From the street, the Peters-Margedant House doesn’t necessarily scream landmark. Set back from the road, the small, the diamond-shaped home at 1506 East Indiana Avenue in Evansville, Indiana, merely stands out from the row of modest bungalows that line the the block. Covered in worn out oak panels, the modest, 552-square foot dwelling may seem like nothing more than an aging oddity in the Rosedale neighborhood. But as a group of architects and preservationists working to restore the home have found, this eccentric cottage and proto-tiny house offers perhaps the earliest example of Usonian-style architecture, a vision of residential construction and planning for the common man that was a passion of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Built in 1935 by noted architect and Wright protege William Wesley Peters, the structure pre-dates Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1937 Jacobs House, often considered the first Usonian design. Wright’s Usonian concept, the basis of roughly 60 homes he built across the country, prioritized the affordable, functional, and beautiful, aiming to make stunning architecture attainable to the common man. But often, these designer homes for the middle class cost significantly more than the competition. What’s striking about Peters’s design for this tiny workingman’s cottage is that due to its size and simple materials, it may have achieved the Usonian ideal on a modest budget.
"This might be one of the only early organic designs in the small house movement," says Dennis Au, Evansville’s Historic Preservation Officer. "Usonian homes were supposed to be made for the common man, but in reality, very few the clients for whom Wright built Usonian homes could be described as common men."
At the time it was built, however, Peters was far from Wright’s inner circle. The Evansville native, who graduated from nearby Bosse High School, had studied at Evansville College and MIT before being accepted as Wright’s first apprentice at Taliesin in 1932. For a 20 year old, it was an auspicious start to what would become a stunning career and collaboration with Wright. Peters was the master architect’s right hand man, assisting in the construction of Fallingwater, devising the structural designs for the Johnson Wax Headquarters, and finishing the Guggenheim after Wright’s death in 1959.
But from the middle of 1933 to 1935, matters of the heart forced Peters to step out on his own. During his fellowship at Taliesin, he had fallen in love with Svetlana, Wright’s adopted teenage daughter. The older architect didn’t approve of the relationship, so Peters decided to go home and focus on his own practice. Of the handful of projects he did before falling back in Wright’s orbit a few years later, when he had relented and consented to the relationship, the Peters-Margedant House is the only one still standing.
According to Adam Green, a local architect working with the Peters-Margedant House Preservation Project, the home was likely built on spec, funded by Peters’s father, Frederick Romer Peters, the editor of the Evansville Press. Even though it’s named after his cousin, James Margedant—who, along with his wife, four kids, and dog managed to live in the home for 11 years—Green believes the young Peters, then only 22, designed it as means to showcase his practice, and hopefully drum up interest from a developer. (It’s also unlikely a 552-square-foot home was designed for six people). Peters even did much of the carpentry on his own.
"What blows me away is that Peters was 22 when he did this," says Green. "It’s a bold step to take, to invest in yourself. He’d just got his architectural license, and just walked away from this great position. This is a bold decision for a young man just starting his career to make."
While nobody has claimed this as the first Usonian home per se, many have called it a prototype that showcases elements that would later be signature characteristics of the style, such as a central masonry and fireplace core, flat roof, large overhanging eaves and a open great room with a view of a courtyard (the setback from the street was meant to provide outdoor space, despite the relatively small size of the lot). During Peters’s initial studies at Taliesin, many of the ideas that would become core tenants of Usonian design were discussed such as Broadacre City, a large-scale suburban development concept Wright released in 1932. According to architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson, "what is illuminated with Wes Peters’ design is how Wright’s ideas might at least partially be credited to others and how they developed."
"It’s a really interesting question," says Green, "to think of what influence others had on Wright’s concept, since he was surrounded by so many interesting people."
Despite the home’s pedigree and history, it hasn’t been well-protected, and until recently, was forgotten or a footnote. After Margedant moved out, the home moved between owners and was off the radar of preservationists until then-owner Karen L. Bultman contacted Dennis Au in 2013.
"She had an appreciation for modern design, and realized this was something special, so she called me," he says, "You have to imagine the initial response when someone cold calls and says, ‘Hey, I need some help, I have this Frank Lloyd Wright-related house.’"
Wu says the home wasn’t unknown, but preservationists hadn’t "asked the right questions" of the home. After some digging, he discovered the home’s true origins and significance, and an alliance of preservationists and local officials have since come together in an attempt to preserve and protect the home, including the city of Evansville, the Vanderburgh Community Foundation, the Peters-Margedant House Committee, the Peters-Margedant House Preservation Project, the University of Evansville, and Indiana Landmarks. A plan by a former private owner to move the home fell through, so currently, the groups are raising funds to facilitate a move onto the campus of the University of Evansville, to both properly restore the home and make it more accessible to the public. They hope to begin work in May to restore this important, if overlooked, piece of local architectural history.
"This is really, in our view, the most pure of all Usonian homes," says Green. "It was very pure to the concept, to provide housing for a huge part of the population that deserves a quality lifestyle but didn’t have much money. It’s such a miracle that it survived."