It’s a little-known fact that in 1934, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a chapel for Cooksville, which he named the “Memorial to the Soil Chapel.” The chapel was commissioned for the Gideon Newman family of Cooksville, one of the early families to settle in the village.
According to Wright, the small Prairie School style family chapel was to be a “Chapel Cast in Concrete” that was inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”
However, the project was never built, and its exact proposed location is unknown. The only existing evidence of the chapel is an exquisite prospective elevation and plan drawn by Wright, as well as several brief mentions of the project in the Madison Capital Times newspaper in 1934.
Wright’s plan for the Cooksville Chapel became better known in 1992 when it was featured on the cover of the catalogue for an exhibit in Milwaukee celebrating the 125th anniversary of Wright’s birth. The exhibit was titled, “The Wright State: Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin.”
Apparently, the chapel was designed for the side of a small hill, and, as a Milwaukee newspaper described it in 1992, “[The chapel] breaks from the brow of a hill—a smooth-walled, flat-roofed jewel of parallel lines. Molded from cast concrete, the building both accentuates and pays tribute to the land it embraces.”
On the only existing drawing of the chapel, Wright wrote a description of his design as a “Memorial to the tiller of the ground making the earth a feature of the monument or vice versa.” The plan is a Wrightian design, very horizontal, with very simple geometric shapes inside and out.
|Frank Lloyd Wright|
Unfortunately, not much more is known about the project. The proposed location near Cooksville is not known, nor is the story behind the Newman family’s commission known. And the reason it was not built is likewise unknown.
The family of Gideon Newman commissioned the chapel. But which family member(s) actually dealt with Frank Lloyd Wright is not known. And the “Gideon Newman family” was a large family that included two “Gideon Newman” members: one, the original pioneer settler of Cooksville and the second, his youngest son with the same name.
The elder Gideon Ellis Newman (1823-1911) and his family settled in Cooksville in 1850, where he lived in what is now the Cooksville Farmhouse Inn on the northwest corner of State Highways 59 and 138,. Newman was a prosperous farmer on land northwest of Cooksville and north of the Badfish Creek.
His youngest son, who may have instigated the project, was also named Gideon Ellis Newman (1860-1944). He attended the University of Wisconsin in the 1880s, taught at the Cooksville School, and owned the family farm for a while and was a lawyer in Nebraska, a banker in northern Wisconsin, and an operator of an orange grove for a time in Alabama. He also lived in Chicago, Dallas, Janesville, Evansville, and San Francisco, where he died.
This younger Gideon Newman may have known Frank Lloyd Wright at the University of Wisconsin, where both were in attendance in 1886, and Newman most likely knew of this famous architect by the 1930s. It seems very likely that he initiated the 1934 Wright commission for the family. (Of course it is possible another member of the “Gideon Newman” family—children or grandchildren—may have played a role in commissioning the design of the “Cooksville Chapel” for the pioneering “Gideon Newman family.”)
And it seems reasonable that the proposed location for the Cooksville chapel may have been on the old Newman farmland north of the village on the north side of the Badfish Creek.