Frank Lloyd Wright’s Burnham Street Vision
Modest homes by a great architect
It was surprising to
learn that Frank Lloyd Wright designed homes for modest-income clients. Though
not much of a Wrightian, I was nonetheless familiar with the epic scale of some
of his projects and the outsized ego of the man. I assumed his work was always
on a large scale and his clients always well heeled. Turns out I was wrong. Six
little-known structures on West
Burnham Street stand as testimony to the truth.
As enthusiasts already
know, Wright created designs for affordable housing throughout his career,
culminating with his “Usonian” houses in the Depression. He called it
“Democratic Architecture” for average Americans of average means—and it
fascinated him. Before the United States
entered World War I, Wright was already at it on Milwaukee’s South Side.
In 1915 Milwaukee real-estate entrepreneur Arthur L.
Richards contracted the 48-year-old already-famous (and infamous) architect to
create designs for a big experiment: American System-Built Homes for
modest-income clients. The launching location would be on Burnham, between 28th Street and Layton Boulevard,
then the edge of Milwaukee.
There, six demonstration houses would be built where streetcar lines ended and
celery fields began. The dwellings, Richards imagined, would sell like hot
cakes, becoming a part of a large development to be replicated across the
It didn’t quite turn out
that way. The United States
became involved in World War I, money and materials became tight and the
project went belly up.
Yet those six
Wright-designed dwellings on Burnham
Street remain. Remarkable preservation efforts
have been afoot since 1996 to stabilize this unique block of two bungalows and
four duplexes. Three buildings have been purchased by a nonprofit organization,
and one of those has been restored. The site is well worth a visit.
All six structures
reveal the characteristics of Wright’s later period on a small scale. Some
exhibit the accretions of successive decades (siding, thickened stucco,
outbuildings). Two have received remarkable restoration and respect—one
privately owned (2722) and the other a diminutive single-family house (2714)
that is now open for tours. Outside, “pebble-dash” stucco, cypress wood trim
and banks of 30 windows create strong horizontal lines. Overhangs frame the
porch and main doorway on the side (Wright disliked “front” doors). Planting
boxes underline windows and porch. Inside, horizontals rule as well: Wood
banding wraps around walls of earthy tints (unpainted, Wright’s preference);
built-in gumwood cabinets (refinished and glowing) offer functionality; windows
“bring Nature in,” creating privacy and light; wooden grille-work charms; and a
brick fireplace anchors the entire space. Despite its tiny size (800 square
feet), a lovely spaciousness and light pervade.
Wright embraced modern
technology and mass-production methods. He and Richards used pre-cut lumber and
sized windows to fit 24 inches on center studs (allowing windows to be easily
set in), thereby minimizing on-site skilled-labor costs. Although pre-cut
modular building systems existed then (the Sears “kit” houses among them), none
had Wright’s commitment to modernity and inside-out design. He created 960
drawings offering clients different roofs, cantilevers, built-ins, sleeping
porches and art glass windows.
Wright’s life was in
crisis when he began the American System-Built Homes project. In 1914, a
disgruntled servant set fire to his Spring Green home, Taliesin, and then
killed seven people with an ax (including his companion Mamah Borthwick Cheney
and her two children). Perhaps the Burnham project offered needed distraction
and stimulus for his stalled career. After completing it, Wright left the
country for Japan and a new
chapter in his work: Tokyo’s
The Burnham restoration
was conceived by individuals from UW-Milwaukee’s School of Architecture
and Urban Planning and Historic Preservation Institute, Bruce T. Block, and The
Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin Heritage Tourism Program (spearheaded by Barbara
Elsner). This volunteer nonprofit purchased 2714 W. Burnham and two more duplexes
(2724-26 and 2732-34), receiving two highly competitive “Save America’s
Treasures” federal matching grants: $150,000 in 2006 for restoring the exterior
and interior of 2714 (matched dollar for dollar by local donations); and
$393,762 in 2009 for the exterior of the duplex at 2732-34. Two recently
bestowed preservation awards (Mayor’s Design and County Historical Society) may
help generate matching funds.
The project deserves
visits and support. These American System-Built Homes tell the story of a unique,
exuberant moment in Milwaukee and U.S. history.
For Wrightians, the structures offer a new perspective on the architect’s
oeuvre and imagination. Touring 2714 made a Wright admirer out of me, and it
may others as well. His vision of beautiful and affordable housing was
(Tours of 2714 W. Burnham St. are available 1-4 p.m. on the second Friday and second and fourth Saturday of each month; $10 donation. For more information: info@WrightInWisconsin.org.)