The middle-class house for ideal families
Frank Lloyd Wright built one house in Oregon. The site was stunning: in the Willamette Valley, overlooking the river and with Mt. Hood on the horizon.
The Usonian House was developed by Wright in the 1930s and touted as the house design for a middle-class life. This was never true. The earliest houses were supposed to cost $5,000 and actually cost $10,000 to build.
The Gordon House, in Oregon, was commissioned by a farm family. The commission was based on a design by Wright for Life Magazine in 1938.
The Gordons commissioned the plans in 1957, at an estimated cost of $25,000, and it was finally built in 1964, for a cost of $56,000. The average American home was about $20,000 at that time.
Frank Lloyd Wright died in 1959. But he had a renaissance in his 80s, and some of his greatest works, like the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, were built in this last decade. He made the time for a small house in Oregon in part because he wanted a Wright building in every state.
Wright started designing Usonian Houses during the Depression when he was not getting large commissions. The Usonian House was supposed to be a template for affordable, efficient houses.
Wright insisted on personal site review and oversight of the construction of all his projects. The key to affordable homeownership as demonstrated by Abraham Levitt and his Levittowns was standardization and mass production.
My friend and I toured the Gordon House last week. When the Gordon estate was sold, the Frank Lloyd Wright house was to be torn down. Luckily, it was moved to land controlled by the City of Silverton, adjacent to the Oregon Garden.
I was concerned that there was no handrail going upstairs to the second floor when we toured.
A hand-rail would have broken the line, per Wright, the docent said.
The docent pointed out the 15-degree angles that occurred throughout the House, subtly unifying a theme. Per anecdote, when Wright asked the owner of the property what was his most comfortable seat, he said the driver’s seat of his pick-up truck. It reclined at a 15-degree angle.
The banquettes in the living room at the Gordon House recline at a 15-degree angle. The edging along baseboards and countertops is at a 15-degree angle. The edges of the furniture, like a dining table, are at a 15-degree angle. The custom-made fret-work lining the windows is at a 15-degree angle.
Like other Wright Houses I have seen, the House’s poured concrete floor extends through to become an outdoor patio, painted a unifying red. Radiant heat pipes are installed in the concrete floor. The walls are lined with windows that bring the natural setting in with the light. The color scheme is limited to peachy beige and brick red, wood and stone, and other natural surfaces.
The living room faces a fireplace. The conversation area is recessed and lined with built-in bookcases, with acoustics in the sheltered space that enhances a conversation. The piano — to be found in every Wright home — was set into its niche.
The bedrooms are small, again with built-ins, so that family members may spend their time together in the open communal rooms.
Wright’s houses do not accommodate children in their designs. In this Usonian House, there is no play area, no built-ins for toys. The idealized house accommodates an idealized family, not a real family.
Frank Lloyd Wright was known in his early life for abandoning his wives and children and moving on to the next woman. The book Loving Frank, a best seller in 2007, is based on Wright’s love affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney. She was a client’s wife. The historical novel documents the tragedy and fire at Taliesen in Spring Green, Wisconsin that killed Mamah and her children.
Like many geniuses, Wright was uncompromising and an arrogant and difficult man.
Are there any pleasant geniuses? Or must they be self-absorbed, demanding, uncompromising?
The principles he developed in his Prairie School architecture were greatly influential. mid-century modern house I grew up in had overhanging eaves, a wall of windows in the living room, and clerestory windows in the bedrooms. The sloping ceiling in the living room was wood-paneled, the stone fireplace a focal point. Bookcases were built above the wall niche for the piano. It was a modest, middle-class house in a neighborhood of similar houses. It had strong horizontal lines, and fit in with the prairie landscape.
But we had a basement with a large children’s playroom, a toy chest, and a yard with a swing set and forts built behind the lilac bushes.
Like many people, I love Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs. I love the serenity and beauty of entering one of his spaces.
I would have despaired to be one of his clients — his disregard for costs, livability (leaking roofs), and his control over the product. He reputedly demanded the furniture he designed for his houses be placed as he designated. No recliners or comfort over beauty.
I lived in Wisconsin within two hours drive of Spring Green, his childhood home and the site of the original Taliesen. A friend my age had grown up in Spring Green, and tells tales of wandering around Taliesen as a teen in the 60s with other friends, simply walking into the somewhat abandoned site during its off-season. The house was filled with Japanese drawings and Wright sketches, along with increasingly shabby furniture and Wright’s furnishings and things left behind.
Who knows what may have wandered off in those years. Local Spring Green people were not infatuated with Wright. He had a famous reputation for stiffing local contractors and was frequently in financial trouble.
It seems incredible that Taliesen was simply a closed site easily accessed by teens.
But I can remember similarly accessing historic sites in my youth, in a different town, before historical importance was recognized and places were restored and sealed.
I lived in our state’s capital city. One night I went with a group of friends to the state capitol. The main doors were open, although the building was dark and theoretically closed for the night.
We teens went on a self-guided tour in the dark, through large public rooms and down marble-lined hallways and up staircases.
We were simultaneously freaked out, and having fun because we were freaked out. We didn’t understand our playgrounds were sacred places.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s spaces are understood and most are protected as sacred spaces today. I love the feeling of serenity and unity, of being part of one’s environment, that his designs engender. I love the horizontal lines that echo the horizon, and the long lines of the prairie.
Even Crow’s Feet, the publication on Medium quotes Wright: “The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes”
Maybe Wright’s life was more beautiful as he aged. Wright can be an inspiration for us not only by the buildings he left behind but by his creativity and output well into his advanced years.
We know Wright’s life was not a horizontal line, but a maelstrom.
I know from his life, and any life, that the reality is far messier than a Usonian ideal. It is not a template for how to live laid out on a neat grid, with geometric certainties uniting the whole.