Milwaukee Roots: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Seminal Designs for the Modern American Home


Michael Lilek


Curator, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Burnham Block Historic Site


Regional Spotlight, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright
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Beyond Cream City Brick Part Four
Milwaukee Roots: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Seminal Designs for the Modern American Home 

The curator of the “American System-Built Homes” on West Burnham Street in Milwaukee examines Frank Lloyd Wright’s blend of proportion, materials, social reform, and nature in these seminal homes that mark Wright’s earliest gesture of modern architecture to a broad audience. Concepts developed and tested on The Burnham Block infuse Wright’s thinking for the rest of his life and continue to shape modern architecture to this day.

By 1915, Frank Lloyd Wright had designed more than 130 homes, mostly for clients that could afford anything. This early work would help launch the new “Prairie Style” of American architecture. Prairie Style homes feature daring lines, modern materials, open circulation, no unnecessary decoration, and appear to grow out of the Midwest prairie. Wright blended proportion, social reform, and nature into his designs exhorting his clients to, "Go to Nature, consider her ways. Let your home appear to grow easily from its site and shape it to sympathize with the surroundings..." Wright felt that his homes could be a leading force in improving society.

Milwaukee is home to Wright’s earliest examples of affordable, small-scale dwellings designed for a broad audience on any budget. He named the project the “American System-Built Homes” and envisioned them in every town and city of the world starting in the United States with an eye toward Mexico, Canada, and Europe. His expressed desire was to shelter the occupants in a beautiful work of art. The groundbreaking concepts that Wright developed in the American System-Built Homes would infuse his thinking for the rest of his life and they continue to shape modern architecture today.

The Richards/Wright Collaborative Effort

“You Can Own an American Home” trumpeted a full-page advertisement in the July 8th, 1917 Chicago Tribune. The Richards Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin placed ads in many Midwestern newspapers to introduce Frank Lloyd Wright’s American System-Built Homes.  The ads claimed, “The American System of home building enables you to secure homes – correct and charming in design, perfect in taste and intelligent in arrangement – putting at your command the services of Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s foremost creative architect – without extra cost.”

Wright did not control the American System-Built Home enterprise. He was employed by Milwaukee developer Arthur L. Richards to provide only architectural services. The Richards Company provided the business organization, logistics, and building materials. Richards also opened sales offices, created marketing materials, recruited dealers, and builders to sell and constructed the homes. Wright provided the designs and was to be paid royalties on sales. Richards was an accomplished developer—presumably capable of executing the American System-Built concept on his own. Some ten-plus years before collaborating with Wright, Richards was promoting his company by touting efficiencies he had achieved through building over forty houses at one time and “buying forty times as much material as the man that is building his own home…”

Wright created a series of basic designs for the project each having variations, including the number of rooms, floors, choice of roof type (flat, gable, and hip) kitchen configurations, built-in cabinets, sleeping porches, art glass, and furniture. He produced more than 960 working drawings and sketches of various designs for the system—more than any other project of his career.  The designs were standardized, and customers could choose from roughly thirty models.  Select models were featured in marketing drawings presented to prospective buyers in sales portfolios. The portfolios attempted to sell “beauty” to the prospective purchasing family. The materials emphasized the “infinite variation” of designs and Wright’s ability to create “houses that stand on the ground, that have music and meaning in them.”

Burnham Street Site 

In 1915-16, Richards purchased land and erected four American System-Built duplexes and two single-family dwellings in the 2700 block of West Burnham Street in Milwaukee. The four duplexes - designated “Two Family, Flat C” - have interesting, cantilevered, second-story entries, and a modest floor plan: there is no fireplace, no formally designated dining space, a kitchen with a breakfast nook, two bedrooms, and a sleeping porch. The two single-family dwellings - Models B1 and Model C3 - each feature a fireplace, living room with accommodation for dining space with the dining table doubling as a library table, two bedrooms, and a large porch.

The Burnham Block site was at the edge of the city on land that had recently been platted. To the east lay the Polish South Side with its concentration of immigrants that had come in waves to find new lives and jobs in the city’s many industries. The Poles built bare minimum cottages set on small lots using the first savings from new employment. The site also offered easy access to streetcar lines allowing residents to travel anywhere in the city.

A System of Production 

In a 1901 speech entitled, “The Art and Craft of the Machine,” Wright had already started outlining his vision of affordable housing and asserted that the home would have to go to the factory, instead of the skilled labor coming to the building site to make it possible. For the American System-Built project, Wright and Richards appear to have devised a system that involved cutting the lumber in a mill or factory, sourcing other building materials, and packaging everything into a railcar for delivery to the rail siding nearest the chosen building site. A local contractor would pick up and haul the kit to the construction site for assembly. Unfortunately, there is no ledger or record of where all the American System-Built Homes were shipped or built.

A System of Construction 

The Burnham Block homes likely owe their existence to the desire by Richards to “prototype” the plans and “shakedown” the production process. The homes feature balloon frame construction with two-by-four studs spaced at a nonstandard twenty-four inches on center. The twenty-four-inch spacing was based on a two-foot-square grid system which would be used extensively in Wright’s later Usonian homes. Wright greatly simplified the placement of the windows leveraging the novel framing system to eliminate headers, sills, and jambs. Each window unit fit neatly between the twenty-four-inch studs, enabling the uninterrupted transmission of load from the roof to carry directly to the foundation. This simple innovation allowed for long bands of windows of varying heights—the Model B1 at 805-square-feet has thirty-three windows allowing it to incorporate the outdoors as an extension of the interior spaces. Light fills the home while maintaining privacy and serenity. 

After Construction

The collaboration between Richards and Wright ended abruptly in August 1917 when Wright started court proceedings to nullify their contract for nonpayment of royalties. The picture that emerges in studying the American System-Built Homes effort is one of notable achievements (by Wright and Richards) in design and execution. Unfortunately, as marketing for the project began, World War I took hold. Wartime inflation and an unsettled economic future caused housing starts and the desire for homeownership to tumble. Wright and Richards’ foray into precut, mass-manufactured, affordable housing slipped away.

The Burnham Block homes mark the beginning of a life-long progression of Wright’s built designs for affordable mass-produced homes, culminating in the Erdman Prefabs of the late 1950s. The homes call us to rethink what a house is and how we live in them. Wright’s simple premise is that architecture surrounds us all the time and touches us every day. His designs invite all of us to rearrange our lives to live better; to live connected to nature and family. The docents at the Burnham Block site are humbled that visitors travel to Milwaukee from all over the world to experience Wright’s broad vision for affordable housing. We invite you to visit soon ( for tour info).

About the Author

Michael “Mike” Lilek is the Curator of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Burnham Block Historic Site. He led the award-winning restorations of the Wright-designed American System-Built Homes, Model B1 and the Model “Two Family, Flat C”, collaborating with restoration architects from The National Park Service and Uihlein Wilson Architects. He lectures and writes extensively on the “American System-Built Homes”. Mike’s research interests are focused on Wright’s American System-Built Homes, leading to the discovery of a previously unrecognized home in Shorewood, Wisconsin. Mike is also the President of Shining Brow Software. 

 Beyond Cream City Brick: Modernism in Milwaukee is part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series, which was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country without leaving your home. Previous spotlights include Chicago, MississippiMidland, MichiganHoustonLas VegasColoradoKansas, and Pittsburgh. Have a region you'd like to see highlighted? Submit an article.

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Beyond Cream City Brick Part Five
A Postwar Vision for a Modern Milwaukee