Frank Lloyd Wright was never one to shy away from making grand statements about architecture, like: “The future of architecture is the future of the human race. The two are one. If humanity has a future, it is architecture.” He also saw himself as vital to this essential industry: “I’ve been accused of saying I was the greatest architect in the world. And if I had said so, I don’t think it would be very arrogant.”
Wright believed that the buildings we live in shape the kinds of people we become. His aim was nothing short of rebuilding the entire culture of the United States, changing the nation through its architecture. Central to that plan was a philosophy and associated building system he called Usonia. [Note: Just tuning in? Listen to the prior episode below!]
“Usonia” was Wright’s idealized vision of the United States of America: a country that celebrated individuality and personal connections with nature. Usonian homes were designed to be simple, affordable, beautiful, and custom-designed to fit the needs of homeowners. The first such home designed by Wright cost just $5,500 in 1937 (about 85K in today’s dollars), made for the Jacobs family in Madison, Wisconsin.
In the years that followed, Wright built a number of Usonian homes around the country. None of these were as inexpensive as the first, though. And once the Great Depression was over, Wright became busy with other projects. A group of Wright’s apprentices would be the ones to push Wright’s vision forward, by establishing an entire community shaped by these ideals, right outside of New York City.
Nestled in leafy hills near Pleasantville (about an hour north of Manhattan) sits Usonia, NY. Its unique homes feature low, flat roofs and are tucked into the trees so you can hardly see them on lush summer days. There is no big welcome sign or gift shop, but in the middle of the community there is a plaque:
This community was started in 1944 by a few of Wright’s disciples who had studied at his school, Taliesin — most notably a man named David Henken. He sought out similarly-minded people who would invest in and join this new community.
Would-be residents were drawn to the project by a combination of factors, including the promise of affordable housing, shared democratic ideals and (of course) the involvement of Frank Lloyd Wright, a famous architect.
The land for this new community was acquired in 1946 and Wright finalized its site plan in 1947. The plan was unusual: it featured space for dozens of houses situated not on rectilinear plots, but on circular lots. The idea, in part, was to let properties flow organically into one another, and discourage yard fencing, which would divide homes from their natural surroundings.
This design project was unique not only in its layout and architecture but also in its legal structure: it was based on a communal mortgage. Residents would pay for the houses together, which would be built on land they all owned. Those who joined the community faced shared risks and challenges, including social ownership and construction costs, the latter of which grew beyond initial projections.
As the economy rose out of the Great Depression and World War II erupted, materials and labor became increasingly expensive. The custom nature of Usonian houses, from construction methods to unique fixtures, required more work as well. Many of the homes ended up costing over two or three times their original estimates.
Nonetheless, participants in this experimental endeavor were optimistic and stuck with the project. Wright himself ended up designing three of the houses in Usonia.
One resident, Roland Reisley, still lives in the house that Frank Lloyd Wright designed specifically for him. He remains grateful to this day: “I came to realize after some years living here that there’d not been a day in my life when I didn’t see something beautiful. Even on the terrible days that occur in every life.”
Reisley’s house is quintessentially Usonian, featuring a simple carport, wooden walls and an open floor plan (but small kitchen). Big glass windows and overhanging roofs draw the eye outside, making the inside of the place feel more strongly connected to its environment.
Reisley loves his Usonian home. For him, Wright’s notion that better architecture could create a better way of life has proven personally true. And not just within his own home but also with regards to the community more broadly: from the start, Usonia was a tight-knit group of young families who relied on each other and shared a vision for the future.
Indeed, during the first 40 years of Usonia’s existence, only 12 of the 48 houses changed hands (and half of those went to next-generation residents). Reisley jokes that there were few divorces because couples couldn’t decide who would get to keep their Usonian home.
Over time, though, life started to move at different paces for people living in Usonia. Younger families grew older and generations shifted.
And when people did decide to sell their homes, prospective buyers were thrown off by the cooperative nature of the village — in the first decades of Usonia, members didn’t even own their homes. A compromise was eventually reached: the land would remain communal but the houses would become individually owned (thus easier to sell).
For newcomers, whose homes were not built specifically to their needs, life in a Usonian home could require a bit of adjustment. Most of the houses in the community have been expanded or remodeled. However, the board of Usonia ensures that all new additions match the original architecture, and are made with local materials, flat roofs, big glass windows and other signature Wrightian features.
Some things have changed more than others, too. Kitchens, for instance, originally designed to be small and efficient, have been expanded in many of the homes. Others grew with their occupants, adding spaces for families with children.
Many Usonian homes, however, are hard to modify for various reasons. Owners, of course, want to preserve aspects of their house’s history. But in many cases (within and beyond Usonia, New York) there are also boards and preservationists who can make it difficult to engage in big remodeling projects. At the same time, there is an argument for adapting these buildings as they age: preserving a house means keeping it occupied and updated, which in turn means upgrading things to make it livable across generations.
Betty and John Moore live in Jacobs II, the second Usonian home Wright built for Herbert Jacobs (also located in Wisconsin). Like many Usonian homes, this one has a carport, big windows, an open plan, and concrete floors with a built-in heating system. But the beautiful house sat on the market for over four years before the Moores bought it. Many people found it interesting but were wary either of its perceived high maintenance or its very open floor plan and the lifestyle it would involve.
No one is quite sure how many Usonian homes even exist today across the country. Estimates range from a few dozen to well over a hundred. It depends, in part, on how one defines a “Usonian” home. Does it refer to designs done specifically by Wright and his apprentices? Is it a period of architectural history? Or is it simply an architectural style? On some definitions, Usonian homes are still being constructed today. There is, for instance, a Usonian structure recently built by Florida Southern College that was designed by Wright in 1939 but built 74 years later.
Beyond the community in New York (if even there), Usonia never came to exist in the way Frank Lloyd Wright originally envisioned, with Americans living in an affordable yet custom home. Still, Usonian designs and ideals came to influence other architectural trends, including long and low-to-the-ground suburban ranch-style homes popular from the 1940s onward.
Like Wright’s Usonian homes, ranch houses often have open floor plans with few walls and low-angled roofs. Other small aspects of ranch homes, like sliding glass doors that create connections between interior and exterior spaces, also recall aspects of Usonian approaches. At the same time, many ranch homes use off-the-shelf parts and feature painted surfaces rather than natural materials, very clearly different from Wright’s organic aesthetic.
Wright might not have been pleased that the concepts of Usonia got absorbed into cookie-cutter suburban homes. But these descendants of Usonia did what Wright’s designs could not: they made houses affordable for the middle-class American family. One might say that Wright’s dream was realized, just not quite as he dreamed it.
Frank Lloyd Wright died in 1959 at age 92, three years after finishing the Reisley House in New York. But his influence persists — you can see it in everyday things like suburban ranch homes, carports and track lighting. It is also visible in creative uses of natural brick, stone, wood and concrete, in big open floor plans and in buildings that respond to their environments. In little elements and details all around us, Usonia lives on, in ways Wright never would have imagined.