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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Burnham Block, Milwaukee, WI

Featuring 6 small town houses established specifically for the working class the Frank Lloyd Block forms the biggest intentional cluster of Wright homes anywhere. These tiny houses feel so much like miniature versions of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous homes for the rich. These too have central hearths, flat roofs, and lots of wood. As expected, all rooms are so small, with one kitchen being so tiny, you are at risk of tripping down a staircase.

Each house that Wright ever constructed is bigger than the tiny homes he founded on Milwaukee’s western edge. However, arguably, none is more ambitious. In the early 20th century, Wright fixated on the problem of economical, excellent housing for working people. In 1915, he thought he solved it. Wright teamed up with Milwaukee developer Arthur L. Richards on a grand plan to build wonderful houses for low and middle-income Americans. Wright conceived and designed what he called American System-Built Homes, a collection of almost, but not exactly pre-fab small houses. Wright and Richards intended to turn American System-Built Homes into a huge enterprise, competing with Sears Catalog Houses.

For two years, from 1915 to 1917, Wright churned out over 900 drawings and 30 house models. Richards chose the 2700 block of W. Burnham Street in southwestern Milwaukee, Wisconsin to test the concept. He completed six houses on the block quickly. The set had 2 one-story houses sitting on less than 1,000 sq. ft. and 4 two-story houses, each of which featured two apartments. The one-story houses got sold for $3,000. While this was higher than the Sears houses prizes, it was way less than the architect-designed homes of the time.

Sadly, the American System-Built Homes failed to revolutionize American housing, and they were a fiasco as a business. Wright and Richards immediately had a falling out, with Wright successfully suing the developer for non-payment. Only about a dozen of the houses were ever built: the six on Burnham Street and others scattered in Wisconsin and Illinois.

The Burnham block houses were largely forgotten by Wright fans and gradually altered by their owners. Porches were enclosed. One owner clad their house in vinyl siding, which caught the attention of Wright admirers and horrified them. Another owner replaced the flat roof with a Pizza-Hut-style red roof. In recent years, a nonprofit called Frank Lloyd Wright’s Burnham Block has been purchasing the houses and restoring them. Today, they own four of them, including the Pizza Hut roofed house and the one shielded with siding. They have fully restored one and as of mid-2018 were partway through the restoration of a second house.

Brought to you by Plumbing Emergency Milwaukee

Also visit American Science and Surplus, Milwaukee, WI