Housing photo of the day 02: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian house

April 20, 2017 | Architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright, Housing, HPoD, Usonian

By: David A. Smith


Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasion to change.

Frank Lloyd Wright


Frank Lloyd Wright was a genius, as he was the first to tell everyone, and because he was a genius, he styled himself entitled to be an imperious son of a bitch, and like another great imperious son of a bitch, Robert Moses, he found ways to use the built environment to perpetuate his grandiosity on willing acolytes, in Wright’s case buyers of home he designed, as revealed by occlusion in this brokerage-shill-piece with fantastic visuals from the Daily Mail (April 19, 2017):


A Wright house is a visual experience, not one to live in


A house where everything outside and inside is designed by the incomparable architect Frank Lloyd Wright and still in its original condition has gone on the market for almost $1.4million.


The price may be a little steep for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis, where a nearby three-bedroom with 1,000 more square feet runs for less than half that, but not every home has been designed and furnished by the master.


“Then there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark”


Lloyd Wright, in most respects the model for Howard Roark in The Fountainhead (except he was short where Roark was tall), treated his homes as complete artistic experiences.  The layout, angles, textures, interiors, all were designed to deliver the home as a complete and interconnected work of art, in which nothing may be changed. 


The Parklands house is set on almost four acres and inside all of the furnishings and finishings were designed by Wright in conjunction with the original owners, Paul and Helen Olfelt, now in their 90s, who hired him in 1958, according to Smithsonianmag.com.


The Olfelts, relaxing in their home-museum


This makes Lloyd Wright homes great to tour and impossible to live in, which is why they tend to be bought by architecture lovers, kept in pristine condition, and then sold to the next architecture lover.


Beautiful visuals – useless space


Consider that front entrance: up a long flight of stairs, into an eave that is both open to the wind and awkward to walk across.  Imagine bringing home your groceries in a Minnesota winter.  You’d curse it.  The walk and porch would be difficult hard to shovel, icy and therefore slippery, and really painful to fall onto or into.  And that niche corner – what can you put there?  Garbage cans?  Bicycles?  An outdoor grill?  The space was condemned by design to emptiness and inutility.


Then there’s the entry windows.  With those unique apertures, forget buying any standard window.  Forget thermopane.  Good luck replacing one if it cracks. 


For that matter, where’s the insulation going?  The heating bills would be enormous.


The genesis of this house, and many others, was Wright’s conception that design could create affordability, via an intensely compacted home style he called Usonian, an invented portmanteau word to evoke both USA and useful.  Conceived as a thought experiment in the Depression, the Usonian home was intended to be sold for $5,000, an affordable price point.  To get there Lloyd Wright designed the home to be small and then multi-purpose inside.  (In many ways he was the forerunner of the micro-unit initiative, but he was undone by the lack of electronic and web technology that makes repurposing small rooms easy and quick.)


Beautiful views: no storage, awkward chairs, and the heating bills


Wright designed and specified the furniture.  Having decided the Olfelt home should have triangles as its motif, he produced hexagonal Ottomans, a hexagonal bay window, more hexagonal windows – again I shudder at the heating bills – and for that matter, it would be difficult to cool the house in summer because those windows, magnificent though their views may be, mostly do not open. 


The house, at 2206 Parklands Lane and handled by the Berg Larsen Group, is a classic Frank Lloyd Wright Usonia home, developed by Wright for a post-Depression era America. The home’s concept includes lots of nature and ‘organic architecture’ that should seem to blend in with the surroundings.


A Usonia home should appear to ‘have come up from the ground and into the fresh air and sunshine,’ says a website dedicated to a Usonia home in Alabama.


The hallway, and the closet space (look closely)


Because Wright was short, he made most ceilings low (though as this was a specific commission he acceded to the owner’s desires) – often I can’t walk properly in them, always ducking at doorways (the same sadistic exclusionism that Robert Moses displayed when he built his parkways with stone-bridge overpasses too low for trucks or buses.  Yet observe there’s minimal space throughout: the hallway is narrow.  The closest, such as they are, run along the hallway (not in the bedroom).  The floor is poured cement – cold and hard – so you have the choice, see it and freeze, or be warm and cover it up with a nice shag or hallway runner. 


The kitchen is similar:


Imagine eating a cheery family breakfast?


While the combination of wood, granite, and yellow brick is visually harmonious, where do you put the microwave?  Where’s the refrigerator?  And the cooking layout is nothing but steps – stove, dishwasher, sink, cabinets – all of them maneuvering around a six-cornered sharp-edged immovable kitchen table.  (Wright himself commented on always being black and blue from bumping into his own furniture.)


Nearly every time I tour a Lloyd Wright house, and the Boss and I have visited 10-15 of them – I am struck by two things:


1.     Wright’s cleverness, his powerful and harmonious visual sense, and his commitment to integrate space, use, materials, and texture.

2.     His homes’ unlivability.


So those who bought Lloyd Wright’s design, or who today buy his homes, do so not for the living but for the experience of inhabiting museum pieces.  They do this until they can take it no longer, and then they sell – to the next architectural enthusiast.


Oh, I said the house was being sold?  Actually, it’s been on the market for nine months, and the asking price has already been cut by $100,000.


Art may be appreciated, but it does not always appreciated.


Bureaucrats: they are dead at 30 and buried at 60. They are like custard pies; you can’t nail them to a wall. 

 Frank Lloyd Wright


Frank Lloyd Wright at 89: arrogant and proud of it



Comment from Matthew Healy
Date: April 22, 2017, 10:09 am

A family friend, a Professor of Art History, owns a Usonian House, which I have visited. I totally agree with your assessment: stunning beauty but utterly impractical. Sufficient storage space for Trappist Monks but not for the rest of us. Impossible to modify without wrecking its artistic integrity. Low ceilings (my mother loves the place, but she is a lot shorter than me). No private spaces to get away from whoever else lives there.

And custom materials in non-standard shapes and sizes. The designer who cares about maintainability can be creative if he or she wishes, but ought to use standard-size components which owners would be able to replace as needed in future.

The Professor bought the house for a low price because it was in poor condition, then spent about twenty years restoring it. Being a Professor he had limited amounts of money, so guess how he spent most of his vacation time? When he wasn’t physically working on the house, he was on the phone chasing down sources of hard-to-get custom materials (sometimes with the help of students and colleagues).

After he finished restoring the Frank Lloyd Wright House, he started his current project: an old house somewhere in Germany!