I was finally able to see Frank Lloyd Wright's Winslow House in person. Ever since I first saw a slide of it in my introductory architecture history class decades ago, I always thought this building—which Wright designed in 1893 in River Forest, Ill.—represented American suburban architecture at its best, presenting itself to its neighborhood with confidence and elegance, while celebrating an active relationship with nature at its rear. It seems to me that what we have seen since for designs where domestic democracy and nature are meant to mix has been a slow descent from that pure statement. The Winslow House is a reminder of what single-family American homes could be.
In real life the Winslow House is much more than that: It is one of the few structures that is a lot larger in reality than it appears in photographs. That scale, as well as the amount of detail it sports, carried out with a craftsmanship that means the building looks brand new today (more than a century after its construction), also points to the limits the Winslow House presents as a model domicile. You had to be a wealthy metal manufacturer like William Winslow then, and you would have to be beyond rich today to afford such a place. Even to keep it up would take a staff that is beyond the means of all but a few inhabitants of suburbia today.
The Winslow House presents itself to its cul-de-sac location with simplicity of a child’s drawing of a home: Foursquare, with a door in the middle, four oversized windows flanking, and a dark band above that separates the façade visually from the roof’s symmetrical spread. It is a cross between a Palladian villa, with the stone surround that unifies the entry and the closest openings into a single plane standing in for a portico, and a Shingle Style house sheltering under a roof whose splay is anchored by a chimney.
Walk around to the backside, past a porte-cochère designed to accommodate horse-drawn buggies, and you find the Winslow House’s private side: A façade pushes and pulls on the grass yard, its pinwheel of dining, living, and kitchen surmounted by bedrooms, all of it rotating around a staircase tower. Wright called the Winslow House his first “prairie school” design, but only here can you see why.
Enter the Winslow House and you immediately encounter the inglenook, a screened seating area in which two people could sit on either side of a fireplace. It is not really a space that is part of everyday life, but a piece of ritual and theater. Here is the hearth at the heart of the home, gathering inhabitants for conversation and displaying itself to visitors.
Beyond there the House develops into rooms whose scale befits the building’s appearance, impressing the luxury of space this family could afford, not only in the main room’s proportions, but also in the suppression of everything that helped the place operate into back rooms, a full cellar, an attic, and a coach house itself big enough to be a regular suburban home.
Beyond impressing with its scale, the House imprints itself on your senses through the refinement of its use of materials and the way they are elaborated and detailed. The long stretch of the yellow Roman bricks, the modulation of the surfaces forward and backward as they rise up the façade, the intricacy of the stucco decoration of the second floor, the precision of the stone and metal work, the quarter-sawn white oak and the articulation of each plane and corner on the inside speak of care to completing the overall vision into a tactile whole. The fact that the building was constructed on a steel frame further enhances its solidity, so that few signs of wear and tear mar its appearance.
The same family also cared for the House with love and attention for the last 60 years, which certainly contributed to the excellence of its state. Now the Winslow House is for sale, and you wonder how the Winslow House will survive. It is too large for most families, without having the amount of bathrooms or even air conditioning modern families would expect. Local taxes are exorbitant by any measure, and upkeep costs are equally large. It took somebody with love of art, architecture, and craft to build this structure, and it will take somebody with even more of both to inhabit it for the next century.
In that sense, the Winslow House is a monument and marker of suburban ideals as much as it is a real house. With its larger-than-daily-life scale and dedication to an ideal of family that was both inward turned and social in presentation, it represents what Wright and other idealists at the end of the 19th century thought the suburban home could become. The type never quite did achieve that ideal, except in this and a few other exceptions, and in some ways—given its use and entombing of resources and its message of what Wright saw as democratic (but we could see as alienating) middle class values—that is not a bad thing.
What if we could reuse and reconsider this house as a place for a different kind of community, one that extended beyond the single family home and that combined work, play, and living? It would break the codes and the model, but it might offer new life to this memory of American ideals. Then the Winslow House might be a new kind of marker of the possible transformation of the suburb into something more flexible, integrated, and alive. Whatever the format, I hope the House survives with as much beauty and stylish self-confidence as it has displayed since the late 19th century.