In the context of New York City architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright’s massive, spiraled building for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is practically synonymous with his name. However, years before his design was built at 1071 Fifth Avenue, Wright created another, less imposing structure in the same spot: a modest, one-story home.
This was Wright’s model Usonian house, and it was, in fact, one of two buildings constructed on vacant lots that later became the site of the current Guggenheim building. Both the low-profile model home and a much larger structure—a pavilion with a pitched roof—were erected in 1953 in conjunction with a traveling exhibition entitled Sixty Years of Living Architecture: The Work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The architect himself suggested that this retrospective make a stop at the location where his commissioned museum building would eventually rise. “Strikes me a pre-view [sic] at Our Museum before sailing would be a good thing,” he wrote in a May 1953 letter to then-Guggenheim director James Johnson Sweeney.
The story behind Sixty Years of Living Architecture and its buildings is now being told in an ongoing exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, organized collaboratively by the Library and Archives and Education departments. A Long-Awaited Tribute: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian House and Pavilion documents the planning, design, and construction that went into the 1953 exhibition, which served as Wright’s entrée into New York (Wright himself noted, “This house and the pavilion alongside it also represent a long-awaited tribute: the first Wright building erected in New York City.”) Francine Snyder, the director of the Guggenheim’s Library and Archives, says that the initial idea for A Long-Awaited Tribute came about when she and her team stumbled onto the souvenir booklet for the Usonian house some years ago: “We had always known about the Sixty Years of Living Architecture exhibition. However, this was the first time that I, and the archives team, had seen images of the interior of the model Usonian house. We had no idea that it had been so detailed and knew we had found something special.”
Indeed, the model house was a fully developed expression of Wright’s vision for middle-class American home life. After strolling the adjacent pavilion, where models and large photographs of Wright’s architecture were on display, visitors would have entered the Usonian house and found furniture designed by Wright, a kitchen complete with dishes, and artwork and home goods installed throughout seven rooms.
The Usonian house’s open-plan layout and its mix of exposed brick, wood, and expansive windows have become recognizable attributes of a genre of residential design that owes much to Wright’s work. But some observant visitors to A Long-Awaited Tribute have found the Usonian houses particularly familiar. “Visitors have expressed curiosity about the existence of other Usonian houses throughout the country, recalling ones they have heard of or visited in their home states,” says Leana Ovadia, Administrative Coordinator, Education.
This is not surprising, considering that more than 100 of Wright’s Usonian houses were built around the United States between 1934 and 1964. In order to illustrate the Usonian phenomenon, the Guggenheim recently designed and installed in the exhibition a map of the houses and photographs of those that are open to the public (see the map and key on the right).
In the souvenir booklet for Sixty Years of Living Architecture, Wright described the Usonian house as, “A home for our people in the spirit in which our Democracy was conceived: the individual integrate [sic] and free in an environment of his own, appropriate to his circumstances.” Looking at the many Usonian houses dotted across the United States, the grandness of this description seems fitting. The map is a vivid visual reminder of just how far-reaching Wright’s influence really was.
Planning a visit to the Guggenheim Museum and interested in seeing A Long-Awaited Tribute? Take the elevator behind the second-floor gallery to the lower level; the exhibition is on view in the Sackler Center for Arts Education.