While he was known for custom residential projects -- including such grand commissions as in Pennsylvania and the Robie House in Chicago -- Frank Lloyd Wright also dabbled in affordable housing, developing prototypes from 1912 to 1916.
His American System -- Built Homes cost less than one of the esteemed architect's custom projects, but they were still Wright designs. Wright and Arthur L. Richards produced 960 drawings for the homes (seven different models), but only 25 were built (in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa). Only 16 of those 25 homes survive today. Construction began in 1914 on six models, and the U.S. entered World War I three years later.
"It just had really bad timing. In war times, building materials are devoted to the war," says Mike Lilek, curator of a collection of American System -- Built Homes on Milwaukee's West Side. "At this point in his career, he had designed houses for people with really deep pockets. With this home, he's now reaching out to every American. Wright anticipated thousands of these being built, dotting the landscape from coast to coast."
This summer, a two-bedroom, 1.5-bathroom home in Shorewood, WI, was confirmed as an American System -- Built Home. Referred to as the Elizabeth Murphy House, it just came on the market for $349,900.
The owners -- who have lived in the home for 22 years -- were already prepping to sell their house as the official confirmation that it was a Wright-designed home inched closer. "The owner and I were playing Sheepshead, and he told me he thought he had a Frank Lloyd Wright house," says Patricia Lilek, an agent with Shorewest Realtors, who -- in a curious twist of events -- is the mother of Lilek, the curator.
She put her son on the case. That hunch had already played out in various scenarios over several decades. A member of a research team at Northwestern University once dropped by in the name of research.
Drawings of the home showed up at an antiquarian book shop in England, and Mike Lilek had already been tracking details for nearly a year. They include the name of a lumber company stamped on a built-in buffet drawer, a lawsuit Wright filed against a lumber company, and construction details in the basement he was convinced were Wright's design.
Suddenly it all fell into place. Lilek wrote to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and, in the process of doing research through the Wisconsin Historical Society, stumbled upon a solid piece of evidence: documents that had been misfiled in the Wright archives. The Elizabeth Murphy House was a Wright design after all.
Apparently it wasn't the only Wright discovery in Wisconsin this year. Last month, a home in Madison built in 1917 -- and bought for $100,000 in 1989 -- was identified as an American System -- Built Home. Much like the Shorewood situation, it was a historian who brought the home's architectural heritage to light.
Built in 1917, this 1,270-square-foot home -- a Model A203 -- is on a tree-lined street in this northern suburb of Milwaukee and a short walk to Lake Michigan.
Characteristic of Wright's designs, the living room and dining room both seamlessly flow around the hearth. Windows in both bedrooms overlook the backyard, bringing the outdoors in. Original to the home's living room are leaded-glass windows and the stucco finish on the walls.
"There's hardly anything that's not original or not in good condition," says Patricia Lilek.
Homes of this size in Shorewood don't normally go for this much, although "Shorewood is a hot area on its own," says Lilek. Good schools, a lakefront setting, and a pedestrian-friendly layout are some of the village's hallmarks. A two-bedroom, single-family home in this community runs between $185,000 and $200,000. But this is a bargain for Wright fans, as his other designs are much pricier.
Who's the ideal buyer for this architectural find? Wright historians have been promoting it within their networks, including newsletters. "It's probably going to be somebody who's very much aware of Wright," she says. "People buy these for trophy houses. An off-the-street buyer won't realize the value. It is definitely higher because of the historical value."