Frank Lloyd Wright tried to bring modest, sturdy, but beautiful homes to the working class in two very different programs. His first attempt, the American System Built Houses (ASBH), of which our Elizabeth Murphy House is one, lasted from approximately 1915 to 1917. We think Elizabeth Murphy may have been the final nail ending the ASBH program. He tried again with the “Usonian” houses, starting in 1934 and continuing with homes built even after his death, like the Gordon home in Oregon.
The designs differ architecturally, as one would expect from work done a generation apart. ASBH designs are rooted in Louis Sullivan’s teachings, the Arts and Crafts movement, and Wright’s prairie interpretations. They were groundbreaking at the time. ASBHs were a clear break from the victorian style that dominated neighborhoods; appearing like a sporty two door hatchback among dump trucks.
The later Usonian homes are sleek, modern forms built with local materials: mostly stone and wood and a wide range of frugal innovations, like carports and heated floors. They still look futuristic.
Despite the differences, there is evidence that Wright was shooting at a common target with the ASBH and Usonian programs: affordability.
Alfred and Gladys Kibbie, first owners of the Elizabeth Murphy House, paid $5,000 for it in 1918.
Then, in 1934, Herbert and Katherine Jacobs challenged Wright to design a home that could be built for $5,000, and Wright answered with the home called Usonia One, in Madison, Wisconsin, though not without cutting some corners. It is said that Usonia One was constructed with bricks skimmed from the Johnson Wax headquarters, since it was running over budget.
A few weeks ago, while we worked on the facade, a car pulled up and a friendly gentleman emerged. He introduced himself as a Kibbie descendant. His mother Virginia, the youngest Kibbie daughter, had been courted by her high school sweetheart (and this man’s father) on our front steps. We talked for a time about the house and his family history and learned that Alfred and Gladys felt strongly about affordability too. In 1941, the Kibbies sold this house to subsequent owners for the same price they had paid decades years before. Their grandson explained that his grandparents didn’t think it right to profit from a modest, sturdy, but beautiful home designed for the working class.
So while Frank was probably thinking that the magic $5,000 threshold would never be met again, this little home, and its generous caretakers, made it happen for another family.