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December 27, 2013

Life takes a U-turn into Usonia.

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Reisley House, 1952, by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo: Roland Reisley

Imagine driving through a neighborhood of midcentury modern homes, admiring the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Aaron Resnick, David Henken and others. You playfully say to your mate, “That’s my favorite. That’s the one I would want,” before finding out that it’s for sale. A few months later, you’re living in it. That’s how one modern-day couple – an architect and a designer – came to live in Usonia, a very special community of 47 homes in Westchester County, New York.

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Benjamin Henken House, 1949, by David Henken. Photo: Roland Reisley

“It was like discovering a midcentury Brigadoon,” says one, referring to Alan Jay Lerner’s story about a mysterious village that appears for only one day every hundred years. Fortunately, Usonia has stood on the same spot for 65 years, and the people who love it are going to make sure that it never disappears. “You can feel the sense of community,” she continues. “It’s woven into the landscape.”

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Kahn House, 1962, by Aaron Resnick. Photo: Gwendolyn Horton

David Henken, an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, initiated the idea for this cooperative housing community in 1943. A year later, he and his wife Priscilla had 13 families interested in being part of “the Usonian dream,” which they described as: creating a more fulfilling community life than they’d known previously, being part of a community of caring neighbors and living in harmony with one’s surroundings.

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Friedman House, 1950, by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo: Roland Reisley

As Usonia took shape, it was planned as a Rochdale-style cooperative of individually designed, cooperatively owned, affordable homes with the guidance and participation of Frank Lloyd Wright. To help ensure a compatible group, potential members were interviewed to assess their commitment to Usonia’s cooperative and architectural principles. Personal tastes were further garnered via written application, on which they wrote “like” or “dislike” next to a now amusing list that included: Chicken Raiser, Fascist, Sloppy Housekeeper, Atheist and Dog Owner.

More of an intellectual exercise than screening tool, the application process was abandoned by the mid-1950s. It was also at that time that each member was made the owner of their home, ending the original cooperative ownership of the houses while retaining the extensive community land and roads in the cooperative.

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Wax House, 1950, by Aaron Resnick. Photo: Gwendolyn Horton

While the homes are now all individually owned, the 100-acre landscape remains unbroken from one end to the other, thanks to Wright’s intent that the circular plots never be delineated. No hedge rows or fences are allowed, and with the exception of one homeowner who was permitted to protect expensive plantings from hungry deer, the residents have remained true to Wright’s “one landscape” philosophy.

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Serlin House, 1951, by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo: Roland Reisley

Wright recommended the placement of many houses, three of which were designed by him (he designed five but two were never built). His apprentices and disciples designed 37 houses and the other seven, while not necessarily Usonian, were accepted into the community. One of the houses by Wright is the home of Roland Reisley, the author of Usonia, New York: Building a Community with Frank Lloyd Wright – a compelling read published by Princeton Architectural Press.

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Reisley House, 1952, by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo: Roland Reisley

“Wright had a sense of the relationship between the built environment and humans that remains unique,” says Reisley. “His work reaches deep into the inner being.” Sharing his thoughts about the architect, with whom he worked directly to create this special home, Reisley sits on a built-in sofa, under a cypress ceiling, across from a stone fireplace – all characteristic Wright and wonderfully low maintenance (the cypress interior has been washed and waxed only once in 60 years). Softly lit by indirect fixtures hidden in light boxes, the space is filled with compound angles and there’s a sense of movement created by the meeting of these triangles that lie in different planes.

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Reisley House by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo: Roland Reisley and Karen Halverson

Visually and physically, this is a comfortable house. My snow boots abandoned at the front door, the concrete radiant heat floors warm my sock-clad feet as the sculptural interior wraps around me in ways that a traditional box-shaped room never could. I’m very aware of the feeling of being tucked into the hillside, of belonging to the hillside, and the sense of protection is profound. “We originally thought the house would be at the highest point on our property,” says Reisley, “but Wright said ‘That would just be a house on a hill, it should be of the hill’ so was built into the hill instead.”

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Street sign (in winter each post is topped with a hat). Photo: Gwendolyn Horton

Driving around Usonia, the roads are intentionally narrow and winding, Wright’s way of keeping your eyes on the landscape and preventing the roads from being just a way to get from point A to B. “Usonia has never been incorporated into a town or settlement,” says Reisley. “In the legal sense it is not the name of a place. It is, rather, a focus of people’s hopes and aspirations, a center where their selves reside. Usonia is the story of people who had an idea and did something to realize it.”

It is my hope and wish that more people will have an idea like this and will do something to realize it.

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Photo: Gwendolyn Horton

 

Comments

Wonderful!!!!

Very inspiring! Recently visited the Usonian house at Lakeland Uni. Timeless and superb. I am inspired to create a similar group of houses in Australia.

Geoffrey - Please let me know if you do create a similar group of houses in Australia. I'd be on the first plane to come check it out. -GH

I love utopian dreams. I wish i knew someone who lives there!

as a student we studied wrights site planning system [with circles set into the topography] and the road system,which enhances rather than destroys the natural landscape, which gives me a thrill each time i visit relatives in usonia, and of course the biggest thrill is to experience how wright and his students , seemlessly inserted the dwellings into the "taliesen", the brow

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I just recently sold the identical car featured in the topmost photograph. It is a 1950 Dodge Coronet. Sweet car but heavy steering. Keeping a 1941 Chevrolet Special Deluxe. This home would look sweet with a vintage Citroen under that exagerated eave.

Allen, very astute of you. The neighbors next door had two Citroens and I remember the fun of having the car raise and lower on a cushion of air. I called the car in the top photo Hitler's touring car but what did I know ;)

The small piece in the back of the current DWR catalog sent me straight to this blog, and that unleashed a flood of memories. I grew up in Pleasantville, NY, the daughter of a mid-century modern architect, and went to school with kids who lived in Usonia. The house I grew up in, the other buildings my dad designed, and the houses in Usonia left me thinking that they were typical and not necessarily unusual or special. Now I know better, and my love and appreciation for all of it led me recently to buy and renovate an Eichler on the SF Peninsula, finally. Thanks for the memories!!

Tracy: Thank you for your comment and congratulations on your Eichler! -GH

Wait - is your father the architect Kenneth Gibbons? I'm going to send you an email. I'd love to know more about his work. -GH

How do you find this neighborhood in Pleasantville? Would you provide an address or intersection?

Usonia Homes is outside the village limits of Pleasantville. Usonia Road is parallel to NY 120, King St, and runs between Bear Ridge Rd., and Nannyhagen Rd.If you Google Map Usonia Rd., Pleasantville, NY, you will see it.

The secret is out!
Gwen, I am a former Westchester County Resident and for the 17 years I lived there, I just cherished this place as a jewel. It was my #1 hidden-historic-hideaway,taking friends on drive-by tours on their weekend staycations from Brooklyn. LoL.

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