Urban spelunking: Frank Lloyd Wright's System-Built Homes
For years, the six American System Built homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that fill the north side of West Burnham Street from Layton Boulevard to 28th Street on the South Side were overlooked, if not downright neglected, by Wright aficionados.
The houses, designed by Wright from 1915 to 1917 -- the same time he was working on projects like the Bogk House on the East Side and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo -- were often ignored because they were "pre-cut" homes, assembled on-site.
The result is that many of the built houses have been known or feared lost and others, like the six in Milwaukee -- that form a rare and major agglomeration of System-Builts -- were radically altered or neglected.
Thanks to Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin (FLLW) that's no longer true. The group now owns three of the Burnham properties and earned a $150,00 Save America's Treasures grant in December 2007 to renovate the one at 2714 W. Burnham St.
"They have not been traditionally (respected)," admits FLLW's Barbara Elsner, who has owned and lived in the Bogk House with her husband Robert since 1955. "But now it's different. Before it changed the Museum of Modern Art (in New York) had a walkway connecting it to the shop and the only thing for sale in there were four original System-Built drawings. That shows you how popular they've become."
But she agrees that it wasn't always that way.
"Yes, only recently have they gotten interested," she says, noting, "only 13 have been identified up to now and one other in Wisconsin is, I feel, suspicious. But you know they've been altered so much over the years, that sometimes it's difficult to tell."
Elsner points out that there are more than 900 extant drawings Wright made for the American System-Built homes, which were meant to provide small, affordable, easy to construct housing and were far ahead of their time in philosophy, design and execution.
"You can imagine how complex (a project) this was," says Elsner. "There were 36 different designs with different kinds of roofs and variations that created hundreds of possible configurations."
A few years ago, a System-Built was lost in Gary, Ind., serving as a reminder that these are endangered structures. In part because of their age, in part because of people's attitudes toward them.
So, to step into the newly restored 800-square foot home at 2714 W. Burnham St. is a revelation. It is as stunning a space as Wright created anywhere.
Stepping over the threshold from the inviting front porch, one enters a towering atrium with windows at the top on two sides. To the left are two bedrooms and a full bath. To the right is the living room. Bathed in light, there is gorgeous woodwork and beautiful sight lines. The fireplace is stunning and sitting in that front room, the street, just a few yards away is invisible.
"I think the light in the space is amazing," gushes Elsner, quite rightly. "We had a UWM architecture student here who said, 'I can't believe this is only 800 square feet!'"
And it's true. While tiny by most any modern standard, these 800 square feet feel double the size thanks to the open design and the wise placement of windows that was a Wright specialty.
Toward the back is an eat-in kitchen with dark wood cabinetry and a cozy built-in dining table and bench separated from the cooking area by a wood screen that allows light to pass through to create an airiness but offers distinction from the cooking space.
Fortunately, says Elsner -- who noted that roughly 15 coats of paint had to come off the walls -- nearly all of the original woodwork survived in 2714.
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