Frank Lloyd Wright’s American System-Built West Burnham Street Homes

Small House, Frank Lloyd Wright

Nestled away on West Burnham Street in Milwaukee. Wisconsin is a hidden jewel of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. One block of West Burnham street has some duplexes and houses were all designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, specifically for the working classes of the time. Today all those structures on West Burnham Street in Milwaukee are still standing as a testimony to this great architect.

Frank Lloyd Wright is considered one of America’s finest architects. Even today his work is being studied and analyzed. One of his favorite projects was to build some small houses that would be comfortable yet affordable. This project was called the American System-Built Homes. For the construction of these homes, Frank Lloyd Wright gave the exclusive rights to Arthur L Richards. Several of these homes were built around the midwestern United States. Unfortunately, the project did not last long, but Milwaukee, Wisconsin has one block of these homes still standing. The homes are being restored and cared for. You can take a tour of these homes on West Burnham Avenue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Burnham block houses
View of the Burnham block Frank Lloyd Wright homes, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

About Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)

Frank Lloyd Wright is an iconic American architect, interior designer, writer and educator who built over 532 structures. He is said to have designed over 1,100 different structures. The structures he designed included houses, offices, churches, schools, libraries, bridges and many other buildings.

Frank Lloyd Wright, born in 1867, was a native Wisconsinite having been raised in rural Wisconsin. He studied engineering at the University of Wisconsin. He then apprenticed in Chicago and later opened his own successful Chicago architectural practice in 1893.

Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the most influential architects and designers of his day. He spent over 70 years at the drafting table creating and designing. He revolutionized the art and architecture of the 20th Century.

Frank Lloyd Wright was a pioneer for what is now known as the Prairie School of architecture. In the late 19th and early 20th Century, the Prairie School of architecture emerged, mainly in the midwestern United States.

The Prairie School style is noted by the use of horizontal lines, flat or hipped roofs with very broad overhanging eaves. Windows are usually grouped in a horizontal band. Many times leaves and other elements of nature can also be shown or reference is made to them. The influence of nature can be seen throughout his work.

Frank Lloyd Wright also believed in Usonia, which is a word that he used to refer to the United States and his vision for the landscape of the United States to include the planning for the cities and the architecture of the buildings. He wanted to see America build new buildings that would then be free from all previous architectural conventions.

This is because Frank Lloyd Wright believed in the beauty of architecture and that buildings should come and be viewed in their surroundings and use materials native to the area. He also believes in an open plan with rooms that would flow and open out to each other. He was a great believer that people’s surroundings and how they lived affected their lives.

Frank Lloyd Wright said his design philosophy was:

“The architect should strive continually to simplify; the ensemble of the rooms should then be carefully considered that comfort and utility may go hand in hand with beauty.”

Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyds Wrights’ design has withstood the test of time. He is still considered one of the great architects of all time. The buildings are still relevant and being studied today. People will travel around the United States just to see his architectural and design work in person.

Frank Lloyd Wright-designed nearly 150 works in Wisconsin. He built about 60 of those works and 43 still remain standing today. In fact, three of his most important architectural works are in the State of Wisconsin they are:

  • SC Johnson Administration Building – The SC Johnson Administration Building brought Frank Lloyd Wright international acclaim in the 1930s.
  • Jacob I – Jacob I was his first Usonian home and his own residence for a while.
  • Taliesin – The Taliesin which is considered one of his most iconic works.

Besides designing buildings, Wright also designed furniture, fabrics, art, glass, lamps, dinnerware, silver, linens and graphic art. Besides the other design he did was also a writer, an educator, and a philosopher.

Burnham Street Homes
A Frank Lloyd Wright home on Burnham Street, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

About Frank Lloyd Wrights – American System-Built Houses

The American System-Built houses were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. He had the vision of designing modest yet functional design-driven affordable houses. But for him to have the same details and thought as he put in his other homes was also very important to him such as connecting the occupants to nature. Wright wanted to see that these beautiful, yet functional houses were available to reach a larger public than many of his other homes and building. In fact, in speaking about designing smaller houses he said:

“I would rather solve the small house problem than build anything else I can think of,”

Frank lloyd wright

Frank Lloyd Wright believed in this project so much that his firm produced over 960 drawings for this project. This was the largest number of drawings for any project in the Wright archives.

The customers who choose to purchase these American System-Built models could choose from seven models of standardized designs. Here are some facts about these homes:

  • Standardization of the Homes – The homes were standardized, which meant that the lumber could be pre-cut at the factory which would help to cut down on both waste and labor costs needed for the construction of the homes.
  • Constructed totally on-site– Many have called these homes prefabricated but they are not prefabricated since no parts of the homes were constructed off-site. All the pre-cut lumber and other parts were cut at the factory along with other components. The entire construction of the home was done on the building site. Instead of pre-fabricated, these homes could be considered pre-packaged as all parts were cut off-site, while all construction was done onsite.
Duplexes Burnham Street
Frank Lloyd Wright Duplexes on Burnham Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The Richards -Wright Partnership

fn 1911, Arthur L Richards contracted for Frank Lloyd Wright to design a hotel in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. During the time Arthur L Richards learned of Frank Lloyd Wrights Amerian System-Built Homes and gained an interest in the project.

In 1914 Arthur L Richards began construction on six of the American System built homes as demonstrations models. At this time Richards also gained the exclusive rights to manufacture and distribute the homes. By all accounts, they expected these homes to be extremely popular as Richards got the rights to sell the homes in the United States, Canada, and Europe. The contract between Wright and Richards said they were:

“..to furnish, as far as possible, all materials entering into the construction of the buildings and to at least furnish the plans, drawings, specifications and details and lumber, millwork, exterior plaster material, paints, stains, glazing, hardware trimmings and electric lighting fixtures for said buildings.”

Wright in milwaukee

Arthur L Richards sold franchises to market the homes. He only franchised the construction of these homes to approved contractors. Arthur L Richards had offices in both the Milwaukee and Chicago area and also in Champaign and Decatur, Illinois and also Gary, Indiana. By all accounts, Arthur L Richards was a major manufacturer in his time to have so many offices throughout the midwestern United States.

What is so interesting about this method of construction is that the Richards company milled the lumber, then cut the lumber to specifications for the houses. They then packaged all the materials needed for construction such as the plaster, windows, hardware, and fixtures and delivered them to the site for construction. Craftsmen were then provided to build the homes. So a customer purchased a design they liked which included the complete home with all pre-packaged materials and construction.

The definition of what Frank Lyold Wright envisioned as a system-built construction he said:

“By system-built, he did not mean pre-fabrication off-site, but rather a system that involved cutting the lumber and other materials in a mill or factory, then bringing them to the site for assembly. This system would save material waste and a substantial fraction of the wages paid to skilled tradesmen.”

Wright in Milwaukee

Frank Lloyd Wright and Arthur L Richards expected these homes to be wildly popular, but neither of them saw the affect World War I would have on their project. In April 1917, the United States entered World War I and all the building materials were diverted to help in the war effort. This completely stalled new home construction, so at this time Frank Lloyd Wright became disillusioned with Arthur L Richards and sued him for non-payment on royalties and fees. Wright won a judgment against Richards in February 1918. The entire American System-Built houses project came to a complete halt.

Though Frank Lloyd Wright and Richards had a very bad ending on this project, years later they did rekindle their relationship. In their later years, there are a series of friendly letters they wrote to one another.

Before the American System-Built home project ended it is believed that over 25 American System-Built Homes were built. Only about 15 are known to have survived. The surviving homes are located in Wisconsin and Illinois. There may still be other Frank Lyold Wright American System-Built homes that have not yet been discovered.

Wright Home Burnham Street,
A Frank Lloyd Wright Home on Burnham Street. This home is rented out so people can stay there (see below for information).

Wright’s Burnham Street Historic Homes

Of the 15 or so surviving Wright – Richards American System-Built homes, 6 of them are located in one block, on West Burnham Street, in Milwaukee. The homes are located at South Layton Boulevard (27th Street) and West Burnham Street in South Milwaukee.

In the 1917s these homes were considered to be at the edge of the city of Milwaukee. To the east, just across South Layton Boulevard is an area known as Milwaukee’s old Polish southside. Here you can find many Polish style houses where both the top and bottom floors have a front door.

A possible reason why Wright- Richards decided to build the American System-Built Houses here is that the Polish community had a very high percentage of homeownership for the population. But as the Polish in Milwaukee were all working class, usually factory workers, it also meant the houses had to be small enough so they could still afford them.

During this time, this area also had the Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light company that had streetcar rail lines running near this area. These cars are no longer operating but during this time, residents could travel as far as West Allis, Hales Corners, Waukesha and East Troy by rail, so this was an ideal location for these small Wright homes.

We can only guess why Arthur L Richards choose the 2700 block of West Burnham Street to invest in the American System-Built homes, but it was probably due to issues as cost, location and where they thought the city may continue to grow.

Construction of the homes on the Burnham Block started in October 1915 and finished by July of 1916. Richard’s company was able to obtain the building certificates for all six of the buildings on the block.

Once the buildings were completed they went immediately up for sale, but no buyers came forward. So the houses were then rented out. In December 1917, the Rellum Lan Company purchased the houses and they eventually sold in 1919.

Over the years the homes have been renovated and altered many times. This has included things like a porch enclosure, cement-tile roofing, and even metal siding. Also, the interior of the home has also been altered with sleeping porches and other plaster surfaces.

In speaking of the Burnham Street historic buildings it was said:

“The Burnham Block represents Mr. Wright’s broad vision to shelter everyone in a work of art. The homes are pure expressions of Mr. Wright’s genius in merging engineering and technology with art and design to create living spaces filled with natural light, harmony, and comfort. Mr. Wright wanted the homes to connect their occupants with nature, to provide gathering spaces for the family and to be a quiet and serene space to return to at the end of a busy day.

Wright In Milwaukee

So these American System-Built Homes, are not just a home but to Frank Lloyd Wright and many others, they are a monument and a work of art. They are also a testament to the vision of the great architect that designed them.

West Burnham Street, Milwaukee
View inside the small Frank Lloyd Wright Home in Burnham Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

How to visit the Wright – Burnham Street historic home?

One of the great things about the Burnham Street block is that all the homes are literally on one block. It is very easy to visit the Wright Burnham Street historic homes. Go to 2700 West Burnham Street, which is near South Layton Boulevard (27th Street).

The restoration of these Wright homes is a labor of love. People who are working on homes or giving tours are volunteers. They do it because they believe in preserving this part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design and Milwaukee’s heritage. These homes are on the National and Wisconsin Register of Historic Places and are an integral part of the historic district and history of in the City of Milwaukee.

On the Burnham Block, there are the following Frank Lloyd Wright American System-Built homes:

  • Duplex Apartments – There is a Duplex Apartment on the Burnham Block also referred to as Model 7a Duplexes, Model C or Model F. There are 4 Units for the Duplex are located at 2720-2730 West Burnham Street) Three of the units are identical, the other unit is a mirror image of the others. The second house from the west has been converted into a single-family home and is very nicely restored. The single-family home is now rented out. You can click here to find out how to rent it on the Homeaway website.
  • Small House – The small house is called Model B2 or Cottage B. This house is located at 2714 West Burnham Street.
  • Bungalow – The Bungalow is also called Model C or Cottage A. This house is located at 1835 South Layton Boulevard. This house was resurfaced with precast stone veneer, so the exterior of this home is not the original exterior.

All of the homes you can see from the outside but not all the homes have been restored. If you want to see some of the insides of the homes and learn a bit more about these homes you will need to take a tour.

To take the tour of the American System-Built homes you need to go to 2714 West Burnham Street. This is the place where the tours will start.

Here is some information on the tours:

  • Tours are usually on the weekends. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There are some tours also on Thursday, but for any Thursday tours, a reservation is required.
  • Tours start every half an hour. To find out the exact dates and times and to book your tour you can visit the Wright In Milwaukee website by clicking here.
  • Cost of the tours is 15 USD – The cost of the tour is 15 USD. Children under 16 are free with a parent.
  • Tours last 30 to 45 minutes.
  • Tours include two buildings – The tour includes two buildings which are the Small house at 2714 West Burnham Street and a two-family home.
  • The homes are not handicapped accessible.
  • There is also a small gift shop with some Burnham Block Merchandise.

By visiting these homes you are also ensuring that this work of restoration of these American System-Built homes can continue. To find out more about how to visit the Burnham Street historic homes you can go to the Wright In Milwaukee website by clicking here. The organization also has a Facebook page that you can Wright In Milwaukee by clicking here.

You are welcome to also email the Wright in Milwaukee organization at info@WrightInMilwaukee.org Or you can try to telephone them at +1-414-368-0060 with any questions you may have,

Taking the tour is an important part of experiencing and seeing these houses. Not only are the docents giving the tours extremely knowledgeable but the restored homes are beautiful. This is a great way to learn more about the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his passion for these small houses that are called the American System-Built Homes.

Frank Lloyd Wright gave us all a great gift when he designed these small houses on West Burnham Street. The Wright in Milwaukee organization and the City of Milwaukee has worked to ensure the homes stay standing and as a monument to this great architect. It is really a treat to be able to go through these homes and to see the vision Frank Lloyd Wright had for this project he loved so much.

Related Questions.

What hotels are near Frank Lloyd Wright’s American System-Built Homes?

Frank Lloyd’s Wright’s American System-Built Homes are not too far from downtown Milwaukee. If you want to stay at a Frank Lloyd Wright house there are several historic houses you can stay in.

Here two actual Frank Lloyd Wright American System-Built homes that you can rent to stay in:

If you prefer to stay in a hotel some of the better hotels that are also nearby:

  • Fairfield Inn and Suites, West Milwaukee – This hotel is located at 4229 West National Avenue, West Milwaukee. You can find out more by clicking here.
  • Hilton Milwaukee City Center – This hotel is located at 509 W, Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee. This hotel is located right downtown Milwaukee. You can find out more by clicking here,
  • Pfister Hotel – The Pfister Hotel is one of Milwaukee’s most iconic hotels. It is located at 424 East Wisconsin, Avenue, Milwaukee. You can find out more about this hotel by clicking here.
  • The Plaza Hotel – The Plaza is a European Style Boutique hotel. 1007 North Cass Street, Milwaukee. This is slightly further than the Pfister, but still not very far. You find out more by clicking here,
  • The Westin Milwaukee – This Westin Hotel is located at 550 North Van Buren Street, Milwaukee. This is also located in the downtown area. You can find out more by clicking here,

Milwaukee is quite an easy city to get around, so almost any hotel you stay in should not be too far from the Frank Lloyd Wright Burnham Street houses. The downtown of Milwaukee near the lakefront is very nice and a great place to visit.

What is Wright In Milwaukee?

Wright in Milwaukee or the Frank Lloyd Wright’s Burnham Block, Inc. is a 501(c)3 non-profit charitable organization. They are staffed by volunteers and rely on generous contributions, grants and also any revenue generated by their tour programs or gift shop. All this money is used to help to restore, operate and preserve the buildings. You can find out more about them and their work, and how you can donate to their cause by clicking here.

Anita L Hummel

Hi, I live in Hanoi, Vietnam but spend time traveling the region. I love to share with you things I see and learn through my travels.

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