If you live in a building older than a few decades, you’ve probably daydreamed about what the world was like when it was built — or who designed it. Every once and a while, the “who” turns out to be pretty interesting.
Image by AP/Carrie Antlfinger
In Madison, Wisconsin, a former teacher named Linda McQuillen who bought her home for $US100,000 in 1989 has been proven right after wondering for years if the home could be related to Frank Lloyd Wright. This week, the Wisconsin State Journal (and our sister site Jezebel) report that a Wright expert has verified that the Madison home as an authentic design, built in 1917.
This isn’t actually as rare an occurrence as you might expect. Wright designed more than 500 buildings, and as his practice grew in the 1910s he began experimenting with smaller, cheaper home designs built with mass-produced materials, called American System-Built Houses. Wright, like many of his peers, was interested in bringing new ideas about design and craft to the masses — and the “system-built” project was designed to do just that.
But it’s tough to know just how many of these standardised homes were actually built, in part because they were sold and built by a separate company, and in part because there were many different models without descriptive names, as MoMA explains:
To streamline the construction process, lumber was measured and precut in the Richards Company factory, then shipped to the site where it was to be assembled, thus saving the contractor and the customer time and money.
There were dozens of models, ranging from one to three stories, and the isometric plans illustrate numerous room configurations as well as ideas on how to furnish them… An untold number of System-Built Houses were built, mostly in the Midwest.
The system was advertised to consumers as letting them “command the services of Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s foremost creative architect — without extra cost,” as Doors Open Milwaukee explains.
McQuillen’s house was one of them, but it apparently took years to actually verify it. The AP says that the Wright scholar studying the home, Mary Jane Hamilton, looked at clues like the home’s studs, which were 24 inches on center (a Wright eccentricity — studs are more normally placed at 16 inches on center), and the fact that many fitting details were custom-designed, another mark of Wright’s gesamtkunstwerk approach to building.
But the final nail in the, erm, house came from an advertisement from 1917 in the Wisconsin State Journal, according to the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper ran an ad for American System-Built Houses, placed by a company that shared a name with the company on the original building permit for the Madison home.
That’s the most interesting part: We think of Wright as an architect defined by his grand, sweeping gestures. In fact, he was a businessman, whose design ethos found its way more into more homes than anyone could have guessed.