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Frank Lloyd Wright: Affordable Homes for Americans

Afternoon Lecture/Seminar

Wednesday, July 21, 2021 - 12:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. ET
Code: 1NV076
This program is part of our
Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.
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Pope-Leighey House (Photo: Bill Keene)

Many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s best-known domestic designs are homes for well-to-do clients. Though residences such as Fallingwater in rural Pennsylvania and Chicago’s Frederick C. Robie House are not mansions, they were still out of reach for average Americans. Early in the 20th century, Wright undertook a quest to design housing more accessible for the typical middle-class family. Historian Bill Keene examines this lesser-known aspect of the architect’s career in a program extensively illustrated with images of Wright’s houses and their plans.

By 1907, Wright had published plans in The Ladies’ Home Journal for houses targeting the middle class, including a “Fireproof House for $5,000.” By the teens he developed early versions of kit homes in his American System Built series, in which pre-cut parts could be assembled into an array of floor plans. By the 1930s, he embraced a simplified compact plan, budgeted for those of modest means, which he christened Usonian. 

His first Usonian residence, the Herbert Jacobs house in Madison, Wisconsin, was a modest 1500 square feet and was built for $5,500. (It was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in 2019.)  The 1940 Pope-Leighey house in Northern Virginia is another early example of a Usonian house similar in scale and is open to the public. 

After World War II, most of Wright’s domestic architecture consisted of Usonians and many still exist today. While his later projects all cost more than his first Usonian, Wright remained true to his goal of developing quality housing that was affordable for a broad audience.

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