The American System-Built Homes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Frank Lloyd Wright's earliest system of low-cost housing
© 2005 Michael Lilek, All rights reserved
Master of the Small House
Over a career spanning seven decades, Frank Lloyd Wright took special interest in creating architect-designed homes for moderate and low-income families. In the January 1938 issue of Architectural Forum, he commented, "[I] would rather solve the small house problem than build anything else I can think of..." Indeed, among Wright's greatest masterpieces are several small homes designed for clients who could afford little. Many of these residences owe their existence to some form of client labor (do-it-yourself), ingenious cost-cutting or salvaging. Each magically shelters it occupants in beautiful spaces, connects them to nature, and allows them to feel more alive.
American System-Built Homes
In a 1901 speech entitled, "The Art and Craft of the Machine," Wright outlined his vision of affordable housing. He asserted that the home would have to go to the factory, instead of the skilled labor coming to the building site. Between 1915 and 1917 Wright designed a series of standardized "system-built" homes, known today as the American System-Built Homes. By system-built, he did not mean pre-fabrication off-site, but rather a system that involved cutting the lumber and other materials in a mill or factory, then bringing them to the site for assembly. This system would save material waste and a substantial fraction of the wages paid to skilled tradesmen. Wright produced more than 900 working drawings and sketches of various designs for the system. Six examples were constructed, still standing, on West Burnham Street and Layton Boulevard in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Other examples were constructed on scattered sites throughout the Midwest with a few yet to be discovered.
Arthur L. Richards, Developer
By 1911, companies connected to Arthur L. Richards had engaged Frank Lloyd Wright to design several projects, including an unbuilt hotel in Madison and the Hotel Geneva in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (1912, demolished). By November 1916, Richards entered into an agreement with Wright to promote the American System-Built Homes. The contract covered all parts of the United States, Canada and Europe. It called for the Richards Company "...to furnish, as far as possible, all materials entering into the construction of the buildings and to at least furnish the plans, drawings, specifications and details and lumber, millwork, exterior plaster material, paints, stains, glazing, hardware trimmings and electric lighting fixtures for said buildings." Richards was to recruit a distribution channel of builders and developers from around the country. He appears to have focused his efforts in the Chicago area and a few other Midwestern cities.
The agreement between Wright and Richards anticipated that the American System-Built Homes project would be wildly successful. Unfortunately, the entry of the United States into World War I on April 6, 1917, diverted building materials to wartime needs. Housing starts ground to a halt. Wright also began extensive travels between America and Japan at this time, related to the Imperial Hotel commission. Wright became unhappy with his relationship with Richards, leading to a lawsuit in August of 1917. Central to Wright's claim was the non-payment of royalties and fees. Wright won a judgment against Richards in February of 1918. Although the business relationship ended after a few years, Wright and Richards rekindled their friendship decades later and exchanged cordial letters and visits.
Burnham Street Site
The site of the American System-Built Homes was "the edge of town" for Milwaukee circa 1917. To the east across Layton Boulevard was an area known as Milwaukee's Old Polish South Side. Home ownership in the Polish community was unusually high as a percentage of the population. But to own a home on working-class wages meant the homes would be small, often frame dwellings, with little to distinguish one from the other. Multiple homes were often built on one lot and creative expansions were the norm. Building practices would change by 1920 as the City of Milwaukee adopted new zoning regulations.
In 1917, large tracts of land west and south of the Burnham Street site were opening for development. Following the end of WWI in 1918, homes sprang up rapidly, but the homes were well-spaced, larger and constructed with better materials.
The location is also noteworthy because it was very near the now-abandoned Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company's interurban and city streetcar rail lines, which were extended to the area in 1905. By 1907, area residents could take the "City Service" line east from what is now 31st Street and Burnham to anywhere in the city, and they could travel west by interurban to West Allis, Hales Corners, Waukesha, East Troy, and to other points. In terms of city development and transportation, the site was ideally located.
Burnham Street Development
Despite the positive expansion and transportation factors, the exact reasons why Richards chose the 2700 block of West Burnham for investing speculatively on the six American System-Built Homes are not precisely known, and are probably linked to location and land availability. Construction began in October of 1915 and concluded by July 5, 1916. Richards' City Real Estate Company obtained the permits for all six buildings. Richards' uncle, Charles R. Davis, offered them for sale immediately after they were completed. When no buyers came forward, the firm rented the houses. The Rellum Land Company then purchased the properties on December 16, 1917, and began selling them in 1919.
Over the ninety years since the homes were built, all have been altered. Most noticeable are the application of a pre-cast stone, a porch enclosure, and cement-tile roofing at 1835 South Layton Boulevard; metal siding at 2724-26 West Burnham Street; and a porch enclosure at 2714 West Burnham. Less noticeable are interior alterations to several duplexes, enclosure of all the duplex's sleeping porches, and new exterior plaster surfaces on all the buildings.
The Case for Restoration
This row of dwellings is unique in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Other concentrations exist, but none was designed as a unit, owing their existence more to happenstance than intention. The dwellings provide a singular and important connection between the people of Wisconsin and their native son, Frank Lloyd Wright. They mark the beginning of a progression of built designs (earlier low-cost designs were unbuilt) for moderate-to-low-income families, culminating in the Erdman Prefabs of the late 1950s, whose last, truly low-cost design was on Wright's drafting board when he died in 1959. The Burnham Street houses could provide an educational opportunity for children, architectural students, professionals, academics, the general public, and especially neighborhood residents.
This legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright continues to challenge the building community to create beautiful, affordable spaces that not only provide shelter but allow their occupants and visitors to feel more alive and appreciative of the world around them.
Copyright 2004-2005, Michael Lilek, All rights reserved.
Photograph credits: - Photograph identified as "circa 1917" is from the Nash Family collection - All other photographs Copyright 2005, Michael Lilek.
I wish to thank Jack Holzhueter for his generous help in editing this text.