Retired Architect Creates Models Of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Structures

By Joel Waldinger | September 12, 2018


In his retirement, architectural draftsman Ron Olsen was looking for something to keep him busy. At least his wife Judy was looking to keep him busy. They’ve been married for 55 years and have traveled to see many of the properties designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. After a visit to Pettit Chapel in Belvidere, Illinois Judy set the wheels in motion.

At this point, Ron had been retired for about a year and Judy suggested he build a scale model of the Pettit Chapel. It would put some of Ron’s architecture skills to work. Neither of them could have imagined how that simple idea would evolve. Judy recalls what happened after he made that first model, “Oh, I loved it. It was the first one I think that he had done. Then I said to him, ‘Oh, that’s really, really nice. I love it dearly but would you please make Fallingwater next?’”

While Pettit Chapel is a relatively easy design, Fallingwater is a three story, cantilevered house the jets out over a small waterfall. The bar had been raised… a lot! The collection of scale models now stands at around 30. Ron’s latest recreation is his largest ever. Wingspread is near Racine and was the home of the Johnson family. Ron had been looking for a permanent home for his models when he came up with this idea. He thought, “I’ll just take the bull by the horns and contacted Mr. Johnson. So, I wrote a letter.” Mr. Johnson as in Fisk Johnson of the SC Johnson Corporation. After all, Frank Lloyd Wright had designed the research tower and office complex for its world headquarters. It was bittersweet when the Olsen’s received word that SC Johnson would take the models. Ron admits they both shed a few tears.

The replica landmarks are now housed in Fortaleza Hall as part of a permanent exhibit.  Ron said, “The first thing you see is the model that I built of the Johnson’s Research Tower that Wright designed. It really just takes my breath away.” There is also a hidden secret in that tower. Ron put a photograph of Judy, their children and grandchildren on the top floor. Nobody can see it but the Olsen family knows it is there. “It’s just a lasting memory for our family to know that they are included in one of our models,” Ron said.

When you tour the exhibit you can see in great detail Mr. Wright’s designs. The exhibit includes Lykes House in Phoenix, AZ and the photo on the wall shows just how exact Ron’s models are to the building in real life. You can also see Fallingwater, the Laura Gale House, and Pettit Memorial Chapel which started it all. One of Judy’s favorites: The Romeo and Juliet Windmill at Taliesin near Spring Green. “It’s been a thrill for me to know that people from all over the world can see some of Wright’s work in miniature and it looks like it should,” Ron said.

Ron is also humbled when he sees his own name on the displays etched for eternity right alongside famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger is a reporter for the “Wisconsin Life” project and considers a sunset over the “big island” on Manson Lake to be a perfect ending to a day of fishing and fun in the Northwoods. 

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