Frank Lloyd Wright admired the simple stone gothic structures of rural Italy, but called Renaissance spaces unnatural and demoralizing. Greek columns used after the ancient Greeks were bad copies, especially in the new world. He wrote, “The democracy of the man in the American street is no more than the gospel of mediocrity.”
So he made it his mission to stop the “unfair use of borrowed forms” and the “endless string of hacked carcasses” popping up in New York and cities trying to be like New York.
About his own Taliesin, Wright wrote; “there must be a natural house, not natural as caves and log-cabins were natural, but native in spirit and making, with all that architecture had meant to make whenever it was alive in times past.” Organic design was from the earth up and in parallel with it.
The American System-Built Houses (ASBH), drawn by Wright during his time at Taliesin, represent his first full effort to bring organic design to common people, but may also suggest a struggle between art and standardization. Wright was willing to explore mechanization and standardized material, but only while also insisting that modern need not be repetitive, symbolic or out of reach, but must be organic and grounded. His designs would prompt a “reaction to the Old that we call the New.”
For example, the Elizabeth Murphy House adheres to the Prairie principle that the “horizontal line is the line of domesticity.” It features the unbroken line at door height that is now familiar and classically American.
Still, Wright seemed to be barely tolerating developers and their subdivisions. In 1914, he ranted about speculators, the enemy of art; profiting from the average American man or woman who wants something different but “wants it in a hurry.”
Experts have written that Wright may not have known that The Elizabeth Murphy House even existed. Perhaps the developer didn’t want Wright to know about it. Is this a clue? Could our little orphaned home mark the hundred-year anniversary of a giant Wrightian reset?
I imagine a tense, terse relationship with a developer making a house meant to be flipped. Wright wasn’t blind to speculation and must have been worried that without a direct client relationship, his original art might not necessarily land in the hands of devotees. He might have been learning that automation and culture are not, after all, symbiotic. Indeed, in 1916, Wright turned away (for a time) from democracy, and its inherent mediocrity, toward an opportunity for creative disruption so large as to need a monarchical benefactor. During the year (1917) that the tiny Elizabeth Murphy House was built, Wright was in Japan working on the massive six-year Imperial Hotel project. By 1918, the Elizabeth Murphy House was offered for sale in a classified advertisement as a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed bungalow, “new and ready for occupancy.”
- Wright, Frank Lloyd, In the Cause of Architecture (The Architectural Record, 1914)
- Wright, Frank Lloyd, An Autobiography, (Longmans, Green and Company, 1932)
- Wright, Frank Lloyd, The Sovereignty of the Individual, (Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe, 1910)
- Lilek, Mike, 2106 Newton Avenue Shorewood, Wisconsin, An American System-Built House Model A203 (Wright in Wisconsin, 2015)