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Master of the Small House Over a career spanning seven decades, Frank Lloyd Wright took special interest in creating architect-designed homes for moderate and low-income families. In the January 1938 issue of Architectural Forum, he commented, "[I] would rather solve the small house problem than build anything else I can think of..." Indeed, among Wright's greatest masterpieces are several small homes designed for clients who could afford little. Many of these residences owe their existence to some form of client labor (do-it-yourself), ingenious cost-cutting or salvaging. Each magically shelters it occupants in beautiful spaces, connects them to nature, and allows them to feel more alive. American System-Built Homes In a 1901 speech entitled, "The Art and Craft of the Machine," Wright outlined his vision of affordable housing. He asserted that the home would have to go to the factory, instead of the skilled labor coming to the building site. Between 1915 and 1917 Wright designed a series of standardized "system-built" homes, known today as the American System-Built Homes. By system-built, he did not mean pre-fabrication off-site, but rather a system that involved cutting the lumber and other materials in a mill or factory, then bringing them to the site for assembly. This system would save material waste and a substantial fraction of the wages paid to skilled tradesmen. Wright produced more than 900 working drawings and sketches of various designs for the system. Six examples were constructed, still standing, on West Burnham Street and Layton Boulevard in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Other examples were constructed on scattered sites throughout the Midwest with a few yet to be discovered. Burnham Street Site The site of the American System-Built Homes was "the edge of town" for Milwaukee circa 1917. To the east across Layton Boulevard was an area known as Milwaukee's Old Polish South Side. Home ownership in the Polish community was unusually high as a percentage of the population. But to own a home on working-class wages meant the homes would be small, often frame dwellings, with little to distinguish one from the other. Multiple homes were often built on one lot and creative expansions were the norm. Building practices would change by 1920 as the City of Milwaukee adopted new zoning regulations. In 1917, large tracts of land west and south of the Burnham Street site were opening for development. Following the end of WWI in 1918, homes sprang up rapidly, but the homes were well-spaced, larger and constructed with better materials. The location is also noteworthy because it was very near the now-abandoned Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company's interurban and city streetcar rail lines, which were extended to the area in 1905. By 1907, area residents could take the "City Service" line east from what is now 31st Street and Burnham to anywhere in the city, and they could travel west by interurban to West Allis, Hales Corners, Waukesha, East Troy, and to other points. In terms of city development and transportation, the site was ideally located. Burnham Street Development Despite the positive expansion and transportation factors, the exact reasons why Richards chose the 2700 block of West Burnham for investing speculatively on the six American System-Built Homes are not precisely known, and are probably linked to location and land availability. Construction began in October of 1915 and concluded by July 5, 1916. Richards' City Real Estate Company obtained the permits for all six buildings. Richards' uncle, Charles R. Davis, offered them for sale immediately after they were completed. When no buyers came forward, the firm rented the houses. The Rellum Land Company then purchased the properties on December 16, 1917, and began selling them in 1919. Over the ninety years since the homes were built, all have been altered. Most noticeable are the application of a pre-cast stone, a porch enclosure, and cement-tile roofing at 1835 South Layton Boulevard; metal siding at 2724-26 West Burnham Street; and a porch enclosure at 2714 West Burnham. Less noticeable are interior alterations to several duplexes, enclosure of all the duplex's sleeping porches, and new exterior plaster surfaces on all the buildings.
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