How to Identify a Real Frank Lloyd Wright House

Learn to Tell the Real Wrights From the Pretenders

Usonian House at Florida Southern College, Lakeland, Florida
Usonian House at Florida Southern College, Lakeland, Florida. Photo © Jackie Craven

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) led a long, productive life, and his architecture is everywhere. But while the idea of discovering a lost and forgotten Wright residence is certainly exciting, very few rumored Wrights are true Wrights. So how can you tell a real Frank Lloyd Wright home from an imposter? Let's take a look at some examples. 

Usonian Homes:

Wright's Usonian home vision is one of the architect's lasting legacies.

Stylistically, Usonian architecture is a simplified and modest Prairie house. Structurally, however, these houses were intended to be constructed with local materials and modular, inexpensive concrete blocks that the homeowner or local laborer could assemble with a system of metal bars. At least that was the vision.

Examples of Usonian homes abound across the United States, such as the privately owned Toufic Kalil house and the Zimmerman house owned by the Currier Museum, both in New Hampshire. Many Wright Usonian homes on the real estate market today were built during the architect's lifetime for "ordinary" folks like doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. The Usonian home shown on this page was designed by Wright in 1932 for faculty housing at Florida Southern College (FSC), Lakeland, Florida—but it wasn't built until 2013. So, is it a real Wright home or is it simply "new construction"?

If Wright hadn't designed so much of the campus of FSC, the answer may be different.

Another Usonian is the 1,200 square foot Pope-Leighey House in northern Virginia. It was designed and built in 1940 during Wright's lifetime, but it has been moved twice—the first move was 13 miles, from Falls Church to Alexandria, Virginia.

Wright did not design the house for the present location, although the site environment is similar to the original. But if the house is not "organically" on the land envisioned by Wright, can we say that Frank Lloyd Wright REALLY built this house? A more extreme example is the Bachman-Wilson house, designed and built in New Jersey in 1956. Like the Pope-Leighey house, it was moved piece by piece to another location—but the Bachman-Wilson house was moved from New Jersey to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville Arkansas.

So, did Frank Lloyd Wright build these houses? It's complicated, but most historians would say yes, for the sake of historic preservation and promotion.

Sugarloaf Mountain Auto Park

In the 1920s, a wealthy Chicago real estate developer thought it would be a good idea to have an auto park atop a beautiful mountain near Washington, DC. Gordon Strong began buying up land on Sugarloaf Mountain near Frederick, Maryland, with a vision to provide a recreational destination for all of the newfangled Model-T Fords being sold. He commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design what was known as the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective. Yes, Wright drew some fascinating sketches for an automobile overlook there, complete with a theater and planetarium.

The design was remarkable—a curving, swirling modern Tower of Babel with cantilevered roadways that rose to complete the mountain's peak. But the proposed structure was never built, and that big white colonial home at the foot of the mountain? Definitely not Wright. The design is often part of retrospective exhibits, however, as it was part of a 50th Anniversary Exhibition at the Guggenheim in 2009.

Was the Home in the Film North by Northwest Built by Wright?

Sorry. The retreat at the end of the the famous Alfred Hitchcock movie is not Wright's architecture. That stunning structure is only a stage set. The North by Northwest house was inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, but Wright did not design it. The film came out the same year that Wright died, however, which shows how influential the designs of this architect had become in America.

A House in Harvard, Illinois Looks Just Like a Wright

Sorry, again. According to the historical association in Harvard, Illinois, there are no Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the area. On the other hand, nearby Oak Park, Illinois has many homes designed by Wright, and throughout the years people could see what he was designing. As Oscar Wilde would say, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness."

"Hilly House" in Brookfield, Illinois

Some say the old Brookfield Kindergarten sure looks like it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, but it was not. Adults who recall attending kindergarten in this Prairie style house at 3601 Forest Avenue often feel certain that it was designed by Wright, although as children they had no idea. Certainly it could have been, but it turns out that the house was primarily the work of William Drummond, head draftsman for Wright from about 1901 until Wright fled to Europe in 1909. Also known as "Hilly House," it was constructed as a kindergarten in 1911 for educator Queene F. Coonley, who was also a client of Wright. The building became a private home in the 1950s.

The Bottom Line

It's easy to be confused about which buildings are true Wrights. Frank Lloyd Wright left a rich legacy of sketches and plans. After his death, architects used some of Wright's drawings to build new structures. But these Wright-inspired buildings are not, technically, built by Wright.

So, does that mean that our listing of official Frank Lloyd Wright buildings is engraved in stone?

Not really. Every once in awhile, architectural historians do discover a forgotten Wright. Through a long process of research, they track down rumors and speculation and eventually find documentation to prove Wright's authorship.

If you think your home or a building in your community is a forgotten Wright, your first step is to contact your local historical association. They can help you find the research you'll need to track down the truth. You may also get research assistance from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. The Foundation is a nonprofit corporation that houses a vast repository of official drawings and plans by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin architects.

The first research scholar to catalog the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright was Michigan-born William Allin Storrer in 1973. Dr. Storrer's works remain the go-to resources for Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. His papers are held at The University of Texas at Austin, where he was an Adjunct Professor of Architecture, and his books are widely available. 

Source: "Unexpected Wright" by Lauren Walser, Preservation, Vol. 69, No. 2, Spring 2017, pp. 24-31.