By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 28, 2010 at 9:02 AM

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.

The same, alas, cannot be said for the other two properties FLLW owns on the block.

We didn't enter 2724-26 W. Burnham St., but it is the only one clad in aluminum siding.

"The only Wright house in the world with aluminum siding," quips Ellsworth as we walk past, toward the westernmost home.

Walking up a staircase that is literally beginning to crumble underfoot, we enter the upstairs apartment of the duplex at 2734 W. Burnham St., formerly home to a drug dealer it seems.

Inside, it's a disaster. There is a dropped ceiling, some windows are spray painted black and there is a distinctively unpleasant odor about the place.

"It's totally stripped," says Elsner glumly. "There is nothing of Wright left in here."

But even she admits that's not entirely true and living for the past 55 years in a Wright house, Elsner has an eye for the details. And she points them out to me, a trademark Wright wood trim along the stairs in the back hallway, the way one entire wall in the kitchen is opened up with windows, the built-in flower boxes outside the windows.

This one, as bad as it looks won't be impossible to fix. First off, there are those hundreds of drawings, which allow architects to see what Wright intended and how each room and the exterior likely looked. Then, there are the lessons learned from the work at 2714 and at the duplex next door that was restored by the family that currently lives there.

"A lot of the mysteries have been resolved so this should be easier to restore," says Elsner.

Also, FLLW has earned a second Save American Treasures matching grant -- this one for $400,000 -- that will help cover the cost of restoring 2734. But the group needs to raise the matching funds before work can commence.

"We have our work cut out for us," said FLLW board member Mike Lilek in an issue of the Wright in Wisconsin newsletter. "This time we move forward with the sure and certain success of our recent restoration. ... The enthusiasm and response has been tremendous, and the feelings people have when they visit the home for the first time speaks volumes."

The goal of FLLW is to eventually acquire and restore all of the properties. They hope to keep a couple open as house museums to help document Wright's American System-Built Homes idea. Anther could be rented out as guest houses, like the popular Seth Peterson Cottage near Wisconsin Dells. The rest would be rented out to provide quality neighborhood housing.

The project got a public relations boost when it completed work on 2714 in October, just in time to host a visit from members of the National Trust Council, including Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"The Council was especially impressed with our visit to the Frank Lloyd Wright System-Built houses on Burnham Street," wrote Moe afterward. "Many volunteers have done a wonderful job preserving the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright and his many designs."

To help raise money and awareness, tours of the restored house at 2714 W. Burnham St. are open to the public on the second Friday and Saturday and last Saturday of the month from 1 until 4 p.m. Admission is $10. Reservations are not required.

Elsner believes the renewed interest in the Burnham houses has help add Milwaukee to the itineraries of Wrightian tourists, too.

"A lot of people go to Chicago to see what's there, come up to Racine and then go on to Madison," she says. "There wasn't much here to see in Milwaukee. Now they come here to see my house and these -- and now that we have the Calatrava -- they stay overnight. That brings in tourism dollars. And when tourists come to see these they stay for a long time. They are very interested."

Wright and Like 2010: Poetic Spaces and Quiet Places

The latest installment of the annual Wright and Like tours of Racine and Kenosha is slated for Saturday, June 5, from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. On the tour this year are the SC John Administration Building, Wingspread, Isermann House (by Milwaukee's Russell Barr Williamson), William Mason's Mason House, three homes by John Randal McDonald and the Walker House in Racine, the architect of which is unknown. The tour costs $55, $50 for members of Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.