Suburbs Week

4 Design-Minded Neighborhoods That Will Change Your View of Suburbia

published Jul 29, 2022
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mid-century homes designed by architects in suburban communities
Credit: JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ, M.D. / Shutterstock: Michael Gordon
L: A Wexler home in Palm Springs / R: A Usonian home on the Florida Southern College campus

Suburban design can get a bad rap in pop culture. Think of the samey-samey houses owned by the creepy townsfolk in “Stepford Wives,” or the the sprawling, over-the-top homes vilified on McMansion Hell — none of these spaces are what you’d call architectural jewels.

But real-life suburbia — you know, the one that 55 percent of Americans live in — boasts a lot more variety. Sure, some neighborhoods look more alike than different, but across communities you’re likely to find a mix of styles, from Colonial to Cape Cod to Craftsman. Look a little harder, and you’ll discover some hidden treasures: developments that were created to embody strong design principles.

These neighborhoods, often built in the mid-century era, are made up of homes designed by a single architect or multiple architects sharing the same stylistic vision. What’s more, these neighborhoods were dreamt up with utopian ideals, and designed to foster true community. Here, find four notable and historic communities from around the country that are just as pleasant to look at as they are to live in.

Credit: Shutterstock/Michael Gordon
The Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian Faculty House on the Florida Southern College campus

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonians 

Frank Lloyd Wright is well known for his Prairie-style homes, but the prolific architect wanted his late-career Usonian houses to reshape American society. In “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses,” author Carla Lind notes that following the Great Depression and World War II, middle-class families needed affordable housing. “Frank Lloyd Wright was determined to find a solution,” Lind writes. “He was convinced that a low-cost residence should reflect contemporary needs rather than be a small imitation of a grand house.”

His original vision: Broadacre City, a 4-square-mile, democratic utopia where residents live with true freedom and the houses were in harmony with the natural world (something Wright was known for in his other designs, such as Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and Taliesin in Wisconsin). As part of this proposal, Wright suggested renaming the United States of America to Usonia — a radical concept for a radical design. 

Broadacre City never came to fruition, but there are over 140 houses built from 1936 to Wright’s death in 1959 that reflect his Usonian design. Usonian homes have strong horizontal lines and modular rooms, flat roofs with large overhangs, and concrete slab forms. The first house, known as the Jacobs House, is a prime example. Designed for Herbert and Katherine Jacobs in Madison, Wisconsin, the house is an open, L-shaped floor plan, incorporating wood, brick, concrete, and glass for affordability and ease of construction. The openness of the dining room into the kitchen is a familiar feature that also influenced the layout of many ranch-style homes in the 1950s and 1960s. Notably, the Usonian was the first house where Wright added a carport. 

While Wright’s original vision for Usonians was as a utopian collective, these houses are scattered across the country. However, communities like Parkwyn Village in Michigan and the Usonia Historic District in Pleasantville, New York, reflect a cooperative community ethos in the spirit of Broadacre City. If you’re fantasizing of owning your own Usonian home, you can nab one in California for a cool $7 million; it’s on the market for only the second time since 1950. 

Credit: Fothergilla
A TAC-designed Five Fields house, built in 1954

TAC’s Five Fields and Six Moon Hill

Founded in 1945 in Massachusetts, The Architecture Collaborative (TAC) was led by Walter Gropius and seven other architects. Their 29-house Six Moon Hill community in Lexington was originally intended to not just be a project for TAC, but to also provide homes for the architects and their families. Much like Usonia, there was an ideal of community built in: Lots were divided to include a common area for everyone to use. Each TAC partner designed a home, but everyone used redwood or cypress siding, lots of glass and flat or shed roofs to make the neighborhood look and feel cohesive. Since Six Moon Hill was successful, TAC later purchased Five Fields and designed 68 more homes in South Lexington, Massachusetts.

Amanda Kolson Hurley, author of “Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City,” writes that as a result of TAC’s work, “we get a tantalizing look at a different trajectory for the postwar suburbs, one that emphasized progressive architecture, a blurring of private and public space, and semi-wild nature.” Six Moon Hill and Five Fields challenged the idea of the generic tract homes that were commonly built in the post-World War II housing boom. As of 2013, there were still two founding residents living in the community.

Credit: Sanfranman59
An Eichler-designed home in Palo Alto, California

Eichler’s California Subdivisions

If you think about the quintessential 1960s California mid-century modern house, you’re probably calling to mind a Joseph Eichler development. These homes are defined by a modern style of open floor plans and flat roofs, with rooms laid out for families to socialize, play, cook, and eat together. The houses are also known for their glass walls residents would slide to open for ultimate indoor-outdoor living, and atriums at the center of the floor plan. 

Paul Adamson, an architect and co-author of “Eichler: Modernism Builds the American Dream,” tells Apartment Therapy that while Eichler was building houses to meet the demand for middle-class housing, he was intrigued by modern art and design. “Having lived in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bazett House, in Hillsborough, he was intent that the homes he built be well designed so residents could experience the day-lit expansiveness, flexibility and convenience he experienced,” Adamson says.

Adamson notes that Eichler was one of the few developers that hired architects for these tracts, working with San Francisco-based Anshen and Allen and A. Quincy Jones in Los Angeles. Some Eichler developments were designed to include parks, pools, tennis courts, and other community buildings. 

“When possible, the team planned developments to foster community,” Adamson says. “An early example is El Centro Gardens in Palo Alto, from 1950, where a cruciform cul-de-sac forms an arrangement of lots where homes relate to each other across a set of distinctive public spaces.” Ahead of the Civil Rights Movement, Eichler believed that his homes should be accessible to anyone and established a non-discriminatory homebuying policy. 

There are more than 11,000 Eichler homes up and down the California coast, with the first subdivision established in Sunnyvale (a handful are sprinkled in New York, too). You’ll find the largest concentrations in and around Palo Alto and San Rafael, where the median market price of an Eichler is $1.5 million. Buyers often renovate and restore the homes to meet current energy and earthquake codes but preserve the retro style.

A Wexler-designed home in Palm Springs

Palms Springs’ Wexler Houses 

Despite its beauty, Palm Springs is a hard place to build a house — the heat and wind will batter wood. Architect Donald Wexler had some experience designing with steel, and set out to design affordable houses that would survive the desert. In 1961 and 1962, he and engineer Bernard Perlin designed all-steel houses for developers George and Robert Alexander. Architect and historian Alan Hess tells Apartment Therapy that the Alexanders were invested in shaping the Palm Springs community. “They were not grab-the-cash-and-run developers; they were interested in the quality of the entire community,” Hess says.

Wexler’s work in pre-fabrication was very cutting edge: Parts of the houses were factory-made in Los Angeles, shipped to the site, and put up quickly. “He was planning the whole process of fabricating the steel, designing in a certain way, and figuring out what had to be done on site and what could be done in a factory,” Hess says. The houses were affordably priced between $13,000 and $17,000, hoping to entice families to move to Palm Springs. 

The houses have some of the quintessential mid-century design features, and all have the same floor plan. Rotating them and giving the houses varied rooflines helps avoid the too-similar look that could be common in tract homes of that same period. Another thing that sets them apart is their steel construction. Wexler used a post-and-beam structural steel frame with glass walls and clerestory windows. “He wanted to make sure they didn’t look like cookie-cutter houses,” Hess said, noting the folded-plate steel design of House #1’s roof. 

The original plan was for 38 houses in the Racquet Club Estates, a remote tract of the desert. But as the cost of steel rose during this time, only seven were built in this particular area. However, Wexler continued to design with steel in homes and buildings throughout the city. By the 1980s the Wexler homes in the Racquet Club Estates had fallen in disrepair; they were restored in the 1990s and are now protected as historic sites. It’s tough competition to own one of these houses — there are only seven, after all — but the next time you find yourself in Palm Springs, you can take a self-guided outdoor tour of the neighborhood.