The Usonian Style of Architecture, c. 1936 - c.1959.

Frank Lloyd Wright developed what he called his "Usonian" style of domestic architecture in the mid 30s, alongside his masterpieces Fallingwater (1935) and Wingspread (1937). The name is Wright's coinage, supposedly derived from United States of North America or something like it. Wright's Usonian houses represented an attempt to develop affordable single-family housing for widespread use, marking a vast change in emphasis for an architect hitherto best known for his luxurious prairie-style houses.

The first Usonian house, a 1,500 sq.-ft structure built for Herbert Jacobs in Madison, Wisconsin, is typical. It was constructed of cheap materials and cost $5,500 (The 1936 Jacobs I House). The Usonian package did not develop overnight, but in the end it typically featured most of these characteristic elements:

1) A masonry core containing the 'workspace' (kitchen), utilities (washer, dryer, water heater, etc.) and fireplace. Masonry piers detached from the central core were occasionally used to support a cantilevered roof, but this (expensive) type of construction was held to a minimum. As in prairie houses, vertical masonry joints were filled with red mortar, while white-mortared horizontal joints were raked for emphasis.

2) A concrete floor, usually colored Wright's favorite "cherokee red." In more developed Usonians, Wright buried pipes for a hot-water "gravity fed" heating system under concrete slabs which formed the floor (no basements in these houses). The slabs permitted servicing the pipes. These floors were gradually heated (starting about midnight) and stored a significant amount of heat within them. They could be turned off by 4 pm. Tests showed a floor heated to 80 degrees F kept its room at a comfortable 64 degrees. (See Sergeant 28-29 on heating details.)

3) Tidewater cypress walls, built of board-and-batten construction, usually with sunken battens. This means that broader boards were interspersed with thinner ones, with the thinner ones screwed to the wall core and holding the broader boards in place. The effect is of horizontal stripes on the wall, a familiar element of Wright design. The exterior walls were built the same way. Flathead screws securing the battens were sunk until their slots were horizontal in sympathy with the trend of the wall.

4) An informal living area branched out from the masonry core. This area contained the "living room" proper, as well as the dining area, sensibly located in proximity to the 'workspace.' Files of tall glass doors formed most of one wall of this room, often two of them. These were a natural outgrowth (and vertical stretching) of Wright's files of casement windows typical to his prairie houses. These doors give an almost unimpeded view of the natural surroundings of the house, and when opened together give the impression that the wall has disappeared.

5) A wing of the house (sometimes just an extension of the house in a straight line, sometimes a wing bent aside in an "L", or at an oblique angle like a tadpole's tail) contained bedrooms, bath, and possibly a study. The master bedroom might be furnished with files of doors similar to the living room, or with casement windows. Bedrooms are small, and Wright was unsympathetic to people's natural desire to accumulate and store stuff.

6) The house butts up close to the noisy street. The walls on the street side of the house have only clerestory windows high up under the eaves, to admit light. The bedroom wing was commonly serviced by a gallery running from the workspace and offering access to the rooms. The gallery often runs along the street wall of the house insulating the bedrooms from noise. Wright developed methods of window placement to secure adequate lighting, and the files of glass doors helped here. The house does not crowd its lot, but scrunches up next to the street, giving a generous, private, backyard. It is into this private area that the files of glass doors and large casement windows open.

7) Flat roofs covered with asphalt and gravel extend out in eaves, often decoratively at the "narrow" ends of the house. (See the URLs below for photos illustrating this.)

8) Cars are housed in an unwalled carport adjacent to the front door having a cantilevered roof overhead.

9) Geometrical patterns were designed and cut with a fret saw in the frames of the clerestory windows. Each house has a unique pattern. This was a natural, if simplified extension of the sophisticated techniques Wright had employed in his leaded-glass window "light screens" in his earlier houses.

Wright clients often contributed significantly to building their houses in order to save on labor costs. Indeed, Wright even developed a "Usonian Automatic" house system, in which the builder/owner poured his own concrete blocks and erected the house on a steel-mesh framework following a plan by Wright. The 1952 Pieper House in Phoenix, Arizona is an example, though Storrer (353) says it was not very successful.

The roots of Usonian design may be found in Wright's California houses of the 20s, and the 1933 Willey House in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Wright did not sell too many Usonian designs, but he freely adapted Usonian features for use in more extensive (and expensive) houses such as the 1936 Hanna House in Palo Alto, California, the 1945 Walter House in Quasqueton, Iowa, the 1948 Walker House in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California and many others. As might be expected, other architects picked up the style, including Wright's apprentices, his son Lloyd Wright, and many others.

Almost all Usonian houses can be inspected from the outside (though foliage can make this difficult sometimes). Nothing can compare, however, to taking the full tour of the 1939 Loren Pope House ("Pope-Leighey House") in Alexandria, Virginia. The house suffered a little because it had to be uprooted and moved from Falls Church, Virginia when Interstate 66 plowed through the property en route to Dulles Airport. The 1939 Rosenbaum House in Florence, Alabama is also now open as a museum.


URLs.
http://www.popeleighey1940.org/ (Pope-Leighey House.)
http://www.popeleighey1940.org/interior.htm (Pope-Leighey House plan and interior photos.)
http://www.popeleighey1940.org/interior2.htm (Pope-Leighey House interiors, heating system.)
http://www.delmars.com/flwtrip/pope1a.htm (excellent Pope-Leighey exterior photos.)
http://www.delmars.com/flwtrip/pope2a.htm (good Pope-Leighey interior photos.)
http://www.wrightinalabama.com/ (Rosenbaum House site.)
http://www.pbs.org/flw/buildings/usonia/usonia.html (PBS site on Wright's Usonian houses.)
http://www.dgunning.org/architecture/Minn/willey.htm (Willey House site.)
http://www.peterbeers.net/interests/flw_rt/Michigan/Goetsch_Winckler_House/goetsch-winckler_house.htm (1939 Goetsch-Winkler House, Okemos, Michigan.)
http://www.stanford.edu/dept/news/neighbors/visiting/hanna.html (Hanna House photos.)
http://www.eichlernetwork.com/ENStry11.html (1939 Bazett House, Hillsborough, California. Joseph Eichler briefly lived in this house.)

Bibliography.
Sergeant, J. 1976. Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian Houses. Designs for Moderate Cost One-Family Homes.
Storrer, W.A. 2002. The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. A Complete Catalog. 3rd edition.

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