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Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013

Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin

A vision for American homes

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Opportunities for experiencing Frank Lloyd Wright’s (1867-1959) extraordinary contributions to American architecture abound in Wisconsin. The state hosts some 41 different sites. Among those well known are Taliesin in Spring Green, the Wingspread center and SC Johnson headquarters in Racine, and the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Milwaukee. 

Lesser-known Wright treasures are available to the public at SC Johnson’s Gallery: At Home with Frank Lloyd Wright (1525 Howe St., Racine). Open since 2012, the gallery is dedicated to presenting rotating exhibitions of Wright’s design and original artifacts.

The intimate SC Johnson Gallery is housed in Fortaleza Hall, a contemporary glass structure designed by Foster and Associates. The elegant, curved, sleek lines of the Foster building complement Wright’s organic architecture as reflected in the nearby SC Johnson administrative office building (1936-1939) and research tower (1944). These mileposts of American architecture transformed the idea of office space with organic-shaped columns, glass tubing and open workspaces.

Currently on display at the Johnson Gallery, “Usonia: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Vision of the American Home” showcases Wright’s vision of democracy for the American city. Wright called for beautiful, practical homes for middle-class families, created with less expensive materials that were energy and space efficient, and adapted to their natural settings. Approximately 60 Usonian houses (costing $5,000 to $10,000) were built. The Jacobs House I in Madison (1935-1936) was the first. Admission to the SC Johnson Gallery: At Home with Frank Lloyd Wright is free by appointment; call 262-260-2154 or visit scjohnson.com.

A visit to Wright’s historic Burnham Street properties in Milwaukee, where Wright collaborated with Arthur Richards to introduce his American System-Built homes nearly 100 years ago, reveals the architect’s earlier plans for affordable housing. In private hands, these properties suffered neglect and decline until the nonprofit The Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin Heritage Tourism Program (founded in 1990) developed plans to conserve these landmarks. To date, the group has purchased four of the Burnham Street properties, with long-term hopes of seeing all six restored.

Since its opening for tours in 2009, Burnham Street has attracted visitors from around the world, including members of the National Trust for Historical Preservation Council, who bestowed high praise on the project. Visitors to 2714 W. Burnham St. may tour one of Wright’s 1915 restored homes on the second and fourth Saturday of each month from 1-4 p.m. Admission is $10 per person, $5 with valid student ID and free for those under 16 years old (with parent). Visit wrightinmilwaukee.org for more information.

A late summer tour of these two unique sites offers visitors a closer look at the mind of arguably the most influential architect of the 20th century. Wright is known for his innovative, organic architecture, which challenged the dominance of abstract modernist architecture. Many of his ideas were carried out in actual architectural projects, while others exist as unrealized concepts in drawings and models. Despite Wright’s worldwide recognition, his name is more familiar than the first-hand experiences of actual drawings, artifacts and built structures. “Usonia” at the SC Johnson Gallery and Wright’s houses on Burnham Street offer rare close-up views of the creative genius of one of American’s most important architects.