Guest blogger Janice Patterson on Wright’s Usonian homes and Broadacre City: “It’s many miles from Oberlin, Ohio, to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, but the current exhibit Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal there is closer in imaginary ‘design miles.’ Oberlin College’s Weltzheimer/Johnson House is a direct descendant of the ‘little homes’ portrayed on the three-dimensional wood, paper & particle board model called “Broadacre City” (see above) that is on display until June 1.
This 12-foot-square model was first shown in New York City in 1935. Just two years later, Wright designed a home for Herbert and Katherine Jacobs in Madison, WI, with features he had been describing for years as a ‘minimum’ house: synthetic materials along with older native materials, planned utility stacks or units, extensive use of glass, protecting overhangs. Ten years later these characteristics were employed in the custom project for Charles and Margaret Weltzheimer, by then refined into a much larger body of residential architecture exemplifying Wright’s ‘organic’ principles. Some 100 Usonian homes had been built across America by the time Wright died at age 92 in 1959.
As told in memoirs written by several of Wright’s early students, building the Broadacre City model was something to do when the Great Depression reduced other architectural commissions. Wright was able to persuade department store entrepreneur Edgar Kaufmann to finance the model and the students worked furiously to ready it to show at the Industrial Arts Exposition at Rockefeller Center, New York City, on April 15, 1935. Four students drove the four-piece model to New York in a truck and a convertible car and re-assembled it on site. Two students stayed in New York City to assist with the public showing.
After the New York show, the model was taken to Pittsburgh, PA, for display on the seventh floor of Kaufmann’s flagship store there. Next the model went to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., again accompanied by a Wright Fellowship student to describe its concepts to visitors. Afterwards, the model went back to Arizona for storage. It was occasionally shown elsewhere over the years, including Paris in 1985. Some 75 years after its construction, the model went back to New York as part of a vast acquisition of Frank Lloyd Wright archival materials by MoMA and the Columbia University Architectural and Art Library. Now cleaned and carefully restored, the Broadacre City model provokes interest and thought once again.
As I studied up about Broadacre City, I began to see fascinating parallels to the W/J House project. An aerial view of the W/J House from the 1960s looks a lot like photos of Broadacre City plots. Broadacre City, the model, represented a four-square-mile, self-contained city with farms, factories, civic buildings, and schools. Oberlin is now 4.92 square miles. Broadacre City provided various types of housing for 1,400 families in various types of housing. Oberlin had 1,381 families in the 2010 Census.
Come visit the W/J House this spring and summer and experience a dramatic example of a Frank Lloyd Wright “little house” that seems much bigger when you are inside. “
- Janice Patterson is a Weltzheimer/Johnson House Community Docent.