Category Archives: American System-Built Home

Dinner at the Guy Smith House
American System Built Homes

Taking ownership of a Frank Lloyd Wright designed home means becoming the steward of a piece of architectural history. The people who are willing to undertake such a responsibility share a passion for history and architecture. (And we may all have a screw loose, too.) After buying the Delbert Meier house in 2013, we started reaching out to fellow owners of American System Built homes. Birds of a feather and all that.

Last weekend we were invited to a gathering of some of the Chicago area American System Built Home owners. The owners of the Guy Smith house hosted The Mister and myself along with the owners of the H. Howard Hyde house and the Oscar Johnson house. We had all met last summer when the Guy Smiths* celebrated their 100th anniversary with a party. This weekend’s dinner was to bring us all together again to share house stories.

The Guy Smith and H. Howard Hyde houses are located on the same street in the Beverly neighborhood on Chicago’s far south side. The Guy Smith is one of the larger ASBH models and has been lovingly restored and maintained over the years. The H. Howard Hyde house is very similar to our own home and is under new ownership. We had been inside both houses last summer during the Guy Smith’s anniversary party but it was nice to return to spend more time in the Smith house.

(The Oscar Johnson house is located in Evanston, a Chicago suburb. We’ve also had the opportunity to visit the Johnson house on a couple of occasions.)

Bringing the four owners (we’re all couples so it’s actually eight owners) together was a great idea. We’re all in different stages of ownership and conservation/renovation. The Guy Smiths have been in their house for over twenty years and have done a lot of work to maintain their home. The Howard Hydes purchased their home just last year and are in the beginning stages of exploring the history of American System Built Homes. The Oscar Johnsons, a couple with two small children, have owned their house for about ten years and rehabbing their home in fits and starts when times allows. And then there’s us – the owners of the Delbert Meier house. You probably already know our story. We’re the guys who are also taking the tortoise approach to the rehab race – slow and steady.

We all traded war stories about rehab surprises, architectural features that have been lost to time and why you should never tell a contractor that you own a Wright house. (There’s no quicker way to see the price of a project skyrocket than to let someone know that your home has some historical significance.) The owners of the Smith house had prepared packets of information that they had gathered from the Wright archives. As we supped at the Prairie-style dining table, we perused the documents and talked about our different experiences as owners of ASB homes. In going through the documents and sharing experiences, it became clear that we all view our homes as passion projects. Birds of a feather indeed.

Our hearty thanks to all the owners for gathering for the dinner. And a special thanks to the owners of the Guy Smith house for coordinating and hosting.

The Guy Smith house was recently featured in a segment on WTTW, Chicago’s PBS station. Watch the segment to learn more about that house as well as the other Wright-designed homes in Beverly.

*In the interest of privacy, I’m referring to each owner by the the name of their house. 

ASBH Features: Our 100-Year-Old Windows

For a 100-year-old-house, the original wood casement windows in our American System System Built Home are in excellent condition. This is largely due to the fact that the house has been fortunate enough to pass from caring owner to caring owner. We learned from the grocer’s daughter, for instance, that it was her father who had carefully reglazed the windows and built the interior (storm) windows and screens. And according to a longtime neighbor, the windows were a point of pride for the teacher who owned the house for many years after the grocer sold it. The neighbor told us that the teacher spent his summer breaks tending to the house and preserving the wood windows.

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The Delbert Meier House in The New York Times

It may be fleeting, but our house was mentioned in The New York Times over the weekend. The article, entitled How to Sell a Frank Lloyd Wright Home, outlines some of the difficulties of selling the architect’s famous (and famously temperamental) houses. And, if I’m honest, the potential resale of our house gave us pause when were considering the purchase. But of course that didn’t stop us from moving forward.

When The Mister first nudged me and said, “Hey, there’s a Frank Lloyd Wright house that’s in our price range,” I scoffed.

“It must need a lot of work,” I replied.

“It doesn’t look like it,” he said, and then immediately sent an email to the real estate agent to inquire about the house’s condition.

We learned from the agent that the house was in great shape with a newer furnace, recent roof and strong structural integrity. It all seemed too good to be true so we made the 4-1/2 hour trek west to see it in person. And that sealed the deal. The moment we walked in and saw the old windows and the spacious living room with the big, brick fireplace, we were hooked. Sale or resale be damned, we knew this had to be our house!

One of the reasons the sale price on our house was so low is that it’s in a rural part of Iowa where home prices have remained low. But perhaps another reason is that people don’t want old houses anymore. In the little town where the Delbert Meier House is located, the big old homes languish on the market while new construction homes get snapped up fairly quickly.

With all of this in mind, we’ve definitely tempered our plans for the house. Before we took possession we had talked about restoring the house back to its original 1917 state. This would require rebuilding the wardrobes that were removed from the bedrooms, gutting the kitchen and removing the carport addition that was added to the house in the 1960s. That last part would require the largest investment. We invited an architectural firm from Mason City to the house to give us an estimate on the work. Sticker shock shortly ensued. Knowing that we likely won’t be able to sell the house for much more than we paid for it, we’re not quite willing to take on those big projects.

Instead, we’re making minor changes that will make the house more livable while also maintaining its original character. We’re trying to preserve what’s left of the house’s original features – the casement windows and original slap dash stucco – while also making it livable in the 21st century.

Because that’s the thing about our house – it must remain livable. Our house will never become a museum or tourist destination (although we do get our fair share of visitors interested in its history). Instead, t must remain a habitable home that can be passed on to another set of passionate owners at some point.

Of course, if we ever came into a giant sum of money, this might all change. So if you’re reading this and you’re a wealthy benefactor interested in investing in architectural history, let’s talk!

 

Our Love/Hate Relationship with the Window Box

Window Box - American System Built Home

We have a love/hate relationship with the window box on our American System Built Home. We love it as a design feature. Filled with plants in the summer and evergreen branches in the winter, the window box creates a natural landscape right outside our living room window. But we hate the fact that the window box takes on more water than the Titanic. And did I mention that the box doesn’t have a drain or even a rudimentary hole that allows the water to escape? Yeah, so frequently the window box is more akin to a reflecting pool than a flower box. (The sunlight reflecting on the collected water does make beautiful patterns on the living room ceiling!)

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American System Built Homes: A Complete List of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Early Prefab Homes

Burnham Street Two Flats

When most people think of Frank Lloyd Wright they think of his impressive roster of spectacular custom designed homes. But Wright was also an early proponent of design for the masses. While his Usonian homes might be more commonly known, Wright was dabbling in prefab as early as the nineteen-teens. By 1915 Wright had partnered with Milwaukee builder Arthur Richards to create what would come to be known as American System Built Homes. The venture was interrupted by the United States’ entry to World War I (as well as infighting between Richards and Wright) but not before a number of ASB homes were built in the midwest. How many were built? We’re not sure, actually. There are a few ASB homes that have been demolished over the years and some others that are still being discovered.

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