The American System-Built Home Revival in Atlantic City

This Zillow image shows the house at 212 N. Tennessee

When Frank Lloyd Wright and Arthur Richards partnered on the American System-Built Home project in the 1910’s, they surely envisioned a large scale endeavor that would see their houses popping up all across America. After all, Wright prepared hundreds of designs and was known to think big. Unfortunately, he was also known to be difficult to work with. By 1917, the relationship between Wright and Richards had soured and, with America entering World War, the ASBH project had all but fizzled.

More than 80 years after Wright and Richards’ plans for pre-fabricated and affordable homes had folded amid infighting and economic constraints caused by World War I, the American System-Built Home designs were dusted off and revived for a new housing project in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

James B. Kennedy, who in the late 1990’s was the Executive Director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) in Atlantic City, was overseeing the planning for Washington Square, a concept to revitalize the city’s Second and Third Wards with new affordable housing.

“I came across an article in one of the books on Wright,” Kennedy recalled recently, and that concept seemed a perfect fit for launching this new development in Atlantic City. “We went out to Taliesin and negotiated a license for the homes. We went through their catalog that they had in their files and picked out four or five model homes.”

These Movoto images show the bungalow at 214 N. Tennessee

Eight of those revived American System-Built Homes, as overseen by Taliesin Architects, were constructed along Tennessee Avenue between Baltic and Adriatic Avenues. While changes were made to bring the houses into the 21st century, they stayed true to Wright’s original plans.

“The Taliesin guys tried to keep it as close to the original concepts as possible,” Kennedy said of the homes. “The windows are very similar to what were designed so that you got light from two sides in every room. They did put in a closet or two where Wright didn’t have it but they adhered as closely as possible to the original concepts.”

Richard Jinks, construction manager on the project, detailed considerations that were made to allow the designs to work in their East Coast location.

“Atlantic City is a barrier island and we had to build to the FEMA flood regulations at the time,” Jinks said. “We could not have anything that could be damaged below elevation 10 ft. above sea level. To achieve that, our foundations may be a little taller than normal adding a few extra steps to get into the house. We also incorporated flood vents into the foundation to allow water to pass through during a flood to prevent damage to the foundation. We used DP60 rated windows because of the wind driven rains we see on the island. We also used roof shingles with the most aggressive sealant we could find to help prevent blow offs during severe storms. The eight homes we built went through Superstorm Sandy and they did very well.”

And instead of the pebbledash stucco that had been used on the original ASB homes, the revival houses were covered in Hardie Panel with simulated stucco finish.

The eight homes on Tennessee Avenue were finished in 2001 and were intended as the starting point for a larger project. Much like Wright and Richards’ original grand plans for American System-Built Homes, timing was not on Atlantic City’s side.

“The original plan was for a full city block, which would have been like 24-36 units,” Kennedy recalled. “But administrations changed, they were a little bit on the high side in price and we were playing with money for subsidies for other projects and we never went ahead and did the block.”

The ASBH revival homes that were constructed are still standing, with some changing ownership in the intervening years. According to public records, 204 Tennessee Avenue sold in 2012; 212 Tennessee Avenue sold in 2015; and 214 Tennessee Avenue took on new owners in 2017.

“They’re great homes to live in,” Kennedy said when we spoke. “The only thing that I ever heard anyone criticize is that the rooms are smallish.”

In other words, they’re a lot like the original American System-Built Homes.

 

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