N.Y. Lives Out Wright's Utopian Dream

Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned the American community of the future as a cooperative of well-designed, suburban homes. Inspired by his model, first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1940, a group of idealistic New York professionals made it come true against uncertain odds.

The outcome of their collaborative effort was Usonia, the only residential community developed and supervised by Wright. Between 1948 and the late 1950s, 47 houses were built over 97 acres of rolling hills in suburban Pleasantville, 25 miles north of New York City. Newspaper reports at the time hailed it as "a residential neighborhood of tomorrow."

Today, 55 years later, "there has literally not been a day in my life that I haven't seen something beautiful," says Roland Reisley. He and his wife, Ronny, are among a handful of original Usonia families still living in their homes.

Usonia, a blend of the words "union" and "United States," relied on what Wright called an "organic" architectural style that he began using in the 1930s.

While each example is unique, the homes possess common features: cantilevered roofs, large expanses of glass that invite the outdoors in, carports instead of garages, interiors with wall-size fireplaces and free-flowing rooms (a concept Wright called "breaking the box") and radiant floor heating.

The cooperative structure also had great appeal to the twentysomething city dwellers, most of whom were of modest means, who were drawn to Usonia. The homes were to be built and owned by the cooperative, while the member received a 99-year renewable lease on the home and site.

Yet, the architectural style transcended the community and its cooperative structure.

Smaller communities of four to five Usonian houses were built in Galesburg and Kalamazoo, Mich., in the 1950s. In all, 202 Usonian-style houses were built across the country, many of them simply single homes with standard ownership.

The Reisleys were among the original 47 Usonia families who were interviewed to determine whether they were committed to the community's architectural and social principles.

"The appeal was irresistible," Roland Reisley recalls. Those early days were full of excitement and anticipation — and frustration at the sometimes slow pace of the project.

They worked with Wright on every aspect of their house, a two-bedroom that Wright later expanded by four more bedrooms — uncluttered, functional rooms with built-in beds, desks and bookshelves — to accommodate the couple's growing family.

Built into a hilltop, north of the Kensico watershed in the town of Pleasantville, N.Y., the house is a one-story made of cypress and cut granite from a nearby quarry, with a broad, flat roof and a dramatic upswept cantilevered carport.

A geometric living room features a granite fireplace that stretches to an arched ceiling and a full wall of glass french doors. The living and dining areas are divided only by a built-in piece fashioned as a sofa on one side and a sideboard on the other.

"Seeing how the light enters a certain way, the juxtaposition of materials, I think Wright's notion of bringing the inside out and the outside in does indeed attach us to the environment," Roland Reisley says. "It's a kind of transcendental experience that contributes to the sense of rightness, of belonging."

A connection with nature through living in the house is a universal feeling expressed by owners of other Usonian-style homes.

"The way the sun comes out of the east, you're right in nature, you experience all the seasons," says Ann Delgaudio, who lives about 10 miles southeast of the cooperative Westchester County neighborhood in a Usonian built in 1952 on a bluff in Stamford, Conn.

"Wright was a believer in feng shui, and the house is a perfect example of that," says Delgaudio, referring to the ancient Chinese practice of harmony. The rear of the shiplap mahogany house is like a Buddhist monastery, reflecting Wright's love affair with Japanese architecture. Every room opens up onto a cantilevered balcony.

It also typifies the symbiotic relationship between his architecture and the land. The house sits directly over a huge granite outcropping, which takes up most of the basement, and a portion seamlessly connects with an exterior wall.

When John Payne saw his Usonian house for the first time, on a cul-de-sac in suburban Glen Ridge, N.J., he instantly fell in love with it.

"It was just drop-dead beautiful," he says.

"Wright was always talking about breaking the box, getting away from the Victorian, conventional parlor form of architecture," says Payne, who lived in a Victorian for 25 years. "There's nowhere in the house where you're not aware of the outside."

Wright, who was probably best known for his "Prairie" houses, was in his 80s and in the midst of one of the largest projects of his illustrious career — the Guggenheim Museum in New York City — when work on Usonia began.

His busy schedule permitted him to design only five of the 47 Usonia homes — and just three of the five were built. But he was deeply committed to the project.

As its chief architect, Wright supervised and approved all the designs. That was a source of occasional conflict between him and the future owners, says Reisley, a retired physicist and author of "Usonia New York: Building A Community With Frank Lloyd Wright." A design panel had to be formed to serve as intermediary between the members, Wright and the architects, many of them his former apprentices.

For Wright, whose anti-urban sentiments were well-known, Usonia represented the quintessential American settlement of the future and his firm belief that the right setting and dwelling could transform a person's life.

But Wright was notorious for going over budget. Difficulties in obtaining loans and agreeing on the choice of builders caused members much consternation, and on several occasions threatened to torpedo the project. To ensure its viability, the cooperative revised its bylaws to give title to each homeowner.

"The world thought we were crazy, building crazy houses, not owning them. Then we faced this terrible experience of things costing too much," Reisley recalls.

"But we began seeing these beautiful houses coming together, and we helped each other and worked together. The result was the quality of an extended family."

Today, Pleasantville's Usonians cooperatively own 40 acres of land and roads. Of the 47 founding family members, 19 original or second-generation families still live here.

The familial bonding is what drove the project from the start. Members regularly made the long trip from the city (most did not own cars) to the construction site — with children, friends and picnic baskets — to help with the building.

The picnics, Reisley writes, "turned cooperative construction into social occasions ... (and) into technical consultations, as neighbors moved materials, wired rooms and covered roofs."

Though Wright never fully succeeded in making the Usonian a modestly priced home for a post-World War II generation, his aspirations for American architecture influenced future residential design, not the least being the ubiquitous ranch house, which loosely adhered to his "breaking the box."

"I think the ideas were there, and filtered out into more conventional construction," says Payne, a law professor at Rutgers University. "The ideas were too advanced, too iconoclastic, too nonstandard to be acceptable as conventional wisdom."

Those ideas — and high costs — are exemplified in the hexagonal module on which Payne's New Jersey house is designed, affording rooms with unusual shapes and even triangular dresser drawers (the house has only one right angle).

"Folding T-shirts can be a bit tricky," he says.

Pointing to the costly shiplapped cypress ceiling and cutout panels of the clerestory (the upper part of the wall) in the living room, Payne says the "artist" in Wright got in the way of making Usonian homes more affordable for more people.

But that artistry is also their magic, according to Lawrence Tarantino, a preservation architect who has helped restored Payne's house and another Usonian in Bernardsville, N.J., as well as his own.

He hails them for "their simplicity and their sculptural form."

"In all dimensions, it is a work of art," says Tarantino, gazing out on his wooded property and the Delaware-Raritan Canal beyond from the two-story-high living room of his 1954 Usonian in rural Millstone, N.J.

Says Ronny Reisley: "We're still not bored with it ... There are times when I call Roland and say, 'Come in here and look at the light.'"

600450 N.Y. Lives Out Wright's Utopian Dream glassonweb.com

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