Someone asked recently what the strangest thing on our Travel Bucket List is. Typical dream destinations dominate that list, along with activities like whale watching in Maui, and seeing the Northern Lights. If there is one thing that might be a little out of the ordinary, it would be our desire to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpieces in American architecture. Yes, we would travel for Frank Lloyd Wright Sights.
The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright
For those unfamiliar with Frank Lloyd Wright, he was an American architect in the first half of the 20th Century. He is best known for his Prairie School style architecture, as well as the concept of the Usonian Home, his unique vision for urban planning. Wright also believed in designing structures in harmony with their environment; a philosophy he called “organic architecture.” Beyond buildings, Wright’s attention to detail included the interiors. He designed every detail, from rugs to windows, light fixtures to furniture.
In a creative career that spanned more than 70 years, more than 500 of Wrights plans were built across America. Many still exist today; some as public buildings, but most as private homes. With so many sites to see, our list is by no means exhaustive. Think of it as a starter or highlights list of Wright buildings worth traveling to see. And there has never been a better time to do it: 2017 is the 150th Anniversary of his birth, on 8 June 1867 in Richland Center, Wisconsin.
Chicago and The Cornerstone of Modernism
Chicago has always been a trend-setting city, so it’s an appropriate setting for a building that influenced architects across the U.S. and Europe to adopt a new modern approach. The Robie House was built in 1910 for the 28-year-old Assistant Manager at Excelsior Supply Company, and is still considered the greatest example of Prairie Architecture. In fact, House & Home Magazine declared it the House of the Century in 1957. Today, it is a U.S. Historic Landmark on the campus of the University of Chicago, and was on the very first National Register of Historic Places in 1966. In 2015, the Robie House was one of ten Wright projects that were submitted together and nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status.
In the spring of 2019, an $11-million restoration of the Robie House was completed, returning the residence to Wright’s 1910 vision. If you visited before, it’s worth re-visiting, as the restoration was a significant transformation of the building’s interiors. The 90-minute In Depth tour includes access to areas off-limits to the public, such as the servants wing and the building’s third floor.
Also in Chicago
While in Chicago, Wright fans will want to visit several other sites. The Oak Park neighborhood is home to the world’s largest collection of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Which makes sense, since the architect lived and worked in this historic, picturesque neighborhood for many years. The Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio, where he and his associates developed the Prairie Style is open for tours, and anchors the Oak Park collection of sites.
Unity Temple is another of Wright’s best known works in Chicago, and is also on the National Register of Historic Places. Like the Robie House, the temple re-opened for tours in 2019 after a meticulous and comprehensive two-year restoration. Made up of two sections – Unity Temple for worship, and Unity House for social gatherings – connected by a low foyer, the building is made of exposed, poured-in-place concrete. It may have been the nation’s first place of worship built of materials usually used for factories and warehouses, and is the last surviving public building from Wright’s Prairie period.
Another interesting building is The Emil Bach House. It was built in 1915, based on Wright’s design for “A Fireproof House for $5,000,” which was published in Ladies Home Journal in 1907.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s first Prairie School building was not in Chicago, exactly. Nearby in Kankakee, a beautiful building is (excuse the pun) Wright on the River! It’s the B. Harley Bradley House, where the architect pushed against Victorian designs of the day with a long horizontal shape, overhanging eaves, expansive rooms, and his trademark abstract leaded glass in natural colors. Designed in 1900, it is consider Frank Lloyd Wright’s first Prairie Style building.
These Chicago landmarks are open for tours given by the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust. Hours and admissions vary, and combination tours are available. Tours of the B. Harley Bradley House are also available from the Wright in Kankakee organization.
- Robie House: 5757 South Woodlawn Avenue, Chicago
- Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio: 951 Chicago Avenue, Oak Park
- Unity Temple: 875 Lake Street, Oak Park
- The Emil Bach House: 7415 N. Sheridan Road, Chicago
- B. Harley Bradley House: 701 S. Harrison Avenue, Kankakee
Thanks to a commission in Chicago, one of the highest concentrations of Wright buildings is now in Buffalo, New York! You see, what happened was…
Two brothers, Darwin and William Martin, were co-owners of the E-Z Stove Polish Company in Chicago, where William commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build a house. Darwin, who was the secretary of the Larkin Soap Company in Buffalo, liked it so much, that he commissioned Wright to build him a house, and was instrumental in Wright’s first commercial building, the Larkin Administration Building, in 1904. Some of Martin’s coworkers were equally impressed, and commissioned their own Wright houses. Unfortunately, the Larkin building was demolished in 1950, but several of the residences remain.
Most prominent of the Buffalo Wright works is the Darwin D. Martin House Complex, which has been restored and is now open to the public. Designed in 1903-04, scholars say it’s the most important building of the first half of Wright’s career. It solidified the Prairie Style, and Wright later referred to it as his Opus.
More than a house, Wright designed a complex for Darwin and his family. There were two houses – the Martin House and his sister’s, the Barton House – a pergola, a conservatory, carriage house and stables, and a gardener’s cottage. Wright also saw to the design of every interior detail, from furniture to light fixtures, and more than 700 panes of glass. As a result, the complex is now one of the leading Wright museums of the world.
Also in Buffalo
Years later, Wright also built the Martin’s vacation home, Greycliff, overlooking Lake Erie. The restored home is open for tours from April to October, operated by the Greycliff Conservancy. Also in the Buffalo area are the William R. Heath House, and the Walter Davidson House. Both are privately owned, and not open for tours.
Wright also designed the Blue Sky Mausoleum for the Martin Family, but it was not built until 2004 when a former apprentice completed it at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo. The most unique site in Buffalo, though, is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Filling Station. The architect designed the futuristic gas station in 1928 for the corner of Michigan Avenue and Cherry Street in Buffalo. He called it “an ornament to the pavement,” but it was never built. Fast forward to 2002 and the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum. Wright’s filling station was finally built as a one-of-a-kind installation to complement the automobiles and motorcycles on display.
- Martin House Complex: 125 Jewett Parkway
- Greycliff Conservancy: 6472 Old Lake Shore Rd, Derby, New York
- William Heath House: 76 Soldiers Place
- Walter Davidson House: 57 Tillinghast Place
- Forest Lawn Cemetery: 1411 Delaware Avenue
- Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum: 263 Michigan Avenue (Open Thursday-Monday; Admission charged)
Without a doubt, the best-known Wright composition is Falling Water, the tranquil home built over a river in Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, just over an hour from downtown Pittsburgh. It is one of the most photographed private homes in the country, and certainly the most modern of the bunch. Wright’s love of nature shines in this architectural wonder, which melts into the Allegheny Forest.
The iconic home was built between 1936 and 1939 as a retreat for prominent Pittsburgh businessman and philanthropist Edgar J. Kaufmann and his wife, Liliane. It served as the family’s weekend home until 1963, when Edgar Junior donated the estate to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and it was opened as a museum. In 1966, Falling Water was designated a National Historic Landmark, and is visited by more than 120,000 people a year.
Falling Water is perhaps the most lauded home in America, as well. Shortly after its completion, Time magazine called it Wright’s “most beautiful job.” It is listed among Smithsonian’s Life List of 28 Places “to visit before you die,” and was named the “best all-time work of American architecture” by the American Institute of Architects. You can visit the iconic home today on a variety of tours operated by the Conservancy.
Also in Pennsylvania
Near Falling Water is Polymath Park, a Usonian vision created by Wright’s apprentice, Peter Berndtson. His 1962 master plan accommodated 24 dwellings, but only two houses were actually built: the Balter House in 1964, and the Blum House in 1964. In 2007, a Wright original, the Duncan House was added. The home, one of Wright’s prefabricated Usonian houses, was built in Lisle, Illinois, in 1957. 50 years later, it was deconstructed, packed up and moved 600 miles, and reconstructed in Polymath Park. Touring the homes will fill your senses. Afterwards, you can fill your belly at Treetops, the on-site restaurant that exemplifies the ambiance of Frank Lloyd Wright with locally sourced menus.
- Falling Water: 1491 Mill Run Road, on PA Route 381 between the villages of Mill Run and Ohiopyle
- Polymath Park: 187 Evergreen Lane, Acme Pennsylvania
If you’re looking for more to do in the area, the Laurel Highlands is a four-season destination with a variety of outdoor activities, from ski slopes to river rapids, bike trails, ziplines, and more. The area is also rich in arts and history. Fort Necessity and Fort Ligonier were important outposts in the French and Indian War. Among other things, a young George Washington saw his first military engagement, and his only surrender here.
Two of the most noteworthy places to celebrate Wright +150 (marking the 150th anniversary of his birth) are the architect’s famous estates, Taliesin and Taliesin West. Each served as the architect’s home, studio, office and school over his post-Oak Park lifetime.
A little more than 20 miles from where he was born, the Wright family had property in Spring Green, Wisconsin, where he first built Taliesin in 1911. Years of success and struggle followed. In 1914, a disgruntled employee killed Wright’s wife, Mamah Borthwick, and six others, and set fire to the building. Wright rebuilt in 1914, but spent little time there. Instead, the architect was traveling and working across the United States, and around the world. After completing the Tokyo Hotel (which itself burnt down), Wright returned to Taliesin in 1922. Three years later, it burnt down again, and was foreclosed following financial troubles in 1927. The following year, Wright was able to acquire the property again. The third and final version of Taliesin was completed after the 1925 fire.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West used local rocks and materials to match the Arizona landscape. (Photo: Greg Gobeirne, CC BY 2.5)Starting in 1933, Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship began wintering in Arizona, as did (and do) many aging Americans. By 1937, he had acquired property outside of Phoenix and built Taliesin West overlooking Paradise Valley. While his Prairie Style was the hallmark of his career, Wright believed Arizona deserved its own architecture. The result is strikingly different, yet the architect’s style and genius are immediately recognizable. Wright spent the rest of his life commuting between his two Taliesin estates, passing away in 1959 at the age of 91. Taliesin is designated as a U.S. National Historic District, while Taliesin West is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Both are on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Taliesin: 5607 County Road C, Spring Green, Wisconsin, Open 7 days a week May through October; weekends only in April and November
- Taliesin West: 12621 N Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd, Scottsdale, Arizona
Spend the night in a Wright
Generally, the only way to spend a night in a Wright house is to pony up a few million dollars and buy one, or befriend someone who could. Homes built and/or designed by the famous architect come up for sale on a regular, albeit infrequent basis. But there is a better, or more affordable, solution.
For the low, low price of $395 a night, you can experience Frank Lloyd Wright nirvana at the Kinney House in Lancaster, Wisconsin. Designed in 1951, and still owned by the original family, the home is an example of Usonian non-rectilinear architecture. In more mundane terms, the design has lots of complex angles that create a sense of spaciousness without actually being that large; the three bed/three bath home is just 1700-square-feet. The specialty rental site Plans Matter has a great gallery of modern and historical photos of the house.
Another option is at Polymath Park, the 125-acre resort mentioned earlier. Lodging options in the 125-acre resort are slim: You can stay in Wright’s Duncan House, starting at $399 per night, or choose one of the houses built by his apprentice, starting at $299. With access to the entire house (each one sleeps up to six), you can soak in the marvelous feeling of being firmly in the mid-Century while surrounded by private forest land.
In Michigan, you can stay in the Samuel and Dorothy Eppstein House, a Frank Lloyd Wright original home in Galesburg. The home is tucked away in a secluded enclave called The Acres, the only remaining neighborhood fully designed by Wright. The architect built the home, and three others in The Acres, in 1953. This group was a prototype, of sorts, of Wright’s Usonian neighborhood. The home was restored by its current owners in 2016, and is now available starting at $340 per night on AirBNB. By the way: It’s not far from the Meyer May House, another Wright building, in Grand Rapids.
- The Kinney House: 424 N Fillmore Street, Lancaster, Wisconsin
- Polymath Park: 187 Evergreen Lane, Acme Pennsylvania
- Eppstein House: 11090 Hawthorne Drive, Galesburg, Michigan
Guggenheim & Other Works
Our Frank Lloyd Wright Bucket List ends in the Big Apple with another of his best-known masterpieces, the Guggenheim Museum. Wright was in his 70s when he took the commission that he would spend the rest of his life working on. Over 16 years, the visionary architect constructed a beige seashell, as some have called it. The museum, on New York’s 5th Avenue, houses a collection of nonobjective geometrical artworks, and was built to compliment them. In Wright’s plan, guests would take an elevator to the top, and descend the sloping, circular walkway down to the lobby featuring circular shapes and triangular light fixtures. In practice, the flow of traffic goes in the exact opposite direction.
Perhaps we lied. The Bucket List doesn’t end there. Other notable Wright works across the country include his only skyscraper, the 19-story Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Arizona State University’s Gammage Auditorium is another circular building reminiscent of the Guggenheim. Florida Southern College, in Lakeland, built 12 Frank Lloyd Wright buildings between 1941 and 1958 as part of the Child of the Sun project; today it is the world’s largest single-site collection of Wright’s buildings. And the Beth Sholom Congregation in Philadelphia is one of Wright’s most unique buildings, and also the only synagogue he designed.
The Strangest Thing on Your Bucket List?
There are dozens more of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings around the world, and more inspired by him. Have you seen some of them? Do you have a favorite? We would absolutely love to hear about it in the Comments, below! We also want to hear about the strangest thing on YOUR Travel Bucket List! Go on…do tell!