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Usonia now

Is this experimental Frank Lloyd Wright community now just another Westchester suburb?

If you look at an aerial photo of Westchester County from the 1940s, as the founders of Usonia may well have done, you’ll see a number of towns dissolving into farmland or woods, divided by a few highways but not much else. It was exactly what the founders were looking for: some verdant, empty land on which to build affordable homes, raise their children, experience nature, and form a community together. They were a group of mostly young Jews from New York City, not really hippies—they had professional jobs and intended to keep them—but they had socialist leanings, a strong desire to escape the claustrophobia of New York, and a set of plans drawn up by Frank Lloyd Wright for a 47-family intentional community: a long swath of land with houses scattered across it on circular plots that all blended into one another. Wright was against fences, and they wrote a prohibition on demarcating property into Usonia’s covenant.

Standing in the middle of Usonia today feels almost like standing in the middle of that midcentury vision. Hundred-foot trees rise all around, and the homes, made of wood and glass and stone and designed by Wright or his apprentices, are so well placed among the hills that it feels like they grew out of the land. It’s very, very quiet. But walk outward and the spell breaks a bit. In the driveway of one home, a basketball hoop has been affixed to a Wrightian natural stone wall. On the northern edge of the neighborhood you can hear cars whizzing by. Today’s aerial maps show, all around Usonia’s deep green woods, rows of tiny square houses and square lawns. And next to one property in the middle of Usonia is a winding section of chain-link fence. Modern suburban life has, in the decades since the community was built, crept increasingly close.

And Usonia has changed. Children of the original members still live in the community, but now they share it with newer families, some of whom have less interest in the ideals that shaped it. Some don’t live in Usonia full-time, but come up only on weekends. “When I was growing up, this was a community where doors were open,” says Josh Podell, who has lived in Usonia for much of his life. “Every adult was almost like your secondary parent. All of those things have changed. There isn’t as much community spirit.”

Whether that shift was inevitable, and whether it matters, is the subject of a lot of debate in Usonia. Are all experiments in cooperative living necessarily short-lived, made for and defined by the particular moment in which they took shape? Or has Usonia become some looser version of itself for another reason, perhaps generational or cultural? Frank Lloyd Wright regularly made lofty, outsize claims about the power of his architecture: it could shape experience, he argued, could lead to freer, more democratic lives. Was there ever any way for his houses to deliver on those promises?

Before it was a place on the map of upstate New York, Usonia was an idea that David and Priscilla Henken had for a cooperative inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophies of the ideal American community. Wright wanted to dismantle American cities and replace them with a vast network of small communities modeled after Broadacre City, his utopia. He believed, he wrote in 1932, that every family should have an acre of land and a beautiful home. (“No distinction exists between much and little, more and less. Quality is in all, for all, alike.”) He went on to write that “each citizen of the future will have all forms of production, distribution, self improvement, enjoyment, within a radius of a hundred and fifty miles of his home now easily and speedily available by means of his car or plane.”

The building block of Wright’s vision was the Usonian home, an affordable house for the masses. (Wright advocated replacing the word American with Usonian, to indicate the country’s unique architectural vernacular.) The standard Usonian home would be a single story, oriented away from the street and toward nature. Large windows were meant to bring the outdoors in, but overhangs helped people feel protected from the outside world as well. Wright wanted to encourage families to spend most of their time together, so he made open-plan living and work spaces, centered around a hearth that would draw people together. Bedrooms were kept very small to discourage inhabitants from spending too much time away from the communal space.

In 1940, the Henkens had seen Wright’s models for Usonian homes and Broadacre City at the Museum of Modern Art, and promptly uprooted their life and moved to Taliesin, where David Henken joined Wright’s fellowship program. When David completed his training, he and Priscilla moved back to New York, and, with David’s sister and brother-in-law and a small group of friends, launched an all-encompassing, years-long campaign to get their community off the ground. They decided to name it Usonia in honor of Wright, who signed on to design the master plan and some of the houses himself.

It was the early 1940s, and, coming out of the financial distress of the Depression, cooperatives were hugely popular. Some of the early informational meetings about Usonia drew hundreds. But for the core group, the appeal was far more than economic. They felt that cooperative living “could help create a more just society,” wrote Roland Reisley, an early member, in his book Usonia, New York: Building a Community with Frank Lloyd Wright. Two Usonians who were psychologists drew up a questionnaire to assess whether prospective members fit in well with the group’s ideals. Could potential members imagine living with an Active Musician? Trotskyite? Pacifist? Chicken Raiser? They had dreams of creating a racially diverse, integrated community, and hoped a black family would join Usonia. But they stopped short of actively recruiting families of color, believing the community’s self-presentation as a group of people interested in diversity would speak for itself. (It took decades before a black family joined the community.)

The founders wanted to combine Wright’s concepts of affordable home ownership and organic architecture with classical cooperative ideals like democratic governance and joint ownership of resources. Hammering out the details took years. Co-op meetings “were loud, they were endless, they sometimes were pointless, and I can’t say nobody’s feelings got hurt,” one early Usonian told Reisley. “But they were invigorating, and everybody took part.” Over time, the group came up with a series of legally binding covenants which members would agree to when they joined Usonia. They governed things like architectural style (all building designs must be approved by the whole group), communality (no property delineations were allowed), and political neutrality. The covenants could only be amended by a unanimous vote.

The Usonians bought 97 acres of land in Westchester in 1947 and broke ground on the first houses a few years later. Each weekend, members took the train from the city to help clear land and assist in construction to try and keep costs down. Hope Sobie, who was a small child when her parents joined Usonia in the early 1950s, remembers watching her father chase after the bulldozer that was clearing their parcel to make sure the driver didn’t take down any more trees than was absolutely necessary.

By the time Sobie’s family moved in, there were already a handful of families living in Usonia. The day they arrived, Sobie remembers, “we just bopped in to all the houses and we met ’em all. Anyone you'd meet would be friendly, sharing things.”

In a lot of ways, life in Usonia in those years was idyllic. Children were on a first-name basis with all the adults in the community, and could walk into anybody’s house and open the fridge without a second thought. Originally, the Usonians intended to build a shared community house for meetings and activities, but they soon realized it wasn’t necessary, because all their houses were de facto community space. They formed a cantata singing group that rehearsed in the Friedman family’s living room; children got cooking lessons in the Lurie family kitchen; the women held an exercise class that rotated among their houses. Sobie remembers that when her mother hosted the group, she opened up the folding doors separating the master bedroom and the living room to make sure the space was big enough for the women to jump across.

Money was tight, but they helped one another out. “We were very tolerant with our members,” Reisley remembers. “Somebody was a little slow with their payments, okay, you're slow.” In his book, Reisley writes that “through the years the cooperative maintained a semiofficial slush fund for members’ use”; whenever it seemed like someone was in need, he or she would receive an anonymous offer of assistance.

Not everything was perfect, of course. The Usonians fought over the things that members of every community fight over: how to spend shared resources; who was shirking their volunteer responsibilities. And the larger financial problems they faced continually threatened to sink them.

One of Usonia’s main draws was the idea that you could build a beautiful home in the community for very little money—$5,000 to $7,500, according to Wright’s original estimates. “Well, you should never let an architect give quotes for the price of houses,” says Podell, who was David Henken’s nephew. “They have no concept of money.” Though Wright wanted Usonian homes to be affordable for a wide swath of people, he was unbending about the quality of materials that should be used. Amid the postwar building boom, costs quickly rose out of control.

The cooperative’s structure entailed group ownership of both land and houses; families held 99-year leases on their homes. Each family had a Usonian account in which they put money that was then directed toward the costs of building their home and investing in common space. “Essentially,” Reisley told me, “members invested in the cooperative and had equity that was equal to their investment.” It had been a struggle to obtain mortgages as a group; now, the spiraling construction costs meant that they risked foreclosure. A series of fraught discussions resulted in the decision to dismantle part of the cooperative structure, giving each family individual ownership over its home and maintaining cooperative control of communal land. “Almost three years of tumultuous meetings—held several times a week and for hours—followed,” Reisley wrote.

But they stuck together, maybe in part because going back into the wider world didn’t seem all that appealing. The rest of Westchester was deeply conservative, and it was the height of McCarthyism. Rumors swirled that the young Jewish families from the Bronx living in those radical houses were actually communists. In the stately Center-Hall Colonial houses of Pleasantville and Chappaqua, Usonia was sometimes referred to as Insania.

So, in spite of the committees and the meetings and the financial stress, nobody really left Usonia in those early years. They dammed a stream to make a natural swimming pool, carpooled to their jobs in the city, got dogs, sent their kids to Sunday school at the Ethical Culture Society, wrote for the Newsonian (“All the news that fits, we print”), threw parties to which everyone was always invited. And then, as their children grew up and left home, things began to change.

The train up from Grand Central Station is crowded even early on a Saturday morning, full of weekenders headed for the dense network of towns that stretch north from New York City: White Plains, Valhalla, Mount Pleasant. Pleasantville Station is surrounded by a farmers market that may as well be in Brooklyn; the road out of town is lined with sprawling old houses. One minute you’re driving past verandas and white picket fences, the next, after a quick turn onto a narrow, unmarked road, you’re in Usonia.

It’s early spring, and a cloud of new, bright-green leaves fills the woods. All around is stillness and quiet. I’d heard stories about flocks of children on bicycles trailed by a neighborhood’s worth of dogs, but I pass only cars on the road as I approach Roland Reisley’s house at the southern end of Usonia.

There are three homes in Usonia that Wright designed himself, and Reisley lives in one of them. “Without exception, you enter a Frank Lloyd Wright house through a narrow entryway,” Reisley tells me as he opens his door, gesturing to the low ceiling overhead before stepping aside to welcome me in. Wright, he explains, wanted to create a feeling of compression when you walked in the door, so that once you stepped into the common space of the house, you’d feel expansiveness and release, the relief of coming home. Reisley ushers me outside to his deck, cantilevered into the trees, and begins to tell me what’s shifted in Usonia in the more than six decades since he moved in.

For the first 40 years that Usonia existed, the community was incredibly stable. Only 12 of the 47 houses changed hands, and six of those were transferred from parents to children. But since then, as original members have grown old and died, and children have moved away, it’s become possible to join the community without being particularly interested in the “shoulder-to-shoulder, egalitarian” ethos that the original members fostered. (The covenants, which are still in place and remain legally binding, don’t require community members to commit a certain amount of time or labor to Usonia.) The houses have also become markedly more expensive, sometimes selling for over $1 million. “The community would acquire a reputation as an upper class haven,” Reisley wrote in his book. “The thought of Usonia as an enclave for elitist millionaires would have appalled the founders.”

Original Usonians tend to see this as a generational shift. “This generation has different priorities,” Podell tells me. “They come in expecting the community to give more to them. And this community, in the past, was based on everybody giving to one another. That’s a big difference.”

There are, of course, some new residents who wish the community was as cooperative as it was in the ’50s and ’60s. “I liked the idea that this would be more than just people living on a street together,” says Ellen Vellensky, who moved to Usonia from New York City around four years ago. “I did get the impression that it was more of a community than it is. For me, that’s a little bit of a bummer. I haven’t met all of my neighbors. Everyone moves in at a different point in their life. I think if I said to them, I'm going to go rebuild the playground or something, some neighbors would be like, what are you doing? Because they don’t have children.”

But others are less invested in the idea. Sarah Lash and her husband are also newer residents of Usonia—the type who refer to themselves as residents, rather than members—who moved from Brooklyn four years ago. “We weren’t assuming that this was going to be our social network, but it was nice to know it was a patently more close-knit community than the typical,” Lash tells me. “The community is something you can opt into, or not. Some people are really gung-ho, others do their own thing. I don’t think there’s any pressure to be part of the community.”

Lash is right, in a sense: Usonians don’t need to actively build their community anymore. There is no land to clear, no well to dig, no group mortgages to negotiate. And in the absence of make-it-or-break-it moments, the decisions that preoccupy them—whether to cut down invasive trees, whether a proposed addition to a house is in keeping with Wright’s Usonian principles—can feel rather insignificant compared to the high-minded striving of the early days, when a bunch of kids in their 20s were trying to create something like utopia.

Up the hill from Reisley’s house, Lynnette Widder is painstakingly restoring a 1949 Usonian home designed by Kaneji Domoto, one of Wright’s apprentices. The house is very small, but laid out so that it feels spacious. The living room faces a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass windows, which look out toward the forest, and the kitchen is open, rather than walled-off like a galley. All the kitchen counters are very low, because Irene Lurie, who built the house with her husband, was short, and Domoto fit the workspaces to her height. A series of skylights run from the common space to the back of the house, where there are three compact bedrooms, two of which, meant for the Luries’ daughters, have a retractable door between them that could be pulled open or shut depending on how the sisters were getting along.

Widder is refinishing all the original cabinets, keeping the fixtures, and restoring the radiant floor heating that was a fixture in Usonian homes. Over the two years that she’s worked on the house, she’s thought a lot about what Usonia has come to mean. A community will necessarily look different in 2017 than it did in 1947, she tells me. “I know some of the old-timers are very melancholic. Oh, we used to have a newsletter together, blah blah blah, it's not like that anymore,” she says. “But look around the country: We're not emerging from a war where everyone pulled together and planted victory gardens. It's just not that moment.”

Widder loves the idea of Usonia, but doesn’t have any qualms about her reasons for buying a home there. “It was more about preserving what I perceived to be the value of the place, and less about making my own chapter,” she says. “I felt so strongly about this house not falling into the hands of someone whose first move was going to be to turn the garage into a master bedroom. To me, that would be so difficult to correlate with the spirit of the place.”

Whether it’s more important to preserve the buildings themselves or revive the ideals that led to their construction depends, of course, on who you ask. Unsurprisingly, Reisley leans toward the second camp. “People say, ‘Come on, Roland, you're being romantic. That was then, this is now,’” he tells me. “Things are indeed very different. I, however, assert that human beings are not that different. We have social needs. It’s worth our effort to move even a little bit more in that direction.”

The contemporary analogs of the original Usonians—young, progressive idealists—would likely agree. In spite of what some may think, they are not less inclined toward community-building than their predecessors. But in the post-recession landscape, many of them probably can’t afford to own a home, either. Many millennials can no longer expect to graduate from college; find stable, well-paying jobs; and start families in their 20s. Even if they do, it’s likely that both parents will be working long hours: Gone are the days when one parent could stay at home to raise children and manage the household. So they form communities in different ways. (Just look to the social-justice movements of the past decade for evidence.)

The architectural historian Neil Levine has written that “Wright envisaged a dynamic kind of community-in-the-making” that resulted from collaboration between “individuals from diverse backgrounds, uprooted from their rural origins or transported from an alienating urban environment… community was not a natural inheritance, but had to be constructed.”

Wright himself was never able to achieve that ideal—he was, in addition to being a brilliant architect, a noted jerk whose own experiment in communal living, Taliesin, could be dysfunctional and exploitative. He is remembered far more for the brilliant way his buildings interact with the natural environment than he is for a deep commitment to cooperative living. And his strength—building in harmony with the environment—is ultimately the main reason new members are drawn to Usonia today.

The weekend after I visited Usonia, the community planned to get together for its annual spring cleaning, when they ready the common outdoor spaces where many members gather in the summertime. Reisley’s house is just up the hill, and from his balcony, you can see the fruit trees, in peak bloom, that dot Usonia, and watch birds glide overhead among the branches. The smell of woodsmoke from a winter’s worth of hearth fires drifts out the open living-room window. Reisley points to a long, low stone wall that forms the edge of his terrace, and remarks on how much he appreciates the way the stones seem to flow out of the hill behind them. He has looked at these stones, and this hill, probably every day for the better part of his life, but still, he sees them. “Isn’t that beautiful?” he asks.

For all his pontificating about the power of architecture, Wright only had so much control over the way his clients lived their lives in his houses. And no matter how often they talk about the principles that guided Usonia in the early days, the original residents can’t will new members to follow along. But Wright was correct about one thing: A community is continually being created, as much in the subtle, individual choices its members make every day as the bigger, clearer decisions. Usonia always was “a direct, sometimes chaotic democracy,” as Reisley has said. It will keep on being the sum of its parts.