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Malcolm and Nancy Willey House
The Malcolm and Nancy Willey House is a precursor of the Usonian houses that Frank Lloyd Wright began to design in the mid-1930s as affordable residences for the American middle class. The modest size and budget of the residence reflects the economic challenges of the Depression, as well as changing social values and the increasingly informal style of living favored by many Americans in the modern era. As such, it is a bridge between the Prairie School houses of Wright’s past and the Usonian houses of his future.
Malcolm Willey was a sociologist and later dean at the University of Minnesota. Though he and his wife, Nancy, had been contemplating a new house, after Nancy read Wright’s 1932 autobiography she was emboldened to ask the architect to design them a house for $8,000 that would be a “work of art.” Although she feared her request might be too “trivial” for the famous architect, Wright assured her that “nothing is trivial because it is not ‘big’.” As their correspondence reveals, Nancy Willey worked closely, and persistently, with Wright on the realization of the house.
The commission, which came after a long stretch of little work and less income, was a welcome and important one for Wright. Not only was it the first realized building on which the newly established Taliesin Fellowship worked, it marked the advent of a highly creative and productive period of Wright’s career; the Herbert Jacobs House I (the first built Usonian), Fallingwater, and the S.C. Johnson and Son Administration Building were among the commissions that immediately followed the Willey House.
Wright’s initial design was for a two-story house that was significantly over budget but his revised scheme for a one-level, 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom residence was ultimately built. The house, which hugs the lot line to the north, takes advantage of southern exposure and expansive views of the Mississippi River Valley, though these are now compromised by an I-94 freeway barrier. A prominent wall extends from the southeast corner of the master bedroom along the eastern boundary of the lot. Serving to define the property and enhance privacy, this is the “Garden Wall” that gives the house its familiar name. In an effort to trim costs, Nancy Willey suggested that the house be built of two kinds of brick, shiny Twin Cities Shale and matte Menomonie Common Sand Mold, which are distinctively laid in alternating courses.
Though the house is small, the open plan of the main living areas creates a sense of spaciousness and demonstrates how Wright was rethinking the ways that residential space could be configured and experienced. No walls divide the dining room and living room and, from those areas, the kitchen is clearly visible through a divider of open shelving. A cathedral ceiling over the living and dining rooms rises from 6 feet 8 inches to 13 feet, and floor-to-ceiling, south-facing French doors allow light to permeate the interior. To visually and physically connect the living areas and the natural surroundings of the exterior, Wright extended the brick of the living room floor to the outdoors, creating a trellis-sheltered terrace that steps down to the lawn and garden. This flow of space and spirit of informality would become hallmarks of the Usonian houses that Wright designed between 1936 and 1959.
In 1974, John H. Howe, a former Taliesin Fellow and Wright’s chief draftsman, remodeled the kitchen of the house for its third owner. In 2002, after the house suffered a period of deferred maintenance and decay, new owners undertook an extensive, and expert, five-year restoration of the property. Today, the house remains in private hands but tours may be arranged in advance.
“House History.” The Malcolm Willey House. Accessed November 5, 2016. www.thewilleyhouse.com.
Levine, Neil. The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
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