What You Need to Know About Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian Homes

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By Kate Reggev
You’ve heard the term thrown around, but what does it actually mean, and where in the world is Usonia?

If you’ve heard of Frank Lloyd Wright, you may have heard of one of his most lasting endeavors: the Usonian house. Rather than referring to a specific structure, the Usonian house actually refers to a concept—better yet, a manifesto of housing and living— that he started crafting in the 1930s.

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Built in 1948 and named "Toyhill" by Wright himself, this Usonian home is considered an artistic masterpiece and shows the architect's early interest in overlapping circular masonry, which would become an innovative and iconic treatment found in his later work—including the Guggenheim Museum. 

Built in 1948 and named "Toyhill" by Wright himself, this Usonian home is considered an artistic masterpiece and shows the architect's early interest in overlapping circular masonry, which would become an innovative and iconic treatment found in his later work—including the Guggenheim Museum. 

During the Great Depression, Wright saw the United States on the cusp of change. Middle-class households would lead simpler lives without household help, but would still need good design, where elements like lighting, heating, and sanitation would be carefully addressed and landscape would serve as an inspiration. The homes were to be uniquely American, and it’s possible that even the term Usonian was intended to be a play on "United States of America." 

Wright's only residence in Oregon, the Gordon House was designed in 1957 for Evelyn and Conrad Gordon, and finished in 1963 (four years after Wright’s death). Originally located adjacent to the Willamette River near Wilsonville, the home is now located within the Oregon Garden, in Silverton, Oregon.

Wright's only residence in Oregon, the Gordon House was designed in 1957 for Evelyn and Conrad Gordon, and finished in 1963 (four years after Wright’s death). Originally located adjacent to the Willamette River near Wilsonville, the home is now located within the Oregon Garden, in Silverton, Oregon.

Based on this vision, Wright began designing about 100 homes that he called Usonian Automatics; most commonly, a Usonian home usually refers to one of a group of about 60 houses that Wright designed starting in 1936, with the Jacobs House in Madison, Wisconsin.

Originally built in 1952, the Masson House in Pleasantville, New York, recently received an addition and renovation by Carol Kurth Architects that honors Frank Lloyd Wright's intent and vision.

Originally built in 1952, the Masson House in Pleasantville, New York, recently received an addition and renovation by Carol Kurth Architects that honors Frank Lloyd Wright's intent and vision.

Wright designed each of the Usonian homes for specific clients, working with the families and naming the homes after them. The homes even inspired a planned community, now called Usonia Historic District, in Pleasantville, New York. The 100-acre rural tract was purchased by a couple who enlisted Wright to plan a community based on his architectural and urban planning ideals, and Wright personally designed three of the homes in the community and approved the architectural plans of the other 44, which were designed by various architects including former Wright apprentices.

Designed by engineer and designer David Henken in the 1950s, this three-bedroom, one-bath residence is in the Usonia Historic District in Pleasantville, New York, and is known as the Anderson House. 

Designed by engineer and designer David Henken in the 1950s, this three-bedroom, one-bath residence is in the Usonia Historic District in Pleasantville, New York, and is known as the Anderson House. 

With an eye to economic construction, Usonian homes were built with no attics or basements, an efficient use of indoor and outdoor space, simple rooflines for easy construction and maintenance, and in-floor radiant heating. The homes were laid out on a grid for a more standardized layout that would save on installation time and money. Ornamentation was minimal, and materials like brick, concrete, and wood were prominently featured and left unpainted to express their natural color and texture.

The Ken and Phyllis Laurent House in Rockford, Illinois, is named for the couple who occupied it from 1952 until they both died in 2012, and has recently been preserved and restored in preparation for its opening to the public as a museum.

The Ken and Phyllis Laurent House in Rockford, Illinois, is named for the couple who occupied it from 1952 until they both died in 2012, and has recently been preserved and restored in preparation for its opening to the public as a museum.

In plan, Usonian homes tended to be L-shaped and have open floor plans, without the formal living room of earlier American homes, showing Wright’s understanding of a shift in American culture towards more informal gatherings and events. Exteriors and interiors emphasize horizontal lines, like Wright’s Prairie homes; this horizontal emphasis would ultimately be very influential in the development and popularity of ranch houses in the 1950s through the 1970s. 

The architecture at One Eudora Street observes Usonian ideals set forth by Frank Lloyd Wright, most notably cantilevered overhangs that shade curtain walls of floor-to-ceiling glass. The sweeping transparency frames views of the natural surroundings from nearly every room in the house, a dramatic feat of construction that took workers nearly two years to complete. Radiant-heating pipes were installed under all exterior walkways and patios to encourage year-round use and aid in snow removal, very unusual for the late 1940s.

The architecture at One Eudora Street observes Usonian ideals set forth by Frank Lloyd Wright, most notably cantilevered overhangs that shade curtain walls of floor-to-ceiling glass. The sweeping transparency frames views of the natural surroundings from nearly every room in the house, a dramatic feat of construction that took workers nearly two years to complete. Radiant-heating pipes were installed under all exterior walkways and patios to encourage year-round use and aid in snow removal, very unusual for the late 1940s.

Although Wright passed away in 1959, his utopian vision of American architecture, in concert with the homes' thoughtful, timeless layouts and association with one of the most famous American architects of all-time, has made Usonian dwellings some of America’s most well-loved and desired residences. However, this also means that when they come on the market, they are often out of reach for Wright’s intended middle-class residents. Regardless, their influence on the American home market is undeniable.