These days, retro-styled bars and restaurants are so common that genuine specimens are an endangered species. Sometimes even the real deals turn into parodies of themselves, like the gussied-up White Palace Grill. So when I stumbled across a perfectly preserved 1950s bar designed by a significant American architect and hidden behind an unremarkable facade on a quiet village street, I was amazed that it still existed. What’s ironic is that three months later it no longer does.
The Flying Dutchman Bar was a tiny world unto itself, a remnant of glamour circa 1959 accessed by an unmarked door inside the country-style Post House Restaurant (“est. 1857”) in Spring Green, Wisconsin, summer home to Frank Lloyd Wright. But this little bijou wasn’t Wright’s work. It was done by William Wesley Peters, Wright’s first apprentice and the architect who carried on his legacy after his death. The bar’s decor owed a debt to Wright’s Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, the Marin County Civic Center, and his unbuilt scheme for a vast cultural center for Baghdad, but it also recalled Peters’s own work, especially his Morvarid Palace, built for the Iranian royal family but now neglected and crumbling in the suburbs of Tehran.
The difference is one of scale. Those places were big, made of marble, bronze, and glass mosaic. This one was small, made of commonplace materials–mahogany-faced plywood, plastic, and orange vinyl. But plastic never looked so elegant. Lit from behind, the circular red, green, and blue cutouts of the bar’s canopy glowed like exotic jewels. On one wall was a richly colored mural of overlapping circles, executed in plywood, paint, plastic, and gold leaf. Like many of the murals and graphic designs used by Wright, it came from the hand of Eugene Masselink, another member of Wright’s inner circle. The horseshoe-shaped bar itself seated only 18, and the original tables and chairs–painted Cherokee Red, a Taliesin standard–seated a few more near doors that gave way to a private garden. There was no door from the street. In fact, the bar’s only public window was a mere eight inches square, level with the bar. “Peters didn’t want to have a window at all” said co-owner Gary Schwichtenberg in March, “but the law required all bars to have a window, so he didn’t have a choice. But they didn’t say how big it had to be, so he made it as small as possible. As soon as somebody sat down in front of the window, they blocked the view into the bar.”
Schwichtenberg and his wife, Lisa, grew up in the area, but after a decade of moving his family around the middle of the country to pursue, among other things, a career with Cracker Barrel and a job in food service at Martin Luther College, Gary was ready for a change. Two years ago, when Lisa heard the Post House was for sale, they bought it. “This is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Wisconsin, and we both have memories of eating here when we were kids,” said Gary, while making margaritas. “We haven’t changed much. Friday’s still fish fry night, and we still have our country decor in the restaurant, ’cause that’s pretty popular up here. And one of our waitresses has been here for 33 years. Our biggest change is now we stay open late on Friday and Saturday nights in the summer, so when people get back from American Players Theatre, they can still stop in for dinner or drinks. It’s really nice on a summer night to sit out in our garden and have a few drinks while you wait for your table.”
It was also nice to sit at the intimate, spiffy bar with a martini and pretend you were . . . well . . . somewhere other than Spring Green. Gary laughs. “I think that was the idea. This was kind of a hangout for the Taliesin crowd, especially the older guys. This is a great little town, but probably clients from out east might have been more comfortable having cocktails in a place like this than in the tavern down the block. It was pretty much like a private club for those guys.”
Late on Easter Sunday, the Post House burned to the ground. Fire companies from several towns fought the flames, but by morning the three-story structure was gone. Masselink’s mural, attached to a fire wall separating the bar from a neighboring building, survived with partial damage and is currently in storage, but the owners’ home, in the former Post House Hotel, wasn’t as lucky. Village officials called the building a total loss.