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What is a Usonian Home?

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  • Written By: Jennifer Fenn
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 August 2014
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Famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright first coined the term Usonian during the 1930s. Wright came up with the term to describe his vision for the look and feel of the cities and buildings in the United States, hence the “US” prefix. Wright imagined that these homes would be an affordable but elegant option for the American middle class.

At its lowest, in 1940, the price of a Usonian home was expected to be, according to Wright, only $5000 US Dollars (USD). Compared to the $7500 USD the average home cost at that time, Wright’s Usonian home was quite a bargain. Motivated by the philosophy that these pleasant dwellings would create a happy, satisfied society, Wright designed about fifty of these Usonian houses in 1936. The first was to be built was the Jacobs House, in the mid-19030s. Wright believed that these houses, coupled with widespread ownership of automobiles, would eventually led to the end of urban living.

Each Usonian home had several distinctive design features, engineered by Wright so that a Usonian home could be built in many different types of environments. Each had a concrete slab foundation and was attached to a carport instead of a garage. Usonian homes were one story high. Steam heating was another innovation Wright included in each Usonian home. Steam heating replaced more expensive radiators.

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Constructing the exteriors of the houses out of glass and waxed-over brick and wood was another way to keep the cost of the Usonian home down, because paint was unnecessary. A fireplace was the center of each house, intended to be a symbol for the heart of the family who lived inside it. A Usonian home had open interiors divided into two wings. Each wing had a distinct use. The first wing contained the private bedrooms and the second contained public living areas. These two wings were laid out in an L-shape, with a practical kitchens and bath was at the house’s center. The L design left a garden space outdoors.

Perhaps the most famous example of a Usonian home is the Rosenbaum House, built in 1939 and located in Florence, Alabama. Though the Rosenbaums lived in the house their whole lives, the Rosenbaum house is now owned by the city of Florence and is open to the public. The house was designed in the traditional Usonian layout, but the Rosenbaums’ growing clan made an addition necessary in 1948. A guest bedroom and dormitory to accommodate the family’s four sons was designed by Wright and added onto the house.

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Discuss this Article

sunnySkys
Post 6

I really admire Frank Lloyd Wright for wanting to create affordable housing that was also comfortable. It's really the American dream to own your own home, but a lot of people simply can't afford it!

I know where I live, it costs a lot of money to get any kind of decent house. I think a lot more people could afford homes if they cost 67% of the average price (like Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian homes.) It would also keep the cost of home ownership down if the homes came with innovative heating and cooling solutions like the Usonian houses.

JessicaLynn
Post 5

@starrynight - I've heard in the last few years some people are now favoring more environmentally friendly small home floor plans. I wonder if there's any way to get a house built to Usonian home specifications even now? I'm sure it would be much more expensive than $5,000 though!

Anyway, I really want to visit one of Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian homes. The only one I know of that's available to visit is the one in Alabama the article mentioned. I don't know if I'd make a trip to Alabama just for that, but if I'm ever in the area I would totally check it out!

starrynight
Post 4

@backdraft - I fail to see how Frank Lloyd Wright's house design plans could have given way to housing projects! Mr. Wright designed houses to be appealing and comfortable for families to live in, not housing projects to cram as many people inside as possible!

Anyway, I think the Usonian home sounds pretty awesome. I remember learning about these when I took History of Modern design in college. They were partly designed to include solar paneling too! Also, most of them were built from local materials.

I think that we could benefit from going back to this kind of ideal: a small environmentally friend home built with local materials.

chivebasil
Post 3

Is there a reason to favor a carport over a garage? Is this just a cost cutting measure or did Frank Lloyd Wright believe there was some advantage to having an open air carport?

nextcorrea
Post 2

I have a coffee table book that includes pictures of usonian houses and the original usonian home plans. I have always been interested in architecture and interior design so this book is a favorite of mine.

Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the 20th century's true geniuses. It is sometimes hard to appreciate his work if you see only one or two buildings and you are not aware of the context surrounding them. But when you really dive into his work you can see the genius at play. The man had a mind for line and shape and volume that cannot be taught. It was a gift from above.

backdraft
Post 1

Many critics have noted that the good intentions of many modernist architects were both their best and worst quality.

They were the best because up until this point many architects had ignored or only give lip service to the architecture of the common man. They were more focused on cathedrals and office towers than single family homes for people on a budget. In this way the modernists brought an advanced aesthetic and a genuine formal concern to the needs of real people.

But this high minded ideal has consequences as well. Frank Lloyd Wright's usonian houses gave way to the housing projects of the 50s and 60s, many of which were drab and ugly buildings that housed people in substandard conditions. In the goal to make building that fit the needs of everyone they lost sight of the individual and made buildings that were repulsive to just about everyone.

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