Usonian Ideal

I recently received an email with a link to a planned community that Frank Lloyd Wright was involved with back in the 1940s.  Recently, Forbes magazine set out to do an article on the 10 Prettiest Neighborhoods in the U.S., and this 1940s Wright project, the only Frank Lloyd Wright planned community to actually reach fruition, was named one of the ten.  Located in Pleasantville, New York, this Usonian community built almost three-quarters-of-a-century ago still reigns as a model of beautiful design married to a naturalistic theme.  Wright’s quest for  buildings that grow organically from their surroundings was perfectly realized here.  According to the article, Wright designed three of the homes and approved the designs for the other 44.

All these homes can be classified as Usonian.  According to About.com, Frank Lloyd Wright coined the phrase “Usonian”, which he derived from the words United States of North America.  These homes were supposed to be democratic in nature, and their design was to avoid the ostentatious and lean toward the pragmatic.  They usually were one story homes without basements and garages and according to Wright, affordable by the “common people.”  (A bit patronizing, maybe?)  The Usonian-style was a major contributor to the development of the ranch-style home of the 60s and 70s.

The real beauty of this 100 acre community to me is the way it coexists with the land on which it is built.  I had a chance to visit one of Wright’s Usonian homes this fall in Southwest Wisconsin, and that blending with nature aspect was what struck me most.  It was not a blight on the face of land on which it sat, but rather a perfect complement like the solitary call of a loon echoing across the surface of a serenely calm northern lake.  I don’t know if it was by chance or by plan that Wright chose to be involved with planning the perfect Usonian community in “Pleasantville,” but it is certainly the perfect appellation.

While you may not be able to easily drive to Pleasantville to view these homes, there are many ways to view them on the Internet.  The following are my suggestions:  The Reisley House | The Friedman House | Usonia

(These sites and their content are the property of their respective creators.)

Wright-Designed Usonian Home in Southwester Wisconsin

Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian Home in Southwest Wisconsin Circa 1950

Dress Before Dinner!

My mother was a graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.  Knowing that I have an interest in Frank Lloyd Wright, she gave me her latest St. Olaf magazine and pointed me to the article on the last page entitled “Nothing but Scrambled Eggs.”  It was an account of the famous architect’s only visit to the campus on January 8, 1936.  Like so many things associated with Wright, it was punctuated by the unique!  What follows is a synopsis of the author’s (Jeff Sauve) article along with my personal take on several incidents.

Wright had come to Northfield to give a lecture.  Accompanied by his personal assistant, Gene Masselink, they had checked in at a local hotel.  However, Wright found the place “not fit for human habitation,” so they promptly checked out and headed for the St. Olaf campus.  I am not sure what their next plan was, and the article doesn’t provide any insight, but while they were admiring the recently constructed campus art studio nicknamed the “Art Barn,” the ran into a math professor who directed them to the home of the designer of the studio, professor Arnold Flaten.

Upon arrival at the Flaten home, they were promptly invited in and given accommodations for the evening by Mrs. Evelyn Flaten.  It didn’t take long for the first “Wright moment” to occur.  Shortly after being shown to their rooms, Masselink asked Mrs. Flaten, “Mr. Wright wishes to know if you prefer him to dress before dinner or after dinner?”  The nonplussed Mrs. Flaten shot back, “Before dinner!”

Since the recently arrived guests were a total surprise, there wasn’t much food in reserve.  There were, however, enough eggs to serve omelets with bacon.  Upon being served, Wright declared, “How did you know that eggs and bacon are the favorite food of architects and the best food to eat before a lecture?”

Shortly after dinned, Wright and Masselink, left for the lecture.  It was, however, a very short trip!  For those of you not familiar with January in Minnesota, it’s usually snowy, icy and cold.   Add that to the hilly terrain of Northfield and the St. Olaf campus, and you have the perfect mix for accidents.  As Wright’s car backed down the steep driveway, it slid out of control and into a snowbank.  Wright climbed out of the car, walked back to the house and took a nap on the couch, leaving the problem to his assistant and professor Flaten.

Once the car was dug out, the group headed for the lecture hall, and once again, the car slid into another snowbank.  And once again Wright took a short nap while Masselink and Flaten dug out the vehicle.  This reaction seems almost metaphorical to me.  Wright’s world was peppered with problems, some of them, like the 1914 fire at Taliesin, can only be described as horrific.  But Wright always seemed able sublimate the negatives and move on.  I am not sure whether or not it’s an admirable quality, but it does seem to be characteristic of the famous architect.  Eventually, the three men made it to the lecture hall, and Wright delivered his message to a large crowd.

As was his style, Wright didn’t mask his opinions.  His message was on organic architecture, and he suggested that maybe Americans couldn’t understand that kind of building because, although Americans were well-educated, “too many young people have been made into scientists and not into artists.”  This comment aligns with another of my beliefs about Wright; he never let science, math and engineering get in the way of his designs.  Although beautiful to the eye, many of then had serious engineering flaws.  A perfect example of this is the famous Fallingwater house, where his cantilevered decks began to sag almost as soon as they were finished and ultimately cost millions to repair.

The last “Wright moment” occurred shortly after the lecture.  Upon completion of the talk, Wright was introduced to several of the esteemed guests in attendance.  One of them, college president Lars Boe, asked the architect about his thoughts on the beautiful Gothic architecture that is the dominant theme of the St. Olaf campus.  Once again, Wright’s brusque manner adorned his response. “As far as the architecture of your campus is concerned, you’ve got one building, and that’s the Art Barn (Flaten’s building).  What you’ve got up here is nothing  but scrambled eggs.”

An interesting man, isn’t he?  If you want to read the article in its entirety, you’ll find it here.  (based on Jeff Sauve’s, article “Nothing but Scrambled Eggs” from St. Olaf Magazine, Fall 2011)

Wright's Park Inn Hotel Roof Line

Architecture, Environment and H2O

What do you get when you combine environmental awareness, educational opportunities and historical understanding – The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium!  Located on the banks of the Mississippi River in Dubuque, Iowa, the facility is a mecca for those interested in all things aquatic.   My wife and I had a chance to explore it when we spent a day in Dubuque during a recent fall motorcycle trip.

The center consists of two main buildings as well as an assortment of boats and other outdoor learning stations and is located in the old Ice Harbor area on the west bank of the Mississipi River near downtown Dubuque.  The first part, the William Woodward Mississippi River Center, opened in 2003.  Designed by EHDD Architecture of San Francisco, the structure houses multiple aquariums and exhibits.  According to EHDD’s website, the client wanted a structure that fit with the 19th Century riverfront and industrial architecture of the city.  Local materials like limestone and wood frame windows were chosen so the structure would blend seamlessly with the surrounding buildings.

The new portion of the facility (seen on the left side of the photos 1-3 below) was combined with the old Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works factory (the low-slung structure at the right in photos 1-3).  At the time of its closing in the 1970s, the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works company was the second-oldest ship builder in the country.  During its operational life, the company built everything from steam-driven riverboats to naval sub chasers and mine layers.

Inside the main facility are eight aquariums with fish, amphibians and reptiles from all ecosystems along the 2,552 mile-long Mississippi.  There are also many historical displays to explore.  You can step inside a riverboat, explore life on a flatboat, and view the natural habitat of the Mississippi on a boardwalk trail; these are just three of the many educational opportunities available to visitors.  There is also a hands-on learning center with a touch-tank and many animal specimens.  You can even partake in outdoor environmental presentations like a river otter show and step aboard a real Mississippi riverboat, the William M. Black, as well as a tug, the Logsdon.

In 2010 the Diamond Jo National Rivers Center was added to the campus.  While the original facility, the William Woodward Mississippi River Center, is primarily focused on the Mississippi, the National Rivers Center designed by Christopher Chadbourne and Associates, deals with a wide variety of aquatic environments from oceans and seas to other major river systems and waterways.  There are four saltwater aquariums, one of which is the 32 by 15 foot, 40,000 gallon Gulf of Mexico aquarium.  This giant aquarium contains sharks, rays and moray eels.  There are also many historical displays covering everything from Native Americans and Voyageurs to famous people associated with river transportation and exploration.

We were impressed with the number of environmental displays in the National Rivers Center and of the abundance of environmental information.   One interesting fact I discovered was how much water can be saved by using a car wash instead of a hose; a car wash can cut water usage in half!  The Center is also a research facility, the National River Research Center, dedicated to learning more about the science and history of rivers.  There is also a library of books, paintings, documents, photographs and manuscripts of America’s river history.  One final feature of the new Rivers Center is the 3-D and 4-D theater.  Museum goers get a break on tickets to the films, but you do not need to buy a museum ticket to see them.  You can purchase tickets for the theater only.

If you are in the Upper Midwest, a trip to the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium complex is a “must-see” opportunity for all ages.  Make sure you set aside at least a half-day, and I believe, you will find things to see and do there even if you choose to spend an entire day.  And, as an affiliate of the Smithsonian Museums, you can be sure that you will receive a high-quality learning experience.

 

Prairie Jewel – Wright’s Park Inn Hotel

I had the opportunity to take a tour of the newly renovated and recently reopened Park Inn Hotel last week.  If you have been reading this blog over the last few months, you are aware of my intense interest in this project.  Until last week I had little direct knowledge on the interior of the hotel.  I had been amazed by the beauty and detail on the outside on my earlier visits; however, the work done on the inside is simply stunning!  A walk through the hotel is like stepping back in time 101 years. (See Slideshow at Bottom)

Originally, the hotel occupied the west end of the building; the east end was occupied by the City National Bank.  If you view the building from Central Park (across the street and directly to the north), it is fairly easy to see that there are two distinct structures.  The dividing point, known as the “waist,”  juts inward at the mid-section of the entire structure.

The Park Inn Hotel is the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright designed hotel in the world.  Not only did Wright design the building, he also designed the stained glass windows and interior pieces like the barrel chairs and the Mercury statues in the Bank/Ballroom.  Since the renovation was an historical renovation, the rework had to model the original as closely as possible.  One of the most difficult challenges was returning the bank portion back to its original two-story height.  This area had been changed into a three-story structure (see three-story photos compare to renovated bank photos) to accommodate a variety of businesses, and turning it back to the original two-story configuration was a real engineering challenge.  Another huge task involved all the stained glass windows.  Some had to be located (the large Skylight Room window was found in a Mason City home and the owners donated it), many had to be restored, and some had to be reproduced.  Fortunately, an artist capable of the restoration work was nearby.  John Larsen of Clear Lake restored or re-created 62 stained glass windows for the project.  Old photos and Wright’s drawings were consulted to aid in reproducing period furnishings such as carpet and furniture, and some original items were used as models for reproduction pieces such as the Mercury statues in the Ballroom.

So what’s original and what isn’t?  The original items include:

  • skylights in the Ballroom and the Skylight Room
  • art glass in many of the rooms and the hotel lobby
  • some of the bathroom floor tile, as well as the floor tile in the main lobby and Skylight Room
  • wood flooring, stair railings, louvered guest room doors and some of the paneling, doors, transoms and safe frame in the Law Office
  • donated Stickley pieces in Law Office are period
  • copper facia and much of the brick as well as the polychrome tile on the exterior
  • the Historic Suite is in 1910 configuration
  • clerestory window grill work (some original grill work was found in a nearby community where it was serving as a residential fence)
  • cement urns on balcony outside Ladies Parlor

Items that were reproduced include:

  • the Mercury statues in the Ballroom (one original was found and the owner allowed it to be used as the model for casting)
  • the Mezzanine balcony (the original failed within ten years and was removed)
  • the Law Office library table
  • exterior light fixtures and the Bank grill work on entry door
  • clerestory windows on Bank section
  • the ground floor cement urn at the entry into the Waist portion of the building
  • the barrel chairs were reproduced from Wright drawings.
  • billiards table is original period piece but was not original to the building

Things that have been changed, added or modernized:

  • the number of guest rooms – originally there were 40 some guest rooms; now there are 27 guest rooms (now includes third floor of bank)
  • an elevator and some new railings and ramping for accessibility and safety
  • new heating, plumbing and electrical
  • very few original furnishings remained; designers had to find correct styles of period furniture; carpeting had to be designed and manufactured
  • guest rooms now have individual bathrooms

I was fortunate to have Scott Borcherding as my tour guide.  Scott, of Bergland + Cram, was the Interior Designer on the project.  Scott was an excellent tour guide, and I gained many interesting insights about the building, others involved, and about Wright himself.  One piece of information that I found extremely interesting is that Wright completed his design in 1909 and shortly after began his affair with Mamah Cheney.  Because they ran off to Europe together, construction of the hotel and bank complex was actually supervised by Wright’s associate, William Drummond.

I am signing off for now.  I have much more to say and show about the Park Inn Hotel project, but it will have to wait until next time!  (You can learn more about the project at Wright On The Park.)

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Wright and the Middle Class – The Usonian Dream

For an architect of Frank Lloyd Wright’s stature and ego, to pursue affordable architecture for the average person seems out of character.  But that was the goal of his Usonian dream.  Based on the Populist and Progressive ideas of elevating the common man, Usonian (a term pulled from United States of North America) architecture sought to democratize building.  Wright’s Usonian homes were simple, one-story homes, of modest square footage, without a garage, a basement, or much storage.  They were also modest in exterior adornment.  Like the earlier Prairie School houses, the Usonian homes usually featured low roofs with large overhangs and open living areas.  Bernard Pyron wrote that for Wright, “Nature, Democracy, Spirituality, Culture and Art all became talismans that he used to promote the ideas spawned from this worldview.”  As a result, Wright came to believe that members of the middle and lower classes might be cultivated to appreciate great art and to develop as individuals in a free, democratic culture. In Frank Lloyd Wright’s mind, to accomplish this meant developing a uniquely American architecture that was affordable for all.  All these beliefs led to the development of his Usonian architecture.

Wright’s Usonian homes aimed at using as much local material as possible, a sustainable idea that Wright had long supported, and one he used in the construction of his own home, Taliesin.  Wright also wanted these homes to be compatible with their natural surroundings; to flow from them and blend naturally with the landscape.  He wanted organic structures with lots of natural materials and lots of windows that made use of natural light, and that allowed the inhabitants to experience the land around them.

My wife and I happened to stumble on an open house at one of Wright’s Usonian homes while on a motorcycle ride in southern Wisconsin this past weekend.  I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to walk around the grounds and to take pictures of the exterior of the home.  I am not going to reveal the location of this property as it is still occupied by family members of the original owner, and their privacy needs to be respected.  For that reason, I am going to be purposefully vague on certain details.

The story behind this house is a great one, and is certainly true to Wright’s goal for a democratic architectural style.  The house was built in the early 1950s by a young professional who wanted to construct a house for his family for a maximum of $15,000.  In order to accomplish this, he would act as his own general contractor, doing some of the work himself.   Two things led to Wright’s involvement with the project.  First, the owner had attended the University of Wisconsin where a professor had fostered his interest in Wright’s designs.  Second, his wife had worked for and developed a relationship with Wright’s sister, Jane.  These two bits of fate put him in touch with the architect, and Wright accepted the challenge of designing a home for under $15,000.  After all, wasn’t this perfectly aligned with his goal of affordable architecture for the masses?  (Like many of his projects, the final costs were well above the initial $15,000, but were still modest in comparison to projects done by world-renowned architects like Wright.)

The house was designed around a core structure of limestone that juts above the main roofline.  This central structure contained the kitchen, laundry and a small bath.  To the east of this core was the master bedroom and a carport.  (The carport was later turned into more living space using a design by a Wright apprentice.  The addition blends seamlessly with Wright’s original design.)  Projecting out to the north from the core limestone tower is a hexagonal living space adorned with lots of of windows.  There is also a patio area with a partial low rock wall adjoining this portion of the house.   The bedroom wing stretches south from the hexagonal living area, and is also heavily adorned with windows on its west side.   A flower garden flows alongside the bedroom wing culminating in a man-made rock glen patio at the south end.

The stonework in the walls of the home is beautiful and intricate.  Although Usonian homes were supposed to be lacking external adornment, the walls of this house feature individual pieces of limestone that jut out creating interesting patterns and shadows, as well as lending a sense of organic construction.  Much of this limestone was actually quarried by the owner and then hauled to the building site early each day before he went to his office.

The home is a treasure, and I feel fortunate to have spent some time with it.  It blends naturally with the surroundings, and is easily missed from the street.  When first built, it had an open view overlooking a valley to the north-northwest.  Sixty years later, Nature has reclaimed much of the hilltop, but you can still see the valley through a small opening.  Wright said, “I would like to have a free architecture.  Architecture that belonged where you see it standing—and is a grace to the landscape instead of a disgrace.”  I think he and the owner succeeded here!

*The slideshow below was organized as a counter-clockwise walk around the property, beginning in the paved parking area at the front entry.  The walk goes towards the east, around the original master bedroom area, then around the family-main living area, along the bedroom wing then through the flower garden and back to the paved area in front of the house.

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Frank Lloyd Wright Architecture – Sustainable or Not?

A 21st Century building project will probably not get off the ground if it isn’t tied to sustainable design, and most of us would agree, “That’s a good thing!”  But building and architecture during the late 19th and most of the 20th Century were not driven by any national push to be sustainable and environmentally friendly.  So did Frank Lloyd Wright, one of that time period’s most influential architects, build sustainability into his buildings?  It really depends on how you interpret his designs.

Wright was a major proponent of organic architecture.  This school of thought believes that architecture should reflect nature, and that organic design should put humans, and the buildings they inhabit, into a harmonious coexistence with nature.  Wright’s love for nature came, at least in part, from growing up in rural Wisconsin.  His designs sought to incorporate nearby, natural materials when possible, and to use them in a way that allowed their natural beauty to show through.  Wood wasn’t covered with paint; stone shouldn’t be plastered over; let buildings appear to be emerging from the land where they are situated.  Many of his projects, including his own home, Taliesin, used local material.  Taliesin, located on a hill overlooking the Wisconsin River, features locally quarried limestone and plaster made with sand from the banks of that river.  By using natural material obtained nearby, transportation costs and fuel use were greatly reduced.  By limiting what was painted, fewer chemicals entered the living space. both of these are sustainable practices.

Another sustainable idea Wright incorporated into many of his buildings was thermal mass walls.  This practice aims at reducing heating and cooling costs because a large volume of masonry material has the capacity to store thermal energy for extended periods of time.  Wright also used a lot of glass for natural lighting.  He combined this use of glass with a large overhang on the roof.  This large overhang did two things that align with sustainability.  First, they shaded the windows so that the building would stay cooler in the summer, and they moved moisture (in the form of rain) out and away from the windows and walls so that there was less external moisture penetration of the building envelope.

Not everything Wright designed turned out to be a study in sustainable perfection.  Often the windows designed to let in and utilize natural light, also let in the wind, cold and rain.  This happened because the union between the wall and the window was not taken into account by Wright’s design nor by his instruction and supervision; it just wasn’t that important to him.  Projects like his Freeman House, where concrete block was manufactured on site, often turned into disasters of cost overruns and product failures; good sustainable design, but poor sustainability from a supervision and implementation standpoint.  Even his architectural gem, Fallingwater, literally fell apart because of poor material and bad engineering of the cantilevered decks.

So what can we conclude about sustainability from a study of Frank Lloyd Wright?  In my opinion, he was a true architectural genius, and many of his ideas were and are good, environmentally sound, sustainable practices.  Where he failed in the realm of sustainability was in his lack of supervision and follow-through.  I get the impression that at a certain point his mind became bored with the mundane world of follow-through and follow-up.  His genius was racing on toward the next great design.  We can all take away something from this that too often rears its ugly head, even today.  All parties involved in a building project need to be involved at all stages of a project.  Everyone’s input is necessary and important, and we can’t walk away from the building process just because we are done with the design.  Does the design translate from the conceptual to the practical?  Are we on the project looking to see that our design works and is it being followed correctly?  Is the supervision on the jobsite ever-present and effective?  Are the materials we’ve specified working together properly and doing what they were marketed to do; and if not, are we making the necessary changes?  These nuts-and-bolt, mundane issues are as important to sustainability as the design itself.

Resources:

Frank Lloyd Wright:  His Philosophy of Architecture

Building Envelope Design Guide – Masonry Wall Systems

Wrights Taliesin Showcases “Organic” Architecture

USA Home and Garden:  Fallingwater

Frank Lloyd Wright overhang above many windows.

Restored Frank Lloyd Wright Park Inn Hotel Opens

101 years after it first opened, Wright’s Park Inn Hotel is back in the lodging business.  While work is still taking place, guests can once again make reservations to stay at the renovated hotel, and a Grand Opening is planned for September 5-11.

I spent some time last week walking around the hotel and adjoining bank building, and the architectural detailing is amazing.  Spend a little time around this structure and you will begin to realize why it was worth the nearly $20 million that was spent restoring it.  Words cannot do justice to the mix of stained glass, rich woods, brass, copper and brick that have been blended together by Wright’s masterful touch into an architectural symphony.  I have included some recent photos below to help tell the tale, and more are available on our Facebook page.

The original bank and adjoining hotel were designed for James E. Blythe and J. E. E. Markley, two Mason City attorneys.  They wanted a building that could compete with the new, eight story bank that was being constructed across the street.  Markley was familiar with Wright because his daughters attended a school in Spring Green, Wisconsin, that Wright had designed.  The original Blythe and Markley structure contained a bank, the law offices of Blythe and Markley, and the 42 room hotel.  It opened in 1910.  It remained the area’s premiere hotel until 1922 when a more modern, upscale eight story hotel opened nearby.  From that point on, the story of the Park Inn was one of decline.

The Wright on the Park organization has overcome many obstacles to bring the Park Inn Hotel back to life.  Their website, wrightonthepark.org, has numerous photos covering the renovation process as well as background information on the building, the community and Frank Lloyd Wright.  Anyone with an interest in Wright should make a visit to see his only remaining hotel as well as the Stockman House, a private residence designed by Wright.  There are also several other homes designed by Prairie School architects in Mason City.   If you enjoy Prairie School architecture and the Arts and Crafts period, a trip to Mason City is well worth your time; and now you have a place to stay that epitomizes these styles.

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