Visual arts

Visual Arts Review: The Wright Stuff – A Pair of Usonian Houses in Manchester, New Hampshire

The Currier Art Museum now owns and maintains two houses designed by the legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

By Mark Faverman

The entrance to Kalil House by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo: Sean Dungan.

In an upscale neighborhood lined with lush trees in Manchester, New Hampshire are two extraordinary one-story single-family homes. Both were created by master American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and are now owned and maintained by the splendid Currier Museum of Art, which offers guided tours of each building.

After designing what some consider to be the greatest modernist house of the 20th century, Falling Water in 1935 for the wealthy Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh, Wright decided he wanted to go in a different direction. He envisioned a “Democratic House” for what he saw as the middle class. However, the architect’s notion of people’s income level was skewed; for much of his practice he had served the affluent or the mega-rich. For him, the middle class was actually the upper middle class, professionals such as doctors, lawyers, etc. These houses, designed in a distinctly American style, were meant to be affordable for “ordinary people”. He called the houses Usonian – a term based on the United States of North America.

Only about 60 of these houses were built, although Wright claimed he could have created 1000 or more. I find this number quite incredible because only five of these houses were built in New England. This would mean that Wright would have had to design and somehow supervise the construction of 75 to 100 tiny houses each year. In 1950, he was already octogenarian; it would have been a major task for someone half his age.

Many Usonian houses, like the two in Manchester, were quite distinctive. These houses were compact one-story structures set on concrete slabs with ductwork for radiant heat placed underneath. State-of-the-art kitchens or kitchens have been incorporated into the living areas. To be more cost effective, as well as to reduce clutter, open carports have replaced garages.

Wright hoped that by making these Usonian homes modular — they could be built from what looked like a giant set of toy blocks — homebuyers would save money. This notion turned out to be naïve: assembling the various parts turned out to be complicated, so most customers were forced to hire, usually at a high price, sophisticated contractors to do the work. The New England houses are two of the seven Usonian houses ever built.

Front facade of the Zimmerman House by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1950. Photo: Mark Favermann.

In 1949, a Usonian house was commissioned by Dr. Isadore Zimmerman and his wife Lucille. They moved in early in 1952. Wright tended to dictate to his clients how they should live in his structures. The Zimmermans seemed to have accepted most of the architect’s aesthetic philosophy, although Lucille Zimmerman sometimes rebuffed. For example, his request was honored for larger windows at the back of the house to have a better view of nature.

Construction of the Zimmerman House was overseen by one of Wright’s apprentices, John Geiger, of Taliesen West in Phoenix, Arizona. He was in constant communication with Wright’s office during the construction process. Apparently the Zimmermans paid for the apprentice to live in Manchester for over a year.

The house sits on ¾ of an acre on a corner of wooded land. In keeping with Wright’s obsessive philosophical concern for the value of organic architecture, the Zimmerman House was expressly designed for the land on which it was built. A local surveyor measured and noted the location of the trees and other natural features on which Wright based his plans. A large boulder became the focal point for the placement of the front door.

Whenever possible, Wright chose materials taken from nature. With noticeable pride, he deeply believed that a good building did not harm the landscape but actually made the landscape more beautiful than before the structure was built.

The Zimmerman house is long and low. Like all Usonian houses, it is one story, with no basement or attic, and has an open carport. It has concrete slab flooring, plank and slat walls, built-in furniture, and few ornaments. However, there are many views of nature. The cladding is unglazed brick, the roof is clay tile, the woodwork is upland Georgia cypress with golden hues. The window frames are cast concrete. No paint was used for the interior or exterior.

The irregular slope of the roof gives the house a sculptural quality and draws the line of sight to the ground. The wide roof eaves dip downwards to reinforce this, as does the small square concrete window that forms a visually elegant band across the front facade. It is a fenestration with representation. The facade also creates a sense of privacy for people living inside the house.

In contrast, the back of the house is made practically transparent with large windows and glass doors. Apparently Wright made another rare modification for Mrs. Zimmerman in her design of the back of the house. He had specified a solid glass plate along the back. She insisted on ventilation. Lucia won. Both agreed that the boundaries between indoors and outdoors should disappear: views of the garden should change with the seasons and times of day.

The Zimmerman House’s built-in furniture was created by Wright and his team. Built-in shelves, cabinets and seating minimize clutter and conserve space. Everything from table linens to tables and chairs has been custom designed for this residential space. Obviously, despite Wright’s claims – especially given that there was so little storage – Usonian houses were not for everyone.

Wright allowed a major modification of Zimmerman in the living room. The couple enjoyed and played music. Wright built a table that could be easily rearranged to create space for a string quartet to perform in a rather cramped space.

The home’s fall color palette lends visual uniformity. Colors, textures and even shapes create a subtle rhythm that harmonizes and visually connects all rooms. The overhead lighting is embedded in the woodwork. A grid pattern and square shapes are repeated throughout.

The Zimmermans loved this Wright gem and shared their excitement with friends. Dr. Zimmerman’s hospital colleague, Dr. Toufic Kalil, built another, albeit very different, Usonian house (called the Usonian Automatic) a few doors down the same street five years later. [Both are referred to as Usonian Automatic Houses because they could be constructed easily and with modular, easy to obtain materials.]

Facade of the Kalil House by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1955. Photo: Sean Dungan.

Designed in 1955 and occupied in 1957, the Kalil House is aesthetically very different from the neighboring Zimmerman House. Constructed of modular cast-in-place concrete blocks, this structure elegantly displays Wright’s creative use of inexpensive materials. Typical of Wright’s Usonian style, the residence’s beauty derives from its simple, linear forms rather than its ornamental detailing. Symmetrical rows of rectangular gridded glass window openings give the heavy concrete a light feel. Colored gray rather than an autumnal tone, the Kalil House is a refinement of Wright’s much earlier preference for horizontal lines of concrete block, evoking the Mayan Revival style.

Wright’s apprentice Morton Delson oversaw the construction of the Kalil House. The 1,380 square foot building features a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and an office. Wonderfully, all of the original furnishings, most of which are built-in, remain intact. The living room is larger and more open than Zimmerman’s space: it includes a sunken fireplace. A hallway divides the house’s L-shaped floor plan, which is a common spatial arrangement in Usonian houses. Philippine mahogany woodwork contrasts with concrete block walls and stained concrete floors. Designed to let in natural light, the large living room features an eye-catching back wall made up of 350 individual inset glass window blocks.

Designed in the mid-1950s, towards the end of the architect’s life, the Kalil House expresses a different and more distilled vision: Wright’s aesthetic is more live at here than in the Zimmerman house. The Zimmerman House is one of the finest Usonian structures ever completed. The Kalil house is an interesting and in many ways more refined alternative. Since its purchase at the end of 2019 by an anonymous donor from the Currier museum, the Kalil house has been undergoing restoration and renewal. Interestingly, Wright never visited either house in person.

Through its admirable preservation and conservation program, the Currier Museum of Art shares these two rare examples of American architectural heritage and cultural history.

Urban planner and public artist, Marc Faverman has been deeply involved in branding, improving and creating more accessible parts of cities, sports venues and key institutions. Also an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he is a design consultant for the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and, since 2002, he has been a design consultant for the Red Sox. Writing on urban planning, architecture, design and the fine arts, Mark is associate editor of artistic fuse.