There was a time, from 1911 – 1916, when Frank Lloyd Wright came up with a system to make beautifully designed houses accessible for middle-class folks. The idea of a Frank Lloyd Wright home being considered “affordable housing” is kind of hilarious. These days his homes are for rich people; really rich people.
Wright was in earnest with these home designs; he called them American System Built Houses and he was going to keep the costs down by pre-packaging all the elements that go into a building. You’ve seen these kits that come in craft shops—like “Make your own birdhouse” or whatever and you get some pre-cut wood and paint and brushes and some instructions and then you can make the thing just like on the box? —that was how it worked. But with these System Built Houses, your very own contractor would come with the kit and put it together for you.
Great concept. But did it work? Well…we have four surviving houses in the Chicago area and you can see for yourself the ingenuity and comfort of the designs. But the whole scheme never took off. World War I came along and building materials were needed for the war effort, and that put a stop to it—what a shame!
Last year HOB and I were out for a walk in Evanston, searching for ice cream, when we passed this building. There was man out front working in his yard, and I shouted to him “Is this a Frank Lloyd Wright?” and he said that it was.
Turns out this was the Oscar Johnson Residence, and the owner generously showed us around the exterior; even retrieving a blueprint for us to reference.
Built in 1917, the home has since been remodeled (the current owners are slowly restoring it to the original plan as their budget allows). As is typical with System Built homes, the entry deposits you into the heart of the home and the fireplace is the centerpiece.
Yesterday HOB and I took the train to Wilmette to see Wright’s Lewis E. Burleigh Residence. Of the four houses we saw, this one seems the most conceivable as a middle-class residence. Designed in the bungalow tradition in 1916, it has the coziness of a traditional bungalow with the projecting eaves characteristic of the prairie style. The fireplace? Yep, right in the center where it should be.
Beverly, a neighborhood on Chicago’s south side, was originally supposed to have an entire subdivision of Wright’s System Built Homes. But—-gah! —only two model homes ever were built. The Howard Hyde House was one of them, circa 1917.
I love a nice corner window, don’t you?
This home has a lot in common with the Oscar Johson residence: squarish with rows of windows.
(By the way, did you ever wonder why architect-designed homes seem to always be named after dudes? —surely there were as many ladies who lived in them as men.)
The Guy C. Smith House, 1917 was the other model home for the never-built suburb.
HOB and I saw this home for the first time when we were walking around Beverly last year. I returned again as part of an organized tour this past fall.
There was no porte-cochère like this in the other four System Built houses, but the rows of windows under the extended eveas are similiar.
After admiring the house from several angles, my tour group had a welcome surprise…
the kindly owners showed us around the back of the building, where there was a small lily pond, and wonder of wonders….
…they let us inside!
Here is the hearth that is at the center of every System Built house.
And the light from all those windows is as warm and comforting as you would imagine.
Wright’s buildings bring the outside inside—eating at this table might almost feel like dining outdoors.
I want a reading nook!
More of the glorious light in the kitchen.
The owners of the house told me there’s kind of coffee klatch of System Built house owners. They get together every few months and talk shop and have a potluck or something. If any of you owners are reading this, you’re welcome to meet at my apartment. While my place isn’t as gorgeous as the Smith house, I do have the same radiator cover. Which goes to show you this may have once been affordable housing after all.