During the Great Depression, millions of people across the world faced abject poverty after the stock market crash of 1929. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was impacted by the sight of his fellow Americans living hand-to-mouth and was determined to find a way for people to live more simply and with more affordable housing, particularly middle-class families. Out of this idea was born the concept of Usonia, a style of building that combined landscape and design. Alvin Rosenbaum, resident of the original Usonian home (located in Florence, Alabama) wrote in his book Usonia: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Design For America, “Usonia was Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision for America, a place where design commingled with nature, expanding the idea of architecture to include a civilization, a utopian ideal that integrated spiritual harmony and material prosperity across a seamless, unspoiled landscape. Usonia was a state of mind, combining an evolving prescription for the elimination of high-density American cities and their replacement by pastoral communities organized around modern transportation and communications technology with a new type of home for middle-income families.”
Some say that the name “Usonia” was adapted as an abbreviation for “United States of North America,” an idea that Wright did not come up with, but eventually embraced. The concept behind Usonia was to tailor each home to the family it would house. Wright would spend time on site to get to know the ins and outs, making a point to use local materials whenever possible. He and his team evaluated their clients before beginning building. In fact, he was known to cut costs by encouraging homeowners to take part in constructing their own homes, which also created an intimate connection between the dwelling and the resident. The homes were named after the families who would inhabit them.
Wright’s style leant itself to horizontal construction, including flat roofs and overhangs; there were no attics or basements, which was an efficient use of indoor and outdoor space and allowed for in-floor radiant heating systems—pipes of hot steam running through the foundation. The homes were often L-shaped and had open floor plans. Horizontal grid lines were used throughout the homes so that parts were easier to standardize. The kitchens were small and inspired by Pullman-style train cars and light fixtures and furniture were either built into the house or customized to the design. Alvin Rosenbaum wrote, “From the outside, our Usonian is a wisp of a place, low and unobtrusive, made mostly of wood and tarpaper. Embedded into its landscape, it could also be imagined as existing on wheels, as moveable as a car on the road, ready to settle into a different site someplace else. In many ways, it is unimpressive, even insubstantial. But from the inside looking out it is solid.”
The Rosenbaum Home in Florence is considered one of the purest examples of Usonian architecture, which Wright and his well-trained team spent decades perfecting. His team continued his work after his death in 1959—though the homes he once built to help middle-class families thrive now sell for millions of dollars. Still, the impact of the Usonian movement cannot be overestimated; it paved the way for building with natural and native materials and was an obvious influence on mid-century design. As Alvin Rosenbaum wrote in Usonia, “In sum my childhood homestead was a series of delightful contradictions; urbanity comfortably set into down-home informality; an architect molded to our family and to its site, yet somehow reaching beyond, created by Wright as a model for an ideal design for living; and a southern community that accepted, indeed, celebrated, what appeared to others in the incongruity of it all.”
Find Alvin Rosenbaum’s book Usonia: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Design For America on Amazon.