Frank Lloyd Wright and the Usonian House

For those of you on or near campus later this morning, architectural historian Kathryn Smith – one of the foremost experts on Frank Lloyd Wright and modern architecture – is giving a lecture on “Frank Lloyd Wright and the Usonian House” as part of the Horizon of Knowledge Lecture Series. For more specific information about the event see here.

In general the term Usonian – first coined in 1936 with the design of the Herbert Jacobs House in Madison, Wisconsin  – refers to Wright’s rethinking of the small affordable house in his effort to shape the period of prosperity and development that he envisioned for post-Depression America. In many ways quite similar to Wright’s earlier Prairie style homes which featured low roofs, open living areas, and an apparent relationship to nature, the Usonian style homes however were smaller, one-story structures. The traditional plan consisted of an L-shaped footprint for the house, with the back of the house facing the street and the front organized around a courtyard. On the interior, he eliminated the concept of the separate dining room, reorienting the kitchen and the dining area into one space. The traditional garage was replaced by the carport, while the need for a basement was eliminated by the use of lightweight floor slabs resting on a grad of packed sand containing a radiant heating system.

The announcement for this lecture, reminded us of related correspondence in the recently re-processed Henry Radford Hope papers. Hope – who served as the Chair of the School of Fine Arts for 27 years and as the first director of the Indiana University Art Museum – gave a talk in June of 1943 before a faculty group on Wright’s domestic architecture. In preparation for that talk, Hope surveyed several current owners of Wright designed homes, asking them to provide “information such as the cost of your house, difficulties you had with priorities, differences of opinion between architect and contractor”, and “details with which you were satisfied or dissatisfied.” While carbon copies of these inquiries are included in the collection, of particular note are the responses from the owners of two Wright designed Usonian homes – each with a rather differing opinion on the success of the final product.

Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum House (Florence, AL)

Flikr Creative Commons, by Gino

Added to the National Register of Historic Place in 1978, the Rosenbaum House was built for newlyweds Stanley and Mildred in 1939 and exists as the only Frank Lloyd Wright designed structure in the state of Alabama.

On May 25, 1943, Hope sent Stanley Rosenbaum a letter outlining the above questions, and the following day Rosenbaum responded in a rather critical way – to put it mildly. The second page from that letter is shown here, with  “Jack” serving as a pseudonym to refer to the Wright-recommended contractor who worked on the project. You can view the letter in its entirely here.

Today the site serves as a museum open to the public, so for more information you about the history of the site visit their website.

Gregor S. and Elizabeth B. Affleck House, Bloomfield Hills, MI

A childhood friend of Wright, in 1940 Gregor Affleck and his wife Elizabeth chose to commission the design of their new home from the renowned architect – despite the fact that Elizabeth  had originally desired a “‘Colonial’  with white pillars to the roof.” Wright directed the couple to locate a site for their new home that “‘no body else can do anything with,” and the resulting product brought on a rush of local and national attention. In October 1940, Progressive Architecture published a 4 page spread on the house, while the model for the design was included in a Wright retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1940-1941. Upon inquiry, the resulting – and much more positive – correspondence between Gregor Affleck and Henry Hope elaborates upon the merits of the design (see here) as well as an stylistic comparison between Wright’s style as compared to those of his contemporaries Le Corbusier and Walter Groupius (see here).

In 1980, the home was donated to Lawrence Technological University to ensure that it would continue to be available to the public and to inspire students of architecture. More information about the history of the site can be found through their website.

Looking for an Interesting Summer Vacation Spot?

In the process of writing this entry, I happened to find that you can actually rent this little Usonian gem in northern Wisconsin – originally designed for business man Bernard Schwartz in 1938.