In the early part of the 20th century, many Americans were ordering homes from catalogs and then assembling the lumber, windows, and doors on site from a building plan. This provided a more affordable way to become homeowners. But it wasn’t just companies like Sears and Montgomery Ward that were hawking kit homes.
In 1915, world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright also got in on the action. His goal: to give average American families the opportunity to own a beautiful, midpriced residence that featured many of his signature design ideas. His kit homes were designed to promote harmony, connecting family members to one another through shared spaces such as central fireplaces.
The models in his American System-Built Homes, all kits, ranged from two-bedroom cottages to larger, five-bedroom houses, says Mike Lilek. He is curator of Frank Lloyd Wright Burnham Block, a collection of six of the architect’s kit houses in Milwaukee. The modern homes featured hallmarks of Wright’s designs, such as light-filled spaces and kitchens that were meant to be used by families rather than servants.
These homes weren’t meant to be cheap, Lilek says. The system was designed as a more efficient way of building higher-quality homes. The materials and plans of Wright’s homes typically started at about $1,875 but cost about $3,500 when completed, according to Lilek. (That $3,500 would be nearly $84,000 today, when adjusted for inflation.) That was slightly above the average cost of his kit home competitors. And they took about a year and a half to put together.
Wright and his Milwaukee-based business partner, Arthur Richards, recruited local builders and dealers to put these houses together, anticipating that sales would extend to Mexico, Canada, and Europe. Buyers had to go to a Wright-affiliated builder to order them, since they weren’t available in a catalog. And they could customize them with different styles of roofing and choose how many porches they wanted.
However, the tens of thousands of sales they envisioned never materialized.
Instead, only about two dozen were ever constructed, says Lilek. As World War I raged, building materials were diverted to the effort instead of home building. In addition, would-be buyers were preoccupied with the war abroad instead of erecting houses. Sales ceased in 1917. If Wright and Richards had been able to hold out a bit longer, they might have benefited from the wave of returning soldiers in need of affordable housing, as Sears did. However, their business relationship had also soured. (Wright eventually won a lawsuit against Richards for nonpayment of royalties and fees in 1918.)
“The project just had a horrific, bad situation with timing,” Lilek says. “Otherwise, I think we would see these American System-Built Homes in every city across the nation.”