American System-Built Homes in Chicago (and elsewhere)
By Taylor Moore, South Side Weekly
In the middle of a beautiful—if unassuming—area of Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood sit two relics from one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most important projects. Before the Guggenheim, before Fallingwater, the master architect was trying to tackle a more pervasive issue: affordable housing. “I would rather solve the small house problem than build anything else I can think of,” Wright commented in the January 1938 issue of Architectural Forum.
This project, known as the American System-Built Homes, started in 1916 when Milwaukee-based housing developer Arthur L. Richards approached Wright with a golden idea: to bring his designs to the masses. At the time, prefabricated housing, known as “prefab,” was common. Sears, Roebuck & Company sold approximately 70,000 kit homes from its mail-order catalog between 1908 and 1940. However, these homes followed conventional tastes; one ad for the American System-Built Homes called the country’s housing stock “not equal to the peasant’s cottages in Europe.” As a craftsman who valued novelty but also believed in the power of industry—he once stated, “in the machine lies the only future of art and craft”—Wright knew he could do better.
The challenge for Wright was multifold: creating designs that were appealing to a large swath of consumers, versatile enough to be built on a number of site conditions, and affordable for the middle-class family. They also had to be true to his style. According to Wright, in a lecture given in 1916, the idea of the American System-Built Homes had been “in my head for some years. I have guarded it carefully, I wanted time to think in quiet of how the idea might be brought to the public without injury to the integrity of my own art.”
As such, Wright and his team of architects spent a lot of time on these concepts, producing hundreds of ideas—one such project file contained 923 drawings created by Wright’s firm. Like the Sears kit homes, prospective customers would choose from a catalog of single-family dwellings and small apartment buildings, which would use pre-cut lumber from factories but would be built primarily on-site by certified contractors. Compared to prefab housing, which often involved constructing and shipping entire building sections to be assembled by DIY homeowners, these differences brought a measure of quality control to the process and gave Wright peace of mind.
Wright’s designs contained characteristics of his signature Prairie style, such as cantilevered roofs, horizontal lines, and natural colors that interfaced with the environment and recalled the American grasslands. There were also elements of compromise Wright made to adapt his work for the life of the modern family. Wright was no fan of garages or basements, but to make his homes more broadly appealing, he allowed such concessions.
Capitalizing on Wright’s Prairie style, regarded as the first truly American style of architecture, the houses—of which there were seven to choose from—were promoted as the quintessential American home. Sherwood Anderson, the nationally acclaimed novelist who at the time was an unknown copywriter, wrote in 1917 for a Tribune ad, “We want you to understand how the genius of this man has made it possible for every home builder to build beautifully without spending more to achieve beauty than he now spends on senseless ugliness.”
Unfortunately, the project came to an end in less than a year. With the United States’ entry into World War I in 1917, material shortages and the ensuing housing crisis put a stop to Wright and Richards’s expansion plans. There was also personal contention: that same year, Wright sued Richards over issues with royalties and fees and won a settlement in 1918, putting an end to their business relationship.
Fewer than twenty American System-Built Homes remain in the Midwest, mostly in Milwaukee. But this experience proved foundational for Wright’s later work. For example, the Usonian Homes, while built custom for homeowners instead of standardized, was a series of houses also intended for middle-income buyers and used the inexpensive construction methods he’d learned in earlier years.
In Chicago, there are two known American System-Built Homes in Beverly, landmarked by the city in 1993. Originally intended to be a whole subdivision of Wright-designed residences—known as the Ridge Homes—the housing stock was reflective of the upper-middle class sensibilities of the neighborhood and were on the larger, expensive end of the Wright model houses, priced at roughly $6,000 each.
“I never in a million years thought we would own a Frank Lloyd Wright house,” said Mike Wilk. A thirty-year-old engineer, Wilk lives at the H. Howard Hyde House on 10541 S. Hoyne Avenue with his wife, Katie, who works in science research strategy at the University of Chicago.
The Wilks previously lived in the southwest suburb of Berwyn and were only casually in the market when their realtor found the house in 2017, which at that point had been listed for a couple years and was below their price expectations for a house with such “architectural and historical significance.” The location was also meaningful for the couple, as Mike’s grandparents had previously lived on that block and a nearby block up until Mike was about five years old. “I was old enough that I remembered everything, and it was very much a homecoming feeling for me,” Wilk said.
Given the restoration work done by previous owners, the house was surprisingly modern to the Wilks, though it did come with some quirks, like a hard-to-find front door and a bathroom balcony (“We use it as a greenhouse”). Since moving in nearly two years ago, they’ve been fascinated with learning more about the home, using Ancestry.com to trace its ownership and taking trips to Milwaukee to tour other American System-Built Homes.
This fascination with architecture and history is the same reason why their neighbors, Debbie and Dave Nemeth, have lived in the other American System-Built house for more than twenty-six years. Debbie is a graphic designer at a marketing agency and also works with her husband, semi-retired, at their real estate investing company. They live at 10410 S. Hoyne Avenue at the Guy C. Smith House, which was named for the original owner and built as a model home for the planned subdivision.
The couple are long-time Wright admirers. Debbie said that at age seventeen, she received her first book about Wright as a gift from her then-boyfriend, now-husband Dave. Since then, she’s hosted periodic tours of her home through the Beverly Area Planning Association and the Chicago Architecture Center’s walking tours and has previously served a nine-year tenure on the board of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, which works with homeowners to preserve the aesthetics of Wright houses while also updating them for modern life.
In June 2017, the Nemeths hosted a one-hundred-year birthday party for their house and invited the other American System-Built homeowners in the Chicagoland area, including the Wilks and the residents of the Oscar A. Johnson House in Evanston. She found an immediate connection with the other architecture enthusiasts. “I realized at the party that I had spent so much time with [them] that I had neglected all my other guests,” Debbie Nemeth said, detailing how they would roam from room to room, comparing aspects of their houses, from fireplace design and sink placement—even down to the trim.
“I realized I didn’t want this to be the only time that we would see each other,” she said. So she and the other homeowners—about eight of them altogether—have since organized their own fan club-slash-support group. Every few months, they meet at each other’s homes to talk about the projects they’re working on and compare observations on how Wright’s vision for the houses have been interpreted differently from builder to builder. They’re in the middle of planning their next meetup at the Delbert W. Meier House in Monona, Iowa, which is owned by former Chicago residents.
Though Wright never got to see this particular vision become a reality, his work not only influenced generations of architects, it also fostered a love of craft among enthusiasts, which was really his goal all along in designing an alternative to the cookie-cutter houses of the early 1900s.
Katie Wilk, who lives in the H. Howard Hyde House, agreed with this sentiment. “There’s something meaningful about being part of the history of a home and trying to help keep it alive.” ■
This story was originally published in the South Side Weekly.
Taylor Moore is a journalist and writer in Chicago. Her stories on culture, politics, and urban development have appeared in Chicago magazine, the Chicago Reader, South Side Weekly, and Block Club Chicago, among other publications. She is a contributing culture critic with Chicago magazine and a fiction editor with Arcturus, an online literary magazine.
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