Usonian: Beyond the Prairie, The Laurent House, part one

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a three-part series on the Usonian design of the Frank Lloyd Wright Laurent House in Rockford. This part details the history of the Frank Lloyd Wright “Prairie School” of architecture. The series was originally published as a research paper by the author at the Art Institute of Chicago. It is republished here with permission.

Frank Lloyd Wright carved his name into American architectural history with the development of what is now known as the Prairie School. The changes brought about in residential architecture by the Prairie School cannot be denied, the open floor plan, honesty of materials, an American dwelling that signifies the cultural changes that were happening across the country. Wright, however, continued to develop the ideas that had brought about this new architecture, constantly revising and tweaking to bring his concept to fruition. The refinement of the Prairie ideals are realized in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian homes.

Wright credited author Samuel Butler for coining “Usonia” as an alternative name for the United States.1 However, the term is not found in his novels.2

Whatever the source, it is now a term for an organic architecture available to every man.

“This architecture we call organic is an architecture upon which true American society will eventually be based if we survive at all. An architecture upon and within which the common man is given freedom to realize his potentialities as an individual — himself unique, creative, free.”3 Wright’s conviction of an organic architecture is realized in his Usonian homes, small residences designed from the 1930s to his death in 1959. The Usonian concept and follow-through will be examined through an investigation of the Laurent House in Rockford designed in 1949.

The basic concepts for the Usonian homes come directly from Wright’s experiments in the Prairie style. Usonian is the evolution of a concept, not a unique one. The difference between Prairie and Usonian is the audience—Prairie could only be afforded by the upper – middle class, whereas, Usonian could be adapted for every family and every budget.

More walls are broken down for an open floor plan. Exterior walls are eliminated by replacement with glass to emphasize the concept of living space continuing to the outside. The hearth is still central to the living area but has been stripped further to the essentials of firebox and screen. Materials are utilized in their natural state and appear on the interior and exterior of the house to further emphasize the interplay of interior and exterior. Furniture is no longer designed for the house, but is part of the structure itself. Decoration becomes truly organic, part of the building or integral ornament.4

Wright’s concept of a complete living environment has come to fruition.

“The Usonian house, then, aims to be a natural performance, one that is integral to site; integral to environment; integral to the life of the inhabitants. A house integral with the nature of materials — wherein glass is used as glass, stone as stone, wood as wood — and all the elements of environment go into and throughout the house. Into this new integrity, once there, those who live in it will take root and grow. And most of all belonging by nature to the nature of its being.”5

The people who lived in these houses will attest to the authenticity of the above statement. It was the hope of a total living environment that brought many clients to Wright.

John Sergeant has broken down the Usonian homes into five types: the polliwog, diagonal, in-line, hexagonal and raised. This simplified breakdown is based on shape alone, for all types incorporate the aforementioned features desired in a Usonian home and the basic construction elements are apparent in all; layout of floor plan on a grid system, underfloor heating, board and batten walls.6

The first Usonian was the Herbert Jacobs residence in Madison, Wis. designed in 1936. This 1,500-square-foot home built for $5,500 was overshadowed at the time by the completion of not only Falling Water in Bear Run, Pa., but the Johnson Wax headquarters in Racine, Wis. The Jacobs home incorporated Wright’s ideas into a home for simple living for American’ everyman. He speaks of the Usonian being a “companion to the horizon.”8

The Jacobs were fortunate to have two Usonian homes designed for their specific needs. The first, a two-bedroom home, was a polliwog floor plan. Wright deemed it a polliwog, the body containing the living space and the tail, the bedrooms, which could grow to accommodate a growing family.9 The second Jacobs house, in Middleton, Wis., was designed with five bedrooms and the first Usonian to be in the hemicycle plan. The outer wall of the hemicycle for a barrier from the hectic outside world, while the inside curve, of glass opens the home to the sun and the peaceful yard. The outer wall of Jacobs II was created by a berm, and the main entrance to the house was tunneled through the berm to the bright south face of the house. More often, the exterior barrier was created with a solid wall featuring clerestory windows.10

The Usonian Automatic is a type of Usonian prefabricated house of concrete block, designed to be built by the owners. Conceived for the returning GIs, it was developed in the 1950s and is very reminiscent of Wright’s textile block houses of the 1920s. The blocks are 1’ x 2’, or larger if so desired by the owner, and are grooved to accept steel reinforcing rods. Unfortunately, only a few of the Usonian Automatics were built. They doubled in cost if the owner did not build it himself and proved cost prohibitive. The Usonians built on-site remained popular.

1 Frank Lloyd Wright, The Natural House (New York: Horizon Press 1954), p.67.

2 John Sargeant, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses (New York: Whitney Library of Design 1976) p.16.

3 Wright, p. 187.

4 Wright, p.65

5 Wright, p. 134.

6 John Sergeant, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses (New York: Whitney Library of Design 1976) p.41.

7 Wright, p.84.

8 Pfeiffer, Bruce Brooks. Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings; Volume 5 (1949 – 1959), New York: Rizzoli International Publications p.104.

9 Wright, p.167

10 Sergeant, p.82.

11 Wright, p.201.

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