Modern Design for – Preserving the Classic Usonian

Earlier this year the George Sturges house (1st at left) in Brentwood, California, was put up for auction at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) with bidding beginning at $2.5 m. It was built in 1939, around the time of Wright’s iconic Fallingwater, and is considered the only Usonian-style house in California.

Wright felt that because the term “the Americas” referred to such a vast compilation of the diverse parts of the Western Hemisphere, the United States itself should be called Usonia to refer to its singular unity of states within a vast continent. Though Americans were still struggling through the darkness of the Great Depression, Wright felt that ordinary citizens should have the opportunity to live in a light filled, well designed home.

He used the term Usonian to refer to the small single-story, middle-class residences that he began to design in 1936. The plans called for flat roofs, large cantilevered overhangs for passive solar heating and natural cooling, radiant floor heating, and plentiful natural lighting using clerestory windows. A man with a reverence for nature, he referred often to the “organic building,” and said a house should appear to have come, “…out of the ground and into the light.”  

Not only would the Usonian house relate aesthetically and more directly to nature – no visible foundation, front porch, downspouts or other distractions – the materials would be wood, stone, brick and glass. Wright’s Usonian house would introduce a new standard of form following function in the building of homes.

The First Jacobs House, (2-4 at left) designed and built in 1936-1937 near Madison, Wisconsin, serves as the most concise and well-known example of Wright's Usonian concepts. The house follows the typically L-shaped design with high ceilings and tall windows in the main living area. This open design with living and dining areas flowing into one another was a novel approach, as was incorporating built-in bench seating, and a desk and bookcase study area open to the living space. The entire ceiling of the house is made up of a striking design of Ponderosa pine boards and redwood battens that echo the exterior siding. Red brick piers provide the main support for the "floating" flat roof.

Back to the auction in Los Angeles – no one bought the George Sturges house that day.  According to the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, nearly 20 percent of Wright's works have been lost. Many groups are working to preserve his legacy, including the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, and several national and state historic preservation offices and nonprofit agencies. Preservationists worry about these houses being remodeled with comparatively giant kitchens, and even gyms and screening rooms, or being razed entirely for new construction. It takes just the right buyer to appreciate these iconic gems of 20th century modern design.

Photos 1: Courtesy Grant Mudford, Los Angeles Modern Auctions 2: Courtesy David Heald The Soloman R Guggenheim Foundation, 3: Courtesy James Haefner 4: Courtesy Lynne Bryant