A look at the architect’s Rosenbaum House in Florence, Alabama, a symbol of “free architecture.”
by Ashley Steenson
In 1954, the world-renowned architect and social critic Frank Lloyd Wright wrote, “I now propose an ideal … for the … American building. Let it grow up in that image. The tree.” Wright called his philosophy of building “Usonia.” With the Usonian period, from the late 1930s to his death in 1959, Wright sought to undo his teacher Louis Sullivan’s dictum that “form follows function.” Instead, Wright believed that form and function, like a structure and its surroundings, should be one. He wrote that the Usonian house should feel “grand” in “extending itself in the flat parallel to ground,” as part of nature.
During the years surrounding World War II, Wright’s Usonian vision became a reality for young families across the United States. As Wright remarked in a 1957 appearance on The Mike Wallace Interview, a free country needs “a free architecture.” For Wright, Usonian principles provided the “seeds” through which he hoped this architecture would grow.
The first pre-war Usonian cost around $5,500 in 1937. Wright notes that other Usonians ranged in cost from $12,000-$75,000, as he intended for the Usonian philosophy of building to be adaptable to each client’s needs. Wright’s philosophy advocated, among well-worn Wright trademarks like emphasizing horizontal lines and building at a human scale, new innovations such as completely flat roofs, making structures appear parallel to the earth.
Wright updated his early principles, as he advocated the standardization of natural materials. He also trained an apprentice on every Usonian house and assisted clients, if only by letter, in do-it-yourself construction. During the Usonian period, Wright introduced gravity heat and invented what he called a “unit system wall,” which was constructed so that it appeared the same inside and out. “Organic siting” was integral to construction, as Wright refused to build on what he called “lots.” Wright also chose a specific color palette for each structure suited to the region in which it was built.
According to architecture critic Peter Blake, Wright’s four most important buildings of the 1930s are two residential structures from 1937: Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and Taliesin West in Arizona. Next came the 1937 Johnson Wax Building in Wisconsin. And as one of only 25 pre-war Usonians, the fourth structure is the 1939 Rosenbaum House in Florence, Alabama.
As the second pre-war Usonian, the Rosenbaum House cost around $12,000 when it was finished in 1940. For businessman and English Professor Stanley and Mildred “Mimi” Rosenbaum, a textile artist and former model featured in Vogue, Wright built a modest home on a site covered in native Alabama grasses with a clear view of the Tennessee River (at the time). Wright designed the street-facing façade as the rear of the structure, while the back of the house and its courtyard were actually meant to be the front of the home.
The Rosenbaum House is constructed of native mitered cypress, mounted horizontally. Wright loved the color of the wood and also chose cypress for the Fountainhead in Jackson, Mississippi, completed in 1954 for oil wildcatter J. Willis Hughes. As the Rosenbaum stands on corner siting, the reverse board-and-batten used on the side of the structure facing Riverview Drive is typical of early Usonians and shields the house from traffic.
Designated living spaces were significant in Wright’s Usonian plans, and he designed a living room for the young family with clerestories to allow sunlight and breeze to pour in. Though many Usonians have additions, the Rosenbaum is rare due to its 1948 add-on being designed by Wright himself. Historian Kenneth Severens writes of southern Usonian homes: “Just as [Thomas Jefferson’s] Monticello and [Andrew Jackson’s] Hermitage had both undergone significant revisions throughout the domestic lives of their owners, the principles of the Usonian house were rooted in experience both present and past.”
By the 1990s, Mildred Rosenbaum was elderly and exhausted with the upkeep of the structure. Purchased by the city of Florence, the mildewed and termite-eaten house was restored with the help of Mayor Eddie Frost. The original carport cantilever, nearly 20 feet long, now serves as the street-facing entrance. Alvin Rosenbaum describes growing up in a Wright house as “the sensation … of living close to the ground, but in comfort.” Lovingly preserved by Mildred Rosenbaum, the city and many others, the Rosenbaum House stands as the only public Wright structure in the Southeast.
Along with Usonians like the Rosenbaum House and the Fountainhead, the buildings making up Florida Southern College and Auldbrass Plantation in South Carolina live on as manifestations of Wright’s Usonian philosophy in the American South. The Rosenbaum House is open to the public from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and from 1-4 p.m. on Sunday. No reservation is required for groups less than 10.
Barbara Kimberlin Broach, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House (2006)
Carla Lind, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses (1993)
Kenneth Severens, “Frank Lloyd Wright: The Architecture of Usonia South,” in Southern Architecture (1981)
Frank Lloyd Wright, A Testament (1957)
Frank Lloyd Wright, The Natural House (1954)
“Frank Lloyd Wright 9/1/57 and 9/28/57,” The Mike Wallace Interview, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin
Ashley Steenson is currently a history Ph.D. student at the University of Alabama and primarily writes about politics when she’s not extensively researching the homes of Frank Lloyd Wright.