dancing with architecture: Wright in Milwaukee and Racine, Wisconsin

In an amazing and magical collision of interests, I found myself at Frank Lloyd Wright's Wingspread in Racine, Wisconsin, thinktanking about urban water resiliency.

The invitation came earlier in the fall with the inviters offering to pay my travel expenses and put me up. Because of a lot of changes in upper management at the office, I've been trying to stay close to the house, head down. I had decided that I needed to pass when I hmmmm'd at the name of the organization: The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread. Didn't Wright design a building for Johnson and didn't Wright design a house called Wingspread? A quick Google verified my suspicions. 

How crazy is it for me to get invited to a water meeting at a Frank Lloyd Wright house? I took the invitation as A Sign From the Cosmos and pressed to attend (and was approved!).

Fortunately I had a couple hours before the two-day meeting and a few hours after to visit a few FLWs in the area (in addition to savoring Wingspread at the meeting itself). 

american system built homes

Milwaukee has several Wrights including, conveniently, a street of his American System Built houses. Wright dreamed of affordable (Wright-)designed houses for the masses, and the American System Built houses were an early attempt. Between 1912 and 1916, Wright designed seven models of homes where pre-cut lumber and plans were delivered to the construction site. The developer he worked with built the original six as model homes along a street on the northern edge of Milwaukee for prospective buyers to peruse: four Model 7a duplexes, one model B1 bungalow (the only one built), and one Model C3 bungalow. It's believed that 25 of the houses were built with 15 surviving, although more seem to be discovered every year. World War I put a damper on sales and a subsequent lawsuit Wright brought against the developer concerning royalties put an end to the project. 

One of my favorite Wrights is the Model B1 bungalow. It was originally built for $3,000, which is equivalent to $94,000 in 2013. The house was recently restored at a cost of $411,000. The house is open for tours on Saturdays, but I wasn't able to stay for a tour. A good reason to make it back here someday...

Model B1 bungalow

Model B1 bungalow detail

Half of a Model 7a duplex

A Model 7a duplex under restoration.

Three of the four Model 7a duplexes.

Model C3 bungalow

annunciation church

Also in Milwaukee is the Annunciation Church, designed in 1956 and completed in 1961 after Wright had died.


After H.F. Johnson, Jr. commissioned Wright to design a new administration building for the company (and four months into construction), he commissioned Wright in 1937 to design and build his family a home north of Racine. Legend has it that Johnson exclaimed "My office is nice enough to live in!" to which Wright responded "Well, then, let me design a house for you!" Wingspread turned out to be Wright's largest (14,000 square feet) and (supposedly) last Prairie Style house. 

Wright described the design of the house as a "zoned design" where different wings and functions of the house pinwheeled off of the core, which Wright referred to as "the wigwam". The wigwam features 30-foot tall ceilings and, at the center, a curvilinear core that houses five fireplaces, four on the ground floor and one on the second.

Two of the key features of the home came from the children, Karen and Sam. Apparently, the kids weren't too keen about moving out to the country. In a (clever) bid to (probably) ensure the kids didn't kill the project, Wright wrote them to ask what they wanted in a house. Sam mentioned a pool, Karen mentioned a balcony (similar to one she saw at Taliesin), and both mentioned a cupola, something grandma had at her house. Wright's design responded to each of those requests.

The guest bedroom in one of the wings. Eleanor Roosevelt slept in that bed!

Unbeknownst to Wright, his apprentice and the builder fortified the cantilevered balcony with an I-beam, something that would have infuriated him.

Wright's structures were infamous for sporting leaky roofs, and Wingspread was no different. Johnson was hosting a dinner party when it started to rain and, sure enough, the roof started to leak and drip right on Mr. Johnson's (bald) head. Furious, Johnson called Wright at Taliesin to demand a solution. Wright's response? "Have you considered moving your chair?"

Years later, Sam Johnson asked Wright to name his greatest building, wondering if Wingspread fit the bill, to which Wright responded “The next one, young Johnson, always the next one.” Nevertheless, Wright was quite proud of Wingspread, stating to a European crowd that “This is probably one of the most complete, best constructed and most expensive houses it has ever been my good fortune to build.”

Sadly, H.F.'s wife died during the construction of the house. H.F. later married the actress Irene Purcell who never quite felt at home in a house designed, in part, for another woman. In 1956, the Johnsons commissioned the Californian architect Henry L. Eggers to build a new house next to Wingspread. In 1959, the Johnsons donated Wingspread to the Johnson Foundation to host conferences and meetings to help solve world problems. Later, in 1978, the Eggers House (referred to as The House) was also donated to the foundation. The National Endowment for the Arts, National Public Radio, and LEED had their start from discussions at Wingspread.

For the thinktankery I participated in, the meetings and conferrings occurred in the Eggers House, the living room well situated for hosting a couple dozen folks. Receptions and meals were joyfully held in Wingspread. While the house is well taken care of, it is also well used for events.

the johnson administration building

When H.F. Johnson, Jr. wanted a new administration building for the family company, he hired a local architect who designed a plain, squarish building with space on the front for large reliefs of housewives using Johnson products. Although not fully happy with the design--he was hoping for something more curvy like Streamline Moderne--it was the design they had. He sent a couple guys down to Chicago to visit with a friend about finding an artist to do the reliefs. When his friend saw the design of the building, he exclaimed "You don't need an artist. You need an architect!"

This ultimately led to Frank Lloyd Wright in nearby Taliesin. The Great Depression had taken its toll on Wright and his practice, so the Johnson commission was literally a lifesaver. Furthermore, because the scale and attention the project gained, the Johnson commission catapulted Wright back into architectural relevancy.

Designed in 1936 and opened in 1939, the building evokes the Larkin building as well as Unity Temple with a large, open center core with support spaces around the edges. Wright described the Johnson structure as the "”daughter of the Larkin Building” and “a more feminine building”. The building is most famous for its dendriform columns that Wright proved were structurally sound by loading one up with five times the required weight. 

Because the building had central air conditioning, one of the first, it has no opening windows. Instead, the windows are made up of 43 miles of Pyrex tubes (you read that right: Pyrex tubes!). The tubes are each wired to metal support structures with the gaps between the tubes puttied to prevent leakage (although true to Wright form, the tube windows leaked like sieves). Nevertheless, the windows introduce an ethereal quality to the light both from the outside and, at night, from the inside.

Wright had wanted to build the project out in the country, convinced that the country is where his work deserved to be. However, Johnson was concerned about his employees having to drive so far, especially in winter. Wright pushed a rural setting until his wife encouraged him to pull back lest he lose the commission. The urban setting explains in large part why Wright designed the building the way he did, by diffusing light and offering no direct views of the outdoors. Wright so hated the southern vista of a modest neighborhood that his design completely disengages with it.

Wright designed all of the furniture for building, employing Steelcase in the manufacturing, a project that likely saved a company struggling with the Great Depresssion. During my stay at Wingspread, a Johnson desk and chair came up for auction with the desk estimated to go for $400,000 to $600,000 and the chair estimated to go for $80,000 to $120,000! (The Johnson company successfully sued to stop the sale since it appeared the furniture had not left the facility in an authorized fashion).

H.F. Johnson later referred to the project as a “financial and construction nightmare”. Frank blew past the $200,000 budget to end up at $750,000. Nevertheless, the building made a big international splash when it opened, attracting $5,000,000 in free publicity. Edgar Tafel worked on the plans and oversaw construction for two years. In classic form, Wright didn’t invite Tafel to the opening. “I don’t think he wanted to give anyone credit,” recalled Tafel.

Despite the challenges of working with Wright, Johnson hired him again to build a research laboratory, the iconic tower that opened up in 1950. Wright was inspired by a tree when he designed the building, placing a 54-foot deep taproot to support a core that in turn supported cantilevered floors that alternated between squares and circular. He used the same materials in the tower as he had in the earlier project, including the Pyrex tube windows.

Do to fire code concerns, the tower closed in 1982. The stairwell was not wide enough for two people to pass (evacuees heading down; firemen heading up). The placement of the tower in the compound prevented the use of a hook and ladder firetruck. Furthermore, Wright refused to allow the installation of a sprinkler system due to aesthetic reasons. The scientists that worked in the building complained about not being able to see out as well temperature control issues and the difficulty in having to move floor-to-floor to collaborate. Because of these issues, the building has been characterized as a functional failure. However, as noted by company representatives, Raid, Pledge, and Edge were all developed in the tower.

Sadly, I just missed seeing the tower lit, which just started yesterday for the first time in several decades! Next year the tower will be open for tours (another reason to come back!).

About a million dollars of Wright chairs...

The south side "facing" the neighborhood.

Hand wired Pyrex tubes!

hardy house

Gorgeously draped onto the shores of Lake Michigan near downtown Racine, this house was built in 1905 for Thomas P. Hardy with a rear kitchen added in 1941. The house has three levels, including a two-story living room with a wall of glass that faces the lake. The house has two widely spaced front doors which caused many to think it was a beach bathhouse. During Halloween, rascally kids would mark "MEN" over one door and "WOMEN" over the other. H.F. Johnson, Sr., who lived a few blocks away, thought it was a "kooky house". Ironically, to the amazement of his sister, it was H.F. Johnson, Jr. who later hired Wright to design the administration building as well as his house.

Wright designed the furniture for the house. When the house sold in 1947, the new owners didn't want the furniture, so it was all donated to the local thrift shop (!!!).

the monolith homes

As it turns out, Hardy has a connection to R.M. Schindler. In 1919, Hardy commissioned Wright to design a modular home, inspired in part by the American System-Built Homes in Milwaukee. Because Wright was in Japan working on the Imperial Hotel, he delegated the project to Schindler who was managing the Chicago office at the time. The homes were originally concrete designed such that the same forms used for the floors could also be used for the walls. By 1920, the plans only had concrete floors.

Hardy had plans to build 18 of the homes behind his house on West High Street, but it's unclear why the project was never built.

The Monolith Home was a sticking point in the relationship between Wright and Schindler. Schindler designed the house, but Wright claimed full credit, even getting a patent in 1919 for the concept. Kathryn Smith traced the influence of the Monolith Homes to Wright's textile block houses as well as the corner window design for Fallingwater.

the keland house

H.F. Johnson, Jr.'s daughter, Karen, she of the balcony request for Wingspread, commissioned Wright to design and build a house for her in 1954. She chose Wright to design the house because “I lived in Wingspread and loved it.” Her husband, Keland, was similarly enamored with Wright's work. H.F., having experienced firsthand the challenges of working with Wright, insisted that a local architect and engineering firm be involved.

Johnson homes

In 1948, H.F. Johnson, Jr. explored developing a community of 200 to 400 Wright-designed homes for employees near Wingspread, in part to control development around Wingspread. Johnson wasn't able to raise money for the development. Sam Johnson said he didn't like the plan because it used too much land for too little (Wright probably saw this as an opportunity to implement his Broadacre City concept which included a little piece of country for inhabitants; urban sprawl on steroids). The land was eventually developed using an independent developer.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Broadacre City

the mitchell house

Also stopped by briefly to gawk at the Mitchell House, a transitional house by Wright designed in conjunction with Cecil Corwin soon after Wright left Adler and Sullivan. You'd never guess this was a Wright by looking at it!

more info

Wright in Racine

Wright in Racine: The Architect's Vision for one American City

All photos by mwah except the (obvious) era photos.

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