the "Ardmore Experiment"
June 8 is Frank Lloyd Wright's birthday, so today I'm taking another look at his (little known) Suntop Homes.
Most people have likely never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Suntop Homes. For one, they are hidden in suburban Philadelphia and are rarely open to the public, but they are also part of a larger design left unfinished- just another Wright project that went over budget and fell short of the architect's radical vision. But while the Suntop Homes were initially dismissed as a failure, Wright's design remains a provocative example of multi-family housing within a suburban setting, something that still seems quite timely today. So here are the basics.
WHO: Just a few years after construction began on Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, developer Otto Tod Mallery of Tod Company commissioned America’s most famous architect to design a series of small houses (what we might call “entry level” homes today) suited for suburban development.
WHAT: Deemed “The Ardmore Experiment,” Wright’s original plan consisted of more than a dozen three-story “Usonian” units arranged in groups of four on a green suburban lot. Stacked vertically around a central point, the four equal (and connected) residences formed a pinwheel-like quadrant with two shared perpendicular walls. The plan's rotating symmetry allowed for each unit to have a degree of autonomy with private entrances and carports and separate views. On the interior, each residence had a double-height living room on the first floor, a kitchen and small dining area on the second floor mezzanine, bedrooms arranged on both the second and third levels, and an ample roof terrace. Wright used this vertically oriented open plan, along with his signature built-in furniture and large windows, to provide depth and volume to each small space. As a prototype for multi-family residences in the suburbs, Wright combined four single-family homes into one communal complex that still managed to offer the valued amenities of a detached house (an innovative solution to one of America's greatest architectural dilemmas).
WHERE: Ardmore, Pennsylvania. A tree-lined suburb of Philadelphia, Ardmore is located northwest of the city.
WHEN: Wright began his design for the Suntop development in 1938. The first four residences were constructed in 1939, but due to budget overages and the beginning of World War II, the project abruptly ended after the completion of the first units.
WHY: A variation on his Usonian concept, Suntop Homes were not Wright’s first foray into more “democratic” housing solutions (see American System-Built Homes). The architect, seemingly obsessed with creating well-designed, accessible housing for the American public, once stated, "I would rather solve the small house problem than build anything else I can think of", and he continued to work toward a solution for the rest of his career. Shortly after he developed his philosophical suburb, Broadacre City, Wright designed the Suntop units in an attempt to increase suburban density by offering a prototype for multi-family forms.
HOW: From the very beginning, construction proved problematic. Wright’s insistence on using high-quality materials and craftsmanship depleted the minimal budget, while the area neighbors, concerned with the addition of multi-family housing to their largely single-family neighborhood (sound familiar?), held the project up for more than a year. But Wright wasn’t wrong about Suntop's appeal. The $55/month rental fee on each unit generated a substantial waiting list. (The first four tenants included two museum assistant directors and two university professors.) And since their construction, the units have rarely seen the open market.
Like the aforementioned American System-Built designs, critics quickly dismissed Wright's Suntop Homes, lambasting their small size, second floor kitchens, and overall execution. But like many of the architect's projects, time has been kinder to his vision. With decades of thoughtless suburbanization behind us, issues of land use, density, and affordability remain consequential struggles for most American communities. In fact, the recent "tiny house" phenomenon may not be too far removed from Wright's Suntop exercise; something I doubt would be lost on the architect if he were still around today.
The Suntop Homes stand at Sutton Road and East Spring Avenue in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Wright
All photographs (unless noted) are part of the Historic American Buildings Survey, available here.
Historic American Buildings Survey, Frank Lloyd Wright, Suntop Houses, 152-158 Sutton Road, Ardmore, Montgomery County, PA. Documentation compiled after 1933. Library of Congress, pa2985.
A version of this post was originally published on August 30, 2017.
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