Usonia

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
If I asked you to think of the most famous architect in American history, even if you don’t think you know anything at all about architecture, I bet you could take a guess and I bet your guess would be Wright.

Archive Tapes:
“Frank Lloyd Wright.”
“Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps the greatest architect of the 20th century.”
“The genius with a T square has been called a pacesetter of modern-day architecture.”
“One of the most extraordinary men of our time.”
“He has literally established the pace for innovations and new ideas in the field of architecture.”

Avery Trufelman:
Frank Lloyd Wright left a legacy of some of the most iconic and gorgeous buildings in the United States, like the spiraling Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania, which straddles a waterfall and the futuristic Marin Civic Center, which is the backdrop for Gattaca, which is an awesome movie.

Roman Mars:
And that is producer Avery Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman:
By the end of his career, Wright was on a level of celebrity usually reserved for actors and rock stars. He was a household name and he was on late-night talk shows.

Interviewer:
“Some quarters have denounced Wright as an impractical visionary and a pompous windbag.”

Frank Lloyd Wright:
“Yeah.”

Interviewer:
“How, how do you feel about that criticism, Mr. Wright?”

Frank Lloyd Wright:
“It doesn’t affect me particularly.”

Interviewer:
“It doesn’t bother you.”

Frank Lloyd Wright:
“Not a bit.”

Roman Mars:
So Wright wasn’t just known for being a genius architect, he made headlines because he was a character. He often wore this outfit that included a flowy cape and a hat and cane. He wrote manifestos, launched insults at other architects and loudly critique politicians, religion and society. He declared himself the greatest architect who ever lived. He was unashamed.

Frank Lloyd Wright:
“You see, earlier in life, I had to choose between honest arrogance and a hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and I’ve seen no occasion to change now.”

Avery Trufelman:
And Frank Lloyd Wright had this wildly scandalous private life.

Archive Tape:
“There were suits against him, property seized, jail. Finally, divorce: the raw material for big, spicy headlines. Frank Lloyd Wright was the darling of a sensational press.”

Avery Trufelman:
But this bombastic character ultimately changed the field of architecture and introduced a new philosophy of building.

Roman Mars:
Before many of Wright’s iconic and famous structures were completed, before Fallingwater, before the Guggenheim, before the Marin Civic Center, his most significant contribution to our everyday lives was something much more modest. A small, sturdy, inexpensive, and most importantly, very beautiful house, designed with the American working class in mind. And it all started with a journalist from Milwaukee.

Avery Trufelman:
In 1934, a Milwaukee journal reporter named Herbert Jacobs was assigned to take a drive over to Spring Green, in central Wisconsin. He was told to write about Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio.

Roman Mars:
Jacobs didn’t really know anything about architecture, and at that particular time he wasn’t really interested in learning anything about it.

Avery Trufelman:
Because Herbert Jacobs had other things on his mind. In that November of 1934, his wife was very, very pregnant. The night before his reporting trip, he had brought her to the hospital and he stayed up with her until dawn. The nurses assured Herbert that he could go on his reporting trip without missing the birth, and so he set out that morning alone, bleary-eyed completely unprepared.

Roman Mars:
He drove 120 miles through the chill gray Wisconsin countryside for his assignment to meet with Frank Lloyd Wright.

Avery Trufelman:
Wright who was 67 in 1934, couldn’t have cared less about his appointment with Herbert Jacobs of the Milwaukee Journal. Actually, Wright forgot all about it, which wasn’t unusual. He was known to blow off journalists.

Roman Mars:
When Jacobs arrived at Frank Lloyd Wright’s compound, completely distracted by thoughts of his wife and their baby. He learned that the architect was actually on his way out the door. They got to talk for just over 10 minutes, before right left abruptly saying, “Some of the boys will talk to you now.”

Avery Trufelman:
The boys were Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentices. They’d come to him from all over the world and they were part of a fellowship program that Wright established at his home and studio, a campus he called Taliesin.

Archive Tape:
Taliesin, a Welsh word, meaning shining brow.

Roman Mars:
Welsh because it was built on land settled by his family who were farmers from Wales, but the shining brow also has to do with Wright’s building philosophy.

Floyd Hamblin:
“So Taliesin actually is built kind of on the brow, just like your brow of your head.”

Avery Trufelman:
The main Taliesin building curls around the side of a hill, almost like a crown.

Floyd Hamblin:
“He felt that you should never build on top of a hill because that destroyed the integrity of the hill.”

Avery Trufelman:
This is Floyd Hamlin. He’s an architect at Taliesin…

Floyd Hamblin:
“… also, part of the faculty of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. And I’d been here since starting as a apprentice back in 1987.”

Roman Mars:
Hamlin works and lives at Taliesin full-time, here on Frank Lloyd Wright’s family land where Wright used to play as a boy.

Avery Trufelman:
“So yeah, where are we now?”

Floyd Hamblin:
“So, where are we? We are … This is just outside of Spring Green, Wisconsin. It’s a very beautiful green valley with rolling hills. So he spent a lot of his summers working this land. So he was very familiar with the landscape.”

Avery Trufelman:
And this connection with the outdoors was really formative for Wright. He thought that architecture should help people live harmoniously with their environment rather than shield them from it. The house could become part of nature if it was made with local materials and had big windows and was oriented for just the right amount of sunlight.

Floyd Hamblin:
“You orient the house just right so that you take advantage of what nature has to offer and you’re living with nature rather than trying to fight against it.”

Avery Trufelman:
You know, living on the brow of the hill, not top of it. This is all folded into a concept Frank Lloyd Wright called ‘organic architecture’. He wanted to spread this gospel to the next generation, which is why he returned to the valley he knew as a boy and established the ‘Taliesin Fellowship’.

Roman Mars:
The fellowship was the thing that the Milwaukee Journal wanted Herbert Jacobs to cover in his article. When Jacobs drove into Taliesin that morning in 1934, the fellowship had been going on for two years and it was hard for the public to wrap their minds around it, including this NBC announcer.

NBC Announcer:
“The Taliesin Fellowship, just what is it? A school and yet not a school, a colony of devoted men and women, a principality whose king is Frank Lloyd Wright. Apprentices, they’re called, not students. They are, says Mr. Wright, ‘as the fingers of my hand’.”

Roman Mars:
The apprentices had to pay $1,100 a year to attend the Taliesin Fellowship, nearly 20 grand today. And it wasn’t like an accredited institution or anything. Students had to do a lot of grunt work like bailing hay, plowing fields and making meals, but they got to learn Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy of architecture and live with him and work with him, even though oftentimes this meant serving as an unpaid labor force.

Avery Trufelman:
When Jacobs was getting his tour of Taliesin, he described the apprentices as rather long-haired, smiling and polite young men, who tried their best to explain to him what organic architecture means.

Floyd Hamblin:
“Organic architecture is architecture of its time and of its place. You’re not trying to make it look like something that it’s not.”

Roman Mars:
Wright thought that there should be no wallpaper to cover things up. No paint, no plaster, wood should look like wood, stone should look like stone, concrete should look like concrete.

Floyd Hamblin:
“When Frank Lloyd Wright worked with plywood, he liked to leave the edge of the plywood exposed so that you saw those layers in there and that became part of the almost ornament or detail.”

Avery Trufelman:
Which was different from frilly, traditional European-style architecture, with rococo gold ornaments and clawfoot chairs and parlors full of knick-knacks. Just think of Victorian houses stuffed with lots of tiny rooms and covered in bright paint and lacy curtains.

Roman Mars:
This idea of organic architecture wasn’t just a break from these traditions, it was a break from new trends in modern architecture too. Cities all over the world were building huge boxy glass and steel structures, designed to be hyper sleek machines for living and working. Wright explains that these were simply not comfortable for human animals.

Frank Lloyd Wright:
“They are like goldfish in a globe. And these houses that are so classified as they now are, they’re not sensible. It’s an abuse of privilege and an abuse of material.”

Roman Mars:
Frank Lloyd Wright took the traditional old materials and put them into sleek, modern forms. His organic architecture was a new style, born in the United States.

Frank Lloyd Wright:
“An organic architecture, a new sense of what constitutes humanity under harmonious conditions, a harmonious place in which to live in a harmonious way to live in it.”

Avery Trufelman:
But Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t explain this grand philosophy to the journalist Herbert Jacobs, because Wright wasn’t there. The apprentices did the best they could, but again, Jacobs was very distracted and was only thinking of his wife in the hospital. He thanked the two young men who showed him around Taliesin and got back in his car.

Roman Mars:
Jacobs later wrote, “Finally I started back to Milwaukee, learning on the way through a telephone call to the hospital that I had become a father at about 11 o’clock that morning. At the very moment when I was interviewing, Wright.”

Avery Trufelman:
Herbert Jacobs, his wife Katherine and their new daughter lived in Milwaukee for two more years on his reporter’s salary of $20 a week.

Roman Mars:
This was in the mid-thirties, the Great Depression. So when Herbert Jacobs was offered a slightly higher paying job with a paper in the state Capital of Madison, the family moved right away.

Herbert Jacobs:
“When we got to Madison and I couldn’t find anything within our price range – in our newspaper man’s price range – for what we figured would be nice to live in.”

Avery Trufelman:
This is the voice of Herbert Jacobs himself, from a 1956 NBC interview. When he and Katherine moved to Madison, they didn’t see any houses they liked or that they could afford.

Herbert Jacobs:
“So a cousin of my wife’s had been out at Taliesin with Mr. Wright, and suggested that we have Mr. Wright do something for us.”

Roman Mars:
Jacobs didn’t really remember much about his first visit to Taliesin two years before and he murmured something along the lines of, ‘very interesting’. Which his wife’s cousin took as a yes.

Herbert Jacobs:
“But he made an appointment for us to go out there and we went along with that idea. Then, on the way out, we were – my wife and I – were trying to think, what is it that we can tell this great man, the architect of rich clients. What can we say to him that would interest him in our very small case?”

Avery Trufelman:
In the past, when Frank Lloyd Wright had designed private homes, they had not been for people like Herbert and Katherine Jacobs. Wright had designed gorgeous, wide homes with broad roofs and expansive living rooms, for wealthy people. His constructions were masterpieces, they were works of art and they were expensive.

Herbert Jacobs:
“So we put it as a sort of challenge. What the country needs is a decent $5,000 house, can you build one?”

Roman Mars:
In today’s money, $5,000 is about $85,000, that’s a pretty reasonably priced house in most real estate markets.

Herbert Jacobs:
“Mr. Wright told us that we were the first clients that ever asked him to build a low-cost house. He said for 20 years he’d been wanting to build one, but no one ever asked him to.”

Roman Mars:
Now Wright had long wanted to make a more democratic form of housing, even early in his career. He had been playing around with inexpensive methods of building and other structures and he had a lot of concepts, that he had been scheming around urban planning,

Avery Trufelman:
But now, Wright had the chance to make some of his concepts a reality, he had the willing clients and he had time on his hands. In 1936, he was in a bit of a slump in his career, people couldn’t afford fancy big new homes. Again, it was the depression and a number of big projects had been canceled and also Wright had already been practicing for decades and he was slowly getting written off as a has-been.

Roman Mars:
And then in comes this young, open-minded couple. Wright, could tell them his philosophy and teach them how to live well through good architecture.

Herbert Jacobs:
“Then he said, do you really want a $5,000 house? He said most people want a $10,000 house for $5,000. Are you willing to give up the things that you have to give up?”

Avery Trufelman:
Mr. Wright made a list of the things that the Jacobs would have to do without, if they really wanted a $5,000 house.

Herbert Jacobs:
“Tile bathrooms, extra trim finish, and things like that. Are you willing to give those up? We didn’t know anything about it, and we said, sure, it’s okay with us.”

Avery Trufelman:
Herbert and Katherine Jacobs didn’t know it at the time, but that modest little house that Frank Lloyd Wright was to build for them, would be the most practical expression of his ideology.

Roman Mars:
The Jacobs would own the first house in a movement that Wright called Usonia.

Archive Tape:
“The house that Herbert Jacobs built was the first of the Usonian houses. Usonian, a Wright word meaning the United States as it ought to be at its democratic zenith.”

Avery Trufelman:
Usonia was Frank Lloyd Wright’s name for the United States of North America. In Wright’s vision, Usonia would be a country full of modest, well-made, beautiful, comfortable little houses that the working class could afford. These Usonian homes would inspire, educate and, Wright believed, create a new culture for all Americans.

Frank Lloyd Wright:
“I believe now, people are going to know what constitutes good architecture and of course good living has to go with it. Good conduct also, good dressing too, because you wouldn’t dress in a loud and vulgar way in a quiet and beautiful room. All these good things are dependent more or less one on the other and add up to something that we call culture. It’s only by a natural growth, that you can attain culture.”

Roman Mars:
Wright believed the way to build a better American culture was not en masse, not in apartment buildings or cookie-cutter developments. It was to be catered to the individual.

Frank Lloyd Wright:
“Culture is not for the crowd. Culture is an individual thing and that’s what our forefathers struck when they declared that the individual is sovereign.”

Avery Trufelman:
Which to Frank Lloyd Wright meant that the masses should be unmasked. It should spread out, away from the city.

Frank Lloyd Wright:
“Well, the city of course, is a thing of the past. There was a time during the middle ages, when it was the only source of culture. There was no way of acquiring this thing we call culture, except by direct contact, you see.”

Roman Mars:
But for Wright, that wasn’t true anymore. People were connected to culture through radio and telephones and automobiles.

Frank Lloyd Wright:
“They have transportation speed, listening – this – to we’re using now, it’s no longer essential for people to crowd together, anywhere.”

Avery Trufelman:
These were all parts of Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision for America and this would start to become reality in 1936, with the Jacobs House, which would come to be known as Jacobs One, or you Usonia 1.

Bill Martinelli:
“Jacobs House was one of the first ones built, this was just a wide-open farmland when it was built out here.”

Avery Trufelman:
This is Bill Martinelli, manager of Usonia 1. It’s in a suburban street outside of Madison, now lined with little suburban houses, but Usonia 1 really stands out. Even if you don’t know what it is and you’re just driving by because from a street it almost just looks like a beautiful wooden wall. The house turns its back on the road.

Bill Martinelli:
“Well, when we get inside or if we go around back, you’ll see that whole back of the house is all glass, it’s all open to the back and he, you know, he did that intentionally to kind of close it off to the street and then open it up to the back.”

Avery Trufelman:
As Wright saw it, the point of the house was not to have a big facade to show off to your neighbors, with a useless and wasteful patch of lawn in the front and a grand entryway. No, the house should be built for residents, not onlookers.

Roman Mars:
Also, from the street you can see that there’s no garage. A car is parked under a wooden awning, just a little flat roof with no sidewalls. This is the carport, a term that Frank Lloyd Wright coined.

Bill Martinelli:
“Well, this was the carport of the house, this is considered the first named carport. It was a term that Wright came up with.”

Roman Mars:
This was one of the many tiny ways Wright kept costs down and also the carport was an education in lifestyle. Without a garage, the Jacobs wouldn’t have space to store their junk. They’d have to simply minimize their possessions and toss what they didn’t need. But the carport isn’t purely utilitarian, the woodwork on the car port roof has this lovely geometric pattern.

Avery Trufelman:
“There is like these wood kind of stripes in the ceiling.”

Bill Martinelli:
“Details.”

Avery Trufelman:
“Yeah. It’s funny, when I’d seen … When I’d heard about the carport and like seeing pictures of it, I didn’t expect it to be so beautiful and like it’s really nice.”

Bill Martinelli:
“Well, that’s the thing, in this house, the more you look around, the more you see. You know like, with the ceiling here, the carport, you wouldn’t expect that, when you get inside you’ll see the same thing.”

Roman Mars:
Usonia 1 is full of small, elegant detail.

Avery Trufelman:
“Can we go inside?”

Bill Martinelli:
“Sure. Warm in here.” (cat meows)

Avery Trufelman:
“Oh wow.”

Bill Martinelli:
“You can see how the sun comes in.”

Avery Trufelman:
“It’s so red.”

Bill Martinelli:
“Yeah.”

Avery Trufelman:
“Every, like the brick and the wood.”

Bill Martinelli:
“The wood.”

Avery Trufelman:
“And the …”

Bill Martinelli:
“Right, your eye kind of gets drawn in.” (cat meows again)

Roman Mars:
Usonia 1 is one floor and inside it’s pretty much one room, and a loud cat.

Bill Martinelli:
“The space open, no walls between, you know, living room, dining room, kitchen. That was kind of innovative for the time.”

Roman Mars:
The kitchen is an alcove adjacent to the living/dining space, with no door and it’s a very, very tiny area.

Avery Trufelman:
“This is the kitchen. It’s just a little bit wider than the length of my arms I think. Wait.”

Bill Martinelli:
“About eight foot-by-eight foot square probably.”

Avery Trufelman:
There’s a small hallway with tiny bedrooms, but mostly the one main room is the focus. It’s where you’re supposed to eat, relax, read, live, altogether. Again, Herbert Jacobs.

Herbert Jacobs:
“Mr. Wright is an advocate of the open plan in housing. That is the removal of the boxes within boxes sort of thing, so that you don’t have many partitions. The temptation is to be together much more.”

Roman Mars:
The open plan was pretty novel and it was cost-saving to not have many walls. The Usonian house is full of these clever, less expensive solutions. Like the lights on the ceiling.

Bill Martinelli:
“So that’s just a steel channel with the wires just laying in there. And then bare sockets, bare bulbs. So, that’s considered the first track lighting, another first to the house.”

Avery Trufelman:
And now you see track lighting everywhere, wherever you see lights or bulbs, affixed to a single beam. That’s a Usonian invention.

Roman Mars:
Other innovations Usonia popularized, include the use of flat roofs, built-in furniture, and heated floors. Herbert Jacobs loved those heated floors.

Herbert Jacobs:
“Floor heating, now very general, but at that time there were no floor heated residences in this country.”

Avery Trufelman:
All of these innovations were meant to help the family live well and frugally. They saved money while they lived in the house and they had also saved costs in the construction of the house, but Wright used some other cost-saving measures that were kind of cheating. Like he stole some bricks from another building of his, that he was constructing nearby.

Roman Mars:
Well, Wright didn’t steal the bricks himself, he sent a bunch of his apprentices over to Racine, Wisconsin, where his design for the Johnson Wax building was under construction. He told the apprentices to grab as many bricks as they could and bring them back to Madison.

Bill Martinelli:
“I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Johnson Wax building, the corners are curved, so you can see some of these bricks there, convex and some are concave. Well, those would have been like corner bricks.’

Roman Mars:
Another way Wright kept costs down was by taking a huge pay cut himself.

Herbert Jacobs:
“The bill I paid was for $5,500, which included Mr. Wright’s fee of $450.”

Roman Mars:
By hook or by crook, Wright did it. He met his challenge of building a beautiful house that Herbert and Katherine could afford.

Avery Trufelman:
I mean, it wasn’t perfect. It was a total adjustment for the family and the house had problems with rain drainage and little things missing. Like initially, Wright forgot to put screens on the windows.

Roman Mars:
Which were the kinds of complaints Wright got a lot. He mostly focused on aesthetics and principles of building, rather than practicalities.

Avery Trufelman:
And ultimately, the Jacobs house was small. After Herbert and Katherine had two more children, they couldn’t fit into the house anymore. And so, after six years of living in Usonia 1, the Jacobs family would move off to the countryside, where Frank Lloyd Wright would design them a second Usonian house. But Herbert Jacobs thought of their first home very fondly.

Herbert Jacobs:
“Living in that house was fantastically wonderful. I think it’d be nice if a lot more families had that same sort of thing happened to them.”

Roman Mars:
Mr. Wright thought so too.

Bill Martinelli:
“He thought everybody should live in a house designed by him and you know, the dishes and clothes designed by him and all the furniture.”

Avery Trufelman:
He did design a lot of his furniture and in at least one case, he did design a dress for the wife of a client. This was all about changing culture, one home at a time.

Roman Mars:
Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to redesign America and by that token, Americans. Good design, he thought, would make a kinder, more beautiful, more enlightened country.

Archive Tape:
“Nowadays, Usonian houses may be seen in the countrywide. You don’t need a guide book. You’ll know…”

Roman Mars:
By 1939 Wright had built Usonian homes all over the country, including houses in Alabama, California, Illinois, Michigan, and Virginia. But he wanted to build more.

Avery Trufelman:
He wanted to have a central factory that made prefabricated Usonian parts, modifiable for each client depending on their needs for space and site conditions.

Bill Martinelli:
“And originally the whole idea was, all these walls would be manufactured in a factory. That never really happened, this was all site-built.”

Avery Trufelman:
Frank Lloyd Wright’s factory for Usonian homes never came to pass, and it became increasingly clear to write, that the $5,000 price tag for Usonian homes just wasn’t feasible after the depression.

Roman Mars:
Also, Wright’s career picked up shortly after you Usonia 1. He started building bigger commissions, the ones we all know him for like Fallingwater.

Archive Tape:
“Among the Wright houses, none has been more widely publicized than the Pennsylvania home of Edgar Kaufmann, which straddles a waterfall”

Avery Trufelman:
Wright worked on Usonian homes up until near the very end of his life, but it was a group of his apprentices that would carry on his vision by building an entire community of Usonian houses.

GPS Navigation:
“Turn right onto Usonia Road.”

Roman Mars:
Up next after the break, a trip to Usonia, New York to see what became of Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision and how these little houses have affected the ways we live.

[BREAK]

Frank Lloyd Wright:
“The future of architecture is the future of the human race. The two in one. If humanity has a future, it is architecture.”

Roman Mars:
That is architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who never shied away from making grand statements about architecture, or himself.

Frank Lloyd Wright:
“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.”

Roman Mars:
Wright believed that the buildings we live in affect the kinds of people we become, the tastes we have and the comforts we seek and he said that he could rebuild the entire culture of the United States. He claimed that he could change the nation by changing its architecture.

Frank Lloyd Wright:
“I did say that and it’s true. It’s amazing what I could do for this country.”

Avery Trufelman:
And a big part of his plan, his philosophy, his proposed building system, was called Usonia.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Avery Trufelman, and if you’re like, “Usonia, what’s that?” Well, listen to part one of this story. That’s the last episode of this show. This is part two and it’ll make a lot more sense after part one.

Avery Trufelman:
But to summarize, Usonian homes were simple but beautiful custom homes designed to exist in harmony with the natural landscape around them. Wright had hoped to make these homes inexpensive enough to be affordable for middle and working-class Americans.

Roman Mars:
The first Usonian home cost $5,500, about 85 grand today. Wright built it for journalist Herbert Jacobs and his wife Katherine in Madison, Wisconsin in 1937 and many would come after it, though none managed to be as inexpensive as the first one, but there are Usonian houses in Alabama, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and beyond.

Archive Tape:
“The house that Herbert Jacobs built was the first of the Usonian houses. Usonian, a Wright word meaning the United States as it ought to be at its democratic zenith. Nowadays, Usonian houses may be seen the countrywide. You don’t need a guide book. You’ll know when you see one. Long, low, part of the very earth. You can practically hear the house boasting, ‘designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’.”

Roman Mars:
But that old-timey announcer actually doesn’t have it quite right. They’re not all designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Towards the end of his life, Wright would become preoccupied with large commissions, things like the Marin Civic Center and the Guggenheim. He would have less time to focus on his vision for Usonia.

Avery Trufelman:
But Wright’s ideas about living in harmony with nature, using organic materials in a modern way and creating affordable, democratic housing had inspired a new generation of architects, so much so that they would go on to found an entire community based on Wrightian principles.

GPS Navigation:
“Turn right on to Usonia Road.”

Roman Mars:
Nestled in leafy hills near Pleasantville, New York, about an hour north of Manhattan, is a little village called Usonia. All the homes have low flat roofs. They’re tucked away into the trees so you can hardly see them on lush summer days. It almost looks like some sort of Star Wars planet, fit for suburban Ewoks. There’s no big welcome sign, no gift shop or leaflet. In the middle of the community, there is a plaque.

Avery Trufelman:
“Usonia Homes, a cooperative was founded in 1944 by idealistic young families to pursue the dream of owning a modern affordable home in the country following World War II.”

Roman Mars:
The cooperative was started by a couple of Wright disciples who had studied at Frank Lloyd Wright’s school, Taliesin, most notably a man named David Henken. And although Wright would be involved with the project, it was Henken who guided it, as the plaque says.

Avery Trufelman:
“This land was acquired in December 1946 and in April 1947, Frank Lloyd Wright, the supervising architect, sent the unique site plan.”

Roman Mars:
The site plan put 40 some houses on circular properties without fences so that the property boundaries would flow into each other. Homes wouldn’t be on little square plots with white picket fences.

Avery Trufelman:
David Henken and his family looked for other, similarly-minded people who could come and join their community and invest in it. And among those idealistic young people was Roland Reisley. He and his wife had just been married in 1950.

Roland Reisley:
We had no money, we had no children. We were both only children. We wanted to plant our roots and start a family and we heard from a friend that there’s a community in Northern Westchester that’s building affordable homes, supervised by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Avery Trufelman:
This building project had a communal mortgage. They would pay for the houses together on land they all own.

Roland Reisley:
It’s a cooperative. Let’s take a look, curious. And we came up here and there were already 10 or 11 homes that were nearing completion or beginning to be occupied. We were welcomed with open arms and the enthusiasm of the people who were here and talking about their project was infectious and we were hooked. We decided that we’ll join the community.

Roman Mars:
But it wasn’t all a big romantic adventure. It was a real risk.

Roland Reisley:
First of all, first it was radical. These days it’s called mid-century modern. But the architecture then was radical.

Avery Trufelman:
Meaning these homes were so strange looking to the larger world that the people who chose to live in them were seen as radical and in some ways they were. Some of them were lefty Jews from the Bronx with socialist ideals about land ownership.

Roland Reisley:
The true cooperative that we were, was radical.

Avery Trufelman:
True cooperative is in the sense that no one owned their house?

Roland Reisley:
Yes.

Roman Mars:
Also, this was a financial risk. Since the houses were not as cheap as they were supposed to be.

Roland Reisley:
The supposed $5,000 cost, turned out it was not a realistic number.

Avery Trufelman:
During and after World War II, materials and labor became more expensive and the building of Usonian homes involved special skills and custom fixtures and the houses ended up being double or triple their price estimates. The Reisley’s house was over 20 grand, but the members of Usonia would not be deterred.

Roland Reisley:
We were determined to go forward with this. We were all very optimistic. People would come occasionally to see these houses under construction. ‘You got to come and see Insania.’

Roman Mars:
When Roland and his wife signed up for the community, they thought they’d work with one of the Taliesin graduates to design their house, not the master himself.

Roland Reisley:
We didn’t dream of approaching Frank Lloyd Wright, I mean really. Who would have thought such a thing?

Avery Trufelman:
But Frank Lloyd Wright did, in fact, want to design Roland’s house. They met up in New York and they exchanged letters and ideas about the plans and Roland went out to see Wright at Taliesin.

Roland Reisley:
He was a real person. You could talk to him, you could exchange your joke. I mean people don’t see him that way, but there it was.

Avery Trufelman:
Roland was 26, Wright was 83.

Roland Reisley:
He said, “Come on Roland, sit down. You’re my client. I’m your architect. I’ll redesign your house as many times as I have to until I’ve satisfied all of your needs. You have to speak up. If you don’t, you’ll take what you get.”

Roman Mars:
Roland’s house would be one of three in Usonia, New York that Frank Lloyd Wright-designed himself. About five years after the Reisleys moved in, when Roland and his wife had kids, Frank Lloyd Wright added an extension to their house.

Avery Trufelman:
In fact, Roland is the last living owner of a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian home built specially for him and he still lives in it.

Roland Reisley:
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 the terrible days that occur in every life.

Avery Trufelman:
The house is completely Usonian with a simple carport and sumptuous wooden walls that almost glow and one big main room and a tiny kitchen. It almost feels like you’re outside because it has these big glass windows with long roof overhangs to draw the eye out towards the thick forest of trees just outside.

Roland Reisley:
I think that it has had an effect on me in many ways. The neuroscientists say that that kind of sense reduces stress and is good for your emotional health and maybe good for physical health too. I’m 92 years old. I’m in pretty good shape for 92…

Avery Trufelman:
I’ll say.

Roland Reisley:
… and I attribute that partly … I mean, who knows… I’d like to attribute that to experiencing the beauty around me for most of my life, which is quite remarkable.

Roman Mars:
As Roland sees it, Frank Lloyd Wright’s idea that better architecture could create a better way of life has been entirely true.

Roland Reisley:
We could depend on each other if there was a problem or a need. The kids knew all the adults by their first name. Used to say that children growing up here had 50 aunts and uncles in Usonia.

Roman Mars:
For the first 40 years of Usonia, New York, only 12 of the 48 houses changed hands.

Roland Reisley:
Six of those to next-generation members of the community. There were only two divorces. I had to joke they couldn’t decide who would get the house.

Avery Trufelman:
But life started to move at different paces for people living in Usonia. Suddenly they weren’t all new young families. They were all groups of people in different phases, with different needs.

Roman Mars:
And when it was time for homes to change hands, prospective buyers were thrown off by the cooperative nature of the village. In the first decades of Usonia, members didn’t own their homes.

Roland Reisley:
We decided, very reluctantly, to grant title to the individual home sites to each member, while retaining all of our common land as a cooperative, and that made a big difference, so suddenly people were willing to look at them.

Roman Mars:
But if you’re not Roland Reisley and your house wasn’t custom-built for you by Frank Lloyd Wright himself, the Usonia houses can be a bit of an adjustment. Today most of the homes in Usonia, New York have been expanded.

Avery Trufelman:
Any and all new additions have been built in a Usonian-style, using local materials, flat roofs, big glass windows and Wrightian sensibilities. They have to be built that way.

Evan Kingsley:
While the outsides are not landmarked, they are governed by the board of Usonia, the insides are not at all.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Evan Kingsley. He’s one of the newcomers to Usonia, relatively. He’s been there since 2003.

Evan Kingsley:
But I think for the most part, those of us who have chosen to move here are really sensitive to the aesthetic of the interior.

Avery Trufelman:
But there’s one specific part of the interior that has changed in a lot of the Usonian homes.

Evan Kingsley:
We’ve completely redone the kitchen.

Roman Mars:
As was the case in most Usonian homes, the kitchen in Evan’s home was this little alcove, very efficient and very, very tiny.

Avery Trufelman:
Wright never realized that the whole family might actually want to hang out in the kitchen. Nowadays, it’s as much a place to gather as the living room or the dining room. Evan has added new tiling and appliances and expanded his kitchen, but not by much.

Evan Kingsley:
Well, we bumped that wall out by taking some closet space away and we gained, I don’t know, maybe 10 inches there. That’s all that we gained in doing that.

Roman Mars:
There are a smattering of Usonian homes throughout the United States, some designed by Wright and some by his apprentices, but all following the same basic principles. And like Evan Kingsley’s home, many of these other Usonian houses are hard to modify because they’re often governed by boards who are trying to preserve them as historic pieces of architecture and also the owners themselves want to make sure they keep within the principles of the house.

Betty Moore:
“You have X number of cabinets, you don’t have cabinets up at the top. They weren’t put there and if you could add them, you would violate the principles…”

John Moore:
“There’s no Frank Lloyd Wright police who come around and look and see if you changed the inside.”

Betty Moore:
“That’s what we joke about but there isn’t.”

Avery Trufelman:
That’s Betty and John Moore. They live in Wisconsin in the house called Jacobs II. It’s the second Usonian house that Wright designed for that journalist, Herbert Jacobs.

John Moore:
“Yeah. Well, you want to make sure that you can adapt to the house because it’s not going to adapt to you.”

Betty Moore:
“You aren’t going to change it much.”

Roman Mars:
Like most Usonian homes, Jacobs II had a carport, big windows, and open plan and concrete floors with a heating system in it.

John Moore:
“The floor is nice and cool now.”

Betty Moore:
“But the winter, you come downstairs with bare feet, it’s nice and warm.”

John Moore:
“And it’s nice and warm.”

Avery Trufelman:
I mostly wanted to play that clip because I love how Betty and John actually complete each other’s sentences.

Roman Mars:
Betty and John’s house needed a lot of attention, which is why it was on the market for four and a half years before they bought it.

Betty Moore:
“Oh, everybody wanted to look at it as a curiosity, but nobody wanted to live here.”

John Eifler:
They’re really not for everyone. The reason they sit on the market sometimes for so long is because people consider them difficult to live in.

Roman Mars:
That’s John Eifler, an architect in Chicago who has restored a number of Wright houses, including Usonia 1.

John Eifler:
In order to preserve them, you sometimes have to modify them in order to make them more livable.

Roman Mars:
But even experts like Eifler have a tough time keeping track of how many Usonian homes exist.

Avery Trufelman:
“So how many are there?”

John Eifler:
“I don’t know, I have no idea.”

Avery Trufelman:
I’ve heard numbers ranging from 27 to 140. It all depends on your definition of what an authentic Usonian house is. You could consider Usonia a period in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life, a period in American architectural history, which would include the houses by the apprentices or just a general architectural style. Depending on your definition, the number of Usonian houses continues to grow. In 2013 a new Usonian house was built on the campus of Florida Southern College. It was a design of Wright’s from 1939 but constructed 74 years later, all according to Wright’s plans and principles.

Roman Mars:
Usonia certainly never came to pass in the way that Frank Lloyd Wright originally envisioned, with every American living in an affordable custom home and in fact elements of the Usonian home have evolved into something else entirely.

Avery Trufelman:
“So it is kind of true that Usonia directly influenced the development of the ranch home?”

John Eifler:
“Oh, without a doubt. Yes, I think so.”

Avery Trufelman:
Ranch-style houses are all over the country in nearly every suburb. They are horizontal, close to the ground, one story, they have an open floorplan with few walls, so it’s not hard to see the similarities to Usonia. Although ranch homes are generally less inspired, they don’t have the elegant details and they’re made with standard materials.

Roman Mars:
Wright might not have been pleased the concepts of Usonia got absorbed into essentially the epitome of cookie-cutter suburban housing, but at least these houses really were affordable for the middle class, unlike all the Usonian houses after Usonia 1. After World War II, the American suburbs were full of ranch homes.

John Eifler:
There weren’t that many variations after the war and the suburban ranch home was pretty much it. I mean, unless you were living in some humongous mansion or something, everyone was living in ranch homes in suburbia. It was a very prevalent form of housing.

Roman Mars:
Frank Lloyd Wright died in 1959 at age 89, three years after finishing Roland Reisley’s house in New York.

Avery Trufelman:
He died having created an American style for home building, a way in which natural wood bricks and masonry are used in a simple, modifiable way. A way that is cozy, stylish, organic and honest. His influence is there, where you see lots of wood and stone and where you see big open floorplans, where homes are oriented to the sun or away from the street, or you see a structure built into a hill instead of on top of it, connected and responding to the landscape.

Roman Mars:
And yes, whether he would have liked it or not, Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence can be found in ranch homes in the suburbs, and in the details of all kinds of homes all around us, in ways Wright never imagined. Usonia lives on.

Comments (11)

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  1. GE

    Taliesin may mean ‘shining brow’ but it has a further significance.

    ‘Taliesin’ was the name of the legendary Welsh bard, sometimes called Taliesin Ben Beirdd (Taliesin Chief of Bards).

    Wright was placing his home in a lineage of great artists.

  2. Ben V

    It would be interesting to include aspects of Taliesen West, located in Scottsdale, AZ, in your redux – that was where I first really learned to appreciate some of FLW’s style in how he kept the desert out – or, better said, let the desert in the cleverly designed spaces. It would be an interesting complement to the architecture designed for a cooler, NY/PA climate.

  3. Andy Lyon

    Loved this story but as an old radio guy I can help but wish you would identify the iconic voices, like Mike Wallace and Howard K. Smith which pop up in your pieces so often. That’s all. Thanks.

  4. Jeremy Higgins

    Roman, Avery, and team,

    I am a longtime listener, starting before episode 25, but a first just occurred! Our worlds overlapped directly for the first time. It was a pleasure to hear Prof John Moore and his wife Betty who currently live in the Jacobs 2 home. I met them when I was a graduate student at University of Wisconsin.

    As a chemist working at a large corporation known for innovation in MN (hint hint), I constantly hear interesting design stories, and I love the varied and thought provoking stories you bring my way. Keep them coming and I hope to overlap again. Feel free to reach out if insight from a chemist working in Electric Vehicles is ever needed.

  5. Jeremy Higgins

    Roman and team,

    I have been listening for nearly 7 years, and I can say 99PI has been in my ears for longer than any other podcast I’ve come across. However this evening was a first for me, as our world’s overlapped when I heard Prof John Moore and his wife Betty discussing their home in Madison WI in the Usonia episode.

    I hope the overlap occurs again soon. As a technology and product developer at a MN based corporation known for innovation, I live in the world of design. Your interesting and thought provoking material often provides the muse to consider professional…or personal….problems differently. Reach out if a chat with a chemist working in Electric Vehicles would be of use. In the meantime, keep up the good work.

  6. Johnny

    My office is about 15 minutes from Usonia Road, and I never knew. I’ll definitely have to drive through one of these evenings.

  7. Maggie

    Another great episode about architecture. Hearing this show makes me wanna become an architect….

  8. Bob Carlson

    This episode feels like it was written all around me. During my teen years, the early 60s I lived in a Eichler in Palo Alto. Eichlers perhaps defined mid century modern. They were definitely patternes after Usonian houses. The house was relatively inexpensive but had a back wall that was entirely windows. It was open concept before the term was invented. The heat was in the floors and the floor surface was sheet cork. Wonderful. Even better they had brought the heating element closer to the surface right in front of the toilets so there was a warm spot there. Ours was a cheap Eichler model the later more expensive ones were even nicer. That house defined the basics of ‘nice house’ for me.

    Now 55 years later we are massively remodeling our house in Tucson and No surprise, the back of the house is a 15′ wall of windows looking out at a 7000′ mountain range.

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