The Usonian Home 1936-1959: Wright Cannot Be Wrong


Wright's Usonian home came on the market at a time of great residential expansion. The boys were returning from the war to marry their sweethearts and start families of their own. Now, the role of the architect was to design a home that was both liveable and affordable. In Long Island, Leavittown was sprawling out over an old potato field at the staggering rate of 4000 houses per year, one every fifteen minutes, to meet this tremendous increase of home buyers. While Wright did not design the Usonian home with such numbers in mind, huge subdivisions like Leavittown reveal the trend in American housing at the time.

In formulating his last offering to the American homeowner, the Usonian home, Wright took his anti-urban bias (along with his many others) into account. The Usonian Home contains Wright's final ideas on the family and its relation to society. Whereas the prairie home contained Victorian inferences within its goal of providing the ideal family shelter, the Usonian house "addressed the real needs of large numbers of people in a straightforward way without the eccentric and exotic overtones of the previous decade (1)." Though Wright's Usonian house turned away from the elitist quality of the prairie house, it also guarded against the other extreme which was creeping into the housing market: "the too cheap house." Life magazine, which followed housing designs closely, professed in 1953: "The Model T era of mass-produced housing is over. The next era, lacking an accumulated shortage, will be more competitive. . . This will mean more emphasis on quality, design, and adequate space. Which brings us back to Frank Lloyd Wright (2)." Here, the author affirms the fact that Wright's ideas had been somehow deserted, and we were now returning to them.

This return embodied yet another reassessment of the American family's needs by the architect. Wright's clients were now the middle class, not the urban elite. They had witnessed the Great Depression and the great global conflagration which followed. These events effected their budgets, and Wright was presented with a new challenge: creating a livable house which the masses could afford. Affirming the Jeffersonian ideal that land and home ownership wre the birthright of all Americans, Wright offered his Usonian house as the fullfillment of this promise. The word "Usonia" is an expresion of Wright's vision of this high ideal, "a play on `USA.' Wright used it as a substitute for `America,' not the one he saw around him" (Twombley 241), but the future America.

The initial price tag of the Jacobs House in Madison Wisconsin, Wright's prototype Usonian home, came in around $5500.00, as compared to the $7500.00 cost of the average prairie house a decade earlier. For this price, the Usonian client purchased not only economy but technological innovation. The Usonian house was the first to use steam heat radiating from steel pipes embedded in the foundation, eliminating the need for costly and inefficient radiators. Wright utilized a modular grid layout for all of these homes (35 in all), allowing for a higher degree of standardization. Wright's exteriors were composed of glass and waxed-over wood and brick, eliminating the need for paint and other preservatives.

Though the Usonian home resembled the mass-produced Leavittown houses in its standardized layout and economic appeal, it was not made for everyone. Mr. Leavitt's homes took fifteen minutes to build. Wright's still took several months. Wright continued to insist that his homes were individually designed, with the peculiarities of the inhabitant and the site kept in mind. The Usonian home made a gesture toward large-scale, low-cost housing for the masses, but were not as economical.

On the interior, the Usonian home was a reworking of the prairie house. It kept the "open plan," but erased the highly formal aspects of the prairie home. Wright did away with his ornate prairie dining room, replacing it with a more practical kitchen . This was the era of the small gathering, the backyard barbecue or late night poker game. While the prairie house contained a parlor with lots of guest space, the Usonian house lent itself to smaller, more intimate gatherings. The fireplace remained as the centerpiece of the house.but it was now a source of warmth, not merely a ritualistic symbol.

The Usonian House was a compromise between the sociability of the prairie house and the harsh defensiveness of Taliesin I. "After two decades of unhappy relations with the outside world," according to Twombley, "Wright could hardly return to the optimistic detachment of the prairie house, but neither could he withdraw into guarded isolation" (255). The Usonian house was L-shaped like Taliesin, but it was no fortress. Thus, we see Wright's attempt to define a set of social standards which were applicable to the time and place.

With his Usonian houses, Wright's notoriety in the public eye proved a tremendous booster to sales. The urban gentry bought the prairie home because it satisfied their needs in a tangible manner, securing both family sanctity and social concention. But many bought the Usonian home out of sheer adoration for the architect. Owning one of his homes was an investment in a little piece of Wright's famous persona. Thus, we see a transformation in Wright's marketing strategy; he begins selling houses and ends up selling himself.

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