A Milwaukee Block With the 'Wright' Stuff

Nov 15, 2016

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright is known worldwide for his distinctive buildings, often designed for well-heeled or prominent clients.  In Wisconsin alone, Wright's stamp can be found in the S.C. Johnson Wax and Wingspread facilities in Racine, Monona Terrace in Madison, and the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Wauwatosa.

But Wright also sought to design homes for regular people that hewed to the same architectural philosophy as those for his wealthier clients.  And the largest-scale example of the effort sits on a single block of West Burnham street on Milwaukee's south side - a group of century-old residences known as Wright's American System-built homes

"As he's constructing more than 130 homes for wealthy clients - he still has the idea that every American - every individual - would live a deeper, richer, fuller life if they could live in an architect-designed home," says Mike Lilek, the curator of the American System homes.  "And he wanted to be that architect."

Wright designed the homes between 1915 and 1917.  Six were built on Burnham Street, with a handful of other homes scattered around the Midwest - some of which may be unknown to historians.  Economic factors - including World War I - and Wright's subsequent work in Japan prevented him from achieving his aim of producing the homes en masse.

But the Milwaukee examples - two of which are open to the public - draw thousands of visitors each year.  Wright's "Model B1" is fully restored, inside and out, while a "Model C" duplex at the opposite end of the block is currently undergoing interior renovation. 

The B1, Lilek says, is a perfect illustration of what Wright could achieve on a postage-stamp sized plot of land.  "This is a tiny house," he says.  "Most of our visitors have garages that are bigger than this house.  And yet, when people come here and they experience it, and spend 45 minutes or an hour or something, they come out with an expression that's kind of a common thread - that 'I could live here'.

"It's simplicity, it's connected to nature - it's all the things Frank Lloyd Wright was trying to do."

The University of Wisconsin School of Architecture and Urban Planning, Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation and Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin Inc. will mark the centennial of the American System homes at an event on Wednesday, November 16.