I Visited 6 Frank Lloyd Wright Homes, and I Just Can’t Get on Board with His Style

published Nov 16, 2022
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Credit: Jennifer Prince
Arthur L. Richards Duplex Apartments in Milwaukee by Frank Lloyd Wright

If your area is anything like mine, driving through your hometown showcases an eclectic mix of architectural styles. Within a few-mile radius in my city, I can find houses ranging from highly intricate Victorian-era homes to more angular mid-century modern dwellings, and just about everything in between. Looking at them from the curb, though, I couldn’t tell you the name of the architect who built each home. Unfortunately that’s how it is with most residences, although a few architects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, rise above the rest.

I can’t say that I know a lot about architecture, although I’ve always appreciated various styles, especially while I’m traveling. On a visit to New York City, I was once so mesmerized by the elaborate designs above the windows that I sketched them into my journal as I had my morning coffee. While in rural Switzerland, the landscape peppered with chalets provided a lovely step back in time. Travel is a beautiful way to experience architecture, and I had my first in-person experience with Wright’s iconic designs during a trip to Milwaukee.

When I signed up for an architecture tour to familiarize myself with the city, the lineup of stops intrigued me. Our itinerary included several locations in and around the city, from the grand Milwaukee City Hall to the European-inspired Basilica of St. Josaphat. But the actual piece de resistance was the opportunity to visit a set of homes designed by Wright himself. After hearing about the architect for decades, I was elated to finally see his work in person.

About 10 minutes outside Milwaukee is a row of homes built in 1916. They served as a sampling of what folks could purchase as a kit and build on their own property. Known as American System-Built Homes, Wright’s vision was to make designs accessible so that moderate and low-income families could have affordable housing. Only one of the houses is restored and open for touring, and the other five are privately owned residences. The exteriors of all the homes, known as the Burnham Block, all have the typical trademarks of a Wright-designed building, like sharp angles and horizontal statement lines.

I couldn’t wait to go inside and finally have an up-close encounter with an FLW home. However, after stepping inside, I was unimpressed. Although I can appreciate Wright’s style, the interior mimicked the linear feel of the outside. The cohesive, homogenous rooms were in harsh contrast to my colorful, eclectic decorating style. Wood appeared everywhere, from built-in bookcases to windows surrounded with medium-toned beams. For me, Wright’s designs are too much of a commitment to earth tones.

Credit: Jennifer Prince

I know I’m probably in the minority, but perhaps others feel the same. As a lover of a variety of styles — who is particularly attached to family heirlooms — I prefer more of a blank-slate home that I can personalize with my own belongings rather than have a style dictated to me by the house itself. It was a hard sell because I couldn’t picture living my life within the walls.

I didn’t necessarily gain a love for Wright’s architectural style — admittedly, I’d like to visit other homes to see if they change my mind — but I did acquire a deep respect for the architect. The fact that one of the most notable names in architectural history wanted to make his art accessible and provide housing speaks volumes. 

In a January 1938 issue of Architectural Forum, he said, “[I] would rather solve the small house problem than build anything else I can think of.” Although the style didn’t speak to me, FLW’s desire to help provide an answer to a genuine problem said volumes. The reminder to be more concerned about others was precisely the push I needed to appreciate Wright after all.