A beginner’s guide to Usonian architecture

The Great Depression of the 1930s devastated millions of people around the world. When the stock market crashed in October of 1929 so did the hopes of millions of Americans throughout the United States. Living from day to day became a struggle for most Americans as they attempted to find ways to survive. The way in which people thought about every day needs had to change. The concept of housing was no different. It was during this tumultuous time period that Frank Lloyd Wright created the concept of affordable housing for middle-class families that would redefine how people thought of their living spaces. He wanted to create houses that were tailor-made to the client and their individual needs while also making them practical and functional. Thus, the concept of the Usonian home which invoked Wright’s definition of organic architecture was born.

It is said that the name “Usonian” was adapted from events that transpired during one of Wright’s overseas trips to Europe. In the early 1900s, there was talk of calling the United States “U-S-O-N-A” to differentiate America from the new Union of South Africa that had just been established. Wright then took the term and applied it to his new style of homes. The Usonian home concept was Wright’s attempt to create affordable housing but also a changed society in America. Organic architecture was the vehicle which Wright used to bring his vision into fruition.[1] For Wright, organic architecture meant first and foremost that nature be included in every aspect of the home. Seemingly, the home was to appear to have come up from the ground and into the fresh air and sunshine, or in his own words: “out of the ground and into the light!”.[2] Organic architecture also implied that the home had its roots from the ground. Both of these terms reflected his thoughts of how a culture should utilize its roots and appreciate where they had come from, embracing the past in order to move forward toward the future.[3]  For him, the Usonian home ultimately symbolized light, a redefining of space, and freedom-things Wright felt that the people of the United States were entitled to and deserved.[4]

The Usonian house concept that Wright envisioned would be built to suit the client and their needs thus making them unique and different but still in accord with his vision of what Usonian and organic architecture meant to him. To cut costs, Wright often encouraged his clients to get heavily involved with the building which in turn would also help them obtain a deeper connection with their new residence.[5] Wright drew inspiration from the building site upon which the house would eventually sit and used local materials to bring his vision to life. Wright’s Usonian home designs tend to resemble a polliwog or tadpole with the body being the living-room area and the kitchen.  In the case of the Rosenbaum and Baird houses, a study was added to the body of the home. The tail encompassed the bedrooms for the parents and children which were often small with built-ins in the rooms for storage purposes. The narrow hallways in this part of the house were narrow and also included built-in spaces for storage.[6] Usonian homes also contained built-in pieces of furniture, pianos, and chairs designed by Wright for the home. Wright felt that pictures on the walls and furniture were not necessary unless the walls built-in or included in the wall.[7]

Other common features of Usonian houses include horizontal lines used to connect the home with the land, flat roofs with overhangs, use of natural materials such as brick, glass, and wood, carports, concrete slab floors, underfloor heating, access to the outside from every room in the home, and board and batten walls.[8] These homes did not have attics, basements, or formal dining rooms included in the plans. Usonian homes also included a planning grid which usually consisted of a 2 by 4 horizontal grid pattern. Building materials such as plywood were measured by this pattern to cut down on wasted materials.[9] The horizontal grid line pattern is found throughout the houses. One can follow the lines from the floor, up the wall, and even up to the ceiling only to follow it back down the opposite wall and back down to the floor. Though Wright’s clients did frown upon some features of the home, such as the small Pullman car inspired kitchen, the owners of Wright’s Usonian homes felt Wright’s vision throughout their homes as it permeated their everyday lives. Alvin Rosenbaum, one of the sons of Wright’s clients Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum, once described the home he grew up in, the Rosenbaum House, as follows: “…the sensation of living in a Usonian house was that of living in the country without being part of it, of living close to the ground, but in comfort, not in the rough.”[10]

 

Other Usonian houses located throughout the country include the following:

The Jacobs House- Madison, Wisconsin, 1936

Hanna (Honeycomb) House- Palo Alto, California, 1936

Pope-Leighy House- Mount Vernon, Virginia, 1939

Jacobs House II- Middleton, Wisconsin, 1944

Walker House- Carmel, California, 1948

Palmer House- Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1950

Shavin House- Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1952

Tracy House- Seattle, Washington, 1955

Seth Peterson Cottage- Lake Dalton, Wisconsin, 1958

 

Bibliography

 

Lind, Carla. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Homes San Francisco: Pomegranate Art Books,

Rosenbaum, Alvin. Usonia: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Design for America. Washington D.C.: The

Preservation Press, 1993.

Sergeant, John. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses: A Case for Organic Architecture. New

York: Whitney Library of Design, 1984.

[1] John Sergeant, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses: A Case for Organic Architecture, New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1984, 16.

[2]  Ibid., 16.

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  Carla Lind, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Homes, Archetype Press, Inc.: Petaluma, CA, 1994, 42.

[5]  Ibid., 13.

[6]  Sergeant, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses, 22.

[7] Ibid., 19.

[8] Lind, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Homes, 15-16.

[9]  Sergeant, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses, 19.

[10]  Alvin Rosenbaum, Usonia: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Design for America, Washington D.C: The Preservation Press, 1993, 21.