of the Truro Cathedral when he was in Cornwall.

Curtis was the mason for the 1903 stone masterpiece Mineral Point High School, and made news a few years earlier when the owner of the large stone hotel called the Walker House near the Mineral Point railroad depot sold him the building in 1900. According to Benson, Curtis “converted the Walker House from a hotel to an apartment building upon purchasing it and ran a successful business there. Curtis did not care so much for money, and was more artist than entrepreneur.”

This may be why, at age 79, in 1932, Charlie went to work for Frank Lloyd Wright when Wright and his wife, Olgivanna, started the Taliesin Fellowship as an architectural apprenticeship program and intentional community rooted in a philosophy of “learning by doing.” Their tuition helped to fund their first hands-on project, which was a great drafting studio at Hillside, the site of Wright’s aunts’ Hillside Home School.

“Charlie, you’re a real artist.” “Well Abe, h’I’m doin’ the best h’I know ’ow. ’H’I know it’s there and h’I don’t want to be on bad terms with myself.”

In his autobiography, Wright wrote: “The boys made a lot of the old mason, while he made a good mason out of a lot of them. I liked Charlie. … Charlie Curtis often used to say to the lads, ‘You’ve got to get the feel of the rock in your ’ands, m’boys. It hain’t no use ’til y’do! No use’t all.’ We had tripped the ledges and again opened the old quarry from which the beautiful stone for the Hillside buildings was taken. This quarrying was a mighty experience for the inexpert — we were all amateurs but, Charlie Curtis helping, we did it. We had plenty of stone which we had quarried, hauled ourselves, and piled about the buildings. Our fellows were getting splendid in action. Blocks of flesh-colored sandstone, cords upon cords of it out of the ground, two miles away. The buildings kept on growing up by way of more and more long fine stone walls. We now had four local masons working under Charlie.”

On Sept. 11, 1934, Abe Dumbar, an apprentice to Wright, wrote a touching column about Curtis in the weekly “At Taliesin” series of newspaper columns written by apprentices on a rotating basis. Abe remembered Charlie telling him that when he was a boy his stonemason father repeatedly told him to “handle the stones as if they were eggs.” Curtis told the apprentices about how he would cut each block of granite by hand when he worked in Wales, and Abe figured that this developed a similar robust and noble character in Curtus just as the early American pioneers did as they “put their personal power against raw materials.”

Abe wrote, “Charlie is 5-foot-9, lean and slightly stooped. He weighs but 140 pounds. He has snow-white hair and a long white mustache over a firm jaw. He and his old corn-cob pipe are inseparable except during work. He never smokes when he works but will stop several times a day when the spirit moves and sit down for a smoke. He advocates work so that he can rest, work so that he can work, and work so that he can sleep. And he rises with the sun as a master man should. He loves to eat and to walk and to be among men as to be among his stones.

“He says, ‘There is nothing like the rock’ and holding both arms out and shaking his hands up and down, ‘h’I like to get the feel of the rock into me ’ands.’ Each stone has a strong individuality of this own … And he can tell by a glance at a man what his character is just as he is able to tell it in the stones.

“It is refreshing to hear him talk with his ‘H’I say there, boy.’ And speaking of a stone beautifully cut, he’ll say, ‘h’aint she the berries?’ or ‘Oh, say, ‘h’it’s a bird.’ Then he chuckles, his eyes glistening and apparently to himself says ‘yes’ and chuckles again nodding and saying ‘yes.’ Then he is likely to repeat, ‘Yep, she’s a beauty, Abe.’

“‘Well Charlie, are you happy?’ Mr. Wright asked one Sunday. ‘I don’t know how not to be happy.’ And then his eyes twinkling with a chuckle repeats, sotto voice, slow, his ‘yes.’”

But Charlie did not stick around Taliesin for more than about four years. In September 1936, Wright wrote to Charlie, “When are you going to be back at Taliesin with us again? We didn’t expect when you left that we would be deserted and the work on the terrace without your supervision isn’t going forward as it should. Please let us know when we may expect you and give our regards to Mrs. Curtis.”

Charlie had returned to Mineral Point. Pendarvis’ Hellum recalled that in 1936, Charlie came out to offer two weeks of work on Shake Rag in the Pendarvis district because “we were doing a good job,” but he worked for a year and a half. Charlie told them that the masonry Wright had him do was “stick-out stuff, where he went out with one course of stone and recessed the next one,” which was against Charlie’s better judgment. ‘But if it’s stick-out stuff he wanted, it was stick-out stuff he got.’” He told Edgar that “‘Frank Lloyd Wright was good to me but, let’s see, I think I still have $1,700 coming from him,’ which he never got.” At Pendarvis, Charlie returned to his vernacular roots in load-bearing stone, restoring all the stonework and adding the kitchen wing on to Trelawny. In designing the masonry pattern, Charlie would create a contrast between large blocks and smaller 6-inch-square stones, for which he advised, “Frame it well, my son, and give it a good bed.”

Outside of his work, Benson recalls, “The artistry of Curtis was well matched in the artistry of the Walker House, his home and major source of income. There are no records of Curtis making any additions to the property, but the man and his home are different examples of the same philosophy. … Vernacular in architecture and native in material, the building could be compared to Curtis’ native accent. Like Curtis, the building is not beautiful because of ostentation or flamboyance, but because of simple quality and honest confidence. The two are not pretty—they are glorious.”

On Jan. 15, 1943, Curtis passed away at age 89. Benson remembers “the journalist announcing his death sadly recalls his iconic greeting, ‘Hello, how is the boy,’ and praised Curtis’s life as ‘long and useful.’” Abe Dombar’s “At Taliesin” column was the basis of Curtis’ obituary and was prominently featured on the front page of The Mineral Point Tribune.

Curtis and men like him deserve to be remembered, even vigorously honored. These masons brought their character and know-how to create the durable fabric of our culture from native bedrock, and taught others to bring quality to our towns.

Our stone buildings connect our man-made habitat to the nature of the Driftless Area and to the mason’s sense of poetry and integrity. When Dunbar would admire Curtis’ work, he would say, “Charlie, you’re a real artist.” To which Curtis would reply, “Well Abe, h’I’m doin’ the best h’I know ’ow. ’H’I know it’s there and h’I don’t want to be on bad terms with myself. No.”

Erik Flesch is an architectural designer who trained at Taliesin, where he is the director of development for the Wisconsin-based Taliesin Preservation. He lives in Mineral Point with his wife, Sara, and can be reached at erik@driftlessterroirstudio.comTo contribute to Driftless Terroir, e-mail info@voiceoftherivervalley.com.