Life takes a U-turn into Usonia.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.