The Houses that Wright Built
An architectual enclave of mid-century modern design: classic, timeless and at one with nature.
By Jill Clateman
Photography by Ilisa Katz Rissman
When Dara Meyers-Kingsley and Evan Kingsley set out from their “classic six” apartment in a pre-war building in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to search for a new home in Westchester, they had a strong inkling that their dream house would be hard to find. “New” meant modern, and for self-professed design freaks like the Kingsleys (Meyers-Kingsley holds a position in the art world), the typical Westchester fare—that Center Hall Colonial far from the double yellow line, the lovely village Victorian just a walk away from the train station, or the spacious new construction on a quiet cul-de-sac—was not their Shangri-La. But when their real estate broker turned off of Bear Ridge Road in Pleasantvile into Usonia—the 50-home enclave developed with the supervision and oversight of Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1950s—they immediately knew they would find it.
And they did—landing themselves not only a home but a place in one of the most important architectural designs (and social movements) of the 20th century. “We really lucked out in getting our dream house,” enthuses Meyers-Kingsley, who paid in the $800,000 range for that dream.
Pleasantville’s Usonia began in the early 1940s when David Henken, a young, idealistic engineer, and his wife, along with a small group of newly married city dwellers, petitioned Frank Lloyd Wright to help design a community in which they could raise their families. The group was drawn to Wright’s concepts for suburban living. Usonian architecture worked in harmony with its environment; rooms could be built so that they would allow homeowners (and their guests) to experience the outside and inside—simultaneously. Using his signature materials—cedar wood, glass walls and stone—Wright designed a develop-ment based on his belief that middle-class families could affordably live in an aesthetically pleasing (some might say stunning) setting. (Some say Usonia was a precursor to today’s condos and co-ops.) Wright’s chief architectural goal was to connect the houses to the land—and to the community.
“What is most important about Usonia is the attitude toward the land,” says Peter Gisolfi, an award-winning architect based in Hastings-on-Hudson. “Wright believed that everyone wanted to live in the woods, not manicured suburbs, so he used natural materials that help the homes almost disappear.” Indeed, Gisolfi says: “Usonia feels like you’re living in the woods.”
On either side of the narrow winding road in the community, red cedar houses with giant floor-to-ceiling windows appear to grow right out of the hills. At night, when the lights burn inside, only the interior is visible, as if the structure has disappeared, leaving only a glass shell.
Tobias Guggenheimer, Dobbs Ferry architect and author of A Taliesin Legacy, Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright Apprentices, has more than a passing interest in Usonia. He was involved with the restoration of one of the original homes and has consulted and done design work on other homes. “Usonia is the most completely
developed prototype of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ideas for urban planning,” Guggenheimer says. “For architects, it is something of a mecca. The delicate manner in which Wright inserted the buildings into the landscape is almost poignant. It is also significant,” he adds, “that Wright was the first to bring the kitchen to the front of the house, bringing women as well into the forefront.”
The founding Usonians took great pains in finding the right location to build their dream, which then cost, on average, $20,000. Legend has it that aside from investing much of their energy and savings into forming a cooperative, acquiring land and proper permits, securing water and other services, the Usonians would ride the train from New York City to Thornwood and then walk, tools in hand, the remaining two miles to the wooded site. They would move from house to house, unloading lumber for the foundation, laying pipes and covering roofs, doing much of the construction themselves.
The unusual bond that was forged amongst these pioneers is what, according to many residents, has ensured Usonia’s continued success. The turnover stats on the neighborhood—only 12 houses changed hands during the first 40 years, six of those passed on to the next generation, and just two divorces in that time—are tough to beat in this day and age. It is only in the last two and a half years, now that the founders have moved on in age, that eight more houses have been sold—all to young families.
Judy Tarter, a real estate agent for Houlihan Lawrence in Armonk, has sold several of the homes in the community. “The value of the properties has gone way beyond our expectations,” she says. Today a Usonian home sells anywhere from the high $700,000s to well over a million—despite, Tarter says, the age of the homes and their relatively small size. The houses were purposely built to be small—from 900 to 2,000 square feet—although over the years owners have added onto them; the average home in Usonia today is between 2,000 and 4,000 square feet.
Leslie Resnick is one of the second generation Usonians who moved back with her own family eight years ago. Resnick owns the Armonk gift store Wisteria and her uncle, Aaron Resnick, was one of the chief architects on the project, working with Wright to design the houses. Growing up, she says, much of her family’s social life included their neighbors. “There were ski trips and nice days at the community pool and dinners. A lot of the togetherness involved community work. My father was in charge of roads, and we used to go around with bags of asphalt, filling in the potholes. Everyone did this stuff themselves. Now there’s just no time, or we call someone else to do it.”
Lee Mesh accepts that he can’t recreate what was, nor does he want to. Mesh and his wife Nancy, both musicians for the Metropolitan Opera, bought into Usonia more than two years ago. “It’s not the cooperative that it once was,” he says. “The guy who built this house built it himself with his neighbors. There is no way to duplicate that kind of passion.”
Usonia may not be for everyone. Nevertheless, you can’t help be impressed with its forward-thinking design. “I could visit these homes again and again—like any great piece of art or music—and be inspired each time.” says Michael Shilale of New City, NY, who recently led a tour of Usonia homes for architects.
Brooklyn Ã©migrÃ© Peter Gordon, a cinematographer, and his wife Melissa, an art director, couldn’t be more pleased to live in an historic architectural gem, even one without a basement or an attic. Says Peter: “So much of Frank Lloyd Wright’s basic ideas make sense to me. I agree with the idea of no basement or attic. Some people moving to the suburbs get so excited and say, â€˜Oh I’ll build an office down there.’ Wright would argue, â€˜Why condemn anyone to a basement?’”
Still, the houses have their, shall we say, challenges, i.e., engineering flaws for which Wright’s houses are notorious. Flat roofs leak, glass walls do not insulate, and wood paneled walls require a great deal of maintenance. And Wright wasn’t into oversized rooms—so forget gigantic bedrooms or grand eat-in kitchens. And banish the thought of having a bathroom adjoining every bedroom. “You have to be willing to compromise,” says Lee Mesh. For Dara Meyers-Kingsley, compromising on space wasn’t difficult, but the living in the woods took getting used to. “I didn’t really think about what it would mean to be living amongst the trees. Aside from the dampness, I’ve seen species of spiders I never knew existed.”
Jill Clateman is a freelance writer and new Usonian living in Pleasantville.