The Usonian house - the brainchild of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) - is the embodiment of an idea for a simple, stylish small house of moderate cost designed especially for the American middle class. It is not so much a style as a type of residential architecture. "Style is important," wrote Wright. "A style is not."
When looking at a portfolio of Wright's architecture, the casual observer might not even pause at the Jacobs I house in Madison, Wisconsin - the first Usonian house from 1937 looks so familiar and ordinary compared with Wright's famous 1935 Fallingwater residence. The Kaufmanns' Fallingwater in the Pennsylvania woods is not a Usonian, yet, Usonian architecture was another obsession of the famous Frank Lloyd Wright in the last decades of his long life. Wright was 70-years-old when the Jacobs house was finished. By the 1950s, he had designed hundreds of what he was then calling his Usonian Automatics.
Wright didn't want to be known solely as an architect of the rich and famous, although his early residential experimentation in Prairie house design had been subsidized by families of means. The competitive Wright quickly became interested in affordable housing for the masses - and doing a better job than the catalog companies like Sears and Montgomery Ward were doing with their prefabricated house kits. Between 1911 and 1917, the architect teamed up with Milwaukee businessman Arthur L. Richards to design what became known as American System-Built houses, a type of prefabricated small, affordable home easily and quickly assembled from "ready-cut" materials. Wright was experimenting with grid design and a less labor-intensive construction process to create beautifully designed, affordable dwellings.
In 1936, when the United States was in the depths of the Great Depression, Wright realized that the nation's housing needs would forever be changed. Most of his clients would lead more simple lives, without household help, but still deserving of sensible, classic design. "It is not only necessary to get rid of all unnecessary complications in construction… " wrote Wright, "it is necessary to consolidate and simplify the three appurtenance systems - heating, lighting, and sanitation." Designed to control costs, Wright's Usonian houses had no attics, no basements, simple roofs, radiant heating (what Wright called "gravity heat"), natural ornamentation, and efficient use of space, inside and out.
Some have said that the word Usonia is an abbreviation for United States of North America. This meaning explains Wright's aspiration to create a democratic, distinctly national style that was affordable for the "common people" of the United States. "Nationality is a craze with us," Wright said in 1927. "Samuel Butler fitted us with a good name. He called us Usonians, and our Nation of combined States, Usonia. Why not use the name?" So, Wright used the name, although scholars have noted that he got the author wrong.
Usonian architecture grew out of Frank Lloyd Wright's earlier Prairie style home designs. "But most importantly, perhaps" writes architect and writer Peter Blake, "Wright began to make the Prairie house look more modern." Both styles featured low roofs, open living areas, and built-in furnishings. Both styles make abundant use of brick, wood, and other natural materials without paint or plaster. Natural light is abundant. Both are horizontally inclined - "a companion to the horizon," wrote Wright. However, Wright's Usonian homes were small, one-story structures set on concrete slabs with piping for radiant heat beneath. The kitchens were incorporated into the living areas. Open carports took the place of garages. Blake suggests that the "modest dignity" of the Usonian homes 'laid the foundation for much modern, domestic architecture in America" yet to come. The horizontal, indoor-outdoor nature of the popular Ranch Style home of the 1950s is anticipated by the realization of the Usonian. Blake writes:
"If one thinks of 'space' as a sort of invisible but ever present vapor that fills the entire architectural volume, then Wright's notion of space-in-motion becomes more clearly understandable: the contained space is allowed to move about, from room to room, from indoors to outdoors rather than remain stagnant, boxed up in a series of interior cubicles. This movement of space is the true art of modern architecture, for the movement must be rigidly controlled so that the space cannot 'leak' out in all directions indiscriminately." - Peter Blake, 1960
The Usonian Automatic
In the 1950s, when he was in his 80s, Frank Lloyd Wright first used the term Usonian Automatic to describe a Usonian style house made of inexpensive concrete blocks. The three-inch-thick modular blocks could be assembled in a variety of ways and secured with steel rods and grout. "To build a low-cost house you must eliminate, so far as possible, the use of skilled labor," wrote Wright, "now so expensive." Frank Lloyd Wright hoped that home buyers would save money by building their own Usonian Automatic houses. But assembling the modular parts proved complicated - most buyers ended up hiring pros to construct their Usonian houses.
Wright's Usonian architecture played an important role in the evolution of America's midcentury modern homes. But, despite Wright's aspirations toward simplicity and economy, Usonian houses often exceeded budgeted costs. Like all of Wright's designs, Usonians became unique, custom homes for families of comfortable means. Wright admitted that by the 1950s buyers were "the upper middle third of the democratic strata in our country."
Beginning with a house for a young journalist, Herbert Jacobs, and his family in Madison, Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright built more than a hundred Usonian houses. Each house has taken on the name of the original owner - the Zimmerman House (1950) and Toufic H. Kalil House (1955), both in Manchester, New Hampshire; the Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum House (1939) in Florence, Alabama; the Curtis Meyer House (1948) in Galesburn, Michigan; and the Hagan House, also known as Kentuck Knob, (1954) in Chalk Hill, Pennsylvania near Fallingwater. Wright developed relationships with each of his clients, which was a process that often began with a letter to the master architect. Such was the case with a young copy editor named Loren Pope, who wrote to Wright in 1939 and described a plot of land he had just purchased outside of Washington, D.C. Loren and Charlotte Pope never tired of their new home in northern Virginia, but they did tire of the rat race surrounding the nation's capital. By 1947, the Popes had sold their home to Robert and Marjorie Leighey, and now the home is called the Pope-Leighey House - open to the public courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
- "The Usonian House I" and "The Usonan Automatic," The Natural House by Frank Lloyd Wright, Horizon, 1954, pp. 69, 70-71, 81, 198-199
- "Frank Lloyd Wright On Architecture: Selected Writings (1894-1940)," Frederick Gutheim, ed., Grosset's Universal Library, 1941, p. 100
- Blake, Peter. The Master Builders. Knopf, 1960, pp. 304-305, 366
- Chavez, Mark. "Prefabricated Homes," National Park Service, //www.nps.gov/articles/prefabricated-homes.htm accessed July 17, 2018
- "American System-Built Homes," Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, //franklloydwright.org/site/american-system-built-homes/ accessed July 17, 2018
SUMMARY: Characteristics of a Usonian Home
- one story, horizontal orientation
- generally small, around 1500 square feet
- no attic; no basement
- low, simple roof
- radiant heating in concrete slab floor
- natural ornamentation
- efficient use of space
- blueprinted using a simple grid pattern
- open floor plan, with few interior walls
- organic, using local materials of wood, stone, and glass
- built-in furnishings
- skylights and clerestory windows
- often in rural, wooded settings
- Usonian Automatics experimented with concrete and patterned concrete block
- designed by Frank Lloyd Wright