Road Trip! Four Frank Lloyd Wright Homes Worth the Drive
Frank Lloyd Wright’s impression on architecture is undeniable. He took great pride in using local materials while incorporating his designs with nature (“Nature spelled with a capital ‘N’ the way you spell God with a capital ‘G’”) and, as you move from room to room, his use of compression and release feel like big Frank hugs. His simple, soaring lines, use of natural light and integration of nature – ahem, excuse me, Nature – is a sight for sore, tired eyes in this quick-build condo world.
So, where to start in your Frank-ucation? The Guggenheim is a good place to start or end. As is the Jiya Gakuen School in Tokyo, someday, if you’re lucky. But let’s begin here, with four Wright homes, all available to tour and all worth a good ol’ American road trip.
“Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”
Mill Run, Pennsylvania (1939)
Ah yes, only the most famous private residence of the 20th century. Fallingwater, set in the mountains of southwest Pennsylvania, first captured attention when it nabbed a cover of Time in 1938; it’s been a favorite ever since. It was named the “Best All-Time Work of American Architecture” by members of the American Institute of Architects, while Travel + Leisure Magazine listed Fallingwater as “one of the 12 landmarks that will change the way you see the world.”
So it’s a big house and a big deal. It’s also one of the best examples of Wright’s union of his designs with nature, with cantilevered balconies and terraces made of local sandstone stretching over the rock formation onto which they’re built. The streaming waterfall, rocks, trees and wildflowers are all within arm’s reach. After all, Wright once famously said, “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.”
Wright designed Fallingwater for the Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann, a prominent Pittsburgh couple who owned a department store and were known around town for their distinctive style. Built between 1936 and 1939, Fallingwater was meant as a weekend home (let me say that again: a weekend home!), complete with a guest house and service wing. Perhaps the top reason to go: Fallingwater is the only major work of Wright’s that’s now in the public domain, original furnishings and artwork intact.
Tours daily, except Wednesdays.
“Give me the luxuries of life and I will gladly do without the necessities.”
Frederick C. Robie House
Chicago, Illinois (1909)
Located on the University of Chicago campus, the Robie House is one of the finest examples of the Prairie School design, the first architecture style deemed distinctly American. Attaboy, Frank!
The history of the Robie House is just as wild as the design. At just 28 years old, engineer Frederick C. Robie commissioned Wright to build his home with strict instructions: everything must be fireproof. That meant no small spaces, no draperies, no store-bought carpets. No problem for Wright, who per usual, designed the space from top to bottom, windows to textiles, lighting to furniture. (Though some furniture isn’t credited to Wright – it’s rumored Robie ran out of $$$.)
Too bad Robie’s dream life in his dream home from his dream architect was short-lived. Just 14 months after moving in, he was forced to sell. His dad had died, his marriage collapsed, his finances were in ruins. After passing through a couple owners, the Robie House ended up in the hands of the Chicago Theological Seminary, who converted the home into a dormitory and dining hall, with big, bad plans of using the site for an expansion. Then, in 1957, the Seminary announced they would demolish the Robie House to make way for a dorm. Nuh uh, said Frank. An outcry arose and Wright himself, 90 years old at the time, returned to the Robie House – along with media and protesters – to put his stubborn old foot down. Thankfully the then-newly formed Commission on Chicago Landmarks, along with Mayor Richard J. Daley, swooped in and declared the Robie House a Chicago landmark. So long, seminary.
Currently, the Robie House, owned by the University of Chicago and in coordination with the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, is restoring the home to all of its original 1910 glory. Tours continue while the interior restoration is underway.
A 1957 article in House and Home perhaps explains the Robie House’s significance best:
“Above all else, the Robie House is a magnificent work of art. But, in addition, the house introduced so many concepts in planning and construction that its full influence cannot be measured accurately for many years to come. Without this house, much of modern architecture as we know it today, might not exist.”
Tours daily, except Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
“You have to go wholeheartedly into anything in order to achieve anything worth having.”
Scottsdale, Arizona (1937)
Wright was the original snowbird, giving the middle finger to midwest winters and trekking to Arizona each year for a hit of vitamin D from the Sonoran desert sun. There he built Taliesin West, his winter home, studio and eventually the home for the School of Architecture at Taliesin and the home for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
Just north of Phoenix, near the McDowell Mountains, Wright found undeveloped land he described as “a look over the rim of the world.” The price in 1937? $3.50 an acre. Over the course of 12 years, until his death at age 91 in 1959, Wright worked and reworked Taliesin West, laboring over materials found on the site, such as the structure’s walls, which are made of desert rocks, stacked within wood forms and then filled with concrete. Translucent canvas acted as roof flaps – you know how Wright felt about natural light – until the Arizona sun wore them down.
Not one to not fight, Wright found himself in a battle against overhead power lines, which threatened to ruin Taliesin West’s view. (To his credit, they do ruin views – why weren’t all power lines buried?) He even wrote President Truman, demanding the power lines be buried. When he lost that battle, Wright “turned his back on the valley,” moving the entrance to the back of the main building.
Power lines or not, Taliesin West is a beauty to visit, particularly when winter’s got you down.
Tours daily except major holidays.
“Many wealthy people are little more than janitors of their possessions.”
Seth Peterson Cottage
Lake Delton, Wisconsin (1958)
The Seth Peterson Cottage may not be one of Wright’s most famous designs, but it’s definitely one of the smallest and one of the last. The 880-square-foot cabin tucked in the Wisconsin woods near Lake Delton is worthy of a weekend away and – good news! – it’s available to rent.
When Peterson, a Wisconsin native from nearby Black Earth, approached Wright to design the Cottage, Wright was nearly 90 years old. Peterson wanted a small home, perched on the headland overlooking Mirror Lake, and that’s what Wright planned to give him. Tragically though, neither men would see the Cottage finished: both Peterson and Wright died before construction was complete.
Small house, big personality. Wright’s assistant William Wesley Peters says the Cottage “contained more architecture per square foot than any building Wright ever built.” Balanced on the edge of a steep wooded hill overlooking Mirror Lake, the two-room Cottage is made of Wisconsin sandstone with a soaring roof, cozy fireplace and design details that highlight the view and light.
The state of Wisconsin purchased the Cottage in 1966 as a part of Mirror Lake State Park. But when no appropriate use could be found for the tiny house, it was boarded up and neglected. It remained that way until 1989, when local resident Audrey Laatsch spotted the cabin in despair while canoeing Mirror Lake. After discovering it was a Wright design, Laatsch gathered other locals and Frank fans to form the Seth Peterson Cottage Conservancy. Their grass-roots efforts, in collaboration with the Department of Natural Resources, led to a three-year refurbishment of the Cottage, including elements from Wright’s original designs that had never been built.
Available to rent, two-night minimum. Public tours on the second Sunday of every month.
“I know the price of success: dedication, hard work, and an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen.”
There you have it, a crash course in Frank houses, though that’s just the beginning of the beginning. Have you visited any FLW homes? Holler in the comments. I want to hear all about them.
Now, who wants to stay at the Seth Peterson Cottage with me?
Megan McCarty is a writer, editor, etc.-er who has written about life, travel and – shh, don’t tell her mother – s-e-x for Garance Doré, Apartment 34, Rue and more. She’s a firm believer in the zipper merge. Follow along with her adventures (and, well, misadventures) on Instagram.