A Look at Frank Lloyd Wright's Little-Known Prefabs

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By Patrick Sisson / Published by Dwell
From early modular construction to a portfolio of homes based in the Midwest, we take a look at the prefab residences designed by America's most famous architect.

If you were plotting a Frank Lloyd Wright tour of American architecture, the 2700 block of West Burnham Street in Milwaukee might not make your itinerary. But on this quiet street, you can find evidence of the architect’s career-long obsession with creating affordable, sometimes prefabricated, housing for the masses.

A Look at Frank Lloyd Wright's Little-Known Prefabs - Photo 1 of 6 - The only grouping of Frank Lloyd Wright's early American System-Built Homes—built by Arthur Richards and designed with standardized components for mass appeal to moderate-income families—is situated in the Burnham Park neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The four model 7A duplexes, one model B1 bungalow (shown here), and model C3 bungalow were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. [Photo via McNees.org]

The only grouping of Frank Lloyd Wright's early American System-Built Homes—built by Arthur Richards and designed with standardized components for mass appeal to moderate-income families—is situated in the Burnham Park neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The four model 7A duplexes, one model B1 bungalow (shown here), and model C3 bungalow were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. [Photo via McNees.org]

Crafted between 1915 and 1917 with precut factory lumber to save cash and labor, a half-dozen duplexes and bungalows on this block—the American System-Built Homes, as they have come to be known—were Wright’s first attempts at attainable architecture. He did more sketches for this project than any other in his career, according to Dale Gyure, a Wright scholar. Gyure notes that the homes embody ideas from "The Art and Craft of the Machine," a 1901 speech in which Wright spoke of building affordable housing by letting machines free humans for more high-level design.

A Look at Frank Lloyd Wright's Little-Known Prefabs - Photo 2 of 6 - New York City boasts only two Frank Lloyd Wright structures: the Guggenheim Museum, and this modest prefab on Staten Island. The Cass House was built according to the Prefab #1 plan he designed for Erdman's prefab company. According to the New York Times, "It was built late in his life from a plan for prefab moderate-cost housing. The components were made in a Midwest factory and shipped to Staten Island for construction under the supervision of a Wright associate, Morton H. Delson... Wright had planned to tour the Staten Island house, but shortly before his scheduled arrival he became ill and died at age 92 on April 9, 1959." [Photo via Bridge and Tunnel Club]

New York City boasts only two Frank Lloyd Wright structures: the Guggenheim Museum, and this modest prefab on Staten Island. The Cass House was built according to the Prefab #1 plan he designed for Erdman's prefab company. According to the New York Times, "It was built late in his life from a plan for prefab moderate-cost housing. The components were made in a Midwest factory and shipped to Staten Island for construction under the supervision of a Wright associate, Morton H. Delson... Wright had planned to tour the Staten Island house, but shortly before his scheduled arrival he became ill and died at age 92 on April 9, 1959." [Photo via Bridge and Tunnel Club]

Wright was cooking up an ambitious plan with a developer, Arthur L. Richards, to sell homes via a car-dealership model when the combination of a sluggish economy and the entry of the United States into World War I effectively scuttled the project, according to Sidney K. Robinson, a professor emeritus of modern architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

A Look at Frank Lloyd Wright's Little-Known Prefabs - Photo 3 of 6 - Another house built from Wright's Prefab #1 plan for Marshall Erdman & Associates, the Socrates Zaferiou House in New York state, was sold in 2014. The Prefab #1 layouts, which ranged in size from 1,800 to 2,400 square feet, shared a single story, L-shaped plan with a "pitched-roof bedroom wing joining a flat-roofed living-dining-kitchen area centered on a large masonry fireplace." Alongside prefabrication managed by Erdman's company, the architect sourced off-the-rack Andersen windows and Pella doors and used basic materials like plywood and Masonite to cut costs. [Photos via Curbed]

Another house built from Wright's Prefab #1 plan for Marshall Erdman & Associates, the Socrates Zaferiou House in New York state, was sold in 2014. The Prefab #1 layouts, which ranged in size from 1,800 to 2,400 square feet, shared a single story, L-shaped plan with a "pitched-roof bedroom wing joining a flat-roofed living-dining-kitchen area centered on a large masonry fireplace." Alongside prefabrication managed by Erdman's company, the architect sourced off-the-rack Andersen windows and Pella doors and used basic materials like plywood and Masonite to cut costs. [Photos via Curbed]

Wright revisited the affordable home concept often. His Usonian homes, which were built starting in the late 1930s, represent a more ambitious attempt at a design system that could be replicated, with concrete slabs embedded with piping for radiant heating and carports instead of garages. Writing in Architectural Forum in 1938, Wright identified the challenge of building "the house of moderate cost" as "not only America’s major architectural problem, but the problem most difficult to her major architects. I would rather solve it with satisfaction to myself than anything I can think of."

A Look at Frank Lloyd Wright's Little-Known Prefabs - Photo 4 of 6 - The Rudin House in Madison, built following Lloyd Wright's prefabricated Plan #2 for Marshall Erdman's company, is one of two homes built as a large, flat-roofed square with a double-height living room accented with a wall of windows. [Photo via Mike Condren]

The Rudin House in Madison, built following Lloyd Wright's prefabricated Plan #2 for Marshall Erdman's company, is one of two homes built as a large, flat-roofed square with a double-height living room accented with a wall of windows. [Photo via Mike Condren]

These projects led to the Erdman homes, a series of three prefabricated structures that Wright designed for Marshall Erdman, a builder who had collaborated with Wright on the Unitarian Meeting House in Madison, Wisconsin. Each "set" would come with all the major pieces needed to assemble a home; the buyer would have to provide the foundation, wiring, and plumbing, and even submit a topographic map for Wright’s approval. The layouts of the two models that were constructed—the L-shaped No. 1 and flat-roofed No. 2—would "immediately catch your eye," Gyure says, as looking a bit like previous Usonian models, more evidence of Wright’s continual refinement of affordable housing concepts.

"Wright wasn’t trying to change the manufacturing or prefab system" with these experiments, Gyure says. "He was trying to take advantage of it."

A Look at Frank Lloyd Wright's Little-Known Prefabs - Photo 5 of 6 - Frank Lloyd Wright's second prefab plan for Marshall Erdman & Associates sported a carport on the first level attached a large, open-plan living room. His third design for ME&A was never constructed. [Plans via the Frank Lloyd Wright archive at the NCSU Libraries]

Frank Lloyd Wright's second prefab plan for Marshall Erdman & Associates sported a carport on the first level attached a large, open-plan living room. His third design for ME&A was never constructed. [Plans via the Frank Lloyd Wright archive at the NCSU Libraries]

Read more about Frank Lloyd Wright's prefab legacy, epitomized by a light-on-the-land structure owned by his grandson Tim Wright, on a plot of land in Wisconsin near the architect's famed estate Taliesin.

A Look at Frank Lloyd Wright's Little-Known Prefabs - Photo 6 of 6 - The seeds for Frank Lloyd Wright's collaboration with prefab builder Marshall Erdman were planted when Erdman hired the architect to design the First Unitarian Society meeting house in Madison, Wisconsin. [Photo credit courtesy The Kubala Washatko Architects (TKWA) via ArchDaily]

The seeds for Frank Lloyd Wright's collaboration with prefab builder Marshall Erdman were planted when Erdman hired the architect to design the First Unitarian Society meeting house in Madison, Wisconsin. [Photo credit courtesy The Kubala Washatko Architects (TKWA) via ArchDaily]