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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

He’s the Greatest (And He’d Agree)

Frank Lloyd Wright in Milwaukee

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In a 1991 national survey, the American Institute of Architects recognized one of Wisconsin’s native sons, Frank Lloyd Wright, as “the greatest American architect of all time.” Born in Richland Center in 1867, Wright grew up in Madison and then made Spring Green home for most of his life. As a result, our state is host to an extraordinary collection of public and private buildings designed by Wright, including some right here in Milwaukee.

According to Shirley du Fresne McArthur, author of Frank Lloyd Wright: American System-Built Homes in Milwaukee, Wright often focused his interests on designing affordable housing for moderate- and low-income families. In 1911 the architect began work on an idea that he had been mulling over for at least a decade: pre-cut, prefabricated housing, known today as the American System-Built Homes. The system involved cutting the lumber and other materials needed to build a structure in a mill or factory, and then bringing them to a site for assembly, thereby reducing the amount of wasted materials and the cost of skilled labor needed at the building site.

In an article titled “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Earliest System of Low-Cost Housing,” Michael Lilek writes, “Wright produced more than 900 working drawings and sketches of various designs for the system.” Milwaukee developer Arthur Richards acted as manufacturer and contractor for the architect’s series of standardized homes. Between October 1915 and July 1916, six American System-Built Homes were constructed on Burnham Street and Layton Boulevard, just west of the old Polish South Side near what was the far edge of Milwaukee.

As soon as the homes were completed, Richards’ uncle, Charles Davis, listed them on the market. An ad in the March 4, 1917, Chicago Tribune reads, “The American System of home building enables you to secure homes—correct and charming in design, perfect in taste and intelligent in arrangement—putting at your command the services of Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s foremost creative architect—without extra cost.” When no buyers came forward, however, Richards’ City Real Estate Co. had to rent the houses. By December of that year, the Rellum Land Co. purchased the Burnham properties and began selling them in 1919.

Wright and Richards believed the American System-Built Homes would be a resounding success, but America’s entry into World War I in April 1917 changed the playing field. Building materials were diverted to the county’s wartime needs, essentially halting the construction of new housing. The architect’s commitment to designing Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, coupled with the public’s souring opinion of him due to his personal indiscretions, curtailed Wright’s dream of providing low-cost housing to working Americans on a wide scale. But the six American System-Built Homes still stand, a testament to Milwaukee’s unique architectural heritage, and the influence Frank Lloyd Wright had on it.

For more information, contact the Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin Heritage Tourism Program Inc., a nonprofit organization created to “promote, protect and preserve the heritage of Frank Lloyd Wright in his native state of Wisconsin.”

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