A famous pack rat, Frank Lloyd Wright left an almost incomparable archive as far as American architects go, with countless records and sketches available to modern researchers. Within that trove of documents, one project file has more sketches than any other, containing 900=plus iterations on a single idea. If you guessed this project was Fallingwater or the Guggenheim, you would be a bit off.
Wright created hundreds of drafts for a little-known, early 20th century scheme to provide affordable prefab housing, the American System-Built homes, a concept that quickly fell victim to WWI material shortages and became a footnote in the architect’s career. But while these duplexes and bungalows were tiny, they made an oversized impact on Wright’s career.
“These homes are enormously significant,” says Michael Lilek, a local preservationist involved in restoring and preserving a collection of these rare Wright prefabs. “The earlier Prairie School homes that Wright built were for customers with deep pockets. These showed Wright wanting to create space for everyone, his broadest gesture to a wider audience. It’s him saying that every person could live a better life if they could live in an architect-designed home.”
Lilek works with Wright in Wisconsin, a nonprofit that has acquired a cluster of these homes on the 2700 block of West Burnham Street in Milwaukee, with plans to restore and open them to the public. Currently, four of the six prefab homes clustered on the block have been purchased by the group, with one, a model B1, operating as a museum.
The idea for manufactured homes for the masses had been a nagging obsession for Wright. He published articles about similar concepts in publications such as Ladies Home Journal. But he wasn’t able to realize his vision until he partnered with Arthur Richards, a Milwaukee developer whom he met in 1911, and started creating a set of seven models, which were sold between 1916 and 1918.
“This project doesn’t happen if you didn’t have two people collaborating,” says Lilek. “They needed each other.”
During the period when Henry Ford was democratizing access to the automobile, and Sears was selling cookie-cutter home kits via catalog, Wright took on the challenge of making quality homes more accessible to all strata of society. He wanted to make well-designed housing more affordable and accessible, but not cheap. The idea of prefabs often recalls shoddy construction, but that’s an unfair stereotype, says Lilek, especially for these homes. The Richards Company pre-cut lumber to create the Wright-designed home kits, which were sold via a car dealership-like model, then shipped and assembled by builders in the field, allowing for more a precise structure than would have been possible via craftsman on site.
The System-Built homes, also known as the Ready-Cut System, came in seven different models, and according to a March 1917 Chicago Tribune ad, started at $2,750. They all shared Wright’s refined touch and a commitment to ideals and features that would serve as cornerstones for later work. The small spaces contained open layouts, as well as an instinctive connection to the outdoors. Wright managed to fit 33 windows within the 805-square-foot B1 model.
“It’s a place that’s almost magical,” says Lilek. “There’s so much architecture in every square inch of these buildings. A lot of our guests have garages bigger than this building, but they say they could definitely see themselves living inside.”
While less than 20 were ever built in Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, as well as Wisconsin, Wright and Richards had grand vision. Lilek’s review of the contracts between the two men suggests towering ambition; contingencies were made for licensing and shipping to Canada, Mexico, and even Europe, and the royalty schedule suggested expectations of selling tens of thousands of kits annually.
But then current events weren’t kind to the partnership. Just as the homes on Burnham Street in Milwaukee were finished in July of 1916, a massive Preparedness March came down the street, one of many such gatherings in cities across the country agitating that Americans prepare for war. Early the following year, the U.S. would enter WWI, resulting in materials shortages and a housing market crash that cut the legs out from under the American Systems-Built model. It would take years for demand to bounce back, at which point, Wright had already traveled to Japan for the Imperial Hotel commission.
While Wright would soon enter exciting new phases of his career, and a fruitful time in Los Angeles, the Systems-Built concept, sometimes billed as a flop, foreshadowed plenty of projects to come, including the Usonian homes, another scheme for more affordable designs, and hint at the philosophical underpinnings of Wright’s Broadacre City plan for an auto-friendly suburban development. Wright put as much thought into every square foot of these homes as he did for some of his more famous commissions, and the attention shows.
“With a central gathering place for the family and a fluid interior, it’s really a serene home that connects to nature,” says Lilek. “It’s really everything Wright espoused throughout his career, all in one little home.”