Sunday, November 28, 2010

American System-Built Homes

Back in Milwaukee on our annual family visit, we returned to the 2700 block of West Burnham Street just past beautiful Layton Boulevard to re-photograph the six American System-Built Homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Throughout his career, Wright was interested in building housing in his distinctive style that would be affordable for the rest of us, and these particular homes were early ventures into that territory.

In the second decade of the Twentieth Century, Wright entered into a working relationship with the developer Arthur L. Richards whose company would implement Wright's System-Built designs in developments all over the country. Re-usable plans, and materials which would be cut to size at the mill and then assembled on site, greatly cut the cost of building the homes. The six Burnham Street structures would serve as model homes for the project and they were built on what was at the time the edge of the city's south side in 1916. Four of them are duplexes of nearly identical design although the westernmost is the mirror image of the other three. The remaining two houses on the block are single family homes.

Unfortunately the United States entered World War I in 1917 and home construction all over the country was suspended. Meanwhile Wright had other commitments and his relationship with Richards soured. That leaves this wonderful, eccentric collection of homes on Burnham Street and a few other System-Built homes scattered throughout the Midwest including two on the far south side of Chicago, as the only extant examples of this ambitious project. The Wilbur Wynant house in Gary, Indiana, as previously mentioned in this space, was recently demolished after many years of neglect.

The six houses make up Milwuakee's Burnham Street Historic District, and they were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Wright in Milwaukee is a site that deals exclusively with the Burnham Street homes, including detailed history, as well as tour information.

The homes are well worth a visit off the beaten path.

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